Arthur A(llen) Cohen Cohen, Arthur A(llen) (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arthur A(llen) Cohen 1928–

American novelist, critic, theologian, editor, and publisher.

Cohen is considered a leading contemporary Jewish-American literary figure. His novels and scholarly works of nonfiction explore the difficulty of following a traditional Judaic ethos in an increasingly secular America. In his works Cohen exhorts his fellow Jews to practice a more devout life and set aside the materialistic aspects of American Judaism. Built on themes of particular concern to American Jews, Cohen's works have nonetheless been praised as successful depictions of the full range of modern life.

Cohen's early writings were primarily works of Jewish theology. These include The Natural and Supernatural Jew (1963), in which Cohen attempted to reconcile Jewish tradition with existentialism. His first novel, The Carpenter Years (1967), is the story of a Jew who leaves his family and his religion to adopt the lifestyle of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in Langham, Pennsylvania. When his Jewish son comes to Langham, the man must confront both his religious past and the family he left behind. The Carpenter Years examines the pressures on the modern Jew to forsake his past and the need to come to terms with his tradition. Although some critics found intriguing Cohen's attempt to develop the novel as a device for moral investigation, most argued that the work was overly didactic and that much of the plot was improbable.

Over the next decade Cohen wrote both fiction and nonfiction, including what has been called his best novel, In the Days of Simon Stern (1973). The story of a post-World War II messiah who sets up a haven for victims of the Holocaust in New York City's Lower East Side, this work was praised as an intellectual examination of belief and survival. Another novel, A Hero in His Time (1975), tells the tale of a Soviet Jewish poet who comes to the United States and is pressured by his government to deliver a poem that contains a coded KGB message. While some critics viewed the novel as an exercise in farce and praised its engaging humor, others considered it a more serious work in its examination of politics and art.

Acts of Theft (1979), Cohen's next novel, does not deal overtly with Judaism. Instead, it is the story of a European sculptor living in Mexico who steals pieces of pre-Columbian art to sell to collectors. Cohen was praised for providing insight into the creative process and for examining the idea that art is necessarily derived from previously established concepts, thus constituting a form of thievery.

In his recent novel An Admirable Woman (1983), Cohen narrates the story of a fictional Jewish scholar who has fled to the United States from Nazi Germany. Although the protagonist is fictional, Cohen has stated that she was inspired by the famed German scholar Hannah Arendt.

(See also CLC, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 28.)

Richard M. Elman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] Jewish-born protagonist of Arthur Cohen's first novel ["The Carpenter Years"], keen to the logic of his own de-spairing mediocrity, reflects lugubriously about the New York "Jewish mediocrity" he left behind in the middle of the Depression to assume the identity of a Christian functionary in a small Pennsylvania city: "All those people—small merchants and young eager businessmen winding their lives around success, joyless opulence, methodical accumulation, praising their own self-sacrifice, and raising their own children to admire the works which they wrought in despair—were real, but they meant nothing and they had no meaning to offer."

Within the context of the novel, such assertions by Edgar Morrison (Morris Edelman) are intended to simulate the reflections of a morally earnest man at a moment when his whole past is about to be uncovered, revisited upon him by the appearance in Langham, Pa., of the son whom he had abandoned nearly two decades earlier…. Clearly, we are meant to sympathize with Edgar's honesty, if not with his choice or with the deceits he must compound to remain a Christian. "What a damned serious man he is," Edgar's minister declares to the second wife, Edwinna, but it's my serious suspicion that the minister is mistaken. As soon as Edgar begins to reflect on why he did what he did it becomes obvious that he is really just a damned prig.

For even though one hates to uphold Jewish mediocrity, the facts are that when this man sought to get out from under the afflictions of his Jewish self-hate by allegedly pursuing his "Jewish destiny" through Christianity, Edgar Morrison left behind a helpless wife and a small child, in the care of his brother Stanley, who had a family of his own, and was, moreover, a firm...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Arthur R. Gold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Can a man who is not a novelist write a good novel? Mr. Cohen is not a novelist. He has mastered the ordinary techniques of modern fiction, the flashback, the controlled point of view, the scene doubling as action and the action doubling as dialogue. But he is content to use these techniques passively, never suggesting that he has something novel to contribute to the history of the form.

Yet The Carpenter Years is a good novel. It is good because the man who made it, though not imaginatively gifted, has known how to take advantage of the possibilities of conventional fiction as a medium of discourse and as a tool of investigation. As philosophers use myth, as novelists have sometimes used theology, so Mr. Cohen, a theologian, uses fiction—for purposes foreign to its ends, but proper to his.

What, for example, can we say of Mr. Cohen's main character, Edgar Morrison born Morris Edelman, an imperfect convert to American Christianity, once a failing accountant with Jewish wife and son in New York, now a YMCA director with gentile wife and son in a country town? As a created person, a man with an illegal passport into one's mind and heart, he is not substantial enough to be moving, for he has no life other than that given to him by his all too paradigmatic plot. Knowing him is like never knowing water except at the boiling point. But what has been made to move in him moves us deeply—two religions, each troubled, confronting each other in the invented laboratory of a consciousness sensitive enough to...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

David Daiches

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The details in ["The Carpenter Years"] are filled in with skill and care and there is some powerful and occasionally even moving writing. But the author moves uneasily between realism and symbolism. The tone is that of sociological and psychological precision, but the incidents are meant to have symbolic dimensions. As a result, there are two levels of probability at work which, instead of reinforcing each other, tend to destroy or at least weaken each other. The pressures that would make a Polish-Jewish immigrant want to appear as a WASP in an American small town are real pressures, and they result in real conflicts, real timidities, self-deceptions, internal strains. But to have such a person converted to Christianity by a nutty Hebrew Christian before finally landing a job as Presbyterian director of the YMCA in a Pennsylvania town, and to have him in the process commit bigamy and therefore not only expose himself to the criminal law but threaten the whole foundation of his new life—this is not plausible. But who wants that kind of plausibility in a symbolic novel?, it may be asked. Well, I do for one: the tone of the novel demands it. "The dilemma of Edelman-Morrison unforgettably symbolizes the dilemma of religion-hungry Americans in an age when the traditional demands of religion have become a burden few can bear," the blurb tells us. I cannot accept this. The special kind of conformity which Edelman-Morrison practices is insufficiently motivated, inadequately related to a psychological drive which in turn might be made symbolic of the urge to abandon differentiating traditions and seek conformity in modern American society.

I think this is a most interesting novel, in some ways a skillful novel, at some points a powerful novel, but I do not think that it consistently achieves the symbolic dimension the author clearly aimed at. (pp. 95-6)

David Daiches, "Symbolic Dimensions," in Commentary, Vol. 43, No. 4, April, 1967, pp. 94-6.

Richard Horchler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Carpenter Years is not a successful novel, which makes for particularly keen disappointment because it is—or has—a number of other very good things. Because Mr. Cohen is a thinker, there are important and provocative ideas in the book. Because he is a religious scholar and theologian, there are profound religious perceptions in it. Because he is a twentieth-century American and a believing Jew, there is in it an urgent concern for the spiritual meaning of the modern American experience, to the Jew and the Christian particularly.

But because Mr. Cohen is not a novelist—at least not yet a novelist—his interests, reflections and ideas are only hung on his characters and events, not embodied in them. Mr. Cohen is more interested in certain ideas and problems, it seems clear, than he is in his characters. If he were really interested in Edgar Morrison (Morris Edelman), for example, he would have to have seen a more complete, more believable human being than the one he presents. Morrison-Edelman's story—a monstrous story, twenty years past when we are introduced to him—is simply incredible. This is not to say that a history such as his is impossible, but that it is impossible for the man the author describes. Almost any man is capable of almost any action, of course, but actions to be believable and meaningful to a reader should be part of some kind of development, and in the case of Morrison-Edelman the past and...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In ["Acts of Theft"], Arthur A. Cohen assigns himself the formidable task of making us believe in an art—sculpture—that we can't see, of evoking space shaped in silence, "essential things," by a piling on of words. That he succeeds should come as no surprise. Mr. Cohen is always ambitious, and almost always succeeds. In his tour de force, "A Hero in His Time," he made us believe in a Russian-Jewish minor poet with whose soul Mr. Cohen had no right to be so well acquainted. In his astonishing "In the Days of Simon Stern," he made me believe that all of us are Jewish.

Stefan Mauger is Austrian, born with our century, of minor nobility, a young Count whose father goes mad. Educated in and around...

(The entire section is 713 words.)

Mark Shechner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Since it's not about Judaism but American Indians, Olmec heads, Mayan pots and Kwakiutl potlatches, "Acts of Theft," Arthur A. Cohen's fourth novel and eleventh book, may appear to be something of a departure from his usual terrain…. But "Acts of Theft" is about religion, and specifically about the kind of worship that Jews have historically held anathema: idolatry….

Those who buy this book expecting a straightforward drama of crime and detection will find Mauger sadly easy to catch. He drops clues everywhere. This is because, I guess, Mr. Cohen doesn't want the dramatics of pursuit and evasion to distract us from his ruminations on the morality of art. Hence he short-circuits his plot with...

(The entire section is 351 words.)

John Naughton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Acts of Theft is] about a believer in Art, but one who digs his own traps rather than falling into the ready-made ones which plague ordinary mortals. Acts of Theft opens in Mexico with a raid on the site of an archaeological dig and the removal of hundreds of priceless figurines. The operation is masterminded by an Austrian aristocrat and artist, Stephen Mauger; when the scene changes to a hunting-lodge in Silesia in the closing years of the 19th century, and the birth of the hero, one gets the sinking feeling that this is yet another Kentucky Fried Novel, constructed according to the formula that permits translation into lavish screenplay with the minimum of effort.

It pays to...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Cohen makes very clear in a foreword that all of his characters [in An Admirable Woman] "are derived wholly from the imagination," it is impossible to read his fine novel without thinking of the late Hannah Arendt. His "admirable woman" is a brilliant German Jewish scholar who flees Berlin with her gentile husband just in time, going first to Paris, then, none too soon, to America…. Cohen's constant probing of what constitutes true brilliance is a fascinating piece of scholarship in its own right, and his portrait of the Nazi era and what it wrought is haunting. To tease just a little, Cohen brings in an offstage Hannah Arendt as a longtime friend of the narrator and then has his "admirable woman"...

(The entire section is 138 words.)

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In an article distributed by the publisher along with "An Admirable Woman," Arthur Cohen says that Erika Hertz, the heroine of his novel, was "suggested to me by the remarkable personality and intellectual career of an old friend, Hannah Arendt." Reading this, one can see both the promise and the potential difficulties in portraying the philosopher and political scientist who wrote the "Origins of Totalitarianism," and "Eichmann in Jerusalem," as well as several other books. When she died almost eight years ago, Hannah Arendt was regarded as one of the most important political thinkers of her time.

To dress such a woman in fiction, to do her justice in an everyday context, is an ambitious project....

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Earl Shorris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Not so many years ago, before it became a stew of poverty and boutiques, the Upper West Side of New York was a German university town, and all the inhabitants were Jews. Or so it seemed to someone newly arrived from the Southwest. It was a miraculous town in which a pediatrician spoke of his schoolmate Sigmund Freud and the person on the next bench in Riverside Park browsed in a German edition of Martin Heidegger's "Being and Time." Part of the fascination of this town of the mind is that it was closed to outsiders, surrounded by walls of language and tragic history.

Now, with the university town largely gone, lost, like a person, to time, Arthur A. Cohen has written "An Admirable Woman," a novel in...

(The entire section is 551 words.)