Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Summer in Williamsburg is basically a serious novel about the relationship between environment and character. The book traces the way Williamsburg, a poor neighborhood, acts upon its inhabitants, mostly first and second generation Jewish immigrants. It explores the degradation of the children and the admiration of success, no matter how achieved. It also shows admiration for those like Philip’s father, who lead moral lives in spite of temptations to do otherwise. Homage to Blenholt is a comic novel about the serious need to accept adult responsibilities. It treats the need to relinquish dreams and live in the often-unpleasant real world. Max’s father used to be a Yiddish tragedian but now earns money carrying sandwich boards advertising Madame Clara’s hair salon. At the end of the novel, Max’s father feels sad when he recognizes that his son “would grow old and ageing [sic], die, but actually Max was dead already for now he would live for bread alone,” and Mr. Balkan knows he has “witnessed the exact point at which his son had changed from youth to resigned age.” In Max, Mr. Balkan sees his own change from Yiddish actor to sandwich-board carrier and feels sorrow for his son. Low Company explores the seamier side of humanity. Full of unlikable characters, it portrays human beings as greedy, insignificant creatures unconcerned about one another. Each is concerned ultimately with his or her own pleasures, not caring what happens to others. In this novel, humankind is not a pleasant thing. Even nature participates in the viciousness. The rain interferes with Spitzbergen’s business at least as much as the human hoodlums do. Only after Spitzbergen dies does the weather become beautiful, and then people ironically flock to Neptune Beach.