The Complex Fate of the Jewish-American Writer

The Complex Fate of the Jewish-American Writer

The Complex Fate of the Jewish-American Writer


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.

Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Delmore Schwartz, Paul Goodman and their Yiddish cousin I.B. Singer were the first Jewish writers in America to sustain major careers, not as immigrant writers but in the mainstream of American letters. When modernism replaced naturalism as the dominant literary mode, as fresh influences like psychoanalysis and existentialism exploded the sociological approach of many prewar writers, a new generation found powerful new vehicles for dealing with its experience. Straightforward realism was never an option for Jewish writers in America; it belonged to those who knew their society from within, who had a bird’s-eye view, an easy grasp of its manners and values. As newcomers dealing with complex questions of identity, Jews instead became specialists in alienation who gravitated toward outrageous or poetic forms of humor, metaphor and parable–styles they helped establish in American writing after the war.

The key to the new writers was not only their exposure to the great modernists–Kafka, Mann, Henry James–but their purchase on Jews not simply as autobiographical figures in a social drama of rebellion and acculturation but as parables of the human condition. Though Saul Bellow admired the power of an authentic naturalist like Theodore Dreiser, though Flaubert helped forge his aesthetic conscience, his first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, were more influenced by Dostoyevsky and Kafka than by any writers in the realist tradition. Bellow and his friends were the children of the Holocaust rather than the ghetto. They did not write about the recent events in Europe–they hadn’t directly experienced them–but those horrors cast their shadow on every page of their work, including the many pages of desperate comedy.

The atrocities of the Holocaust, the psychology of Freud and the dark vision of certain modern masters encouraged Jewish writers to find some universal significance in their own experience. Kafka was the prophet, not of totalitarianism–that was too facile–but of a world cut loose from will and meaning, the world as they experienced it in the 1940s. Saul Bellow’s engagement with the themes of modernist culture can be traced from novel to novel, but even a writer as private as Malamud was able to combine the stylized speech rhythms of the ghetto with a form adapted from Hawthorne and Kafka to turn parochial Jewish tales into chilling fables of modern life. This was the brief period when the Jew became the modern Everyman, everyone’s favorite victim, shlemiel and secular saint. Yet there was also an innovation in language, a nervous mixture of the literary and the colloquial, of art talk and street talk, that was almost poetic in its effects. Bellow himself brought the buoyant, syncopated rhythms of the vernacular into his prose. As he put it in his eulogy of Malamud after his death in 1986:

Well, we were here, first-generation Americans, our language was English and a language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us. Malamud in his novels and stories discovered a sort of communicative genius in the impoverished, harsh jargon of immigrant New York. He was a myth maker, a fabulist, a writer of exquisite parables.

We can find these effects almost anywhere we turn in Malamud’s stories, from animal fables like “The Jewbird” and “Talking Horse” to wrenching tales like “Take Pity,” which he put at the head of his last collection of stories. It includes the following bit of dialogue, supposedly between a census taker, Davidov, and a recalcitrant citizen named Rosen:

“How did he die?”
“On this I am not an expert,” Rosen replied. “You know better than me.”
“How did he die?” Davidov spoke impatiently. “Say in one word.”
“From what he died?–he died, that’s all.”
“Answer, please, this question.”
“Broke in him something. That’s how.”
“Broke what?”
“Broke what breaks.”

Eventually we discover that the man answering the questions in this Kafkaesque exchange is himself dead, and his reckoning with the “census taker” takes place in some bare, shabby room of heaven or hell, though it feels like a forlorn pocket of the ghetto. (Malamud himself later described it as “an institutional place in limbo.”) Rosen, an ex-coffee salesman, has killed himself in a last-ditch effort to impose his charity, pity or love on the fiercely independent widow of the man who died. Rosen takes pity on her, but she will not take his pity. Even after he turns on the gas and leaves her everything, she appears at the window, adrift in space, alive or dead, imploring or berating him in a final gesture of defiance.

Like all of Malamud’s best work, this is a story of few words but resonant meanings. Anticipating Samuel Beckett, Malamud strips down the sociology of the ghetto into a spare, postapocalyptic landscape of essential, even primitive emotions, finding eerie comedy on the far side of horror. After her husband’s death, as the business disintegrated, the woman and her children came close to starving, but the story is less about poverty than about the perverseness of the human will. Again and again Rosen tries to help the widow, but she adamantly refuses to be helped. Both are stubborn unto death, and the story explores the fine line between goodness and aggression, generosity and control, independence and self-sacrifice. Rosen will get the proud woman to take his help, whether she wants to or not, but neither can truly pity the other; their unshakable self-will isolates and destroys them. And the interrogator, standing in for both author and reader, makes no effort to judge between them. The story leaves us with a sense of the sheer human mystery.

The raw power of Malamud’s stories is based on a simple principle–that every moral impulse has its Nietzschean dark side, its streak of lust or the will to power, just as every self has its anti-self, a double or shadow that exposes its vulnerabilities and limitations. This dialectic of self and other is at the heart of Malamud’s stories and novels. The “self” in his stories is often a stand-in for the writer, a worldly, cultivated man–someone fairly young but never youthful, well educated but not especially successful, Jewish but nervously assimilated, full of choked-up feeling. Repeatedly, this figure is brought up short by his encounter with some ghetto trickster, a wonder-working rabbi, an ethnic con man who represents the suppressed, tribal part of his own tightly controlled personality.

Malamud’s work is full of such symbolic figures, half real, half legendary, including the ghetto rat, Susskind, a stateless refugee in Rome in “The Last Mohican,” who steals the hero’s manuscript on Giotto; and Salzman, the marriage broker in “The Magic Barrel,” whose ultimate gift to a young rabbinical student is his own fallen daughter. These Old World characters point to the ambiguous, even disreputable qualities that the young hero has bleached out of his own identity. They are slightly magical figures who come and go with almost supernatural ease. At different times they stand for ethnic Jewishness, carnality, wild emotion, even a sense of magic and the irrational. Or else they are figures from another culture–the Italian helper in The Assistant, the black writer in The Tenants–who test the limits of the protagonist’s humanity and sometimes put him on a tentative path toward redemption and self-knowledge.

Malamud’s piety toward the past, the Jewish elders, is not much in evidence in the next generation. Coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, writers like Philip Roth belonged to a new group of discontented sons and daughters. This was the black humor generation, rebelling not against the constraints of the ghetto–they were too young to have known any real ghetto–but against the mental ghetto of Jewish morality and the Jewish family. If Anzia Yezierska or Clifford Odets inveighed against the actual power of the Jewish father or mother, Roth and his contemporaries, who grew up with every apparent freedom, were doing battle with the internal censor, the mother or father in the head. (Much later Roth would build The Human Stain around a character who jettisons his whole family, including his doting mother, to shape a new identity for himself.)

The work of these writers proved deliberately provocative, hugely entertaining, always flirting with bad taste and often very funny, but with an edge of pain and giddiness that borders on hysteria. As Portnoy gradually discovers that he’s living inside a Jewish joke, the novel’s comic spirits turn self-lacerating. Like Roth, writers such as Stanley Elkin, Bruce Jay Friedman, Joseph Heller, Jerome Charyn and Mark Mirsky have practiced an art of incongruity, deploying a wild mockery in place of the old moral gravity. Howe’s charge against Roth–that he writes out of a “thin personal culture”–could be leveled against them as well, but it would be more accurate to say that they looked to a different culture: satirical, performative, intensely oral. They identified less with modernists like Kafka and Dostoyevsky than with provocateurs like Céline, Nathanael West and Lenny Bruce. They looked less to literature than to stand-up comedy, the oral tradition of the Jewish jokes that Freud collected, the tirade of insults that ventilated aggression, the vaudeville shtick that brought Jews to the forefront of American entertainment.

The usual targets of their derision, besides Jewish mothers and Jewish husbands, were the new suburban Jews who had made it after the war, the vulgar, wealthy Patimkins in Goodbye, Columbus, who live in a posh Newark suburb, play tennis and send their daughter to Radcliffe, and–this got me when I first read it–have a separate refrigerator for fruit in their finished basement. (Actually, it was their old fridge they were thrifty enough to save, the way they’ve held on to remnants of their old Newark personality.) As a foil to the Patimkins of Short Hills, Roth gives us the inner-city blacks of Newark, where the Jews used to live. We get glimpses of black workmen ordered around by the Patimkins’ callow son, and especially of a young boy who runs into trouble simply because he wants to read a book on Gauguin in the local public library. At the heart of the book, then, for all its irreverence, is a sentimental idea of the virtue of poverty and the simple life, something the upwardly mobile Jews have left behind but the black boy still seeks in Gauguin’s noble vision of Tahiti.

Goodbye, Columbus was published in 1959, a prelude to a decade in which outrage and irreverence would become the accepted cultural norms. Even Bellow would take a spin with black humor in Herzog (1964), as Malamud would do, unconvincingly, in Pictures of Fidelman in 1969. Here these stern moralists dipped into sexual comedy as never before, the comedy of adultery in Bellow, of sexual hunger and humiliation in Malamud. But they were soon outflanked by their literary son Roth, who would make epic comedy out of Jewish dietary laws, rabbinical pomposity, furtive masturbation, plaintive longing for shiksas and, above all, the family romance in Portnoy’s Complaint. With its deliberately coarse comic stereotypes, especially of the histrionic Jewish mother, the long-suffering father and their son, the young Jewish prince, this was the work that elicited Irving Howe’s attack, the book that turned the vulgar spritz of stand-up comedy into literature.

The Oedipal pattern in Portnoy belongs to a larger history: Roth and other black humorists were rebelling not only against their own parents but against their literary parents, the moralists of the previous generation, who were still around and did not take kindly to it. Bellow responded to the carnival aspect of the 1960s by taking on the voice of the censorious Jewish sage in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, arraigning middle-aged adulterers along with women, blacks and young people in one sweeping image of moral decay–of “sexual niggerhood,” as he put it in one indelible phrase. The date was 1970, the bitter end of that tumultuous decade; Bellow’s and Howe’s responses were extreme but typical of the overheated rhetoric of the generation gap and the culture wars. Bellow’s outrage, perhaps, was tinged with the envy that so many middle-aged Americans, not simply Jews, felt toward the new sexual freedoms of the young.

Malamud responded just as pointedly in a 1968 story called “An Exorcism,” but it is scarcely known because he never reprinted it in his lifetime. More than any other text, this story brings to a head the Oedipal tensions among Jewish writers, shedding light on their key differences. It is closely related to another story of generational conflict Malamud wrote the same year, “My Son the Murderer,” about a bitter standoff between an anxious, intrusive father and his 22-year-old son, who is angry at everyone, unhinged by images from Vietnam and grimly awaiting his own draft notice. (Malamud had a son just the same age.) The central figure in “An Exorcism” is an austere older writer–like Malamud himself, but far less successful–a lonely man rigorously devoted to his craft, a kind of saint and hero of art. An aspiring writer, a young 1960s type, attaches himself to the older man at writers’ conferences–virtually the only places he ventures out. The older man, Fogel, is grudging and taciturn, but gradually his defenses drop, for he feels “grateful to the youth for lifting him, almost against his will, out of his solitude.” Having won his confidence, the boy betrays him; he publishes a story based on an embarrassing sexual episode in the older man’s past. Fogel first confronts, then forgives him. But when the student, as a provocative stunt, seduces three women in a single night, the writer feels a wave of nausea and violently exorcises him from his life.

Not given to wielding fiction as cultural polemic, Malamud clearly felt uneasy with the naked anger of this story, which indicts not simply one unscrupulous young man but a whole generation for its freewheeling life and confessional style. In the eyes of an exacting craftsman who fears that his kind of art is no longer valued, these facile new writers simply don’t invent enough. (Fogel accuses the young man of doing outrageous things simply to write about them, of being little more than “a walking tape recorder” of his “personal experiences.”) When Fogel tells his surrogate son that “Imagination is not necessarily Id,” Malamud could even be referring to Portnoy’s recent line about “putting the Id back in Yid.” Roth would give his own version of his spiritual apprenticeship to Malamud and Bellow ten years later in The Ghost Writer. In any case, “An Exorcism” remained unknown, while Portnoy’s Complaint became the ultimate piece of second-generation black humor, a hilarious whine against the neurotic effects of prolonged exposure to Jewish morality and the Jewish family.

Portnoy’s complaint was an Oedipal complaint, but even at the time, long before he published Patrimony, his powerful 1991 memoir of the death of his father, it was clear how deeply attached Roth was to the parents he mocked and mythologized–the eternally constipated father, the effusively overbearing mother who loved and forgave him as no other woman could, loved him even for his transgressions. All through the 1970s Roth kept rewriting that novel in increasingly strident works like The Breast, a misconceived fantasy; My Life as a Man, a vengeful account of his first marriage; and The Professor of Desire. Roth seemed unable to escape the facts of his life but also seemed desperate to offend. He attacked critics for taking his work as autobiographical yet repeatedly fell back on exaggerated versions of the known facts. In My Life as a Man he even played on the relationship between fact and invention by giving us what claimed to be the “real” story behind some fictional versions. But of course he felt free to make up this story as well.

None of these almost military maneuvers against critics and readers, which Roth also carried on in essays and interviews, quite prepared us for his next book, The Ghost Writer, which launched the next stage of Jewish-American writing, the one we are still in today. Let’s call it the return, or the homecoming. If the second stage was debunking and satirical, even parricidal, the third stage began with Roth’s filial homage to the two writers with whom his name had always been linked. Malamud appears in the book as E.I. Lonoff, very much the ascetic devotee of craft we meet in Malamud’s own late work. Bellow (with a touch of Mailer) figures as the prolific, much-married, world-shaking Felix Abravanel, a man who, as it turns out, “was clearly not in the market for a twenty-three-year-old son.” Roth himself appears as the young Nathan Zuckerman, a dead ringer for the author at that age. Zuckerman has just published his first, controversial stories, as Roth himself had done, and his own father is angry at him for washing the family linen in public. (“Well, Nathan, you certainly didn’t leave anything out, did you?”) His father has gotten the elders of the Jewish community on his case, in the person of one Judge Leopold Wapter, who sends him a questionnaire (!) that concludes: “Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?”

Judge Wapter stands for all the professional Jews and rabbinical critics who had been upset by Roth’s early stories–stories which, after all, had surely been written to ruffle people’s feathers, even to offend. With very broad, satirical strokes, the older Roth is now caricaturing his enemies, nursing old grievances, parading his victimization as wounded virtue. Roth demands from his readers what only his parents could give him: unconditional love. He wants to transgress and wants to be forgiven, wants to be outrageous yet also to be accepted, to be wickedly clever and be adored for it. When his women or his critics fail to give this to him, he lashes out at them. This rehearsal of old grievances is the tired and familiar part of The Ghost Writer, but the book included much that, in retrospect, was daringly fresh:

First, there is a surprising and resonant literariness that matches the book’s evocative tone and warm filial theme. Roth’s angry iconoclasm, his need to offend and outrage, has for now been set aside. The Ghost Writer deals with Nathan Zuckerman’s literary beginnings, and Roth’s virtuoso portraits of the older writers are perfectly in tune with the literary allusions that form the backdrop of the story–references to Isaac Babel, the great Soviet-Jewish writer murdered by Stalin; to Henry James’s story “The Middle Years,” which also deals with a young acolyte’s relation to an older writer; and most important, to the diary of Anne Frank. She is the figure behind Amy Bellette, the young woman in Roth’s story who may actually be Anne Frank, and who may be having an affair with Lonoff.

Second, for all the shtick and satire in Roth’s previous fiction, this was his most Jewish book yet, not only for Roth’s tribute to earlier Jewish writers but in his tender retelling of Anne Frank’s story. Both the literariness and the Jewishness had always been latent in Roth’s work, just barely masked by its satiric edge, its willed vulgarity. Roth’s literary bent had been evident in his essays on contemporary fiction, his brilliant story about Kafka, the interviews he had given about each of his novels, and especially the invaluable series he was editing for Penguin, “Writers From the Other Europe,” which launched the Western careers of such little-known Polish and Czech writers as Milan Kundera. No critic, to my knowledge, has yet tried to gauge the effect of this large editorial enterprise on Roth’s later fiction. As his own work bogged down in Portnoy imitations and paranoia, this project took Roth frequently to Eastern Europe, where he made a wealth of literary contacts. Thus Roth found himself editing morally serious and formally innovative work that, despite its congenial absurdism, cut sharply against the grain of what he himself was writing. This material exposed Roth to both the Holocaust and Soviet totalitarianism, and ultimately gave his work a historical dimension, and especially a Jewish dimension, it had previously lacked. These books brought him back to his distant European roots. The angry young man, the prodigal son, was gradually coming home.

In The Ghost Writer Roth still nurses his old quarrel with the Jewish community, just as he would pursue his vendetta against Irving Howe in The Anatomy Lesson. He eulogizes Lonoff as “the Jew who got away,” the Jew of the heart, or art–the noninstitutional Jew–and portrays Anne Frank as a secular, detached Jew like himself. In a bizarre moment, Zuckerman even imagines himself marrying Anne Frank, perhaps the ultimate rejoinder to his Jewish critics, to all the Judge Wapters of the world. But apart from this defensiveness, there’s a strain of reverence toward art in the book, toward the Jewish historical experience, even toward the Jewish family, which creates something really new in Roth. Instead of rebelling against the father, he wants to be anointed by him: He’s come “to submit myself for candidacy as nothing less than E.I. Lonoff’s spiritual son.” Adopted by Lonoff, married to Anne Frank, he will no longer be vulnerable to the Howes and Wapters who criticize his writing for not being Jewish or tasteful enough.

In retrospect we can see how so much of value in Roth’s later work–the wider political horizons of The Counterlife and Operation Shylock, the unexpected play with metafiction and magic realism in both those books, with their ingenious variations on what is made up and what is “real,” and finally, his loving tribute to his late father in Patrimony and to the figure of the Good Father in American Pastoral–can be shown to have originated in The Ghost Writer. Moreover, they are strikingly typical of what I call the third phase of American Jewish writing, when the Jewishness that once seemed to be disappearing returned with a vengeance. In this phase the inevitability of assimilation gives way to the work of memory.

There’s nothing so surprising about this pattern. The great historian of immigration, Marcus Lee Hansen, long ago enunciated the influential three-generation thesis that came to be known as Hansen’s Law: “What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.” Sociologists have shown that this return actually begins in the twilight years of the second generation. In Patrimony Roth presents his aged father as something of a pain in the neck but also as the keeper of the past, the storyteller, the Great Rememberer. Driving around Newark with his son, the former insurance agent, like a real census taker, recalls every occupant of every building. “You mustn’t forget anything–that’s the inscription on his coat of arms,” his son writes. “To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory.”

The father’s motto is also part of the artistic credo of the son, who remembers his past with a hallucinatory intensity. Yet by the mid-1980s Roth also developed a wider historical purview, a sense of all that life that was lived before him, or far away from him–in Eastern Europe, where he sets “The Prague Orgy”; in England or Israel, where some of the best parts of The Counterlife, Deception and Operation Shylock take place. This is a more cosmopolitan Roth, reaching outside himself for almost the first time, in dialogue with Zionism, acutely sensitive to anti-Semitism, finding new meaning in the Jewish identity he had once mocked and scorned.

Much of The Counterlife still belongs to the old self-involved Roth of the Zuckerman saga–the fears of impotence, the scabrous comedy, the Wagnerian family uproar–but the sections set in England and Israel are something else. Until the early 1980s, there was as little trace of the Jewish state in American fiction as there was of the old European Diaspora in Israeli writing. American writers by and large were not Zionists, and Israeli writers were not nostalgic for the shtetl or the Pale. With its insistence on nationhood as the solution to the Jewish problem, Israel was perhaps too tribal, too insular to capture the attention of assimilated writers, however much it preoccupied ordinary American Jews. Israel was the place where Portnoy couldn’t get an erection–surely the least memorable part of that larger-than-life novel.

But more than a decade later, when Zuckerman’s brother Henry becomes a baal t’shuva, a penitent, and Zuckerman looks him up among the zealots of the West Bank, Roth’s work crosses that of Amos Oz and David Grossman, novelists who had written so well about the tensions dividing Israeli society. Like them, Roth finds great talkers who can articulate sharp ideological differences, which also reflect his own inner conflicts. He begins to relish the sheer play of ideas, the emotional bite of Jewish argument. The Counterlife inaugurates a dialogic phase of Roth’s writing that gets played out in Deception, an experimental novel that is all dialogue; The Facts, where Nathan Zuckerman appears at the end to offer a rebuttal to Roth’s memoir; and Operation Shylock, which returns to the Israeli setting of The Counterlife. In this new fiction of ideas, Roth’s work acquired a real historical dimension, which would also lead to an acclaimed but uneven trilogy about postwar America, beginning with American Pastoral.

Zuckerman in Israel, like Zuckerman recounting other people’s stories in the American books, is also Roth escaping from the self-absorption of his earlier work. In England, cast among the not-so-genteel anti-Semites, Zuckerman develops an extraordinary pride, aggressiveness and sensitivity about being Jewish. With their layers within layers, both The Counterlife and Operation Shylock are Roth’s most Jewish books, even as Zuckerman defends himself (and Jewish life in the Diaspora) against the imperious claims of orthodoxy and Zionism. They mark his return to the fold, as well as his most formally complex fiction, pointing not only to the confusions between art and life but to the multiple layers of Roth’s identity.

By giving so much attention to Roth, I run the risk of making it seem like it’s only his development that is at stake, not larger changes in American Jewish writing. But every facet of Roth’s later work has its parallel in other writers who have emerged in the past twenty years: the more explicit and informed Jewishness, the wider historical framework, the play with metafiction or magic realism, and the more intense literariness. In line with the wave of identity politics in America, there has been a persistent search for roots among younger Jewish writers, as there has been for older writers from assimilated backgrounds such as Leslie Epstein, Anne Roiphe and Alan Isler. If we add to the themes listed above a concern with gender and sexual preference and a fascination with strict religious observance, we would have a complete inventory of issues that have attracted the younger generation, including Steve Stern, Allegra Goodman, Lev Raphael, Thane Rosenbaum, Melvin Jules Bukiet, Pearl Abraham, Rebecca Goldstein, Michael Chabon, Aryeh Lev Stollman, Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Tova Mirvis and Ehud Havazelet. They have written about subjects as varied as the old and new Jews of Memphis, the lives of young Jews in Oxford and Hawaii, the Orthodox communities of New York and Israel, the attractions of Jewish mysticism, the problems of gay Jewish identity, the surreal experiences of the walking wounded–Holocaust survivors and their children–and the old world of the shtetl and of Europe after the war. Some of their writing, arduously researched, smells of the library. They work best in short novels like Stollman’s hypnotic The Far Euphrates or in collections of overlapping stories like Goodman’s The Family Markowitz, composed of scenes and vignettes that allude nostalgically to the old-style family chronicle. The larger synthesis so far eludes them.

The interests of these emerging writers were foreshadowed not only by the shifting stance of Roth but by the themes explored by another writer of his generation, Cynthia Ozick. Like Roth, she spent many years indentured to the 1950s gospel of art according to Henry James, and only later discovered her own vein of Jewish storytelling typical of what I’ve called the third stage. To put it bluntly, Ozick’s work is far more Jewish than that of her main predecessors, richer with cultural information, proudly nationalistic, even sentimentally orthodox. Some of her stories and essays, such as her angry piece in The New Yorker on Anne Frank’s diary (reprinted in Ozick’s recent collection Quarrel & Quandary), launched stinging attacks on secular Jews. Yet she began as a feminist and became the most articulate woman in a largely patriarchal line that rarely produced strong writing by women apart from such isolated figures as Emma Lazarus, Mary Antin, Anzia Yezierska, Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen. This is something else that has changed dramatically since 1970.

Bellow and Malamud had Jewishness in their bones, but what they actually knew about Judaism could have been written on a single page. They knew the ghetto neighborhoods, the character types, the speech patterns and what they took in at the kitchen table. They were born into Yiddish-speaking homes. Their Judaism was instinctive, domestic, introspective. But their determination to navigate the literary mainstream prevented them from getting too caught up with specifically Jewish subjects. They refused to be consigned to any literary ghetto. “I conceived of myself as a cosmopolitan man enjoying his freedom,” said Malamud. Ozick, on the other hand, like I.B. Singer or Steve Stern, was fascinated by the whole magical side of Judaism–the popular lore and legend, the dybbuks and golems of Jewish mystical tradition. For Singer this was part of his experience of growing up in Poland, the curious son of a learned rabbi, entranced by hidden and forbidden byways of the Jewish tradition. For Ozick and Stern it sometimes becomes a bookish, vicarious Judaism based on reading and research. But this very bookishness–a certain remoteness from life–becomes a key theme in their work.

Until recently a fear haunted Jewish-American writing: that the subject was exhausted, that we live in inferior times, that giants once walked the earth and said everything that needed to be said; the rest is commentary. From her first important story, “Envy, or Yiddish in America,” in 1969, to her keynote “Usurpation: Other People’s Stories” in the mid 1970s, to The Messiah of Stockholm and The Puttermesser Papers, Ozick repeatedly writes stories about writers, or stories about other people’s stories. This is a latecomer’s literature, almost a textbook example of the postmodern profusion of texts upon texts, or of Harold Bloom’s famous theory of the anxiety of influence, which emphasizes the Oedipal tensions between writers and their precursors. We risk becoming footnotes to our forebears.

Like The Ghost Writer, Ozick’s “Envy”–the very title is revealing–is most memorable for its portraits of two older writers, one a lethal caricature of I.B. Singer–widely translated, fabulously successful, yet cruel, egotistical and rejected by most other Yiddish writers–the other loosely based on the great poet Jacob Glatstein, celebrated among fellow Yiddishists yet never properly translated into English. (Ozick herself later did some translations of his work.) But the key figure is a young woman, perhaps based on Ozick herself, whom the poet seizes upon as his lifeline into English, the potential savior of all of Yiddish culture.

This poet is envious of the Singer character but even more contemptuous of American Jewish writers for their ignorance: “Jewish novelists! Savages!” he says bitterly. “Their Yiddish! One word here, one word there. Shikseh on one page, putz on the other, and that’s the whole vocabulary.” Like Roth’s novella, this is a kind of ghost story; the characters embody a dead culture trying to come alive. But it’s also a vampire tale, since the young woman eventually rejects them as bloodsuckers trying to live at her expense. Fascinated by the high drama of an expiring Yiddish culture, she decides she cannot allow it to take over her own life. Cynthia Ozick is thought of as some kind of pious traditionalist, but this, her best story, written with ferocious energy and style, is a work that radiates hostility from first to last, reminding the reader of the sharp polemical turns she often takes in her essays.

In Ozick’s story “Usurpation,” the spirit of envy takes over the protagonist herself. It begins with a young author at the 92nd Street Y listening to a reading by a famous older writer. After two or three sentences, her ears begin to burn, for she feels he’s telling a story that truly belongs to her, that she was born to write. As it happens, the writer and the story can easily be identified, since Ozick retells it. It’s “The Silver Crown,” Malamud’s story about a wonder rabbi, which is precisely about the conflict of generations that is virtually the signature of this third, or latecomer’s, generation. It’s also a story of the kind of Jewish mystery and magic so dear to Ozick that she feels a sting of regret at not having written it herself. Malamud had been there first, but Ozick, like Steve Stern, makes her literary belatedness the theme of her story.

It’s no accident that Ozick’s stories overlap with her eloquent literary essays, or that metafiction and postmodernism here make a surprising entry into Jewish writing. Postmodernism, as I understand it, conveys the sense that all texts are provisional, that we live in a world already crowded with familiar texts and images, that originality is a Romantic illusion and techniques like collage, pastiche and pseudocommentary are better than realism for conveying our sense of belatedness and repletion. At the heart of Ozick’s fine story “Puttermesser Paired” (in The Puttermesser Papers) are some brilliantly told episodes from the life of George Eliot, which the heroine partly re-enacts, just as Ozick weaves a lost novel by the murdered Polish writer Bruno Schulz into The Messiah of Stockholm. As in the work of Jorge Luis Borges, this is writing about writing, perched on the fine line between commentary and invention.

It’s rare that literary history so closely mirrors social history, but the conflict of literary generations I’ve described here is part of a larger pattern. It’s no news that America has experienced a revival of ethnicity, or that the world has been rocked by waves of resurgent nationalism. With their longstanding commitment to the universalism of the Enlightenment, to which they owed their emancipation, Jews have been ambivalent about participating in this process. Jewish life in America has become far more assimilated, but younger Jewish writers have both taken advantage of this and sharply criticized it. They have turned to Israel, to feminism, to the Holocaust, to earlier Jewish history and to their own varied spiritual itineraries, ranging from neo-Orthodoxy and mysticism to Eastern religion, as a way of redefining their relation to both Jewish tradition and contemporary culture. If they have lost the old connection to Europe, to Yiddish or to immigrant life, they have begun to substitute their own distinctive Jewish and American experiences. They are not simply living on the inherited capital of past literary generations. The new writing so far may lack the power of a Malamud, a Bellow or a Grace Paley, but it is certainly not enervated by the bland, assimilated aspects of Jewish life. Jewish writers have quarreled with one another and with themselves, but these have been family quarrels, not holy wars. Whatever tension this creates, it certainly gives no sign that they are about to give up the ghost, especially now that the ghost, the past, has taken on new flesh and blood.

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