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.