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The Complex Fate of the Jewish-American Writer | The Nation

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The Complex Fate of the Jewish-American Writer

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As early as the 1960s,
influential critics argued that American Jewish writing no longer
counted as a distinct or viable literary project, for younger Jews
had grown so assimilated, so remote from traditional Jewish life,
that only nostalgia kept it going. Ted Solotaroff wrote some
exasperated pieces about young writers whose work already
seemed to him derivative--thin, tiresome, voguish, strained or
sentimental. Irving Howe and Robert Alter launched similar
complaints. I once heard the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld tell a
New York audience that Jewish writing was grounded in the Yiddish
culture and way of life that had flourished in Eastern Europe,
something that died with I.B. Singer in New York and S.Y. Agnon in
Israel. Gazing down benignly at an audience that included his good
friend Philip Roth and the novelist E.L. Doctorow, he said that while
there were certainly writers who happened to be Jews, there really
were no more Jewish writers.

Other observers have been
equally firm in anchoring American Jewish writing to the immigrant
experience, a point brought home by Irving Howe in a famous attack on
Philip Roth in Commentary in 1972. Howe saw Roth, whose first
book he had warmly acclaimed, as a writer with "a thin personal
culture," the kind of writer who "comes at the end of a tradition
which can no longer nourish his imagination" or one who simply has
"chosen to tear himself away from that tradition." Certainly there
was very little sense of history, Jewish or otherwise, in Roth's
finely crafted early fiction. Yet in the light of his humor, his
characters, his subjects and above all his later development, Roth
hardly stood outside the Jewish tradition; instead, he had a family
quarrel with the Jewish world that profoundly affected everything he
wrote. Yet Howe's charge struck home. A good deal of Roth's
subsequent writing can be seen as a rejoinder to Howe's wrongheaded
attack, which so rankled him that a decade later he wrote a furious
novel, The Anatomy Lesson, lampooning Howe as a hypocrite, a
pompous moralist and even, in a remarkable twist, a fast-talking
pornographer.

What was the core of the Jewish literary
tradition that Howe and Roth, two of its most gifted figures, could
come to such angry blows over it? I'll try to show how Jewish writing has changed--even
grown--and survived even the best-informed predictions of its demise.
The conflict between Roth and Howe was partly temperamental, but some
of it was generational. Howe was the product of the Yiddish-speaking
ghetto, of socialism and the Depression; Roth came of age in postwar
America, a world he would alternately satirize and recall with
nostalgia. There is a streak of the moralist, the puritan, in Howe's
criticism, while Roth took pride, especially when he wrote
Portnoy's Complaint, in playing the immoralist, or at least in
treating Jewish moral inhibitions as an ordeal, a source of conflict.
For Howe, as for writers of his generation like Bernard Malamud, this
moral burden was the essence of our humanity; for Roth it led to
neurosis, anger and dark, painful comedy.

It comes as a
surprise to realize that the major current of Jewish writing in
America dates only from the Second World War. Howe once compared the
Jewish and the Southern literary schools with a provocative comment:
"In both instances," he said, "a subculture finds its voice and its
passion at exactly the moment it approaches disintegration." But in
what sense was Jewish life in America approaching disintegration in
the first two decades after the war, when the best Jewish writers
emerged? What was dying, quite simply, was the vibrant immigrant
culture evoked by Howe in World of Our Fathers. After the war
Jews became freer, richer, more influential. As they moved up the
economic ladder, professions like academic life opened up to them
that had always been off-limits. Thanks largely to the sense of shame
induced by the Holocaust, social anti-Semitism in America became
virtually a thing of the past. Surely the great literary flowering
owed much to the way Jews in America had finally arrived, although
the writers were often critical of what their middle-class brethren
did with their freedom.

In any ethnic subculture, it's
almost never the immigrant generation that writes the books. The
immigrants don't have the language; their lives are focused on
survival, on gaining a foothold in the new world and insuring an
education for their children. That education not only makes
literature possible; it ignites a conflict of values that makes it
urgent and inevitable. The scattering of excellent novels by
individual writers before the war belongs less to a major literary
movement than to the process by which the children of immigrants
claimed their own identity. In powerful works of the 1920s and '30s
like Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, Mike Gold's Jews
Without Money
and Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, the writers
pay tribute to the struggles of their parents yet declare their
independence from what they see as their narrow and constricting
world. These works could be classed with Sherwood Anderson's
Winesburg, Ohio and Sinclair Lewis's Main Street as
part of what Carl Van Doren called the "revolt from the village," the
rebellion against local mores and patriarchal authority in the name
of a freer, more universal humanity.

Ironically, the
parochial world these writers rejected was the only authentic
material they had. Their painful memories of small-mindedness and
poverty, parental intolerance and religious coercion fueled their
imagination as nothing else could. In these works the driving impulse
of the sensitive, autobiographical protagonist--Sara Smolinsky in
Bread Givers, little Mike Gold in Jews Without Money,
the impetuous Ralph Berger, hungry for life, in Clifford Odets's play
Awake and Sing!, even young David Schearl in Call It
Sleep
--is to get away from the ghetto, with its physical
deprivation, its materialism and lack of privacy, its desperately
limited horizons, but also to get away from the suffocating embrace
of the Jewish family--the loving but overly emotional mother, the
domineering but ineffectual father and the inescapable crowd of
siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors, all completely
entwined in one another's lives. These works were a blow for freedom,
a highly ambivalent chronicle of emancipation and often, sadly, the
only books these writers could write. Their autonomy was hard-won but
incomplete; this new identity liberated them personally but did
little to fire their imagination.

Henry Roth once told me
that only when he began to depart from the facts of his life did his
novel begin to take on a life of its own; it went on almost to write
itself. In Beyond Despair, Aharon Appelfeld made the same
point to explain his preference for fiction over autobiography. It
gave him the freedom he needed to reshape his own recollections,
especially the wartime experiences that bordered on the incredible.
"To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory,
which is only a minor element in the creative process." The early
Jewish-American novelists were not so lucky. They were stuck not only
with what they remembered but with a naturalistic technique that
could not do full justice to their experience. Their escape from
their origins, never fully achieved, became a mixed blessing; they
found themselves caught between memory and imagination, ghetto
sociology and personal need. Mere rebellion and recollection, it
seemed, could not nurture a full career. Their literary development
was stymied. Only the postwar writers managed to break through this
sterile pattern.

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