Anti-Semitism in Literature Analysis

North America

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The United States and Canada inherited a tradition of vile and virtuous Jewish characters, largely from British literature. For example, The Jew (1794), by British playwright Richard Cumberland, was written to expiate for its author’s many Jewish villains. The play’s character Sheva is virtuous. By the end of 1795, the play had been performed in Philadelphia, Charleston, Hartford, Providence, New York, and Boston. The play ran through five editions before 1797. Throughout the nineteenth century, some American works imitated its portrait of a saintly Jewish benefactor who never collected debts. These compositions acquired their novelty because they were so few compared to the flood of defamatory portraits. For example, what may be the first American play with a Jewish character is Susanna Haswell Rowson’s vicious Slaves in Algiers (1794).

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” (1858) and Mark Twain’s article “Concerning the Jews” (1898) denounce anti-Semitism. Such fair treatment of Judaism, however, was in the extreme minority among gentile authors. Jewish writers, writing for Jewish audiences, treated Jewish themes with honesty, however, in such literary arenas as Yiddish drama, which began during the 1890’s.

The Twentieth Century

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The twentieth century brought not an end to anti-Semitism but acceleration of it in reaction against the rise of Jews to positions of affluence and power. Thomas Wolfe, for example, owed to his Jewish mistress his access to wealthy society. He expressed his contempt for her race in such stories as “Death and Proud Brother” (1935). The economic and social ills of the Depression years particularly inspired the search for scapegoats, with the Jews often chosen. Two conspicuous voices of anti-Semitism were the Nobel laureate T. S. Eliot and the influential poet and critic Ezra Pound. In After Strange Gods (1934), Eliot argues for a Christian society that would largely exclude Jews; his early poetry strangely mixes anti-Semitism with his disgust at sexuality. World War II, however, caused him to distance himself from the racism of his friend Pound, and he never allowed After Strange Gods to be reprinted.

Pound had a phobic reaction to Jews, as if their presence were a taboo or contagion. In Italy during World War II, Pound made radio broadcasts for fascism and for Italy’s fascist government; Italy and the United States were at war at the time, and Pound did not renounce his U.S. citizenship. In the broadcasts, he obsessively likened Jewish power to a disease. Captured and tried for treason at the end of World War II, Pound was judged insane and was sentenced to a long confinement in a mental hospital. He finally recanted his...

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Implications for Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Anti-Semitism spawns Jewish self-hatred. Such bigotry is also deleterious to American identity, warping it into an exclusive club that some can never join and that others can enter only by conforming to fashionable prejudices. As people who have often been reluctant or unable to assimilate, Jews easily become the other against whom a nation or racial group unites. Anti-Semitism at its most virulent leads the anti-Semite to interpret everything from economic woes to Israeli policies as part of a vast Hebraic conspiracy. Anti-Semitic writings are usually studied as cases of individual and collective pathology.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Casillo, Robert. The Genealogy of Demons: Anti-Semitism, Fascism, and the Myths of Ezra Pound. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Cheyette, Bryan. Between “Race” and Culture: Representations of “the Jew” in English and American Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Craig, Terrence. Racial Attitudes in English-Canadian Fiction, 1905-1980. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1987.

Julius, Anthony. T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Mayo, Louise A. The Ambivalent Image: Nineteenth-Century America’s Perception of the Jew. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988.

Poliakov, Léon. The History of Anti-Semitism. Translated by George Klim. 4 vols. New York: Vanguard, 1965-1985.