Hugh Nissenson, an author who was praised for creating convincing alternative worlds in books that pursued questions of faith and pressed the boundaries of the novelistic form, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 80.
His death was confirmed by his wife, the writer Marilyn Nissenson, who said he had been in declining health.
Mr. Nissenson’s books were immersive journeys that often explored religion, particularly Judaism, often to high praise by reviewers. They were not strong sellers, however, and throughout his life Mr. Nissenson struggled with depression: He told The New York Times in a 2001 interview that he had had six breakdowns.
But he never stopped writing. His most recent book, “The Pilgrim,” a historical novel about 17th-century Puritanism, was published in 2011.
Researched with the thoroughness of a historian or a documentary filmmaker, Mr. Nissenson’s books sometimes took more than a decade to complete.
For “The Tree of Life,” a finalist for the National Book Award in 1985, Mr. Nissenson spent years studying the Ohio frontier of the early 19th century to portray his protagonist, a New England preacher who moved West.
“I went out and I learned to fire replicas of flintlock rifles, to throw a tomahawk,” he said in a lengthy interview in January magazine in 2003. “I went on a hunt. I spent time in the winter in the northern part of Ohio, I walked on snowshoes, I dressed in buckskin. I felt that in order for me to recreate this experience, which was so alien to me, a New York Jewish kid, educated on the West Side of Manhattan, that I really had to deeply understand, in a physical and an imaginative way, what the experience was like living under those circumstances on the Ohio frontier in 1812.”
He recalled the thrill of realizing later, while writing the book, that he could recognize the sound of bark falling from a cottonwood tree. “And I knew at that moment that I was there, that I had absorbed the milieu so completely that I was hearing the sounds!” he said. “And it was a thrilling moment, because I said to myself: ‘Aha! I’ve arrived! I’m in the Ohio woods. It’s happening.’ ”
For his first novel, “My Own Ground” (1976), which traced the troubles of a Jewish teenager on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century, he drew on stories that his father, a dressmaker, told of his early life in the city.
A quarter-century later, he imagined the year 2057 through a genetically programmed artist, John Firth Baker, in “The Song of the Earth.” For that book, Mr. Nissenson taught himself to become a visual artist, and he incorporated color plates of his work, ostensibly by Baker, into the pages of the novel. He also created fictional email messages, diary entries and websites from a world where characters have been physically and sexually distorted, sometimes through genetics, and where climate change is scorching and flooding the planet.
“We’ve seen what happens with the uninhibited acquisition of knowledge, when human beings have the power of God,” Mr. Nissenson said of the book in an interview with The Times in 2001. “We are now manipulating the human genome.”
Hugh Howard Nissenson was born on March 10, 1933, in New York, the only child of Charles and Harriette Nissenson. He attended the Fieldston School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and received a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1955. Seven years later he married Marilyn Claster. In addition to her, his survivors include two daughters, Kate Scott and Kore Glied, and four grandchildren.
He worked briefly as a copy boy at The Times after college but found that newspaper writing was not his ambition. His mother encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming a fiction writer by staying home, he recalled years later, to “learn how to write — by writing.”
In the late 1950s, Mr. Nissenson spent two years in Israel working on a film about the Israeli war of independence. His first short story, “The Blessing,” about a father who struggles with his faith after the death of his young son, was published in Harper’s Magazine while he was still in Israel.
In 1961 he covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for Commentary magazine.
In 1968 he published “Notes From the Frontier,” about his time living in a kibbutz. He published selected pieces of his fiction and nonfiction, “The Elephant and My Jewish Problem,” in 1988.
“Though these stories sometimes feel contrived — as though the author were manipulating his characters, like a not-so-benevolent God — there is something luminous about them as well,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in a review in The Times. “They propel the reader from a mundane plane of social realism to a loftier one of fable, from a world of meticulously observed domestic details to a more elusive one of everlasting faith.”