United States Literature
UNITED STATES LITERATURE
The Influence of the Bible and Hebrew Culture
The Jewish influence on American literary expression predated the actual arrival of Jews in the United States in 1654, for the Puritan culture of New England was marked from the outset by a deep association with Jewish themes. No Christian community in history identified more with the Israelites of the Bible than did the first generations of settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the biblical drama of the chosen people: they were the children of Israel; the American continent was the promised land; the kings of England were the pharaohs of Egypt; the Indians were the natives of Canaan or, alternatively, the *Ten Lost Tribes; the pact of Plymouth Rock was God's holy covenant; and the ordinances by which they lived were His divine law. Since they viewed themselves as the persecuted victims of the sinful Christian establishment of the Old World, the Puritans also had a natural sympathy for the Jews of their own time, at least in the abstract. The Puritan leader Cotton Mather repeatedly referred to the Jews in his prayer for their conversion as God's "Beloved People," and the lasting influence of this attitude no doubt accounts in large measure for the striking philo-Semitism that prevailed in American life and letters long after Puritanism as such had ceased to be a vital force.
A striking feature of the Puritan identification with the Old Testament was the high place accorded to the study of Hebrew in New England's intellectual life. Until late in the 18th century, Hebrew was a required subject at Harvard and Yale, and was also taught at Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, and King's (Columbia) College. Commencement addresses were given in Hebrew and scholars such as Yale President Ezra *Stiles even conversed in the language. The very fact that the Puritans produced next to nothing of a literary nature apart from sermons and theological tracts bears witness in itself to their affinity to Judaic modes of thought, which were on the whole traditionally hostile to secular writing and to literary expression for its own sake.
[Milton Henry Hindus]
The Image of the Jew
It was only in the 19th century that Jews themselves first came upon the American literary scene, as both authors and fictional characters. Curiously enough, during this period it is only in the writings of non-Jews that Jewish characters appear. The works of the early 19th-century Jewish playwrights Mordecai Manuel *Noah, Isaac *Harby, and Jonas B. Phillips are conventional melodramas, conspicuously devoid of Jewish subject matter, despite the active involvement of Noah and Harby in Jewish community life. Perhaps they felt that Jewish life was too insubstantial to provide the working basis for a dramatic theme; or perhaps they wished to vie with their contemporaries on more universal ground. On the other hand, as drama critic of the New York Evening Post, Harby attacked the antisemitic stereotype of Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. A fourth Jewish dramatist of the period, Samuel Judah, was hostile to his background, and his unperformed biblical play, The Maid of Midian, was an attack on Old Testament religion. In contrast to the playwrights, two 19th-century Jewish poets, both women and southerners, wrote verse of a specifically Jewish character. The legendary Adah Isaacs Menken deservedly gained fame more for her romantic personality than for her poetry, but her volume Infelicia received considerable attention when it appeared shortly before her death in 1868. Her first poems, largely on Jewish national themes, were published by Isaac M. Wise in his *Israelite.
In contrast to the generally sympathetic treatment of Jews as a collective entity in American journalism and political writing of the age, the few portraits of Jewish characters in fiction and drama tended to draw heavily on the negative stereotypes of Jews that predominated in British literary tradition, on which American authors were greatly dependent until well into the 19th century. Perhaps the first such Jewish character to appear in American literature was in Susanna Has-well Rowson's Slaves in Algeria (1794), a drama about piracy along the Barbary Coast in which a central role was played by a rapacious Jewish miser and swindler. A similar character appeared in James Ellison's The American Captive (1812). In fiction, George Lippard's Gothic novel The Quaker City presents a minor Jewish character named Gabriel von Gelt as a misshapen incarnation of greed.
In the middle of the 19th century, Jewish characters began to make their appearance in serious works of American fiction. Significantly, their entry occurred at the time of the first large increase of the American Jewish population, which was created by the arrival of German Jews in the wake of the European upheavals of 1848. The critic John J. Appel has observed that in Hawthorne's well-known story Ethan Brand (1851) "the German-Jewish peddler reflected American awareness of the growing numbers of German-Jewish immigrants who traveled the backwoods with their moveable stocks of goods." These peddlers also appear in the correspondence of Emily Dickinson and may be the source of some odd images in her poems, such as one in which she describes her orchard "sparkling like a Jew!"
In contrast, Longfellow's moving poem "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport," which was written in 1852, delineates Jewish martyrdom and antisemitic persecutions throughout the ages with the profoundest sympathy for the victims. Yet its concluding stanza is hardly calculated to inspire any hope or nurse illusions in the heart of its Jewish readers:
But ah! What once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.
This dispiriting ending prompted a protest by Emma *Lazarus – the author of the sonnet "The New Colossus," which is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty – who pointed out that it was hardly consonant with the facts.
Walt Whitman's voracious curiosity about the inhabitants of the city of New York led him to consider the Jews. Long before the appearance of Leaves of Grass, he had published two sizable articles, in a newspaper he was editing at the time, recording his impressions of the customs of the Sabbath service that he had witnessed at the Crosby Street Synagogue. The philo-Semitic temper of the time is nowhere more evident than in the writings of William Cullen Bryant, who was not only a distinguished American poet but also, for almost 50 years, the influential editor of New York's Evening Post, a newspaper that enjoyed the greatest prestige in mid-19th-century America. Commenting on a performance by the Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth in the role of Shylock, Bryant took the opportunity to find fault with Shakespeare for his repulsive caricature of the Jew and paid eloquent tribute to –
That superiority of intellect which has survived all persecutions, and which, soaring above the prejudice of the hour, has filled us with reluctant admiration on finding how many of the great events which work the progress of the age or minister to its improvement or elevate its past may be traced to the wonderful workings of the soul of the Hebrew and the supremacy of that spiritual nature which gave to mankind its noblest religion, its noblest laws, and some of its noblest poetry and music.
The mass immigration to the United States of East European Jews that began in the 1880s and lasted until after World War i totally transformed both the character and the size of the American Jewish community and, concomitantly, the attitudes of American intellectuals toward it. On the whole, the first reactions still echoed the generous sentiments of an earlier age. William Dean Howells wrote with great insight and compassion about the Jewish immigrants on New York's Lower East Side in his Impressions and Experiences (1896), and in the same year he wrote an article hailing the advent of Abraham *Cahan's novel of immigrant life, Yekl, for which he himself had helped to find a publisher. Howells' friend Mark Twain expressed himself equally strongly on the subject of Jewish immigration. The Jews' "contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning," he wrote in an article in Harper's in 1899, "are… out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers … [the Jew] is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind…"
It is impossible to pinpoint with any precision the exact moment when far-reaching historical changes first began to challenge this hitherto predominant image of the Jew in American literature. If anything, it tended somewhat to predate the time when the tide of popular tolerance toward Jews began to recede in America, which the historian Oscar Handlin has dated to "the portentous period between 1913 and 1920." During this time, as Handlin puts it, "great numbers of Americans became obsessed with fear of the Jew." The new attitudes of the 20th century are already anticipated by Henry James in his novel The American Scene (1907), in which he speaks of his impressions on New York's Lower East Side of "a Jewry that had burst all bounds.… The children swarmed above all – here was multiplication with a vengeance.… There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got a start." In a similar vein, some years later in his novel The Beautiful and Damned (1922), F. Scott Fitzgerald described a trip down the length of the island of Manhattan:
Down in a tall busy street he read a dozen Jewish names on a line of stores; in the door of each stood a dark little man watching the passers from intent eyes – eyes gleaming with suspicion, with pride, with clarity, with cupidity, with comprehension. New York – he could not dissociate it now from the slow, upward creep of this people – the little stores, growing, expanding, consolidating, moving, watched over with hawk's eyes and a bee's attention to detail – they slathered out on all sides. It was impressive – in perspective, it was tremendous.
Even the normally sympathetic Mark Twain commented wryly on the enormous increase of Jewish numbers in America:
When I read [in the Encyclopaedia Britannica] that the Jewish population of the United States was 250,000, I wrote the editor and explained to him that I was personally acquainted with more Jews than that in my country, and that his figures were without a doubt a misprint for 25,000,000.
The same impression is communicated humorlessly in the correspondence of Theodore Dreiser, who was inclined to assume the existence of a sinister conspiracy on the part of official agencies to minimize Jewish population statistics in the United States. Dreiser's antisemitism, which was unusual at the time for one who held radical left-wing opinions, surfaced so unmistakably during the Depression following the financial crash of 1929, and especially after the accession of the Nazis to power in Germany, that he was publicly taken to task for it by his Communist comrade Michael *Gold, the author of Jews Without Money (1930).
During the first four decades of the 20th century, it became almost fashionable for many American writers of distinction – especially among the expatriates – to express antisemitism. It is sometimes present in the writings of Edith Wharton (who once described Fitzgerald's gangster-villain Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby (1925) as the "perfect Jew"), Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings, and others. It is strong in those of German ancestry like Dreiser, H.L. Mencken, and Thomas Wolfe, and it even touches a writer like Gertrude *Stein, who was herself, as Wyndham Lewis described her, "a brilliant Jewish lady." In 1920, the year which saw the publication of the spurious Protocols of the *Elders of Zion in Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent, Mencken wrote: "The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world." Yet such sentiments did not seem incompatible with Mencken's having Jewish friends and even Jewish publishers! Among those who wrote about urban Jewry was Damon Runyon, whose Guys and Dolls (1932) and other short story collections teem with amiable Jewish gangsters and Broadway characters.
In the late 1930s, the pendulum began to swing back again, as the emerging barbarism of the Nazis developed an inhibiting effect upon intellectual antisemitism in America. A number of American writers, including Thomas Wolfe, T.S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose sentiments concerning the Jews had hitherto been less than friendly, now gave signs of regretting that their own position might be confused with or lend comfort to that of the Hitler regime. After being lionized by the Nazis on his visit to Germany in the mid-1930s, Wolfe returned to the United States to write a report on what he had seen, which promptly resulted in the suppression of all his books in the Third Reich. The outbreak of World War ii and its aftermath once again generated a new wave of philo-Semitic sympathies in American intellectual life.
[Milton Henry Hindus /
Works on Palestine and Israel
American writers who visited Palestine in the 19th century found the land both inviting and forbidding. The climactic experience of Herman Melville's trip to Europe and the Near East (1857) appears to have been the 18 days he spent in Ereẓ Israel, mainly in the area of Jerusalem. His Journal (published in 1955) contains a vivid metaphor summing up the writer's impression of the desolation there: "In the emptiness of the lifeless antiquity of Jerusalem, the emigrant Jews are like flies that have taken up their abode in a skull." All Judea, in fact, seemed to him an accumulation of stones, rubbish, and the "mere refuse of creation." Yet the experience haunted Melville's imagination, and almost 20 years later he published his two-volume Clarel; A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), which was inspired by this visit to Jerusalem. Ten years after Melville's journey, Mark Twain embarked on the steamship Quaker City for a tour of the Mediterranean, which he describes in The Innocents Abroad (1869). His impressions of Palestine were similar to those of Melville, but though anxious to debunk the guidebooks, he recognized that "Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dreamland …" Twain's testimony to the true fascination of the ancient land did more to promote foreign travel among Americans than all the tourist brochures of his day.
One of the earliest novels by a U.S. writer dealing with Ereẓ Israel was Henry Gillman's Hassan: A Fellah; A Romance of Palestine (1898). This account of romance and adventure in the Holy Land was in general very hostile toward the Jews, although as U.S. consul in Jerusalem (1886–91) Gillman had succeeded in preventing the Turks from expelling the Jews from the country.
Among the early American-Jewish poets inspired by the Holy Land was Jessie *Sampter. In The Emek (1927), she portrayed the first pioneers in the Valley of Jezreel through a series of vivid prose poems; and in the verse collection Brand Plucked from the Fire (1937), she expressed her attitude to Judaism and Zionism. Judah Stampfer (1923–), a poet deeply conscious of his Jewish roots, published several poems about Israel, which he knew as both soldier and teacher, in the collection Jerusalem Has Many Faces (1950). Israel (1925) by Ludwig *Lewisohn, was both a Zionist-oriented study of the Jewish question in the 1920s and an evocative and reflective travel book covering the development of the country. Meyer *Levin wrote two novels on the subject: Yehuda (1931), a first-hand description of the life on a kibbutz in the late 1920s; and My Father's House (1947), the story of a Polish boy's escape to Palestine during World War ii. Michael Blankfort's novel Behold the Fire (1965) tells the story of the Palestinian Jews who assisted British intelligence during World War i, and another of his novels, The Juggler (1952), is also set in Israel. A defiant Zionist work of the post-World War ii era was Ben *Hecht's drama, A Flag is Born (1946). Probably the most famous of all the novels about Israel's establishment and the idea of independence is Leon *Uris' Exodus (1958). Daniel Spicehandler's Burnt Offering (1961) also deals with the war, as does his autobiographical Let My Right Hand Wither (1950). Robert *Nathan's novel, A Star in the Wind (1962), tells how a young American gradually discovers his identity as a Jew while witnessing the events in Palestine in May 1948. The scene in Jerusalem at the same period is described in Zelda Popkin's (d. 1983) Quiet Street (1951). In the 1960s the most popular novel about Israel was James Michener's The Source (1963). Weaving his tale around a fictional archaeological site ("Makor"), Michener made his readers realize afresh the historical significance of Ereẓ Israel and its continuing relevance to the present and future.
The Jewish Contribution (to 1970)
Curiously enough, one of the first writers to realize that the growth of a Jewish audience provided the conditions for the evolution of a distinctive American-Jewish literary school was the non-Jew Henry Harland (well known in England during the 1890s as editor of The Yellow Book), who, under the pseudonym of Sidney Luska, wrote a number of popular novels during the 1880s on subjects of Jewish concern. One of them, The Yoke of the Thora (1887), dealt with the tragic difficulties of intermarriage more than 40 years before Ludwig Lewisohn's eloquent treatment of the same subject in The Island Within (1928). Although there were representatives of American Jewry in the field of belles lettres before 1880, the most significant Jewish writing had been in the form of biographical documents (rather than of works that aspired to art), such as those collected by Jacob Marcus in the three volumes of his Memoirs of American Jews, 1755 – 1865 (1955–56). Few literary productions by American Jews concerning Jewish life at the turn of the century in the immigrant ghettoes or elsewhere are as interesting and significant as such memoir-type works as Mary *Antin's The Promised Land (1912), Ludwig Lewisohn's Up Stream (1922) and Mid-Channel (1929), Charles *Reznikoff 's Early History of a Sewing-Machine Operator (1936) and Family Chronicle (1963), Anzia *Yezierska's Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950), Morris Raphael Cohen's Dreamer's Journey (1949), Jacob *Epstein's autobiography Let There Be Sculpture (1940), S.N. *Behrman's The Worcester Account (1954), and Myer Levin's In Search (1950).
Abraham Cahan was the first American Jewish writer of considerable power to attempt the ascent from memoir and journalism, where he was initially at home (for the better part of his career he led the dual life of English novelist and editor in chief of the Yiddish Jewish Daily *Forward), and he undoubtedly met with exemplary success. In many ways, he succeeded in writing the great American-Jewish novel as well as any of the writers who later followed him and reaped richer awards in popularity and critical acclaim. While Cahan wrote a number of novels, his magnum opus was indisputably The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the value of which has been continually rediscovered by American-Jewish literary critics to their own surprise. Although David Levinsky is, among other things, a scathing indictment of the American "success story," the dream of so many millions of immigrants, it is also representative of the first generation of Jewish immigrants to America after 1880 in its refusal to make any sweeping rejection of American life as such. Although nearly all Jewish immigrant writers were critical in one degree or another of the American realities that confronted them, such as poverty (Mary Antin, Anzia Yezierska) or social discrimination (Ludwig Lewisohn), they were nevertheless grateful to America and could never forget the contrast between the freedom and opportunity they found there and the repressiveness and narrowness of the old world. None of them could ever have written, as did native-born Michael Gold in his "proletarian" novel about Jewish immigrant life in New York, Jews Without Money (1930), "America has grown so rich and fat because she has eaten the tragedies of millions of immigrants." Such an attitude arose from a depth of alienation, hostility, and resentment that they simply never experienced.
In this respect alone, a book like David Levinsky is superior to such second-generation "proletarian" successors of the 1920s and 1930s as Jews Without Money, Samuel *Ornitz's Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl (1923), and Isidor Schneider's (d. 1977) From the Kingdom of Necessity (1935). For all the genuine indignation over the social injustices of American life, out of which such novels were written, the schematic Communist theory to which they were molded turned out to be a Procrustean bed for the imagination to lie in. One feels that the predatory capitalists, venal and reactionary schoolteachers, corrupt rabbis, and sentimentalized workers who populate the pages of this Jewish-American school sprang more from some economic or political textbook than from their authors' actual observations of the life around them. The lessons of moderation, patience, and fortitude that were learned by the first generation of immigrants through hard experience seem to have been lost upon their rebellious offspring, whose psychological experience of American reality may have been even harsher because of the higher level of expectation with which they, as native sons, were raised. It was precisely the paradoxical contradiction so often evident in American life between limitless promise and limited performance that turned so many of them to social and political extremes.
The best literary work of this second, native generation of Jewish Americans was done by writers who, while they were by no means oblivious to social ills and may even have been for a time sympathetic to their more "activist" fellow authors, were more aesthetically oriented, more inclined to take professional pride in their literary workmanship, and more apt to look upon the art that they created as an end in itself. For the propagandist school of Ornitz, Schneider, Gold, and even Joseph *Freeman and Howard *Fast, art was an adjective. What was important to them was the substantive matter or views which it modified. But for writers like Henry *Roth and Charles Reznikoff, art was not only a noun, but a noun with a capital letter. Their great idol, as Reznikoff 's By the Waters of Manhattan (1930) and Roth's Call It Sleep (1934) reveal, was James Joyce. Indeed, sharp-eyed observers of the American literary scene, like Scott Fitzgerald, had seen the shape of things to come before they actually materialized. In an article in The Bookman in 1926, Fitzgerald predicted the coming of a "novel off the Jewish tenement-block, festooned with wreaths out of Ulysses and the later Gertrude Stein." Call It Sleep appeared eight years later. Like David Levinsky, it has since enjoyed periodic rediscoveries by prominent Jewish critics. A powerful evocation of a Jewish childhood in a New York immigrant slum, it is a book worth reading and remembering, though to call it one of the great novels of the 20th century, as has been done on occasion, seems to be an unfortunate type of cultural inflation. Such enthusiastic overestimation by critics may originate in sheer delight at discovering that American-Jewish authors more than 30 year ago were capable of ascending into an atmosphere of pure aestheticism from the common ground of documentary social realism and political propaganda in which so many fellow authors of their generation were mired.
An anomaly among Jewish novelists of the 1930s was Nathanael *West, who in the course of his short life wrote only a few thin works, the best-known of which, Miss Lonely-hearts, is today generally considered a minor American classic. Though West avoided writing about Jews (characteristically, he changed his own name from Weinstein), in a sense he was, more than any other figure of his age, a precursor of the great flowering of American-Jewish writing that took place in the years after World War ii. Whereas nearly all of his contemporaries wrote naturalistic fiction, West was inclined to imaginative fantasy; where his contemporaries cultivated a tone of dramatic seriousness, West's preference was for comedy; and whereas his contemporaries were for the most part concerned with the problems of immigrant life and/or the great depression, his own interest lay in that psychological alienation of the individual in modern, atomized, American industrial society that, in the final analysis, had little to do with either poverty or wealth. In all of these respects, West foreshadowed tendencies that were to be fully and exuberantly developed in the American-Jewish literature of the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, which was undoubtedly one reason for the revival of interest in him in those decades.
Among Jewish playwrights in the 19th century was Mordecai M. *Noah whose historical plays, notably The Fortress of Sorrento (1808), Paul and Alexis (1812), and She Would Be a Soldier (1819), were well received. Another important figure was David *Belasco, whose The Return of Peter Grimm (1911) was considered an important play. The most prominent of Jewish playwrights in the first half of the 20th century wereGeorge S. *Kaufman, S.N. *Behrman, Clifford *Odets, Elmer *Rice, and Lillian *Hellman.
[Milton Henry Hindus]
The quarter of a century of American literary life that followed the end of World War ii witnessed a conspicuous emergence of Jewish talent and activity that reached its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which were on occasion even referred to by critics as American literature's "Jewish decade" and as a period of "Jewish renaissance." I. Malin and I. Stark wrote in their anthology Breakthrough: A Treasury of Contemporary American-Jewish Literature (1964): "For the first time in history a large and impressively gifted group of serious American-Jewish writers has broken through the psychic barriers of the past to become an important, possibly a major reformative influence in American life and letters." While there is perhaps an element of hyperbole in such phrases, it is well worth considering why the phenomenon described here came into existence and what its defining characteristics were.
The period after World War ii roughly marked the coming of age of a third generation in American-Jewish life dating back to the great East European immigration of the turn of the century. Three main features distinguished this generation from its predecessor: American-born itself, it was for the most part raised by parents who were either native-born or who had broken away physically and culturally from the immigrant ghetto; unlike these parents, most of whom grew up in relative poverty, it was largely the product of middle- or lower-middle-class homes, where physical want was unknown; and unlike its parents again, it was overwhelmingly college-educated. Forming a more thoroughly acculturated, economically secure, and better educated group than its parents, it was only natural that third-generation American Jewry should have included a higher percentage of academicians, artists, intellectuals, and writers.
At the same time, the salient fact about this third-generation intelligentsia, at least to judge by the literature that it produced, was an unmistakable sense of estrangement not only from the generation that raised it but in a subtler sense from American culture as a whole. The former reaction is perhaps the easier to understand. In a sense, the conflict between the generation of American Jews that reached intellectual maturity after World War ii and the preceding generation was more intense and exacerbated than the conflict between the latter and the original immigrant generation. Whereas the earlier struggle was a clear-cut one between the desire to preserve certain old-world values and the urge to "Americanize" at any cost, the later one was between two conflicting versions of "Americanism" itself. If anything, it was precisely what the second generation looked upon as its successful adaptation to American life that was repeatedly excoriated and satirized in "third generation literature" as a vulgar materialism.
More difficult to explain is the definite sense of not being entirely at home in the general American landscape. Possibly this may be regarded as the surfacing of a residual Jewish unease, an atavistic sense of exile that continued to exist beneath the accomplishments of Americanization. In part, it may also be a reaction to the overall complacency and thinly veiled anti-intellectualism of a great deal of American life in the 1940s and 1950s, which made adjustment difficult for many non-Jewish artists and intellectuals as well. In any case, whatever its roots, what is significant about this feeling of estrangement is that time after time it is deliberately expressed in openly Jewish terms, as in Delmore *Schwartz's poem "Abraham":
It has never been otherwise: /Exiled, wandering, dumbfounded by riches, /Estranged among strangers, dismayed by the infinite sky, /An alien to myself until at the last caste of the last alienation, /The angel of death comes to make the alienated and indestructible one a part of his famous and democratic society.
And in a remark which might be applied to the work of numerous Jewish writers of these years, Schwartz commented how "… the fact of being a Jew became available to me as a central symbol of alienation … and certain other characteristics which are the peculiar marks of modern life, and as I think now, the essential ones."
These words help to explain why Jewish writing played the crucial role that it did in America during this period, for if the theme of social and spiritual alienation seemed immemorially Jewish to the Jewish author, in an age when the individual was increasingly being viewed as a helpless pawn of the manipulations of big business, big government, mass communications, and modern technology, it was fast becoming basic to American intellectual life in general. The result of this overlap was, paradoxically, that at the very historical moment that American-Jewish writers were feeling sufficiently confident of their position in American life to express their sense of estrangement from it, non-Jewish readers and intellectuals were prepared for the first time to see in the figure of the "alien Jew" a genuine American culture hero of the times – or, more precisely, an anti-hero, since the treatment of alienation in the American-Jewish writing of these years was a self-directed irony by means of which the predicament of the alienated character was simultaneously intensified and mocked. This attitude owed much, it would appear, to traditional East European Jewish humor and is an excellent example of how fragments of immigrant folk culture survived among American Jews to be eventually transmuted into serious art.
If one takes for example the three postwar Jewish novelists whose work has aroused the greatest interest among the serious reading public in America, one finds that the most representative characters of all three share much with the traditional Jewish folk-humor figure of the shlemiel. For all the differences between these characters and the authors who created them, Saul *Bellow's Herzog (Herzog, 1964), Bernard *Malamud's Levin (A New Life, 1962) and Fidelman (Pictures of Fidelman, 1969), and Philip *Roth's Portnoy (Portnoy's Complaint, 1969) share a common private war against a society to which they cannot adjust and against which their only retaliation is to play the comic buffoon. The harder each tries, the more miserably each fails, yet none is ultimately defeated, for in terms of a highly Jewish paradox, to win such battles is to lose, to lose is to win. If success corrupts within the moral universe set down by these books, absolute success corrupts absolutely; or, in the words of Ivan Gold, another Jewish novelist who made his debut in the 1950s, with a long comic story (Taub East) about Jewish servicemen in Japan: "There must be an outgroup. This is the divine order of things. If lucky enough to be one, rejoice!"
This association of the Jew with the eternal outsider – less by virtue of any sustained social prejudice directed against him than of his own ingrained sensitivities, which make it impossible for him to integrate successfully into the aggressive, competitive fabric of American life – occurs as a unifying theme in much Jewish fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, despite the wide variety of backgrounds and environments invoked. One finds it in the Kafkaesque stories of Isaac Rosenfeld; in Wallace Markfeld's recollections of boyhood in Jewish Brooklyn; in Herbert *Gold's short stories about life in Jewish suburbia; in Leslie *Fiedler's fiction about Jewish intellectuals on the campus; Edward Wallant's urban novels; in the Glass family stories of J.D. *Salinger; and in the writings of many other Jewish novelists and short-story writers of the period. Hardly any of the central characters created by such authors have any active sense of identification with the Jewish community or Jewish tradition as such. In fact, nearly all are more alienated from the organized Jewish life of the communities in which they lived than from their surroundings in general, yet few are not obsessed with the moral implications of being Jewish and the sometimes bewildering problems of dealing with them.
It is debatable to what extent the emergence in the 1960s of the so-called "novel of the absurd," with a wide range of grotesquely comic situations reflecting the meaninglessness of contemporary existence, was again indebted in part to the surfacing in American life of a traditional mode of Jewish humor. It is a matter of record, however, that among the earliest practitioners of "black humor" as a tool of social criticism were such stand-up Jewish comedians as Lennie Bruce and Mort Sahl (the former, in particular, acquired a devoted avant-garde audience before his early death). This same sensibility appears as a defining stylistic element in the works of a number of prominent Jewish novelists of the 1960s, such as Bruce Jay *Friedman and Joseph Heller. Heller's morbidly comic novel of army life during World War ii, Catch-22 (1961), became practically a Bible for a generation of young Americans who came to political consciousness at the time of the Vietnam War and for whom it epitomized the struggle of the individual to survive in a mindlessly bureaucratic world.
By far the most radical in his indictment of American society among major American Jewish novelists has been Norman *Mailer, whose prose virtuosity and intellectual boldness made him for many readers the most exciting American novelist and essayist of his time. On the whole, Mailer studiously avoided Jewish characters and concerns in his work, a fact that is itself of some critical interest and that constitutes the exception rather than the rule among his Jewish contemporaries.
American Jewish poets of this period have also, for the most part, drawn freely on their experience as Jews. Many would no doubt agree with Muriel Rukeyser (d. 1980) when she writes that
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity
or with Hyam Plutzik's lines in "The Priest Eskranath," in which the Jew is portrayed as the eternal outsider, the compulsive intellectual critic who can never be at rest:
Listen, you nations:/They will lure you from your spontaneous ecstasies,/And positive possessions, and with themselves,/Carry you forth on arduous pilgrimages,/Whose only triumph can be a bitter knowledge."
If one were to compile a list of leading American Jewish poets of these years – Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky (d. 1978), Karl *Shapiro, Howard Nemerov (d. 1991), Delmore Schwartz, David Ignatow, Irving Feldman, Babette *Deutsch, Denise Levertov, John Hollander, Kenneth Koch – one would find that few have not availed themselves at times of the wealth of symbolic and allusive material that the Jewish heritage provides, though few have actually made this heritage the theme of an entire volume, as did Karl Shapiro in his Poems of a Jew (1958). Unique among American Jewish poets in his impact upon both the American and the international world of poetry has been Allen *Ginsberg, whose long free-verse poem Howl (1955) was a landmark in the development of contemporary American prosody and one of the first poetic trumpet blasts of the "beat generation" and of the profound cultural transformation that began to affect American life in these years. Ginsberg has Jewish motifs, as in his poem Kaddish (1960), and his mystical inclinations have led him to take an interest in the symbolism of Ḥasidism and the Kabbalah.
In drama, Arthur *Miller was widely regarded throughout the 1950s as the leading American playwright of his age. His reputation faded somewhat in the 1960s with the decline of realistic theater in general, but his Death of a Salesman, at least, was certain to remain a classic of the American repertoire. Among the leading experimental playwrights of the 1960s were Jack Gelber, Arthur Koppitt, and Israel Horovitz. An avant-garde company that pioneered in the creation of what came to be known in the late 1960s as "total" or "action" theater, with its emphasis on improvisation, audience involvement, and radical social and political content, was Julian Beck's and Judith Malina's Living Theater, which spent much of the decade in political exile in Europe. One of the most accomplished troupes to arise under its influence was Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater, located in New York. In the commercial theater, Paddy *Chayefsky wrote a number of highly successful Broadway dramas and Neil Simon was the author of numerous popular comedy hits.
Particularly prominent among American literary critics in the postwar period were Philip Rahv, Alfred *Kazin, Irving *Howe, Lionel Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler. Common to all was a rejection of "new" or "form" criticism, with its insistence on regarding the literary work as an isolated artifice to be analyzed only in its own internal terms, and an interest in the study of literature for the sake of its wider cultural, political, and psychological ramifications. Among the leading exponents of this "neo-new" criticism of the 1960s, on the other hand, was Susan *Sontag. Also noteworthy in the 1950s and 1960s was the key role played in American literary life by cultural and critical publications presided over by Jews, among them the Partisan Review, edited by Philip Rahv; the New American Review, edited by Theodore Solotaroff; *Commentary, edited by Norman *Podhoretz; and the New York Review of Books, edited by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein.
No discussion of the Jews and American literature in this era would be complete without mention of the unique phenomenon of the Jewish "best-seller" – the popular book or novel on a Jewish subject whose sales ran into the hundreds of thousands or millions, frequently leading all other contenders on national "best-seller" lists. Since one can assume that such books – among the most popular of which were Herman *Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar, Leon Uris' Exodus, Harry *Golden's Only in America, Harry Kemelman's Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Chaim Potok's The Chosen, John Hersey's The Wall, and James Michener's The Source (the last two by non-Jewish authors) – were in large measure purchased, or at least promoted, by Jewish readers, the dimensions of their success reveal the extraordinary impact of Jewish readership on the American book market in general. Characteristic of the Jewish "best-seller" was the fact that unlike most of the more serious American-Jewish novels mentioned previously (some of which also, however, were highly successful commercially), it tended to portray Jewish life in America and elsewhere in highly flattering and often sentimental terms. Of generally slight literary value, such books will nonetheless interest future historians for the picture they give of how the majority of American-Jewish readers during these years preferred to view themselves and their tradition.
Modern American-Jewish literature is a colloquy between an America in process and a Judaism in change. This literature expresses the interplay amongst self, community, and heritages. This body of letters is also a dialogue with theology in large, and theologies in small, whether found in text, or in a determined seeking for engagement with God. Often, American-Jewish literature presents these complex relationships as the comportment of a Jewish ethic with the American present: the belief that justice and compassion transcend the mores and self-interest of the historical moment. The strong relay between Jewish existence, culture, and God is self-reflective, and communally defining. Significant readings of this are found in Max Schulz's Radical Sophistication: Studies in Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists (1969), which studies the Jewish writer's search for a balance between existential despair and the Jewish tradition of affirming a meaningful life; Allen Guttmann's The Jewish Writer in America: Assimilation and the Crisis of Identity (1971), exploring the claims made upon the idea and act of being Jewish; Alan Berger's Crisis and Covenant: The Holocaust in American Jewish Fiction (1985), emphasizing the secular and religious value systems of Judaism; L.S. Dembo's The Monological Jew: A Literary Study (1988), dealing, for example, with the impact of Buber and Sartre on modern American-Jewish writing, and Norman Finkelstein's The Ritual of New Creation: Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Literature (1992), covering such figures as Gershom *Scholem, Walter *Benjamin, Harold *Bloom, and Cynthia *Ozick.
By now, American-Jewish literature is also a sustained meditation on Jewish life as a civic identity, one authorized by American pluralism and democracy. The republication of Paul *Goodman's The Empire City (2001) once again reminds the reader that America's representative citizens could be portrayed by a Jewish writer. The always suggestive, if not polemical author names his protagonist Horatio Alger. As social critic and therapist, Goodman insists that his characters utilize the entitlements of American democracy, as well as their "natural" strengths, to overcome political obstruction and psychological impasse.
More often than not, this America for the contemporary Jewish writer is not an America of outward passage, attended by the themes of breaking away from the European past, learning English, earning a living, and creating or suffering one's future. Instead, American-Jewish literature charts the refashioning of a difficult, contemporary identity. It takes into account the assertions that Zionism is the end of Diaspora; that the Holocaust demands a new understanding of surety, theology, and politics; and that America is not simply a new chapter of Diaspora, but a new beginning in which Jewish text in a borrowed tongue redefines the Jewish past and opens up a unique future.
Contemporary American-Jewish literature often takes Judaism and Jewishness as the inescapable context of life. Whether set in a Europe lost to the imagination, or modern America, such a framework embraces both continuity and an imagined unity. To cite several examples: Chaim *Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev (1972); Francine *Prose's Judah the Pious (1973); Isaac Bashevis *Singer's The Penitent (1983); Anne *Roiphe's Lovingkindness (1987); Elie *Wiesel's Twilight (1988); Wendy *Wasserstein's drama The Sisters Rosenzweig (1993); Steve Stern's The Wedding Jester (1999); Joshua Hammer's Chosen by God (1999); Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999); Allegra *Goodman's Paradise Park (2001); and Jonathan Rosen's Joy Comes in the Morning (2004). There are also examples of women rebelling against the constraining religious life of the Orthodox: Naomi *Ragen's Jephte's Daughter (1989); Pearl Abraham's The Romance Reader (1995); Boaz Yakin's film A Price above Rubies (1998), and Hortense *Calisher's Sunday Jews (2002).
There is a marked return to biblical and rabbinic text. In the contemporary period, writers allude to the Hebrew Scripture and Talmud, as well as explore the possibilities of interpretation and retelling. Salient examples are Neil *Simon's play God's Favorite (published 1975), based on Job; David Rosenberg and Harold Bloom's The Book of J (1990) with its theory of authorship; Joseph Heller's God Knows (1984), which casts David's voice into modern idiom; Alicia Ostriker's The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (1994), which is a writer's meditation on biblical themes, speaking across "boundaries" as well as addressing the character of women in the text; Norma Rosen's Biblical Women Unbound (1996), which seeks to recover the power of biblical matriarchs and their voices; Anita Diamant's The Red Tent (1997) which recreates Dinah's story; and Robert *Pinsky's The Life of David (2005). (Over these works looms, of course, Thomas Mann's Joseph novels which are probably the most compelling engagement of writer and Hebrew Scripture in the 20th century).
There are also studies of rabbinic exegesis and secular writing, as well as the relationship between Hebrew Scripture and contemporary literature: selected examples are, respectively, Midrash and Literature (ed. Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick, 1986) and Robert *Alter's Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture (2000). During this contemporary period, Jewish writers seem to be eager to write about their grappling with text and how they came to do so. Among recent works are Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, edited by David Rosenberg (1987), and People of the Book: Thirty Scholars Reflect on Their Jewish Identity (1996), edited by Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky and Shelley Fisher Fishkin.
The modern American-Jewish writer and reader are doubly fortunate: foundational texts and traditions of interpretation are democratized and decentralized. Computer software for the Bible offers commentary, word searching, parsing, and multiple translations stacked across the screen (as for example with Bibleworks, which is Christian-centered), as well as the sea of Jewish text and commentary (as with Davka, which is in Hebrew). There are new hard-copy editions of the Talmud with English-language translation and gloss (for example the Steinsaltz and Schottenstein, complementing the classic Soncino). And, of course, new translations of, and commentary on, Hebrew Scripture, including W. Gunther Plaut and Bernard Bamberger's The Torah: A Modern Commentary (1967/1981); The JPS Torah Commentary (General Editor, Nahum Sarna; its five volumes were published between 1989 and 1996); The Stone Edition of Tanach (1996); Michael Fishbane's The jps Bible Commentary: Haftarot: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New jps Translation (2002); Adele Berlin's and Marc Zvi Brettler's The Jewish Study Bible (2004); Richard Elliott Friedman's Commentary on the Torah: With a New Translation and the Hebrew Text (2001); Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (Senior Editor, David Lieber, 2001); and Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (2004). As a result, rabbinic and secular commentary jostle each other, supplementing, if not challenging, each other's authority. These works make contemporary interpretive communities abound by crossing intellectual, class, gender, and theological lines.
Given the ease of Jewish life in America, the authority of estrangement that the American-Jewish writer once possessed has diminished. Yet the modern canon is still deeply – and rightly – informed by an earlier generation of critics who made a moral use of alienation and its insights. Men of letters such as Leslie Fiedler, Irving *Howe, Alfred *Kazin, Philip *Rahv, Isaac *Rosenfeld, and Lionel *Trilling helped establish both the American as well as the American-Jewish literary imaginations, exemplifying the democratic tradition in which proverbial outsiders create national and world traditions. Modern representative examples of their work are Rahv's Essays on Literature & Politics, 1932 – 1972 (1978); Preserving the Hunger: An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader (ed. Mark Shechner, 1988); Howe's Selected Writings, 1950 – 1990 (1990); Fiedler's Fiedler on the Roof: Essays on Literature and Jewish Identity (1991); Leon Wieseltier's anthology of Trilling's writings, The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent: Selected Essays (2000); and Alfred Kazin's America: Critical and Personal Writings (ed. Ted Solotaroff, 2003). The arc of their times, traversing ideologies and interpretations of a literature relevant to both American and American-Jewish culture is described by such critics as Bernard Rosenberg and Ernest Goldstein in Creators and Disturbers: Reminiscences by Jewish Intellectuals of New York (1982); Alexander Bloom in Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals & Their World (1986); Alan Wald in The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (1987); Mark Shechner in After the Revolution: Studies in the Contemporary Jewish-American Imagination (1987); and Carole Kessner in her edition of The "Other" New York Jewish Intellectuals (1994).
As an immigrant Yidishkayt passed from being a seemingly cohesive culture of the East European Diaspora, to being a creative minority presence in the United States, it also became an adjunct of an American civic faith. Its language became English; its rhetoric became increasingly receptive to a democratic, pluralistic, and diversifying society. Yidishkayt became an American "Jewishness." It defined the issues of American-Jewish life in terms of American political and social history. Yidishkayt retained its charms as an almost otherworldliness, indicating a putatively richer, thick life that was lost: Although this is a rightly disputed claim, its imaginative recall indicates that the past is not yet over: witness Rebecca *Goldstein's Mazel (1995). Readers ought to consult as well Karen Brodkin's How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (1998). The two-volume anthology edited by Ellen Schiff, Awake and Singing: 7 Classic Plays from the American Jewish Repertoire (1995) and Fruitful and Multiplying: 9 Contemporary Plays from the American Jewish Repertoire (1996) contain notable examples of the past suffusing the present.
For the contemporary American-Jewish writer, nostalgia is also a rite of recalled passage. Such homesickness wards off an uncertain future by creating a haven of memory, measuring the passage of the Jew from one bitter exile to a modernity that is sweet, but precarious. As David Roskies' and Diane Roshkies' The Shtetl Book (1975) indicates, the shtetl is now textualized. Important examples are The Shtetl (ed., Joachim Neugroschel, 1979); and the republication of A.J. *Heschel's poignant The Earth Is the Lord's: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe (1950/1987/1995). The shtetl ' s cultural assignment as a world more charmed because of its known extinction animates, for instance, the groundbreaking, somewhat rosy Life Is With People: The Jewish Little-Town of Eastern Europe by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog (1952; ten years later, perhaps prompted by a growing American desire to "authenticate" a lost world, the book was subtitled The Culture of the Shtetl); the perennial revivals of Fiddler on the Roof; Melvin *Bukiet's Stories of an Imaginary Childhood (1992); and also the New American Library's two-volume collection of I.B. Singer's Collected Stories (2004). Although the shtetl's charm is denied by immigrant autobiographies, and early American-Jewish novels written by those fleeing Eastern Europe, there are few novels that have done so: perhaps the most significant are Peter Martin's The Landsmen (1952); and Bernard *Malamud's The Fixer (1966). Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated (2002) depicts the betrayal of Jews within a shtetl. An important study about immigrant memories, often entailing the shtetl, and the Pale of Settlement is Jan Schwartz's Imagining Lives: Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers (2005).
Nonetheless, there is a return of sorts open to the American-Jewish writer: the homecoming to a definable locality, binding together the immediacy and mores of the past, and usually the past of one's childhood. For the American-Jewish literary protagonist, the other side of acculturation is the longing for the particularity of belonging, of enjoying the perceived solidarity of the Jewish community. Jay *Neugeboren's The Stolen Jew (1981) deals with his protagonist's return to Brooklyn. Steven Stern discovered the American "ghetto" life of "the Pinch" in Memphis, setting much of his fiction there (see, for example, his A Plague of Dreamers: Three Novellas (1994). In American Pastoral (1997), Philip *Roth's Nathan Zuckerman judges both the "Swede" and contemporary America in the light of childhood and adolescent values rich with irony and naiveté. Paradoxically, many acculturated American Jews now have come back to a community of Jews, but this time to a supportive community of the often elderly, remembering (or keeping at bay) all that is now past: Leslie Epstein's Goldkorn Tales (1985); Alan Isler's The Prince of West End Avenue (1994); Stanley *Elkin's Mrs. Ted Bliss (1995); and Andrew Furman's rendition of a young man among the Florida elderly, in Alligators May Be Present (2005).
Diasporas, both physical and intellectual, give American-Jewish literature possibilities for futures not solely determined by one national narrative but by many. So often defined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the migration away from the Eastern seaboard, whether that of the moving frontier, the mid-Western settlements, a commonizing America is now conscious of its histories. Nonetheless, an industrialized, urbanizing America, World War ii, the Korean War, Viet Nam, and the Civil Rights movement give Jewish life in America the certainty of shared national, and international experience. As American-Jewish literature has moved away from the lamentation over the loss of a past rooted in places other than America, editors have preserved its diverse intellectual and cultural genealogies. Impressive examples are found in Jerome Rothenberg's A Big Jewish Book: Poems & Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the Present (with Harris Lenowitz, and Charles Doria, 1978); Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolf 's Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets (1980); Ilan Stavans' The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998); and Derek Rubin's anthology, Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) A Jewish American Writer (2005). A companion work is Murray Baumgarten's City Scriptures: Modern Jewish Writing (1982).
Jewish thinkers and writers, who were not far from their immigrant pasts or its comportment with American promises of success, called into being a new understanding of American culture as well as American-Jewish literature. Their Yidishkayt and their Jewishness domesticated as well as made insurgent the values of a pluralizing American civilization. Louis Harap's indispensable The Image of the Jew in American Literature: From Early Republic to Mass Immigration (1974) analyzes how the figure of the Jew and the Jewish public appeared to American people-of-letters. His three volumes entitled Creative Awakening: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Literature, 1900 – 1940s, (1987); In the Mainstream: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Literature, 1950s – 1980s (1987) ; Dramatic Encounters: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Drama, Poetry, and Humor and the Black-Jewish Literary Relationship (1987); Susanne Klingenstein's Jews in the American Academy, 1900 – 1940: The Dynamics of Intellectual Assimilation (1991); and her Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930 – 1990 (1998); Andrew Furman's study, Contemporary Jewish American Writers and the Multicultural Dilemma (2000); and David Biale, Michael Galchinsky, and Susannah Heschel's anthology Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism (1998) address how American Jews are viewed on a cultural spectrum from the oppositional to appositional.
Diasporas, belongings, and returns involve the poetics of remembrance. The shaping of the American-Jewish canon calls attention to traditions of memory, rhetoric, and languages: the classic work is Henry *Roth's Call It Sleep (1934); a contemporary example is Myla Goldberg's Bee Season (2000). Critical discussion of this complexity is explored variously in Rael Meyerowitz's Transferring to America: Jewish Interpretations of American Dreams (1995); Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi's Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination (2000); and Ranen Omer-Sherman's Diasporaand Zionism in Jewish American Literature: Lazarus, Syrkin, Reznikoff and Roth (2002).
Speaking in "American," a "trans-national" American rhetoric as Randolph Bourne might have called it, the American-Jewish novelists' characters invariably engage the past rather than dismiss it. Individuality is affirmed though at the expense of the sustaining community. American-Jewish novelists usually portray the ironic ease and anxiety of the American self as it moves between and within communities. Cases-in-point are Francine Prose's A Changed Man (2005) in which a former member of the Aryan Resistance Movement comes to support a Jewish reconciliation organization; and again in Prose's Guided Tours of Hell (1997), in which the protagonist, a minor American playwright, questions the authenticity of his life when measured against a Holocaust survivor's; Philip Roth's The Human Stain (2000) in which an African American poses as a Jewish professor of the classics; Emily Prager's Eve's Tattoo (1991), in which a character usurps what is thought to be a Holocaust victim's tattoo; and Michael *Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), in which two young Jewish men, one gay and the other a refugee fleeing the Nazis, invent a comic book hero who becomes an American icon.
Yet America is not so liberally conceived as a humorous theater of invented selves. A good instance is Norma Rosen's novel, John and Anzia: An American Romance (1989), depicting the affair between John Dewey and Anzia *Yezierska. Both find each other exotic and iconic: Yezierska represents – to Dewey – the unbridled spirit of a colorful people, attuned to their instincts; Dewey remains the thinker whose New England background of order and obligation – as understood by Anzia – cannot accommodate a pragmatism that takes into account emotional directives.
Equally important, during this period the cultural relationships between Jews and African Americans began to unravel. On the one hand, African Americans wanted to shape their politics and culture without interference or control by others. On the other hand, Jews often felt that there was a shared heritage, best expressed by Hebrew Scripture: God authorizes freedom. The literary relationship between African Americans and Jews in this modern period reaches back, for a convenient origin, to Norman *Mailer's The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster (published freestanding in 1957, and later, in the accessible Advertisements for Myself, 1959). Mailer reads the plight of the African American as an existential triumph: the living of felt needs. The "Negro" could stay alive by following "obligatory" pleasures. The hipster could model freedom upon the African American's "instantaneous existential states." The hipster's desire for the consecrated present would be shaped, in the future, by the African American's achievement of equality. The "potential superiority" of the African American, one that was feared, is "the underground drama of domestic politics." Hatred could be lived; violence is romanticized.
Whereas the African American could be viewed as part of the existential quest for the creation of self, other American-Jewish writers often spoke in terms of moral endowment. In Malamud's "Angel Levine" (1955), a feckless black angel inspires a small, defeated man to assent to the nature of the "other." The act is one of mutual confidence; both are transformed. *Bellow's eponymous protagonist of Henderson the Rain King (1959) encounters Africa not as Conrad's metaphor of darkness but as land that offers him a mentor in, and for, freedom. Jay Neugeboren's Sam's Legacy (1974) plays out the drama of freedom against the American sport, baseball. Mason Tidewater, an African American, gives to Sam his moving autobiography, "My Life and Death in the Negro Baseball League: A Slave Narrative," which weighs the issues of socially imposed identities against the moral strength of our devotion to others. *Doctorow's Ragtime (1975) portrays an African American as someone whose dignity demands that he challenge the injustices done to him. Lore Segal's Her First American (1985) explores the shock of surprise and comfort between a refugee and an African American.
As African American politics came to veer into antisemitism, so did American-Jewish writers portray the potential (and sometimes real) flashpoints of contact. Malamud's The Tenants (1971) presents the author's impasse reconciling an African American and a Jewish character. Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970; discussed below), portrays an African American as a thief who displays his aggressive, flamboyant sexuality. In Bellow's The Dean's December (1982) the African American is yet more sinister. Philip Roth's The Human Stain (2000; discussed below) further complicates this difficult relationship; an African American assumes (or usurps) the identity of an American Jew, becoming a professor of the classics. Selected critical works on this topic are Louis Harap's Dramatic Encounters: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Drama, Poetry, and Humor and the Black-Jewish Literary Relationship (1987); Bridges and Boundaries: African Americans and American Jews (ed. Jack Salzman with Adina Back and Gretchen Sorin, 1992); Emily Budick's Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation (1998); and Strangers & Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States (eds. Maurianne Adams and John Bracey, 1999).
Whereas the heritage of 19th-century realism remains strong, innovative narrative strategies question its adequacy. Although this experimentation is neither unique nor particular to Jewish letters, formal creativity challenges both our understanding of tradition and our reading of it. Cases are – and these are just a few – Norman Fruchter's Single File (1970); Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1979); Art *Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale, i: My Father Bleeds History (1986); and Maus: A Survivor's Tale, ii: And Here My Troubles Began (1991); Doctorow's City of God (2000); Benjamin Zucker's Blue (2001); and Steve Stern's The Angel of Forgetfulness (2005). These works formally reconcile the heritages (and claims) of Diaspora cultures and gentile nations: a mingling of diaries, welfare reports, and characters' reflections for Fruchter; for Mailer, the new journalism which combines fact with novelistic rendition; the Talmud page for Zucker; the comic book format for Spiegelman; narrative vying with narrative, and fiction becoming counter-fiction for Stern; and the novel of multiple voices, and narrative montage for Doctorow.
For a contemporary generation, the Holocaust is a memory challenging notions of a safe American haven. A God who vouchsafes the existence of the Jewish people has been splintered into a God who has committed Himself to accept historical choice, or has turned His face, or who demands a reconstruction of moral nature and engagement, or a delusion. Each of these possibilities challenges the hope of life without peril. Each choice creates an identity based on the conditioned and contingent. The literature is so vast that a few contemporary examples indicate the reach of the Holocaust into the present: Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies, A Love Story (1972) and his Shosha (1978); Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's Anya (1974); Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer (1979); Jerome Badanes' The Final Opus of Leon Solomon (1985); Ozick's "The Shawl" (1981) and "Rosa" (1984), published as one volume in the accessible The Shawl: A Story and a Novella (1989); Elie Wiesel's The Fifth Son (1985) and his The Forgotten (1992); Jon Baitz's drama, The Substance of Fire (published 1993); Melvin Bukiet's Stories of an Imaginary Childhood (1992), and his anthology, Nothing Makes You Free: Writings by Descendants of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (2002); Thane Rosenbaum's Second Hand Smoke (1999); Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Illuminated Soul (2002); Leslie Epstein's King of the Jews (1979); and Arthur *Miller's drama, Broken Glass (1994). Well worth viewing is the 1991 film, The Quarrel, based on Chaim *Grade's "My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner."
Questions of authority and sincerity dog a younger generation. Is the factual nature of the Holocaust open to the task of fiction as fiction? Can fiction formalize an experience that goes beyond the limits of representation? Is a speculative, if not interim rhetoric needed? Fire, ashes, smoke, railroad tracks, tattoos, the literal and metaphorical uncovering of human nature – the jigsaw pieces of life and death under Nazism are close to the surface but part of a new politics and rhetoric.
As with Holocaust fiction, there is a large body of critical commentary dealing with the roles of language, memory and representation. Part of such discussion are Terence Des Pres' The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (1976); James Young's Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (1988); Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "Final Solution" (edited by Saul Friedlander, 1992); Lawrence Langer's Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays (1995); and Edith Wyschogrod's An Ethics of Remembering: History, Heterology, and the Nameless Others (1998).
Zionism brings with it celebration and critique. A new Zion carved out of the wilderness, and an America affirming its history as redemptive make American-Jewish literature's depiction of Zionism rife with sincerity as well as irony. Portraits of Israelis and Americans wandering in Zion implicate the authenticity of American-Jewish existence and the authority of Jewish life in Israel. Examples are Philip Roth's The Counterlife (1986) and Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993); Anne Roiphe's The Pursuit of Happiness (1991); and the personal reflections found in Hugh *Nissenson's Notes from the Frontier (1968) and Bellow's To Jerusalem and Back (1976). Sabras and pioneers have long been replaced by characters – Americans in Israel and Israelis themselves – ranging from the manipulative to the naïve, as in Tova Reich's Master of the Return (1988) and The Jewish War (1995). Andrew Furman's Israel Through the Jewish-American Imagination: A Survey of Jewish-American Literature on Israel, 1928 – 1995 (1997) and Ranen Omer-Sherman's Diaspora and Zionism in Jewish American Literature: Lazarus, Syrkin, Reznikoff and Roth (2002) explicate the American literary dialogue with Israel.
The generation of writers that came to maturity from the 1930s to the 1960s could draw upon the inheritance of being Jewish as inseparable from being ill at ease in the American Diaspora. The contemporary stylistic deployment of Yiddish words and diction by those whose native tongue is English; the reliance on the Jew as neurotic, or as schlemiel, or as divested of the strengths of Judaism are tics rendering the Jew harmless but provocative. The unease of writer and writing made estrangement the appropriate moral and political response to modern American culture. (It should be noted that V.L. Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks, and Lewis Mumford made the same case.) Dreams of socialism, the promise of psychoanalytic theory – all of these gave an edge to earlier American-Jewish writers' depiction of a specific America, one at variance with their families' understanding of America itself. At their most minatory, American-Jewish letters is overly suspicious of the literature of affirmation that argues that Jewish life not only endured in America, but also flourished. Norman *Podhoretz's Making It (1967) seemed – to its critics – less the tracing of choice and success than a surrender to cynicism and irony.
For contemporary readers and writers, American-Jewish literature seems blunted, incapable of bringing the cutting edge of politics and a shrewd cynicism to America's failures. And equally important, to the failures of Judaism to keep constant the Prophetic vision of the just society. The contemporary authorial task, so it seems, is witnessing. This, too, is a moral act, akin to the Prophets enumerating the refusal of those who confuse Hellenism with Hebraism.
Irving Howe, in his magisterial World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made (with the assistance of Kenneth Libo, 1976); and in Jewish American Stories (1977), writes about the American-Jewish literary imagination as both regional and centralizing. American-Jewish literary culture draws upon the great tide of Jewish immigration (usually to the lower East Side), as well as Jewish tradition. Howe's work is part of a larger body of literature studying what he called this "regional" style. Selected works, dedicated to exploring the ferment of the lower East Side and its influence are Ronald Sanders' pioneering The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation (1969); Mario Maffi's Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnic Cultures in New York's Lower East Side (1995); and Hasia Diner's Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America (2000).
By now, the Jewish writer in America has moved beyond the culture of a thick Yidishkayt, and its immigrant traditions. American-Jewish writers have appropriated the geography of America as the sustenance of memory. Examples are Saul Bellow's Chicago (Ravelstein, 2000); Adam Berlin's Las Vegas (Headlock, 2000); Leslie *Epstein's West Coast (San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory, 2003); Michael Chabon's Pittsburgh (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, 1988); Rebecca Goldstein's Princeton (The Mind-Body Problem, 1983); the American South of Steve Stern (A Plague of Dreamers, 1994) and Tova Mirvis (The Ladies Auxiliary, 1999); Philip Roth's rural community in the Berkshires (The Human Stain, 2000); Malamud's "Wild West" (in his unfinished novel, The People, and Uncollected Stories, 1989) and his New England (Dubin's Lives, 1979); and Allegra Goodman's upstate New York (Kaaterskill Falls, 1998). Unsurprisingly, New York City remains a center for the imagination: the metropolis of Paul *Auster (The New York Trilogy, 1990); Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, 2005); Hugh Nissenson (Days of Awe, 2005); and Cynthia Ozick (The Puttermesser Papers, 1997; and Heir to the Glimmering World, 2004).
Modern American-Jewish writers and anthologists have enlarged the American-Jewish present by expanding the canon, rescuing often-neglected works written by women, Sephardim, as well as gay and lesbian Jews. The following selected works are significant additions to the literature of and about American-Jewish women: Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz's The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology (1989); Joyce Antler's anthology, America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers (1990); Sharon Niederman's Shaking Eve's Tree: Short Stories of Jewish Women (1990); Sylvia Barack Fishman's reader, Follow My Footprints: Changing Images of Women in American Jewish Fiction (1992); Ellen Uffen's Strands of the Cable: The Place of the Past in Jewish American Women's Writing (1992); Marlene Marks' Nice Jewish Girls: Growing Up in America (1996); Janet Burstein's Writing Mothers, Writing Daughters: Tracing the Maternal in Stories by American Jewish Women (1996); Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore's Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (1997, 2 vols.); Ann Shapiro, Sarah Horowitz, Ellen Schiff and Miriyam Glazer's Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook (1994); and Lois Rubin's Connections and Collisions: Identities in Contemporary Jewish-American Women's Writing (2005).
The experiences of gay and lesbian American Jews are found notably in works by Harvey Fierstein (Torch-Song Trilogy, consisting of The International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First!, published in one volume in 1979); Tony *Kushner (Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, consisting of Part 1: Millennium Approaches and Part 2: Perestroika, and published in one volume, 1995); and Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me, published in one volume, 2000). In addition, gay or lesbian characters are found, for example, in Alice Bloch's The Law of Return (1983); Leslea Newman's A Letter to Harvey Milk (1988); Lev Raphael's Dancing on Tisha B'Av (1990); and Adam Berlin's Belmondo Style (2004). Significant readers on this topic are Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (ed. Evelyn Torton Beck, 1982) and Christie Balka and Andy Rose's anthology Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay and Jewish (1989).
Diane Matza's anthology, Sephardic-American Voices: Two Hundred Years of a Literary Legacy (1996), spans categories from "The Descendants of the Colonial Sephardim" (for example, Penina Moise, Mordecai Noah, and Emma Lazarus) to "Issues of Identity" (including Rosaly Roffman, Herbert Hadad, and Jordan Elgrably, among others).
There is also a Jewish literature of imagined futures and mythographies. Envisaged futures and fantasias are found notably in the works of Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison; in Jack Dann's anthologies Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction (1974); his More Wandering Stars (1981); as well as in Marge Piercy's He, She and It (1991). Examples of mythographies are Cynthia Ozick's title story of The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971); Arthur Cohen's In The Days of Simon Stern (1973); and Steve Stern's Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven (1986).
The image of the American Jew as timid, neurotic, and small, found for example in Woody *Allen's films (such as Take the Money and Run, 1969, and Bananas, 1971) has yielded to what might earlier have been considered as a Hellenizing of the American-Jewish man. Among these are Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) with a protagonist choosing to plunge into chaos leading to self-revelation; Philip Roth's unbridled Sabbath's Theater (1995); and Adam Berlin's Headlock (2000), with its epigraph from Homer, offering a narrator exulting in his strength. That American-Jewish writers could be attracted to violence, and depict it with panache is an unsettling note but certainly offered in the works of dramatist and screenwriter David *Mamet, especially in his portrait of marginal people in American Buffalo (published 1977) and Glengarry Glen Ross (published 1984).
Modern American-Jewish humor, both defensive and aggressive, can be read in a slightly different way than its immigrant counterparts. American life was strange. The American-Jewish immigrants' humor was usually based on the shock of transplantation and surprise. The immigrant was unsure of American freedom, and dismayed by the insecurity of employment. In contrast, modern American-Jewish humor appears to have two movements. The first is its characteristic, sharp irony that hedges uncertainty: a major theme found in Diaspora Jewish humor. For the Jewish immigrant in the United States, though, this irony marked a refusal to accept fully American promises of surety. The second movement is the adoption of the attitude of American surety in order to retroject present insecurities into an earlier generation. Often, this historical irony is found in the durable themes of the Jewish overbearing mother, the feckless husband, the "Jewish-American Princess," the psychologically damaged child, and the appeal of the shiksa. (A convenient point of origin for the jagged edge of modern American-Jewish literary humor is Nathanael *West's fiction. Though his works rarely deal with Judaism, the alienation his fiction presents is that of the outsider who is too urbane to be shocked and yet the insider who is too shocked to accept American myths. The acceptance of his fiction's enormous savagery can be measured by the publication of his Complete Works in 1957; its re-issue in 1978, and his Collected Works in 1975). The double nature of modern American-Jewish humor is found in various degrees in Bruce Jay *Friedman's "black-humor" novels Stern (1962) and A Mother's Kisses (1963); Philip Roth's parody of the dominating Jewish-mother and neurotic Jewish son in Portnoy's Complaint (1969); Woody Allen's protean Jew, the eponymous protagonist of the film Zelig (1983); and Neil Simon's play Lost in Yonkers (1991). Notable works are The Big Book of Jewish Humor (eds. William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, 1981); Robert Menchin's Jewish Humor from Groucho Marx to Jerry Seinfeld (1997); Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor: From Biblical Times to the Modern Age (ed., Henry Spalding, 2001); and Classic Jewish Humor in America (ed. Henry Spalding, 1995). Important critical studies are Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor (ed. Sarah Blacher Cohen, 1990); and James Bloom's Gravity Fails: The Comic Jewish Shaping of Modern America (2003). Lawrence Epstein's The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America (2001) supplements these works.
All of the above-mentioned works indicate the possession of America's open imagination and opportunity. Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman sums up this appropriation by the America Jew. Recalling his adolescence in the late 1940s, he writes that he "wanted to become part of the national character." With her novel O My America! (1980), Johanna Kaplan captures the excitement as well as the anxiety of what we have come to call the "American experience." She prefaces it with two epigraphs. The first is Donne's, and provides the novel with its title. The body of a woman, for Donne, is as richly enticing as is America's conquest. The novel's second epigraph is from De Tocqueville, addressing the paradoxical nature of a country that does not seem to be historical so much as ahistorical. Democracy, De Tocqueville opines, produces an historical amnesia, making one forget genealogies. Democracy shears the self of the comfort and support of lineage, and could confine the individual "entirely within the solitude of his own heart."
The sequesterment of the American, and especially that of the American-Jewish literary character, speaks to the ironic solitude of the Jew in an inviting pluralistic society. On the one hand, Jewish culture is now often experienced away from ritual and rite. On the other hand, American-Jewish literature has both civic and Prophetic signatures: its ethical spirit is invariably a preachment for a renewed community within and for a nation. The judgment pronounced maintains its force because it is spoken with the fervor of an other-worldliness, one not indebted to historical variability but paradoxically addressing the immediate moment. As a result, the American-Jewish novel forces the reader to examine anew the implications of a timeless ethic within an historical present; and a mandated, ahistorical way of being described within the immediacy of the day.
From 1970 to the present, as numerous critics have pointed out, a generation of American-Jewish writers did not have as points of cultural and political reference the immediacy of the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, and the feeling of a marginal American existence. Nonetheless, the enormous trepidation that marked an older generation's coming to maturity in the 1930s and 1940s, in which the Jewish future was far from assured, has left its mark.
For all the comfort America offers, there is a premonitory insecurity, a sense that American-Jewish life may be precarious. There are looming examples. In Philip Roth's "Eli, the Fanatic" (1959), Eli Peck, an acculturated young lawyer, reflects upon the America that he accepts as indisputable. Thinking about the safety America offers Jewish families, Eli muses, "What incredible peace." The irony is thick, but it is shared only by narrator and reader, not by Eli. In her 1970 essay, "Toward a New Yiddish," Cynthia Ozick reminded her readers that American-Jewish life, with its flowering of creativity in America, was not similar to Germany but analogous to Spain. Both led, she writes, to "abbatoir." Paul Auster endows a future that is just as ominous for Jews. In The Country of Last Things (1987), the simplicity of realism is cautionary fable. Anna Blume, a Jewish woman in search of her brother, wanders across a nameless, anarchic city. During a hard winter, she pushes her way into the National Library and comes upon a room in which she discovers Jewish men, talking urgently and animatedly. "I thought all Jews were dead," she whispers, yet hears the reply that only a small number remain. "It's not so easy to get rid of us…." Years later, there is an equally assertive wariness, again, from Philip Roth: The Plot Against America (2004). The novel begins in the present, with the narrator remembering with trepidation his boyhood. In this alternative history, a companion piece to Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, a family named Roth finds itself living in a pre-World War ii semi-totalitarian American state. Led by Lindbergh, America initiates state-sponsored antisemitism. Only by authorial intervention, history is righted; Roosevelt assumes the presidency.
American-Jewish literature produced its own histories, arguing for a conserved and preserving identity: a sign that American Jews are intent upon preserving a shared life through creating and assessing a common tradition. These re-evaluations may well be interim canons, suggesting how the strengths of the past can be used to shape the present. Among others, there are valuable histories and critical bio-bibliographies of American-Jewish literature by Louis Harap (mentioned above); Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers (ed. Daniel Walden 1984); Handbook of American-Jewish Literature (eds. Lewis Fried, Gene Brown, Jules Chametzky and Louis Harap, 1988); Sanford Pinsker's Jewish American Fiction, 1917 – 1987 (1992); Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists (1997) and Contemporary Jewish-American Dramatists and Poets (both works edited by Joel Shatzky and Michael Taub, 1999); Stephen Wade's Jewish American Literature Since 1945: An Introduction (1999); The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature (eds. Michael Kramer and Hana Wirth-Nesher, 2003); and Rosalind Reisner's Jewish American Literature: A Guide to Reading Interests (2004).
A point and counterpoint in these histories is the claim of the universal against the particular. A modern beginning for these pressures is Cynthia Ozick's "Toward a New Yiddish" (1970, and published again in 1983, in Ozick's Art & Ardor). Ozick later pointed out that she was "no longer greatly attached to its conclusions." (Well worth looking at is the strongly differing George Steiner's "Our Homeland, the Text" in Salmagundi, Winter-Spring, 1985.) The essay draws upon a large literary history: Aḥad Ha-Am's notion of Diaspora culture; Matthew Arnold's discussions of Hebraism and Hellenism; Isaac Rosenfeld's notion of creative estrangement; and the autonomous text of the New Critics. The points Ozick makes are hard, and not without irony. Ozick imaginatively summons for the reader a new Yavneh, a "Displaced Jerusalem." (The reader, of course, should recall that the original Yavneh had as its foreboding background the siege of Jerusalem. Yavneh rebelled against the might of empire by turning powerlessness into transmission of decree and commentary.) America, this new, metaphorical Yavneh, Ozick points out, is a temporary haven.
"Toward a New Yiddish" insists upon de-idolization: a rejection, by the Jew, of ideologies and acts effacing the divinely mandated and rabbinically authorized particularism of the Jewish people. Sinai condemns any desire obstructing the just community. The essay paints an alluring Hellenism, a metonym for universalism: from the declaration that all religions are the same, to the abandonment of an ethically demanding imperative, to ecstasy, to the individual as "mediator of the sacral." And, when Jewish novelists efface their particularity, they become lost to history. In effect, Hebrew Scripture funds the grand moral imagination. The commanding 19th-century novels were Judaized, represented by writers such as George Eliot, Dickens, and Tolstoy, who dramatized conduct and its consequences.
A "centrally Jewish" literature impinges on the liturgical. It is bound to the "reciprocal moral imagination" and resounds within and for the community. It echoes God's voice, "the Lord of History." Ozick's concession is one to the form of the liturgical voice itself. Our houses of Jewish worship may well be empty, she argues, because we have done with the idea and form of the "cathedral." Whether in text or talk, our conversations reveal the possibilities of our future. And these may be large.
The new Yiddish, a language commensurate with the up-building of Yavneh in America, will be the language of Jewish discourse, spoken as well as written "by Jews for Jews." It will renew the American Jew for it will nourish new talmudic forms of creative literature. Although the new Yiddish will not be explicitly religious, it will feel the touch of the Covenant. We can try to be a holy people in America, developing our own Aggadah.
Ozick's essay gave later critics the chance to explore the association of the Covenant, with a covenanted literature. Two works, among several, deal with this relationship. In The New Covenant: Jewish Writers and the American Idea (1984), Sam Girgus points out how Jewish writers, transforming the rhetoric and myths of America, reshape and modernize these communalizing forces. Their work make significant "the American ideal," pitting it against "authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies." In terms drawn from their own background, these writers formulate anew a narrative of American redemption.
In What Happened to Abraham?: Reinventing the Covenant in American Jewish Fiction (2005), Victoria Aarons argues that the contemporary American-Jewish writer takes the "laws of the covenant" and transforms them into "metaphors and allegories of invention, promise, and design." The law may reappear in a number of forms and modes: for example, as assessment, and as framework. The writer's recognition of the Covenant involves a revitalization, a re-telling of a heritage leading to a dialogue with the large assumptions and concerns of "the Hebrew Bible." Aarons points out that this retelling involves an understanding of America, often presented as a radical metonym for "displacement and loss."
Anthologies of American-Jewish writing offer a reading of a canon in process, enhancing the terms of analysis. The anthologies' principles of selection provide a characteristic tension – that of being Jewish and being American. Strikingly, many of these anthologies do not emphasize a conversation with theology but rather focus on the living of Jewishness (which may well be such a conversation itself). Equally intriguing, some do not strongly accentuate a potentially unsettling conversation with Israel. Such choices indicate a confidence in America as a home for Jews. American-Jewish anthologies – and they are groundbreakers – have a large subject: the making of an American Judaism, the comportment of faith with a democracy that is experimental and unique. Important supplementary texts are Arnold Eisen's The Chosen People in America: A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology (1983), and Jonathan Sarna's American Judaism: A History (2004).
In 1974, Daniel Walden put together one of the first anthologies of contemporary American-Jewish writing. On Being Jewish: American Jewish Writers from Cahan to Bellow illuminates Walden's discussion of American-Jewish writing as obligated to narratives of immigration and acculturation. The anthology reflects a period in which the term "American-Jewish" writing was a triumphal designation, a narration of largely unchallenged success which was the significant literature of the American present. Roth, Malamud, and Bellow, major voices then and now, bespeak an American-Jewish identity. (Walden includes them in the book's last section, entitled "The American Jews, The Jewish Americans"). Confidently, Walden's "Introduction" asserts the congruence of Jews and Judaism. The Jewish writer's work often conveys a Jewish ethic. Following biblical imperative, even in the face of American secular culture, American-Jewish writers "still choose life."
In the same year, 1974, Abraham Chapman's Jewish-American Literature, An Anthology was published. His collection takes note of the tension between an American culture and the legacy of Hebrew Scripture. Within a secular American culture, the modern Jewish-American writer usually expresses the dignity of humanity, a central theme of the Prophets. American-Jewish literature resists an easy conformity with American culture; its unease marks its heritage and chance for creativity.
In his anthology Jewish American Stories (1977), Irving Howe finds regional literature a useful category in understanding Jewish-American literature. Arguing that "regional" can be used in a metaphorical way, Jewish American writers (who are indisputably American writers) derive the subjects of their work from the early neighborhoods of Jewish settlement, or the more affluent areas of upward and outward migration. In an almost Hegelian moment, Howe compares American-Jewish writing with that of Southern literature, both "subcultures" finding their "voice" when they approach "disintegration." The immigrant milieu offers both a usable past as well as characteristic problems: the search for an adequate way to preserve and order the past. Moreover, the American Jewish writer has access to those traditions and implications designated as "Jewishness." Calling this the "persuasion of distinctiveness," Howe finds it to be a "rich moral perspective." Yet, such distinctiveness is protean, felt as "urgency and need."
For Howe, the culture of Yiddish is threnody and theory: narratives of immigration are exhausted. Nonetheless, Howe wonders about the cultivation of a new sensibility, the "post-immigrant Jewish experience" which may inform younger writers. His World of Our Fathers funds this claim, exploring the cultural variousness and political convictions of the lower East Side's Jews. Clearly a secular rendition of Yidishkayt, the book presents the Jew entering modernity through the harshness of the laboring day, the promise of socialism, and the reality of rough and tumble American politics.
In his American Jewish Fiction: A Century of Stories (1998), Gerald Shapiro disputes Irving Howe's claim that the major narrative line of the American-Jewish experience has thinned. Rather, he finds that the perennial topics Jews have engaged with are still being posed: Jewish identity and its implications, notably the tension "between skepticism and belief …"
Ted Solotaroff and Nessa Rapoport's introductory essays to Writing Our Way Home (Schocken, 1992; republished as The Shocken Book of Contemporary Jewish Fiction in 1996) also contest Howe's lament. Writing Our Way Home identifies the acts that kept afloat Jewish life. The Yidishkayt of the immigrant became a presence in American literature by finding its place in "the dynamic of acculturation." This took place decades after the great East European migration to America. But equally important, Solotaroff and Rapoport's work illuminates a tradition coming into being: post-acculturation alternatives for Jewish life. Could not the modern Jewish imagination be nourished "as much by imagination as by memory?" The victory of the Six-Day War, the emergence of spoken Hebrew, the fervent identification of American Jews with Israel, the rise of exciting learning communities – all of these suggest a new, assertive American-Jewish life.
For Michael Lerner, the guiding figure of Tikkun, Jewish writing can be seen as healing, a redemption from injustice and the will to power of politics. In his Best Contemporary Jewish Writing (2001), Lerner writes that his selections emphasize works that suggest the healing "that our planet and our community so badly need." Lerner sees Jewish text affirming that we make our freedom, and can make this freedom for the betterment of our society. He appeals to Jewish mystical tradition, recounting the contraction of God and the effulgence of sacred light that shattered their vessels: holy fragments that "need repair." Our labor is to liberate these sparks, returning the Shekinah to our world As Lerner suggests, this can be translated into political, social, and personal terms.
The most comprehensive and spacious anthology to date is Jules Chametzky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein's Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology (2001). Situating itself in a multicultural American literary history, the anthology addresses the widening term "Jewish American literature" so that it "signifies an American literature that is Jewish." Setting Jewish literature within the development of American civilization makes much sense. Chronology reflects the phases of immigration, estrangement, acculturation, and critique. The Norton's last section, "Jews Translating Jews," though a small part of the book, shines light on how an American language – its style, its pace, what Whitman might term its voice en masse – absorbs the Jewish polylingual heritage. This section also reminds us of the Jewish dialogue with its own imagination, making its past enter the present.
The period from 1970 to the present had its major themes articulated by Malamud, Bellow, Ozick, and Philip Roth. Their literature has a broad descriptive trait which is best expressed as the claim of the ethical within and upon ordinary life. The oft-described quest for an American-Jewish identity becomes a search for the adequate, purposive community. This community can be made possible by text, tradition, or neighborhood. The works of these writers insist that dignity, justice, and compassion are ordinal virtues at the core of a desirable existence. For these authors, moral decision illuminates the contemporary situation but is not of it. It is akin to the Prophetic declamations about the just society. Moreover, the well-springs of the ethical life, to paraphrase Mosaic exhortation, are not hidden. Given the autonomy America offers the self, moral dereliction is an act of will. As Artur Sammler wearily puts it, "we know."
This ethical temperament is often described in earlier terms as a contest between what cultural historians, pace Arnold, have called Hellenism and Hebraism. In theme, these poles represent the civic culture of nations and the culture of the Covenant. Bellow describes the recoil from the sensual Byzantine city and its chaos. Ozick writes forthrightly about the Judaic strain of the novel, its ethical import, and a liturgical voice. Much of her fiction examines the boundaries enclosing the Jewish self. Malamud dramatizes the demand that one yield to a higher notion of selfhood than egoism. Roth envisions a community intent upon preserving a tradition of comportment, so much so, that an individual's turn against the mores and boundaries of American-Jewish culture undoes the self.
Several of their works form a "communalizing text," a representation of dominant themes that have been relevant to, and are still vibrant in American-Jewish literature. This large text is a colloquy exploring the social contract we make with civil society (its laws, its customs, its culture), and the covenant that we uphold with the Jewish ethic bespeaking the dignity of self. These multiple, rich, and often contradictory relationships take the form of explanation: an attempt to separate what is forbidden by the Covenant and what is permitted by modern society. Separation is presented in these exemplary works as the anxiety entailed by our making our selves discover a relationship to secular and sacred history. These encounters are not without awe. Such trepidation involves not simply the making of a self, but the willingness to live within a particular people and a pluralizing culture.
From 1970 onward, Mr. Sammler's Planet is the towering presence in American-Jewish writing and modern American literature as well. Bellow's later works, notably Humboldt's Gift (1975), The Dean's December (1982), and Ravelstein (2000), are deprived of a character whose history separates him from normalizing experience. Mr. Sammler's Planet 's cultural background is the idea of the city itself. American and European regionalist thinkers, from Patrick Geddes to Lewis Mumford, defend the city as concentrating human symbols and resources, allowing for creativity and the possibility of a balanced life. Cultural, social, and environmental assets can be cultivated and shared. The democratic city expresses the equanimity of the good life, countering the dangers posed by poverty, density, and injustice. This city is the aureate dream of civilization, and embraces Athens as well as Jerusalem.
Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) addresses what the city has become. The Holocaust, the rise of a technics shorn of moral evaluation, and a democracy deprived of thoughtfulness give the novel its chance for judgment. Sammler's New York ingathers these. Bellow turns away from the eponymous adventurers of The Adventures of Augie March (1953), and Henderson the Rain King (1959), presenting Sammler, a man whose experience has been refined so that his action is judgment. Sammler is a collector of selves and of identities. No stranger to mass murder as well as intellectual society, his character easily moves amongst urban communities: the would-be students, speculators, the criminal, the deranged, urbane intellectuals, and his own family. A well-born Polish Jew; a journalist who knew H.G. Wells; a thinker drawn to a utopian project to regulate social life; and a Holocaust survivor, Sammler is blind in one eye. When the novel begins, he is living in Manhattan on the pension provided by a distant relative, Dr. Elya Gruner.
The novel's characters are people whose lives are truncated, either by history or dereliction. They celebrate their personal liabilities. As Sammler understands them, they are oblivious to the implicit moral "contract" that makes society just. The obligations to the "contract," as Sammler poses it, are obligations to ethical order and satisfaction, making the attainable – if not the good – life possible. Conduct is not justified by sentiment, but by consciousness of what is good for both self and others. His claim takes us back to rabbinic dictum: "the rest is commentary. Go and learn it."
A novel confronting the romantics of violence, and the imperatives of the ethical self, Mr. Sammler's Planet does not propose how we know the good: we simply know it. In Sammler's case, this world-weary knowledge is the recoil from untrammeled individuality, from mass movements that are based on rationales, not rationality, and from the fables of modern autonomy. A survivor who literally lived in a tomb, Sammler is resurrected in a world uncomprehending of the traditions of language, and of "high ceiling" thought. New York has become a society without an intellectual framework that makes room for moral judgment. Sammler possesses the authority of survival almost extinguished by barbarism. He is enabled to ask how we should live, not how we live. Sammler's task is to assess, to demand, and to pronounce. The company Sammler keeps has to be disenchanted of its banality. Easy explanations, the novel's massive collecting of nonchalant behavior, have to be traced to the myths for keeping them.
The novel's plot is architectural; layers imbricating layers. Images of the sea, of pipes bursting, of an aneurism, and of a reservoir punctuate the novel. They are offset by images of height: the moon, an airplane scraping a house and long-distance flight. They suggest the human desire to live in other places, to escape the limiting conditions of location, history, and mortality. As a result, the novel presents us with human boundaries and their crossings.
Sammler recoils from a city of crime and theatrical selves. As he traverses Manhattan by bus, the city becomes a modern theater. Individuals adopt historical costumes and roles: the bohemian, the hippie, the prince, the sexually provocative, and the deranged. His bus route to the library is also that of an African American pickpocket, elegantly dressed. Later, he confronts Sammler, pushing him against a wall, and exposing himself.
Beginning his meditations upon the contained as well as limitless self, Sammler reads the Bible and Meister Eckhart. Eckhart's writing on the purification of individuality as well as biblical ethical injunction are clues to Sammler's recoil from the contemporary city. His conversation with Professor V. Govinda Lal, a biophysicist, is a plea for a renewed humanism. Lal's manuscript, "The Future of the Moon," has come into Sammler's possession. Their talk is built upon Sammler's defense of the necessary, ordered society, and Lal's vision of a lunar colony, an escape from the density of an ever-growing population and human limits. For Sammler, philosophy is grounded, literally and metaphorically. There can be no flight from the human condition or human betterment. On the one hand, H.G. Wells (whom Sammler knew from his days in London, and about whom Sammler is rumored to be writing a book) provides a point of critical departure. An explainer, a believer in mass education, Wells refused to abandon the high role of education in a mass society. On the other hand, modern culture witnesses a call to "noble actions" on the part of those who can least understand what this demands. Sammler's fear of disorder is his trembling before murder.
Lal's version of the planned society takes place on the moon. It is a metonym for the unbinding of man from humanistic tradition: a flight from the bounded. Philosophically interesting, it is a technological fugue that is captivating as well as implicative. For an American reader, Lal's proposals summon up Henry Adams' speculations about the age of ether, Lewis Mumford's discussions of unbridled technics, and Paul Goodman's understanding of the depersonalizing society. For Sammler, Lal's advocacy of the order of technics leads to the demolition of the species.
By the novel's end, the imagery Bellow has drawn becomes a tight knot: Elya's aneurism in the brain bursts. His feckless son has pulled the pipes apart of Elya's house, looking for hidden money. Sammler's former son-in-law, another survivor, Eisen, comes to America to interest people in his grotesque, pyrite "medallions," bearing the word "Hazak." As New Yorkers merely watch, Eisen slams the pickpocket in the head with his medallions. Though called a lunatic, Eisen acts and justly so. In the last scene. as Sammler sees Elya's body, he understands that Elya has met the terms of his contract. And, as Sammler concludes, we know those terms.
During this period, Malamud's works reveal the Jewish self as metaphorically all selves and as hapless as all humanity. For Malamud, Jewish history preserves if not the, at least a moral imagination. In an interview with Shlomo Kidrin in 1968 ("Malamud Explains Jewish Contribution to U.S. Writing," reprinted in Conversations with Bernard Malamud, ed. Lawrence Lasher, 1991), Malamud pointed out that he envisioned the Jew as a metaphor for "'universal man.'" For "'every man is a Jew'" even if he is unaware of this.
In Malamud's fiction, empathy and compassion are shown by the powerless because the powerful have lost this humanly defining response. They refuse or are unable to accept a common life. While hardly mandated by Jewish law, concern for others at the expense of self becomes authorized as a recognition that we are bound to others as we are bound to our notion of our best selves. "But if I am for myself only," Hillel asks in Pirkei Avot, "what am I?" An encounter with God becomes the daily encounter with an unfinished self and society.
Arguably his best work, Dubin's Lives (1979) deals with the quarrel between art and the ordered life: the opposition rendered as the struggle between Hellenism and Hebraism. The knowing of terms is Sammler's pathos. For Malamud's Dubin, action itself is unsettling, destabilizing his notion of himself. In terms of the novel, Dubin's character remains a theory read in the light of experience. Malamud depicts Dubin's limited abilities to live within the poetics of Hellenism, to nurture the instincts that D.H. Lawrence praised as authoritative and liberating.
Dubin is a middle-aged man, an eminent biographer, living in a now loveless marriage. While working on his Passion of D.H. Lawrence, he is swept by desire for the young Fanny Bick, whom he thinks of as "Venus revived." Of course, passion's ambiguity – need as well as desire – serves the book well. Dubin is helpless before his procreant urge. His pathos is his struggle to hold his idea of himself to account, and yet, to know that he will be tormented by its constraints: fidelity, honesty, and clarity. Dubin's life is Hebraic pain, as Emma Lazarus so aptly termed it: the Jew's abject bow before the culture of Hellas.
As Dubin hopefully enters this liaison, replete with humiliation and deception, he is reminded that he is now living Lawrence's myth of the natural self. Lying with Fanny in her New York apartment, he thinks he comprehends what Lawrence has meant by his celebration of paganism. Nevertheless, Malamud will not grant Dubin an easeful sensuality. Looking out the bedroom window, he sees a Jew praying in a synagogue. Dismissing the idea of a God ever listening to humanity, Dubin wonders, wistfully, whom should he pray for?
The image of a people apart claims him. Whereas Malamud ignores the Hebraic celebration of sexuality, he does not diminish the antisemitic notion of the Jew as an intruder within nature. Jogging along a road near his rural home, a farmer on horseback comes alongside him. Pointing to tractors bulldozing trees, the farmer shrilly raises the notion of deicide. The Jews, the farmer declaims, are "crucifyin'" the land. The spectral Lawrence confronts Dubin, hectoring him that his Jewish mind opposes "the active Male Principle." The Jew fears "primal impulses."
Malamud's struggle for the novel's ending is his labor for equipoise between Hebraism and Hellenism. On the crest of a renewed youthfulness, Dubin had declaimed that he wanted all of life. This Faustian wish is granted. Comforting his daughter who believes that Zen will bring her serenity, he argues that Jews do not withdraw from the world. In the last scene, Dubin, who now all too chaotically lives in the world, rushes from mistress to wife, holding his "half-stiffened phallus … for his wife with love." Even given the clumsiness of this ending, there is a victory over irresoluteness. The triumph is not Dubin's, though it is of his making. Fanny has been encouraged by him to fashion a purposeful life.
In her "Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means" (found in Art & Ardor), Cynthia Ozick accentuates the claim that literature "is the moral life." Repelled by the notion that one could abandon moral judgment in art, that one could wrest art away from its all-too-real address of the human situation, she argues that those who assert that the moral sense in art is irrelevant are part of the Hellenic legacy. Writers under the influence of Hellas invariably lead to Hellas. Ozick's "Preface" to Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976) enhances these claims. "Usurpation (Other People's Stories)" invokes what Ozick calls the "dread of imagination." As Ozick puts it, "Usurpation" militates against Apollo. The story counters "magic and mystification" because the drive to create stories can lead to the worshipping of idols, to adoring the "magical event." (A good companion piece is Heine's "The Greek Gods.") However, Ozick wonders if the urge to write stories is another form of idolization.
From "The Pagan Rabbi" (found in the accessible The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, 1971) through "Usurpation (Other People's Stories)" to The Cannibal Galaxy (1983) through The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) and to her Heir to the Glimmering World (2004), Ozick embroiders this theme, She poses the American-Jewish writer's dilemma: what can be heard both within and outside what Ozick has called the liturgical voice of Jewish writing? Saul *Tchernichowsky, and his poem about obeisance to Hellas, "Before the Statue of Apollo," haunt Ozick's work. Her fiction suggests that if Jewish writers accept the heritage of abomination, reading their own lives within gentile myth, they worship the forbidden on its own terms. As she puts it in Bloodshed and Three Novellas, the Canaanite idols will speak of such a writer "in the language of the spheres, kike."
Her Heir to the Glimmering World (2004) strongly defends the tradition of Jewish commentary that is an unfolding address to creation and Covenant. Such meditation is also a renewal of the human. The novel encloses fables of identity within each other, asking what acts of interpretation and enhancement sustain self and community. Told through the eyes of a young woman, Rose, the book takes two figures – the Bear Boy and Professor Mitwisser – as examples of Karaitism. Ozick's deployment of *Karaites in both historical and literary usages suggests its boundaries. In her "Toward a New Yiddish," she contends that the New Critics are "Christian Karaites," extracting the text from the richness of human circumstance, and hence making it an idol. In "Innovation and Redemption," she marks the Karaites as those who would obey the strict letter without accepting its halo of meaning.
At the novel's center are James A'Bair (known as Bear Boy, called so after being the model for his father's illustrated children's books) and Prof. Mitwisser, a scholar of Karaitism. Both seek a return (the latter in text; the former, in self) to an original state of being, free of elaboration by others. Called a Karaite by Mrs. Mitwisser, James (who is Mitwisser's patron) wants to throw off his identity as Bear Boy. He wants to fashion anew his own individuality by acts of self-will. He ends as a suicide, the classic argument for self-determination. Pursuing the meaning of a fragment by al-*Kirkisani, a Karaite writer, Mitwisser, discovers this figure is a unique theological rebel. As Mitwisser argues, al-Kirkisani "receives, in order to refuse." Mitwisser understands that he has comprehended al-Kirkisani's grand renunciation, a descent into a depth in which, finally there is only the authentic divinity, a God "who disbelieves in man." This God is God "the heretic." Mitwisser's claim, though, may well be untenable. His work and conclusions, returning to an unelaborated tradition, an ever-present moment of the new, have been too hasty.
More so than any other American-Jewish writer, Philip Roth's work encompasses the history of contemporary America. His last novels, those narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, depict an America that remains, in spite of its contradictory promises of freedom, a nation in which Jews can determine their identities. Set against this freedom is the stabilizing norm of American myth: the pastoral as possessed by the American consciousness. This pastoral is offered through images and dreams that ennoble, even in tragic defeat, Roth's characters. An "arcadian mountain," a farmhouse, a lake, a life of abundance and achieved repose – these constitute an American myth of imagined completeness. As Roth well makes clear, this cluster of images and ideas, delusory or not, holds chaos at bay.
Roth's America (of American Pastoral, 1997; I Married a Communist, 1998; and The Human Stain, 2000) reveals the broken self, one bereft of the adequate, morally informing community. His works offer a reading of the fables of American culture lauding autonomy, eradication of the past, and the planned life. Even so, these novels catalogue private and public injustices that the spirit cannot heal: murder, betrayal, malevolence, slander, and gossip.
Roth's gift for discerning the large drift of American mores, its claims for an invented self, describes both the comic and tragic art of these works. The endings of these novels are caustic, setting the tragic undoing of individuals by their own wishes, within an indifferent nature. Foreground and background no longer comport. The self 's putative grandeur has long been diminished. The pastoral images suffusing his novels belittle the passions animating his characters. His self-confident American Jews survive only by a creative deception: assurance. Neither good intentions nor communal traditions stay their pathos. In fact, their Judaism is civic and thin. It is a fidelity to the lessons of democracy learned from hardworking parents, from neighborhoods, and schools – all of which evoke the poignancy of youthful beliefs still informing the present.
In these three novels, an older Nathan Zuckerman bears witness. He records the fates of those whose acculturation is ironic and bitter. His sensibilities and frailties (variously, cancer, a by-pass operation, and deliberate seclusion near Athena College) shape his narrations. In turn, these traits fund his ideas of the self and history. The reader is never far from Nathan's New Jersey childhood and the work-ethic of the Jewish families he knew. His own limitations are strengths. He admits that writing is revealing and concealing. As a result, he discovers himself while he is compelled to write about lives that have been unimaginable to him. (The most salient analogue in American letters is Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, in which Quentin and Shreve invent Southern history, shredding its empirical nature to lay bare its fables of race and identity.)
Nathan reminds the reader that the novelist always gets it wrong. As he puts it, he is given to dream a realistic chronicle. His narrations, though, are far from this. They question his own sense of self, so much so that he is forced to change his life. He, and those whose lives he imagines he has reconstructed, discover that the past can neither be betrayed nor buried. As I Married A Communist's Murray Ringold puts it, quoting Shakespeare, "'And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.'"
Nathan invokes Greek tragedy and Shakespearean drama; he echoes Fitzgerald and Faulkner; he is never far from Turgenev and Tolstoy, pushing his work into the great narrative of human failing, attendant upon success and arrogance. Nathan strains to find the majesty of failure within the seeming normalcy of lives: lives which cannot bear the gravity of such tragedy until they represent a summa and summation of what we recognize as an American character. The endings of his novels are less resolutions than they are commentaries about a civilization opposing the soft pastoral to its intent: the present cannot sustain myth. The pastoral now judges human incompleteness. In Nathan's understanding, it is the human stain that we must accept.
Roth's American Pastoral has as companion pieces both the novels of Russian moral realism and those classics of literature that speak directly to the ironies of naiveté: Tolstoy and Fitzgerald come easily to mind. For Nathan, the pull of his Jewish past unprepares him for the astonishing present. Nathan's idea of his childhood separates obligation from indulgence. The place of his boyish years was marked by industriousness, he remembers. "The goal was to have goals…."
The novel's protagonist, Seymour "Swede" Levov, a man without wit or irony as Nathan points out, enacts his understanding of America. A high school hero (Nathan calls Swede "the household Apollo" of the community's Jews), and a former Marine, he is raised on the virtues of responsibility and rationality. His self-imposed civic obligations and his concern for his family's glove manufacturing business make him stay in Newark, a city ruined by crime and riots.
The Swede has moved away, literally and communally, from the Jewish past of his father, and the Jews of his neighborhood. He marries a gentile, former Miss New Jersey and buys a farmhouse in the countryside, Old Rimrock, where his wife breeds cattle. American culture is both his charmed pastoral, and his destruction. His, and America's, dreams of insulation from violence by means of affluence, distance, and cultural myth are porous. His daughter, Merry, is responsible for the bombing of a local general store and post-office, killing one person. Fleeing her home, she is passed along a radical underground railway, aided in her flight, at first, by friends of the Swede. She becomes the nightmare of America's choice. She matures. She becomes expert at bomb-making, and later kills other people. Finally, starving herself and incapable of recognizing the horror of her crimes, she meets with her father, telling him she has become a Jain.
The last blow that the Swede takes is at a dinner party in his house. He realizes his wife is having an affair; that his daughter can no longer be defined as a sweet, gentle child manipulated by radicals, and that Merry's therapist and the therapist's husband have sheltered the child after the first bombing, leaving him in anguished ignorance of his daughter's whereabouts. At the same time, his father leaves the table, trying to coax a drunk, mentally ill woman to eat. She stabs him close to the eye. At the end of this chaos, a dinner guest sarcastically laughs at the fragility of seemingly "robust things." Roth's last lines – how sarcastically Olympian – ask what could be wrong with them? "What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?"
The novel takes unredeemable action as its center. Its Job-like litany of disease and death, success and affliction are built upon Nathan's recollection of one of the Swede's childhood books, The Kid from Tomkinsville. This book is a counter-narrative of American promise. The book is spun around baseball, yet in the book every success is met with disappointment and "accident." At one point, Nathan considers entitling his own account of the Swede as The Kid from Keer Avenue.
American Pastoral explores the stabilizing myths of the older generation of its Jews. It also depicts unforeseen consequences: the fables of revolution that children such as Merry use to define American history and social justice. An illuminating, elementary morality is destroyed within civic life. Yet the Swede is also morally sightless. At the dinner party, the Swede believes that Merry has opened his eyes; she has made him see. He is, however, no blind seer. He is only someone who understands his own self-deceptions as well as those of others. American Pastoral becomes an elegy for Nathan's and the Swede's youth. Nathan's grasp of his own mortality, and the Swede's death from cancer address the mortal heritage: the self 's fate is particular. It cannot be determined.
I Married a Communist carries on the grand theme of social realism: a protagonist who is undone by willed self-ignorance. The novel depicts the career of Ira Ringold who has tried to prevent his past from engulfing man. His education is crisis, as well as a dogmatic Communist Party reading of crisis. The theme of what sort of education can America provide is a durable one, and finds its great examples in Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Farrell's Studs Lonigan, and Wright's Native Son. With Roth's novel, the American Jew enters again this pedagogy of insincerity.
Ira's life is a series of duplicities. A Communist who is exposed by a conniving gossip columnist and politician; a youthful murderer on the run; a radio actor married to Eve Frame, a Jewish antisemite; a husband beset by Eve's tyrannical daughter, Sylphid – these are the shards of Ira's life. His marriage and desire for a family are shields. They protect him from his childhood, his violent anger and huac.
Ira, and his well-intentioned brother, Murray, a highschool English teacher, represent American-Jewish types. For Murray, education is an education in the culture of democracy. He succeeds because he thinks America nourishes a liberalizing culture of reason and opportunity. Ira also succeeds; his path away from the past is the Party. Yet both fail: Murray's wife is killed, in part, because of his liberal good will. Ira's understanding of others and himself is destroyed by ideology. Murray Ringold's pronouncement about his brother is final and decisive: "He never discovered his life." His judgment upon himself is just as bitter: the myth of his own goodness was his "final delusion." Nathan, who has listened to Murray's story for six nights, later looks at the heavens. They are part of a universe without conflict, fixed by no human machination. "The stars," he reflects, "are indispensable."
Nathan appears again in The Human Stain. The title's allusion is multiple, referring to the infamous stain on Lewinsky's dress, the imperfection of being human, and the stain of skin color. Its protagonist is Coleman Silk, an African American, who decides as a young man that he could pass the color line. And he does. His journey from his East Orange, New Jersey past to his professorship in the classics at Athena college, is a bargain made to protect what Nathan calls "the elaborate clockwork" of his life. Coleman has broken with his mother, and siblings, invented himself as a Russian Jew, and has married Iris Gittelman.
His life is undone because of political incorrectness. "Do they exist or are they spooks?" he asks his class about two missing students. "Spooks" is the word that undoes him. The two students are black. Silk is accused of racism. He is undefended and shunned by his colleagues. He is also victimized by a parody of the academic woman, Delphine Roux, who presents herself as a French "depaysee" professor, stranded at Athena College, and persecuted by Coleman. Sending a letter that is meant to intimidate Coleman, revealing his affair with Faunia, a seemingly illiterate woman, who works as a janitor, Delphine begins by writing "Everyone knows…."
This phrase resounds in Nathan's narrative: it is banal, reducing the complexity of life to malicious gossip. For what "everyone knows" opposes the revelation of the novel. Nathan opens up what had been seen as the simple arrogance and stubbornness of Coleman's life. Nathan enfolds the timeworn American fable of self-invention within the pattern of tragedy. Yet, as Nathan has mentioned elsewhere, literature depends upon particularity, upon the authenticity and uniqueness of character. His strategy, as always, recreates the painful moments when the self is recalled to its past, when its vaunting sense of individuality is caught by the furies that are the haunting of the past. Coleman's pedagogy speaks to his life – and to Nathan's art: the rage of Achilles, the Greek gods' quarrels, the cruelty exposing the human stain. Coleman's grandeur is his refusal to abandon his calibrated life. His refusal is also his fate.
Nathan's meditation on Coleman's life becomes Roth's dialogue with classical literature. Hellenism and Hebraism confront one another: can Hebraism be usurped or even adopted in order to judge as well as present Hellenism? The book's epigraph about blood expiation is taken from Oedipus Rex, bespeaking both an identity and a destiny that are interwoven. Roth easily leads the reader to one of Coleman's lectures, as Nathan reconstructs it. In a course dealing with heroes, gods, and myths, Coleman ironically encapsulates the crisis of his life and the recurrent despair of the epic hero. There is no repose for the Greek warrior, for The Iliad 's opening lines, Coleman declaims, provide European literature with its origin. The rage of Achilles, Coleman points out, is like "a barroom brawl." Faunia's ex-husband is Nathan's Americanization of the Greek warrior. Les Farley is a Viet Nam veteran, at the mercy of trauma and rage. He is cunning, stalking Faunia and Coleman, and, Nathan believes, later forces their car off a road so that they are killed.
To borrow Arendt's now classic phrase, Nathan confronts the banality of evil. For Nathan, it is a leave-taking. His romantic indulgence of the solitudinous life is over. The novel ends with Nathan looking at Les Farley who is ice fishing. Nathan calls the scene "pure and peaceful," a man fishing alone on an "arcadian mountain." It is a vision particularly fitting. It calls for, as Nathan himself has called for, an end to a deception so enormous and with such entitlement that America can no longer be looked upon as a civilization commensurate with unconstrained dreams.
[Lewis Fried (2nd ed.)]
Jewish-American poetry since 1970 has come into its own. A relative late-bloomer compared to Jewish-American drama and prose fiction, this genre has virtually exploded in the past 35 years, producing a rich and diverse body of work representing nearly all aspects of Jewish life and thought in the United States. The earlier 20th century witnessed the publication of a number of important Jewish poems, such as Louis *Zukofsky's Poem Beginning "The" (1928) and "A"-12 (1950–51), and Allen *Ginsberg's Kaddish (1961). It was also the period during which Charles *Reznikoff (1894–1976), the one major American poet who wrote consistently about Jewish experience, produced nearly all his work. By contrast, the post-1970 period encompasses much of the careers of a number of important poets for whom Jewish experience is fundamental to their writing in terms of both form and content. We also see an increasingly serious engagement not only with Jewish-American daily life, but, perhaps even more importantly, with traditional Jewish texts and textuality, and with Jewish philosophy, religious practice, ritual and belief.
As is true of other literary genres and the arts in general, a widening and deepening of what it means to be Jewish in America marks the poetry of recent times. Never an "immigrant" or "ethnic" literature to the same extent as Jewish-American fiction, Jewish-American poetry at its most profound addresses longstanding concerns of the Jewish worldview that are, in effect, reconceived through American history and culture. Then again, this recent work cannot be truly understood and appreciated without taking important trends and schools in modern American poetry into account; thus Jewish-American poetry must be recognized as a peculiar fold in a set of American literary and cultural concerns that have roots extending at least as far back as early-20th century modernism. This is especially true in regard to matters of style and form: the traditional English versification of a "Jewish" poem by Anthony Hecht or John Hollander is a far cry from the avant-garde practices shaping an equally "Jewish" poem by Jerome Rothenberg or Charles Bernstein. Because American poetry of the last 30 years has been marked by vigorous debate – if not outright conflict – in regard to issues of style, voice, personal and group identity, canon formation, and cultural institutionalization, we must acknowledge at the outset that recent Jewish-American poets have both shaped and been shaped by concerns that extend well beyond Jewishness per se.
This is clearly the case for those figures who have also made significant contributions to the poetics of Jewish-American poetry. The first of these poet-critics whom we will consider is Allen *Grossman (1932–). Grossman's engagement with Judaism dates from his first collection of poems, A Harlot's Hire (1961) and remains constant throughout his career. Deeply influenced by the Anglo-American Romantic tradition (his first critical study was on Yeats, and he has written distinguished essays on Whitman and Crane), Grossman acknowledges himself to be "a high-style writer," since "The high style is the style of high hope." Using elevated rhetoric, cunning irony, and phantasmagoric imagery, Grossman synthesizes the Romantic sublime with Jewish psalmic utterance and a weirdly deadpan, midwestern American humor; the result is one of the most unique voices in American poetry of the last 50 years. Thus in "The Song of the Lord," the poet announces that "The voice of the Lord opens the gates of day," while in "How to do things with tears," he affirms that "In thy springs, O Zion, are the water wheels / of my mind!" At the same time, however, Grossman raises doubts about the relationship of Jewish belief to the poetic imagination. As he declares in "Out of the Blue," "The meaning of the world / Is being made in defiance of the Jew."
What Grossman means by this enigmatic statement – along with many others in his passionately propaedeutic and dialogical poems – can only be understood in relation to the "long schoolroom" (the phrase comes from Yeats' "Among School Children") that constitutes the body of his writings on poetics, gathered in The Sighted Singer (1992) and The Long Schoolroom: Lesson in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle (1997). The latter is particularly important for Jewish poetry, for it contains his early, penetrating review of Ginsberg's Kaddish, his article on "Holiness," originally written for the collection Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, and above all, "Jewish Poetry Considered as a Theophoric Project," arguably one of the most profound essays ever written on poetry and the Jewish literary imagination. The argument of this essay is too complex to be rehearsed here, but Grossman's self-consciously problematic idea of Jewish poetry as "theophoric," i.e. "God-bearing," and dedicated to a "culture of holiness," actually stands in partial opposition to poetic creation as it is conventionally understood. For Grossman, "the Jew's one word (the Jew's poem of which I write) does not 'create', for that would be redundant, but repeats the one word [God's Word, the Word of Holiness and Presence] that is." Be that as it may, Grossman still concludes that the Jewish poet, dedicated to God's Presence, the Shechinah, "has an obligation to construct the place where 'Light and Law are manifest', to which the nations may come because it is where they are."
The Jewish invocation of the Shekhinah and its concomitant call to the nations lead us to a second highly influential figure in recent Jewish-American poetry, Jerome Rothenberg (1931–). A leading figure in the ethnopoetics movement, Rothenberg is a prolific poet, translator and anthologist whose influential work synthesizes the anthropological study of "primitive" cultures with the experimental practices of American and European modernism. Rothenberg sees in the Jews a "primal people," and understands Jewish culture, back to its most archaic origins, as sharing with other tribal cultures a power of poesis or imaginative making: "magic, myth, & dream; earth, nature, orgy, love; the female presence the Jewish poets named Shekinah." This quote comes from the "Pre-Face" to Rothenberg's A Big Jewish Book (1978; republished in a shorter version as Exiled in the Word, 1989), co-edited with the translator Harris Lenowitz. Constructed along the lines of his other ethnographically-inspired literary anthologies, A Big Jewish Book juxtaposes modern and traditional texts, orthodox and heretical, religious and secular, to present an immense collage of Jewish poesis, understood as "an inherently impure activity of individuals creating reality from all conditions & influences at hand." For Grossman, the Shekhinah represents the unique, monological nature of a Jewish poetry of presence, whereas for Rothenberg, the Shekhinah as Jewish muse links the Jews to all other peoples through the universality of poetic activity.
The "inherently impure activity" of Jewish poesis is nowhere more in evidence than in Rothenberg's Poland/1931 (1974). Described by the poet as "an experimental attempt to explore, and recover, ancestral sources in the world of Jewish mystics, thieves, and madmen," this "supreme Yiddish surrealist vaudeville" is both an exercise in deep parody of Jewish ritual and textual practices and an altogether serious enactment of a "timeless" ancestral world. Beginning in a mythic Jewish Poland (which owes a great deal to the fiction of I.B. Singer), the book progresses through the immigration to America of the primal Jewish couples, Esther K. and Leo Levi, to culminate in the outrageous sexual conquest of the American west in the final poem, "Cokboy." Yet Rothenberg's vision of Jewish life is not altogether comic: Khurbn & Other Poems (1989) presents a wrenchingly bleak but equally uncanny vision of the Holocaust in Poland, based on the poet's visit to the town from which his parents emigrated in 1920, just twenty miles from Treblinka. Gematria (1994), perhaps Rothenberg's boldest experiment in Jewish poetry, reworks into English the traditional interpretive system based on the numerological equivalents of the Hebrew alphabet, producing brief, exquisite poems that read like dictated portents inscribed by one of the ancient Jewish kabbalists that this postmodern poet continually invokes.
Kabbalah is also at the heart of Spectral Emanations (1978), John *Hollander's greatest achievement in Jewish poetry, though this elegant craftsman has written many other lyrics and sequences drawing on Jewish tradition and history. Hollander (1929–) has also distinguished himself as a critic of English poetry, and his own work bears the mark of a poet who has immersed himself in the formal values of that tradition. Measured, witty, and full of elegant word play, it nonetheless rises often to the level of the sublime, and nowhere more frequently than in Spectral Emanations. Structured according to the colors of the spectrum, with a text for each color, the poem also purports to be a quest for the lost Menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem, carried off by the Romans when they destroyed the city in 70 c.e. Yet it is also an unfolding vision of God's Presence through the figure of the Shekinah, who appears in various guises throughout, and an attempt at tikkun, or mystical restoration of the vessels that contain the supernal lights of the godhead in kabbalistic myth.
Like all of Hollander's Jewish poems, Spectral Emanations reflects the poet's observation, in his essay "The Question of American Jewish Poetry" (1988), "that the American Jewish poet can be either blessed or cursed by whatever knowledge he or she has of Jewish history and tradition." Though his knowledge proves a blessing, Hollander also warns that "Literalness is the death of the poetic imagination, and all groups in the cultural community that speak for Jewishness will always be very literal about 'Jewish experience' is, as will all groups that want to speak for 'American experience.'" Thus Hollander, like nearly all Jewish American poets, refuses to recognize any religious or cultural authority when it comes to the use of Jewish materials by the literary imagination.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of the feminist poet and critic Alicia Ostriker (1937–). Vigorous, forthright, passionate and engaged, Ostriker's poetry casts a wide net in regard to Jewish matters: she writes about Jewish-American family life, about the Holocaust, about religious ritual, and most especially, about the Hebrew scriptures. One of the most ambitious midrashists among Jewish-American poets, Ostriker returns again and again to biblical tales and figures, probing, revising, turning and transforming the tradition in the light of her sharply critical but deeply humane social and political commitments. Perhaps her boldest venture into midrash is The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (1994), in which poetry and prose, narrative and hermeneutic, personal reflection and scholarly exegesis are combined in a remarkably comprehensive reconsideration of nearly all the major tales and figures in the Torah. Concentrating on the nature of fatherhood and the tensions of gender relations in these familiar texts, Ostriker deconstructs patriarchal power, opening a space for "the return of the mothers." But in no sense does she dismiss or seek to dispense with the unpredictable God of the Fathers and his all too human patriarchs. An enlightened, modern rationalist, Ostriker, for all her passionate revisionism, insists on the notion of progress in Jewish history. For her, the original weight of Sinai dropped and upon Moses and the Israelites gradually lessens over the course of time: ironically, Jewish accomplishment, from those of King David to those of Maimonides to those of Kafka, Chagall, and Heifetz, lead her to "suppose that the mass of Sinai has decreased by the weight of a sparrow. Let it be pronounced we are making excellent progress. We are making history."
Such persistent tribal connections continue to reshape recent Jewish American poetry and poetics – or as Michael Heller puts it in his crucial poem "For Uncle Nat," "Not to make / Too much of it, but I know history / Stamps and restamps the Jew; our ways / Are rife with only momentary deliverance." In addition to a significant body of poems, many of them engaged not only with his own sense of identity but with the historical and philosophical dimensions of modern Jewish life, Heller (1937–) is also the author of Living Root (2000), a brilliant memoir which braids together Heller's family history, his early poetic development, midrashic commentary on his own poems, and more abstract, virtually kabbalistic considerations of language and being. Heller becomes, in effect, one of his own best critics, maintaining a striking sense of rigor and objectivity while at the same time gracefully illuminating his poems from within. Ranging from "Bialystock Stanzas," a meditation on photographs of his ancestral hometown in Poland destroyed in the Holocaust, to "The American Jewish Clock," a mordant consideration of the passage of generations in Jewish American life, to "Constellations of Waking," a stirring elegy on the suicide of Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish writer who has profoundly influenced Heller's work, the poems upon which Heller comments in Living Root constitute a remarkable tapestry of some of the most important moments of Jewish history and culture in the 20th century.
Heller is also a wide-ranging, exceptionally nuanced critic of modern and postmodern poetry. Conviction's Net of Branches (1985), the first full length study of the Objectivists, brings to light many of the ethical and linguistic concerns which make this largely Jewish group of poets one of the most important in 20th-century American literature. More recently, Heller's critical acumen has been confirmed with Uncertain Poetries (2005), a generous gathering of his essays, including pieces on George Oppen, Armand Schwerner, David Ignatow, and poetry of the Holocaust. The collection also includes "Diasporic Poetics," a definitive consideration on the Jewish dimension of Objectivist poetry which contains some of the most far-reaching remarks on the Jewish-American poetic sensibility. As Heller revisits his lifelong connection to this poetry, he concludes that "there is no such stable category as Jewishness…. What is religious, after all, are the very things that question the boundaries of our being, which enable a traverse of psychic chasms, of difference and otherness." Nevertheless, "From so much utilitarian secularity, one might derive a nontheological theology of language, as if to say: thank Whomever (ironically of course) or whatever has designed this world. For I find new languages daily; I find that not all is written out, and that therefore I too am allowed to speak and write."
What Heller identifies as the "utilitarian secularity" of modern, urban America, dialectically generating "a nontheological theology of language," may well serve as a paradigm for many recent Jewish-American poets, however different from each other they may be in terms of poetic style, as well as the particularities of their Jewish experience. Keeping in mind the extraordinary stylistic diversity of modern American poetry in general, it must also be stressed that many Jewish American poets address Jewish matters (be they cultural, historical, political, religious, or, as is most often the case, biographical) only intermittently, and in relation to their other themes and interests. One may cite a major figure such as Adrienne *Rich (1929–), for instance, who for much of her career hardly addresses Jewish matters at all. An icon of modern feminism, Rich's reputation is built on a complex, highly politicized body of poetry and prose in which issues of identity and shifting subject positions are continuously filtered through a resolute, passionate sense of self. Yet the ethical imperative that drives Rich's work forward is decidedly Jewish, and her search for justice, as in the earlier instance of Muriel Rukeyser, one of Rich's most important precursors, does indeed find expression in Jewish matters. A poem such "Yom Kippur 1984" (from Your Native Land, Your Life, 1986) begins with the resonant line "What is a Jew in solitude?" and explores the political and dilemmas of various marginalized social groups, rising to a prophetic intensity in its last lines, "when leviathan is endangered and Jonah becomes revenger."
The same ethical imperative and concern for the enlivening diversity of modern American culture can also be found in the work of Charles Bernstein (1950–), one of the leading figures of the Language poets, who has become one of the most widely-recognized and influential avant-garde literary groups of the last thirty years. Unlike Rich, whose political commitment is often expressed through a rhetoric of righteous biblical wrath, Bernstein's vision of community, related to what he calls "the civic practice of Jewishness," often manifests itself more obliquely. His poetry is typically marked by a sly, mockingly self-conscious verbal play, owing as much to Borscht Belt comedy and the monologues of Lenny Bruce as to his more firmly "poetic" precursors like Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky. As Bernstein puts it in "Poetry and/or the Sacred" (1999), "Against the priestly function of the poet or of poetry I propose the comic and bathetic, the awkward and railing: to be grounded horizontally in the social and not vertically in the ethers." Again, much of Bernstein's work is not explicitly engaged with Jewish matters; especially in the earlier part of his career, he adopts and furthers the defamiliarizing techniques of high modernism while developing a comic version of the "politics of the signifier" associated with postmodern literary theory. Yet Jewish cultural concerns are never remote from him. One of his best essays, "Reznikoff 's Nearness," carefully relates the earlier poet's Jewishness not only to his subject matter, but to the seriality and discontinuities of his poetic forms. As for an instance of Jewishness in Bernstein's own poetry, consider the poem "Solidarity Is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold" (1996), consisting entirely of a long list of possible poetic identities carried to absurd lengths ("I am a serial poet, a paratactic poet, a / disjunctive poet, a discombobulating poet / … I am a capitalist poet in Leningrad / and a socialist poet in St. Petersburg; / a bourgeois poet at Zabar's [the famous Manhattan deli]"). When the poem was reprinted in Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections (see below), Bernstein offered the following commentary: "But is it Jewish? / – I think, probably, maybe so / But it could also be not Jewish / – Exactly." For Bernstein then, as for so many other recent Jewish writers, the indeterminate and decentered nature of modern Jewish identity becomes, paradoxically, the ground on which a new sense of the self can be established.
The potential for comedy in the dilemmas of modern Jewish identity is nowhere more in evidence than in Chelmaxioms (1977), a booklength poem by Allen Mandelbaum (1926–). Mandelbaum, a translator noted for his magisterial versions of the Divine Comedy, the Aeneid, the Odyssey and the Metamorphoses, brings all his linguistic talents and breathtaking erudition (both classical and Jewish) to bear on this unique work, consisting of the "Maxims, Axioms, Maxioms of Chelm." For Mandelbaum, "Chelm is the Diaspora writ small, but nurtured in the narrow compass of its walls by the scoriae, residues, sediments of all the encounters of the Jew in exile." But this Chelm is not the well known "counterfeit, usurping Chelm of Yiddish folklore…so derivative of – so indebted for its humor to – early German lumpen humor." Rather, Mandelbaum claims to write of "the echt Chelm, the meandering Chelm of the maxioms, which follow the non sequiturs – yet arabesque – of talk of talk and talk of text, which mime the riverlike careers of the Oral Law and the Written Law but carry a cargo of alegalities." Inhabited by wandering tribes of scholars (legalists, spinozists, kabbalists, etc.), Mandelbaum's Chelm is a free-floating textual paradise forever remaining to be uncovered, layer after layer, like Schliemann's Troy. The poem is thus structured as a sequence of "Findings," and its maxioms, Mandelbaum suggests, constitute a virtual third redaction of the Talmud, following those of Jerusalem and Babylon. Inspired by "the Perfect Woman" (a.k.a. the Sabbath Queen or Shekhinah), the scholars of Chelm pass through the various gates of their city engaged in endless disputation, conveyed to us through Mandelbaum's elaborately rhymed lyrics and absurd but always elegant digressions, footnotes, and scoriae.
Mandelbaum's voice in Chelmaxioms is mediated by that of "the Hoarse Savant," an inspired pedant, a kabbalistic schlemiel who gathers the fragments of word and act and binds them into the semblance of a unified poem. He is a close relation to the "Scholar/Translator" through whom we receive the text of Armand Schwerner's long poem The Tablets (1999). This boldly experimental work, written over the course of thirty years, has been compared to such works as Charles Olson's Maximus Poems and Zukofsky's "A," but in its fascination with archaeology, ethnography, and the textually restorative powers of philology, it resembles the more overtly Jewish Chelmaxioms as well. A colleague of Rothenberg's in the ethnopoetics group, Schwerner (1927–1999) was also a translator, musician and performance artist, and like Rothenberg, Schwerner's interest in primitive and archaic cultures and their links to contemporary poetic practices is fundamental to The Tablets and his other poetry. Genealogically, The Tablets goes back further than any other exercise in ethnopoetics: it consists of a sequence of texts (mixing prose and poetry of various genres) that purports to be translations of Sumerian/Akkadian clay tablets more than four thousand years old. The "translations" and their commentaries come to us via Schwerner's "Scholar/Translator," an eccentric, perhaps even mad figure in constant dialogue with the voices of the archaic past, and much of the weird humor of the work arises from the discrepancies between the Scholar/Translator's observations and the materials he has managed to decipher with varying degrees of certainty. Appended to the poem is Schwerner's own "Tablets Journals / Divagations." These fragmentary observations, aphorisms, reflections and self-criticisms, many of them brilliantly insightful, further complicate the issues of commentary and of the transmission of scriptural traditions so fundamental to a Jewish understanding of textuality.
Thus, The Tablets, although neither ethnically nor historically "Jewish" in any overt fashion, is paradoxically one of the most important religious poems written by a Jew in recent years (though in all fairness, it should be noted that Schwerner, like a number of other prominent Jewish-American poets of his generation, such as Allen Ginsberg, was also a practicing Buddhist). For Schwerner, the poem in the process of uncovering – and making – reality, is simultaneously an act of sanctification and an interrogation of the sacred. The archaeological, linguistic, and paleographical methods of The Tablets lead us to reconsider some of our most reified assumptions about religious texts, scriptural canons, prophetic and priestly authority, and most importantly, the relation of the sacred to the profane. Positioned precisely in the space between ritual and scholarship, poetry and religion, Schwerner's masterpiece effectively deconstructs these polarities and reinstates the primacy of the linguistic imagination.
Given the radical degree to which The Tablets challenges what we have seen Michael Heller call any "stable category of Jewishness," Schwerner's work represents a limit case for Jewish-American poetry. Be that as it may, within these limits or categories, Jewish Americans of a number of generations continue to produce a richly varied body of work. The imminent publication of Harvey Shapiro's The Sights Along the Harbor: New and Collected Poems, for instance, marks the triumphant culmination of a career of over fifty years, which blends a Jewish search for "the Way" (halakah) with a sense of American openness and freedom that is also fully aware of the nation's political failures and historical disasters. Shapiro (1924–), who served as an Air Force gunner in World War ii and went on to a distinguished career in journalism (including an eight-year editorship of the New York Times Book Review), represents the richness of recent Jewish-American poetry as fully as any of his contemporaries. Shapiro starts out, like so many poets of his generation, as a formalist, though his style changes dramatically under the influence of the Objectivists, whom he met in New York City in the 1960s (he became particularly close to George Oppen). By then, he had already published Mountain, Fire, Thornbush (1961), one of the most vivid instances of (to use Allen Grossman's term) a "theophoric" poetry, a poetry that participates in Jewish thought and history without being limited to a particular vision of Jewish ethnicity, but rather returns to biblical and rabbinic origins in order to understand the power of the Law and the overriding demands of the Holy. The elaborate rhetoric of this book will gradually modulate, in Shapiro's later work, into a looser, more conversational free verse, a greater sense of Objectivist economy, and the edgy, streetwise sound. With an eye that rivals Reznikoff 's for urban detail, and a voice inflected with the rhythms of both the synagogue and the jazz club, Shapiro's poetry since the 1970s has become one of the best representatives of a New York Jewish style: wry, wise, restless and suffused with a sense of the blessedness of what he calls, to borrow the title of one of his books, "a day's portion."
In 2000, at the start of a new millennium, a book appeared that suggests, perhaps better than any other collection or anthology, the continuities and future of Jewish-American poetry. Edited by Jonathan N. Barron and Eric Murphy Selinger, Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections offers a broad but also in-depth introduction to the field. In addition to a number of important historical and cultural analyses, it includes individual poems by twenty-six poets, along with their commentaries on the poems. This unique feature provides, as it were, a snapshot of contemporary Jewish-American poetry. The poems deal with virtually every aspect of Jewish life and thought, from religious meditations to ethnic memories, from ancient visions to modern American scenes. They represent well known poets with established reputations (Gerald Stern, Anthony Hecht, C.K. Williams, Philip Levine, and a number of the poets already mentioned here) as well as poets in mid-career (Ammiel Alcalay, Jacqueline Osherow, Bob Perelman, Norman Finkelstein). The commentaries are scholarly, playful, anecdotal, ironic, sentimental, intimate, hermeneutical, devout, profane. They convince the reader that Jewish-American poetry will continue to thrive, reflecting the remarkable heterogeneity and braided traditions of the culture from which it comes.
[Norman Finkelstein (2nd ed.)]