Early Jewish American literature (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
The earliest Jewish American writers to produce widely recognized fictional narratives were journalists who also wrote for the popular stage, such as the early nineteenth century melodramatists Mordecai Manuel Noah and Samuel B. H. Judah. An editor of the National Advocate and the founder of the New York Inquirer, Noah avoided including Jews in his most popular melodrama, Siege of Tripoli (1820), as did Judah in his most popular work, A Tale of Lexington: A National Comedy, Founded on the Opening of the Revolution in Three Acts (1823). As such, there is nothing identifiably Jewish American about their writing.
The first Jewish American writers to speak from a decidedly Jewish perspective were women poets. Taking the ancient Jew as its subject matter, Fancy’s Sketch Book, published in 1833 by Penina Moise, was one of the few such collections to reach a large audience in its day. However, Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus (1883) is by far the more familiar now, if for no other reason than that one of its passages, “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses,” became the Statue of Liberty’s invitation—and by extension, America’s as well—to the disenfranchised of the world.
Lazarus’s enthusiasm for America as a “melting pot” was shared by a number of early Jewish American novelists, Israel Zangwill to name but one. In The Melting-Pot, the 1908 drama that coined the phrase, Zangwill envisions a land where Jew and Gentile can live and labor in harmony, if only they are willing to become, first and foremost, “Americans.” There she lies, the great Melting Pot—Listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling?There gapes her mouth—the harbor where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freightCelt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian—black and yellow—Yes, East and West, North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—how the great alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging...
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The early twentieth century (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Novels published shortly after World War I, such as Samuel B. Ornitz’s Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl (1923), voiced some of the same concerns as Cahan, but only in passing. Most of these books were issued amid a great burst of postwar prosperity and therefore seem naïvely optimistic. Generally, these novels chronicled the ascent of their protagonists from the ghettos of New York City’s lower East Side to the heights of American prosperity, for the sky, apparently, was the limit for any Jew who appreciated the value of personal initiative paired with formal education; however, such a vision of upward mobility was as short-lived as it was trusting in the promise of the United States, and these works were soon replaced by the proletarian novels written in response to the Great Depression.
Although novels such as John Steinbeck’s account of Oklahoma sharecroppers, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), are classified as “proletarian” writing, the proletarian novel was an urban, Jewish American phenomenon. It signaled a new generation of Jewish American novelists, the American-born children of Jewish immigrants who were coming of age during a period when American capitalism was being challenged more seriously than ever before in the twentieth century. It also signaled the first time that Jewish American novelists as a group defined a place for themselves in American literature.
Their work reflects the left-of-center politics that became attractive to so many out-of-work Americans during the depths of the Depression. Michael Gold was surely the most doctrinaire of the group. Gold was the editor of The New Masses, the American Communist Party’s influential literary magazine; in his Jews Without Money (1930), it is communism that promises a better future. So great was...
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The Holocaust and postwar fiction (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
World War novelsWar II and the Holocaust had a tremendous impact on Jewish literature, particularly in Europe. Holocaust survivors such as the Italian novelist Primo Levi and the Romanian Aharon Appelfeld offer unique perspectives on what it meant to be a Jew in the twentieth century by virtue of the ordeals they suffered. Levi addresses his experiences during the Holocaust in two autobiographies, Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man, 1959; revised as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, 1961) and La tregua (1963; The Reawakening, 1965), then drew from them obliquely in his novel Se non ora, quando? (1982; If Not Now, When?, 1985).
Appelfeld directed his attentions to the writing of fiction. His first novel was Badenheim, ’ir nofesh (1975; Badenheim 1939, 1980), and though he continued to publish after its translation, Badenheim 1939 remains his best-known work. None of these chronicle the realities of his own internment and eventual escape, but the death camps are seldom far removed from the hearts and minds of his characters. They are often unwary Jews, well respected in their communities, whose lives are overtaken by the Nazis in the early years of the war, as in Badenheim 1939, Tor-ha-pela’ot (1978; The Age of Wonders, 1981), Kutonet veha-pasim (1983; Tzili: The Story of a Life, 1983), To the Land of Cattails (1986; also known as To the Land of the Reeds), Be-’et uve’onah ahat (1985; The Healer, 1990), and Unto the Soul (1994). Other novels depict Jews who are struggling after the war to reclaim their place in the world, as is the case in Bartfus ben ha-almavet (1988; The Immortal Bartfuss, 1988) and Al kol hapesha’im (n.d.; For Every Sin, 1989).
Jewish American fiction flourished after 1945. To offer even the slightest list of Jewish American authors who rose to prominence after World War II is to list some of the most influential writers in the canon of contemporary American literature: E. L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, Bernard Malamud, Stanley Elkin, Bruce Jay Friedman, Cynthia Ozick, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Chaim Potok. Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) was a debut that had a great impact following the war, earning its twenty-five-year-old author a berth at the forefront of American letters.
The novel recounts a long and lethal patrol by a U.S. Army platoon on an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean. Two of these soldiers, Herman Roth and Joey Goldstein, are Jewish. Roth, the better assimilated of the two, is more quickly accepted by the other men, but he is without the moral compass necessary to internalize what he is going through. Goldstein, by contrast, is devout. His worldview is that of an ancient Hebrew, and he is one of the few characters in the novel for whom the patrol has any meaning. Goldstein is paired in the novel’s final chapters with Ossie Ridges, a Southern fundamentalist Christian, as they carry a wounded soldier on a litter through the jungle. Theirs is a Sisyphean chore that ends in failure, but it serves to unite them. Both Goldstein and Ridges have what the other men lack, a sense of a well-ordered universe in which humankind is in the hands of a punishing God, and such understanding stirs in each a compassion for the suffering of the other.
Philip Roth’s first novel-length work, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), takes its title from the dream of its protagonist, Neil Klugman. Klugman’s dream puts him aboard a masted sailing ship moored in the harbor of a paradisal island. An undertow begins to draw the ship out to sea. Powerless to stop the ship’s departure, Klugman watches as beautiful native goddesses on the shore bid him farewell, chanting “Goodbye, Columbus, Goodbye,” while the paradise before him grows more distant by the minute. The book’s title and dream images befit much that Roth has written and certainly represent an experience shared by Roth protagonists as otherwise diverse as Alexander Portnoy, David Kepesh, Peter Tarnopol, and Roth’s recurring...
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Late twentieth century (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
The 1990’s witnessed the emergence of several talented Jewish American writers, particularly Lev Raphael, Melvin Bukiet, Steve Stern, and Allegra Goodman. Crime novelist Raphael (Winter Eyes: A Novel About Secrets, 1992; Let’s Get Criminal: An Academic Mystery, 1996; The Death of a Constant Lover: A Nick Hoffman Mystery, 1999) offers Nick Hoffman as his protagonist, an English professor at the State University of Michigan who finds himself solving murder mysteries between teaching classes and grading papers. These crimes inevitably shake him free of the ivory tower of academia in which he is trying to live his life, but they do more than that. In the process of investigating crimes, he is apt to be...
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Chametzky, Jules, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein, eds. Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Comprehensive collection of works from colonial times to the present, including selections from Cynthia Ozick, Woody Allen, Allegra Goodman, Art Spiegelman, Philip Roth, and more than one hundred other writers.
Codde, Philippe. The Jewish American Novel. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2007. Theoretical study that contains sections on the cultural context (politics, religion, philosophy) of the Jewish American novel, and on “The French Existentialist...
(The entire section is 437 words.)