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.