Glatstein (Gladstone), Jacob

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GLATSTEIN (Gladstone), JACOB (1896–1971), Yiddish poet, novelist, and critic. Born in Lublin, Poland, Glatstein was encouraged by his father to read widely in contemporary Yiddish literature. Like many Yiddish writers of his generation, he visited I.L.*Peretz in Warsaw. As a result of violent outbreaks of antisemitism in Lublin, Glatstein convinced his parents to let him immigrate to the U.S. (1914). His debut as a Yiddish writer was the short story "Di Geferlekhe Froy" ("The Terrible Woman") in the journal Fraye Arbeter Shtime. In the 1920s and 1930s, he published more than 100 short stories in the style of Guy de Maupassant and Abraham *Reisen under the pseudonym Y. Yungman in the Yiddish daily Morgn Zhurnal. In 1920, together with Aaron *Glanz-Leyeles and N.B. *Minkoff, Glatstein inaugurated the Inzikhist ("introspectivist") movement in U.S. Yiddish poetry. Taking their name from the journal In Zikh, which was to appear irregularly (1920–39), and from the group anthology, In Zikh, A Zamlung Introspektive Lider ("Introspection, a Collection of Introspective Poems," 1920), the Inzikhistn announced their mission of revitalizing and modernizing Yiddish poetry. The key words in the introspectivists' manifesto (1921) were kaleidoscopic, contradictory, and chaotic. They rebelled against the aestheticism of Di Yunge, which they considered ivory tower art-for-art's-sake, removed from truth and life. The introspectivists rejected decorum and formal elegance in favor of free verse whose rhythms were to be correlates of unique, individual experience. Like their Anglo-American contemporaries, whose work they knew well, the introspectivists emphasized the concrete image and favored suggestion and association. They distrusted metrical regularity and fixed patterns and sought to capture the rhythms of the human voice and modern urban life. From his earliest poems onward Glatstein was the poet in love with his medium, the Yiddish language. No poet in Yiddish has been so richly inventive in coining new words and word combinations. No poet in Yiddish has had a better ear for folk idiom and, indeed, for the sound structure of Yiddish generally. Many of Glatstein's poems seem to grow out of the latent powers hidden in the shape, sound, and history of individual words. The introspectivists early declared that a Yiddish poem was Jewish by virtue of its medium; no subject was barred. They often wrote on themes far removed from Jewish life.

Glatstein's reputation rests primarily on his poetry. Critics divide his work into two periods: the first includes his four books of poetry: Yankev Glatshteyn (1921), Fraye Ferzn ("Free Verse," 1926), Kredos ("Credos," 1929), Yidishtaytshn ("Yiddish-Meanings," 1937); and the second, his books of poetry and criticism from 1943 to 1978 (the last two posthumous), including Gedenklider ("Remembrance Poems," 1943), Shtralendike Yidn ("Radiant Jews," 1946), Dem Tatns Shotn ("My Father's Shadow," 1953), Fun Mayn Gantser Mi ("The Fruits of My Labor," 1965), Di Freyd fun Yidishn Vort ("The Joy of the Yiddish Word," 1961), and A Yid fun Lublin ("A Jew from Lublin," 1966). In poems such as "Zing Ladino" ("Sing Ladino"), "Mir, di Vortproletarier" ("We, the Word Proletariat"), and "Tsum Kopmayster" ("To the Headmaster") from the collection Yidishtaytsn, Glatstein crafted some of the most experimental, "wild" modernist poems ever written in Yiddish. These poems are both part of the main trends of European and American modernism, and deeply rooted in the phonetics, semantics, and cultural specificity of Yiddish. He was, however, also a distinguished writer of both imaginative and critical prose. There are no novelistic travel narratives in Yiddish literature comparable to Ven Yash iz Geforn ("When Yash Set Out," 1938; Eng. Homeward Bound, 1969) and Ven Yash iz Gekumen ("When Yash Arrived," 1940; Eng., Homecoming at Twilight, 1962). These loosely autobiographical works, part of a projected trilogy inspired by his nine-week journey to Lublin to visit his dying mother in summer 1934, inaugurated the second phase of his artistic career; they are notable for their poetic style and their brooding sense of impending catastrophe. Because he remained independent of political allegiances, he was able to give a compelling portrait of Polish Jewry on the eve of the Holocaust in these novels. Emil un Karl (1940), a novel of a Jewish and a Christian boy in Hitler-occupied Austria, is particularly suited to the young reader. The war years and the Holocaust transformed Glatstein into one of the great elegists of Eastern European Jewish life. It became his major poetic purpose to meditate on, mourn, and celebrate a shattered way of life. Already in "A Gute Nakht, Velt" ("Good Night, World," 1938), he bitterly rejects European culture and defiantly and joyously declares his return to the narrow confines of traditional Jewish life. No American Yiddish poem has aroused as much comment as this anti-universalist poem of execration and affirmation.

As columnist for the New York daily Tog-Morgn Zhurnal and as regular contributor of the column In Tokh Genumen to the weekly Yidisher Kemfer (1945–57) and other periodicals, Glatstein commented on virtually every significant event in Jewish literary and cultural life and on world literature generally. As critic of Yiddish literature he exerted great influence and helped to raise the level of critical awareness both among writers and readers. His essays and reviews appeared in a series of volumes entitled In Tokh Genumen ("The Heart of the Matter," 1947; 1956; 1960), continued in Mit Mayne Fartogbikher ("With My Dawn Journals," 1963) and Oyf Greyte Temes ("On Ready Themes," 1967).

Glatstein's poetry revolutionized Yiddish modernism and added a cosmopolitan, intellectual voice to the chorus of Yiddish avant-garde poetry. His greatest contribution to Yiddish poetry were his Holocaust poems, the Bratslaver poems, and his homage to the Yiddish language. He once quipped: "What does it mean to be a poet of an abandoned culture? It means that I have to be aware of Auden but Auden need never have heard of me" (I. Howe, A Margin of Hope (1982), 264). Although Glatstein lived in New York for more than half a century and published more than 20 books, he remained virtually unknown outside Yiddish literary circles. In a tribute to the poet, Cynthia Ozick recognized his crucial role in the rise of Jewish American literature (1972): "…if Jacob Glatstein had not lived and written his splendid poetry, and if there were no other Yiddish writers present to write as only they can about our lives and our natures there would be no hope for a Jewish literature of any kind in America."


D. Sadan, in: J. Glatstein, Mi-Kol Amali: Shirim u-Fo'emot (1964), 28–32 (bibl.); lnyl, 2 (1958), 256–61 (bibl.); I. Howe and E. Greenberg, A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (1969), 245–56, 326–37. add. bibliography: J. Glatstein, in: Yiddish, 1 (1973), 30–9; J. Hadda, in: Prooftexts, 1 (1981), 192–200; I. Howe, in: Commentary, 53 (Jan.1972), 75–7; C. Ozick, in: Jewish Heritage (Spring 1972), 58–60; Y. Rappoport, Oysgerisene Bleter (1957), 97–137; B. Harshav (ed.), American Yiddish Poetry (1986), 773–805; R. Fein (ed.), Selected Poems of Yankev Glatshteyn (1987); B. Zumoff (ed.), I Keep Recalling: The Holocaust Poems of Jacob Glatstein (1993); J. Schwarz, in: Yiddish After the Holocaust (2004), 74–91; J. Schwarz, in: Imagining Lives: Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers (2005), 98–126.

[Leonard Prager /

Jan Schwarz (2nd ed.)]