Eva Hoffman

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Genevieve Stuttaford (review date 9 December 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 210

SOURCE: Stuttaford, Genevieve. Review of Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, by Eva Hoffman. Publishers Weekly 234, no. 24 (9 December 1988): 54.

[In the following review, Stuttaford notes that an immigrant's assimilation into a new culture is the dominant theme in Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language.]

Daughter of Holocaust survivors, the author [Eva Hoffman], a New York Times Book Review editor, lost her sense of place and belonging when she emigrated with her family from Poland to Vancouver in 1959 at the age of 13. Although she works within a familiar genre in Lost in Translation, Hoffman's is a penetrating, lyrical memoir that casts a wide net as it joins vivid anecdotes and vigorous philosophical insights on Old World Cracow and Ivy League America; Polish anti-Semitism; the degradations suffered by immigrants; Hoffman's cultural nostalgia, self-analysis and intellectual passion; and the atrophy of her Polish from disuse and her own disabling inarticulateness in English as a newcomer. Linguistic dispossession, she explains, “is close to the dispossession of one's self.” As Hoffman savors the cadences and nuances of her adopted language, she remains ever conscious of assimilation's perils: “But how does one bend toward another culture without falling over, how does one strike an elastic balance between rigidity and self-effacement?”

Stanislaw Baranczak (review date 6 February 1989)

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SOURCE: Baranczak, Stanislaw. “The Confusion of Tongues.” New Leader 72, no. 3 (6 February 1989): 16-18.

[In the following review, Baranczak discusses the importance of language to the immigrant experience as related in Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language.]

Emigré, exile, expatriate—there may be more synonyms for these in Roget's Thesaurus, most of them probably beginning with an “e-” or “ex-,” those sad prefixes of exclusion. But the excluding “e-” has its antonymous companion, “in-,” as in inclusion or immigration. I suppose just about anybody who has ever crossed the frontier line between “e-” and “in-” has at least once experienced a profound sensation of semantic incongruity invading his existence. For the sake of brevity, let us call the sensation “the Babel syndrome.” I had my first touch of the Babel syndrome a couple of weeks after arriving in this country, at some crowded wine-and-cheese reception. Nursing a plastic glass and a Cheddar cube, and straining my vocal cords to outshout those who were straining their vocal cords to outshout me (this seems to be the purpose of crowded wine-and-cheese receptions), I was trying to enlighten my American interlocutor on the subject of cooperative housing in Poland. He had inquired whether it was as difficult to rent an inexpensive apartment in my hometown as it was in the Boston area.

I took a deep breath. “Well,” I said, “first of all, you rather seldom rent an apartment in Poland since, as a nation with a centrally planned economy, we naturally have less apartments than families, so there are no spare apartments to rent. Normally, you pay a housing cooperative plenty of cash up front and some 12 to 15 years later you get a place to live. The only thing is, you don't own the apartment you've paid for; the cooperative does. But you have the option to pay a lot more, also up front, and then, also 12 to 15 years later, you not only get a place to live, you become the proud owner of it as well. That is, if they don't change the regulations in the meantime. I guess the whole trick is roughly what you call condominium conversion,” I concluded, showing of one of my newly-acquired Americanisms.

At this very same instant, I was struck by the sudden realization that what...

(This entire section contains 2389 words.)

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I had been saying, perfectly logical as it would have been in Polish, made no sense in English. I had been using the right words and expressions, yet each of them had somehow missed the point. The coercive state-owned institution whose Polish name I had translated—formally speaking, quite accurately—as “housing cooperative” had nothing to do with whatever a “housing cooperative” might mean in America. The posh associations and immediate availability of the American “condominium” had nothing to do with the drab cubicle of concrete that a Pole is lucky to obtain keys to in his middle age, years after he has shelled out his hard-earned money. Even the verb “to own,” though again a formal equivalent of its Polish counterpart, referred to two distinctly different notions in the American and Polish contexts. Inadvertently, indeed with the best of intentions, instead of communicating some truth I had created a false image of reality. Instead of trapping things in fitting words, I let myself fall into language's trap.

It is at such moments that it dawns on you what emigration is all about.

Obviously enough, after moving his pursuit of happiness abroad, a major operating cost of the enterprise is that in most cases the immigrant faces an uphill struggle with the language he has to learn. Less easy to understand is that the struggle does not end once he has attained some basic proficiency, or even fluency, in the language of his adopted country. A million subtle ways in which the new language diverges from his innate ways of naming the world or expressing himself—and thus constantly remodels his already-shaped mentality—continue to keep him in a state of anguish.

If only for the price of his anguish he could become perfectly bilingual! But a transaction of that kind happens very rarely. There is an old saw about having as many existences as the languages you speak. This truth, though, has a slightly ominous underside: A genuinely equal fluency in more languages than one would make you the victim of a multiple personality disorder. The immigrant's brain usually staves off that threat by maintaining a steady difference of rank between his two languages: Either the adopted language never fully develops, or the native language gradually shrinks. Sometimes the worst case scenario takes place: The immigrant irretrievably loses his grip on the first language and never manages to get one on the second.

Be that as it may, transplanting yourself into the soil of a foreign language makes you, as a rule, wilt rather than flourish, feel deprived rather than enriched. As in every translation—for what else is the immigrant's process of assimilation if not an attempt to translate his expressible self into another language and culture?—the net result of your labors is a nagging feeling of incompleteness. In our human Tower of Babel not only poetry, according to Frost, but also identity may ultimately come down to what is lost in translation.

Multiply this loss by millions of today's variously displaced persons, and you face a problem of global proportions. It is the problem of incomplete semantic adjustment, of all that is inevitably “lost in translation” of the self from one language and culture into another. The universal significance and the sheer scope of this kind of formative (or deformative) experience makes one wonder: Where are all the memoiristic accounts and semantic explorations that we might logically expect? Why is it that nobody writes about this?

The reason is simple: Those who might, can't. The immigrants themselves are of course those who might have most to say about the losses suffered in this sort of “translation,” since they serve both as translators and translated material. The irony is that they also are, quite naturally, the least competent to express the multiple dimensions and subtle degrees of the loss in the language that is appropriated by them rather than owned by birthright. It is extremely rare that a writer emerges among them who is still rooted deeply enough in his native language to realize the problem's significance, while at the same time feeling sufficiently at ease in his adopted language to convey the problem's complexity to those who should realize it: his new countrymen.

Eva Hoffman, as the author of Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, is one of the rare exceptions. Her book, like virtually every immigrant memoir, is an account of great human interest, even more so because her life is a striking exemplar of an immigrant's American career. After all, not every East European newcomer who landed on this continent as a penniless adolescent with no English to speak of winds up with a Harvard graduate degree and a position as an editor at the New York Times Book Review. Yet there is more to this book than the story of a Polish girl who made good in the United States against all odds. Indeed, Lost in Translation calls for a new generic category: It should be called a “semiotic memoir.” It focuses on the difficulty of the immigrant's transition and assimilation, viewed from various perspectives at once—cultural, social, mental, and sentimental, to name but a few. Within this general issue, however, the book's most interesting and original theme is that of “a life in a new language,” a mind's transition from one language system to another, and its assimilation to the new kind of perception and outlook that the new language entails.

Hoffman's insights into this process are exceptionally illuminating, thanks not only to her keen intelligence and discernment but also her specific background. She has been the ideal case, as it were, for her own clinical study. To begin with, she left Poland with her family at the age of 13—that is to say, at the moment when the immigrant's native language is already developed enough to stay with him for good, whereas his mind is still receptive and flexible enough to achieve a full command of the second language. Moreover, as a daughter in a Jewish family that had lived through the Nazi occupation and Poland's turbulent postwar years, she brought along to America a specific kind of sensitivity, one constantly on the lookout to signals of estrangement or maladjustment resulting from ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences. Finally, as an artistically-inclined child and teenager (just before her family's emigration she was on the threshold of a promising career as a pianist), she represented the type of personality that combines rich inner resources with a strong urge to communicate them to others. From this point of view, it is particularly interesting that after merely a couple of years spent on this continent she decided, against all logic and despite her initial disappointing experiences with English, to switch from the international language of music to studying literature and eventually expressing herself as a writer.

She must have achieved full proficiency in her second language relatively early, then. But the book is not so much about the author's success in mastering the second language as it is about her difficulty in “translating” herself fully from the first into the second. Not only are the languages here, Polish and English, incompatible in a strictly linguistic sense (that is, in the sense of all the semantic problems resulting from the obvious fact that any two languages' respective structures never exactly mirror one another); they are also incompatible by dint of their different built-in associations, connotations, traditions, value systems. This creates a huge number of specific hurdles, pitfalls and stumbling blocks—from psychological to social—particularly during the period of transition and learning, when the immigrant literally translates his entire mental system from one language to another.

“… the problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now don't stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. … When my friend Penny tells me that she's envious, or happy, or disappointed, I try laboriously to translate not from English to Polish but from the word back to its source, to the feeling from which it springs. Already, in that moment of strain, spontaneity of response is lost. And anyway, the translation doesn't work. I don't know how Penny feels when she talks about envy. The word hangs in a Platonic stratosphere. … [T]his radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances—its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.”

The process of linguistic assimilation consists, in fact, precisely in trying to forget the fissure between word and thing, in striving to become, just as the natives are, an unthinking, automatic user of the language with all its semantic and cognitive strings attached. But such liberation from linguistic self-consciousness cannot be easily won. Hoffman's autobiographic story of growing up in Canada and entering academic and then professional life in the USA provides a number of enlightening illustrations of this reality. There are social situations requiring linguistic spontaneity, the lack of which makes you immediately an outsider, if only in your own oversensitive perception. There is the psychological self-assurance you are robbed of as long as there is the slightest trace of foreignness in your grammar or accent. There is the problem of your inner language: If you think in Polish and communicate in English, the effects this has on your mind may be close to schizophrenic.

What about such seemingly simple undertakings as, for instance, writing a diary? Writing it in the English of your outward communication would violate the diary's intimate essence; choosing the Polish of your innermost self would make it impossible for you to record the outer experience of the new world, for it can be adequately named only in its own language. And what about situations that require speech both intimate and outward, such as lovers' entreaties or quarrels? What about the language of your dreams?

Even after the process of self-translation has been completed, the native language, though increasingly forced out by the second, nonetheless stays with you for a long time, in most cases forever. If at some stage one attains, as Hoffman did in her student years, the precarious state of perfect bilingualism, the ideal equilibrium between two languages, this may well result, as we said before, in a literally split personality. Hoffman gives a striking example of the specific moment in her life when, vacillating over her marriage plans, she was able to come to diametrically opposed conclusions depending on whether she was thinking of her future in English or in Polish. The value system programmed imperceptibly into the language we speak and think in influences our behavior remarkably—semanticists like Alfred Habdank Korzybski and S. I. Hayakawa made us aware of that a long time ago. But only a bilingual person can, by way of comparison, realize and give an account of the extent to which our interpretation of the world depends on the dictates of a specific language system. And the extent to which, consequently, not merely individuals but entire nations may differ in their most basic preconceived notions about reality.

“Triangulation” is the word that appears with peculiar frequency on the pages of this book. It is meant to signify how the immigrant, caught between two languages and their two built-in philosophies, uses these two given angles to find a distant resultant: his own position in life and versus life. As Hoffman observes in the concluding paragraphs of her book, what seems to be the immigrant's deprivation may thus be viewed, at the same time, as a spiritually enriching experience. What from one perspective appears a split personality may turn out to be a profoundly advantageous “multivalent consciousness”; the gap between the two languages may become “a chink, a window through which I can observe the diversity of the world.” The immigrant's Babel syndrome may be just another name for the ultimate recognition of the human world's maddening yet magnificent plurality.

William A. Proefriedt (essay date spring 1989)

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SOURCE: Proefriedt, William A. “The Immigrant or ‘Outsider’ Experience as Metaphor for Becoming an Educated Person in the Modern World: Mary Antin, Richard Wright, and Eva Hoffman.” MELUS 16, no. 2 (spring 1989): 77-89.

[In the following essay, Proefriedt examines the educational aspects of the immigrant experience, focusing on the work of Hoffman, Mary Antin, and Richard Wright.]

A great deal of thinking about educating people who move from one culture to another has gone on in this country in the twentieth century. At its best, this thinking has focused on the ways in which equality of opportunity could be enhanced for an immigrant population through educational means. At its very best, questions of cultural identity, and a concern with the value of the native culture of immigrants, have been included. At its worst, concerns with order and with a careless assimilation have occupied center stage.

In all of this, those moving from one culture to another have been viewed as presenting an educational problem. There surely are senses in which that is the case. But it is also the case that for some persons the experience of moving between or among cultures is undergone in ways that are profoundly educational. Further, an analysis of the educational dimensions of this experience raises questions about our understanding of educational purposes. I will argue that the immigrant experience serves as metaphor for what it means to be genuinely educated in the modern world.

I base my argument on reading that I have been doing recently in the autobiographies of immigrants and other outsiders. I began these studies with an interest in looking at passages in the autobiographies that referred specifically to schooling experience, but I soon realized that however important a role schooling played in these works, the most significant educational phenomena were taking place in the ways in which individuals constructed their experience of movement between and among cultures. In this essay, I will look at Mary Antin's The Promised Land, Richard Wright's Black Boy, and the more recent, Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. My major focus will be on the Wright autobiography.

Born in 1881, Mary Antin was the daughter of Jewish parents. Raised in the town of Polotzk, located in the Russian Pale, she came to America before the turn of the century, and published her autobiography in 1912. During the twenties and thirties the book was used as a kind of civics text in urban classrooms. We shall see why. Richard Wright's autobiography, of course, did not qualify as a civics text. It is the moving story of his growing up in the South in the early part of this century, and ends with his move, as a very young man, to Chicago. Eva Hoffman's autobiography, published in 1989, tells the tale of a young Jewish woman who grew up after the second world war in Cracow, moved with her family to Canada when she was still in high school, and on to the United States for her college and graduate school education.

The reports in each of the autobiographies allow me to explore the different ways in which a movement between and among cultures provides the setting for educational growth, and to describe the ways in which these intercultural experiences point to a particular understanding of educational purpose in the modern world. Let me offer first a rather thin soup version of my two interrelated claims and then thicken the soup with illustrations from the three texts under discussion. The movement from one culture to another can allow the person undergoing the experience to look at the claims and assumptions of each culture, which might otherwise be perceived as simply “givens,” in a different light. Instead of one set of beliefs and practices being offered to the person as the way of life, the message becomes, in the construction of the learner, “Here is one way, among others, of doing things.” The individual becomes radically decentered, geographically and otherwise, and ceases to identify one cultural experience as a set of universal truths against which other lesser claims are measured. Nothing stands at the center. All is in motion. The immigrant, or cultural outsider, is given access to this fundamental truth, at once liberating and frightening, of the modern world. Relatedly, it is the movement between and among cultures, and the recognition of fragmentation within cultures, that leads to a reformulation of the central purposes of education.

For centuries the dominant view of educational purpose has been the induction of the young into the knowledge, values and practices of a given society. If there was a liberatory aspect to this educational theory, the liberation was reserved for a priestly or leadership class that would have the task of running the society. As late as the turn of the century, we see Emile Durkheim, in an effort of desperate nostalgia, long after the king has been killed and the church pushed to the margins of national life, attempt to reinstitute an absolute moral order, rooted only in the moral practice of the day, but presented to the students as making absolute claims on them.1

The twentieth century has witnessed the development of educational theory, which, while not viewing the notion of induction into society as necessarily pernicious, has surely challenged it, at least on the theoretical level, in the name of an education which emphasizes the encouragement of “critical thinking” and the capacity to reflect intelligently on the assumptions and often conflicting claims of the society of which one is a part. A look at the specific cognitive strategies of Mary Antin, Richard Wright, and Eva Hoffman, as they move among different cultures, gives us both a sense of the conditions of the modern world which give rise to a reformulation of traditional educational purposes, and a richer sense of the forms these new purposes, usually operating under the rubric of “critical thinking,” might take.

Too often the stories of earlier immigrants to America followed a pattern of embracing the values of the new world, the promised land or paradise, as an alternative to a stultifying existence in the native country. Alternatively, one sees the celebration of the native land in the face of difficulties in the new world. The materialistic Babylon is rejected for the memory of a better, simpler and purer way of life in the native country. Analyses of immigrant autobiographies, understandably; tended to focus on this oscillation between the limits of the native land and the new world.2

The stories themselves, and the analyses that followed upon them, emphasized the themes of celebration and rejection, whether of native land or new world. One can also find in the stories, however, a recognition of the educational dimension of the movement from one culture to another and the consequent endowment of the subject with capacities to see more richly because one sees with the eyes of two cultures. This educational theme has been less attended to by later interpreters than the theme of the conflict between the old and the new society. It is a theme to which I want to draw attention.


Mary Antin begins her story enunciating the belief that she is no longer her earlier self. She renounces her own childhood. “I was born. I have lived, and I have been made over. Is it not time to write my life's story? I am just as much out of the way as if I were dead, for I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell.”3 Antin believes that her new self is capable of objectively analyzing the self of the younger Mary Antin. One can interpret this within the motif of rejection of the past and the embracing of the new. There is much in Antin's book to warrant such an interpretation. The same Mary Antin who insists on the radical disjuncture between her earlier and her present self, however, tells us that her questions and dreams are rooted in those of her parents and grandparents. “The tongue am I of those who lived before me, as those that are to come will be the voice of my unspoken thoughts” (222). The ambiguity remains unconscious, but at least partially educationally fruitful. The celebration of her rootedness in a tradition acknowledges and takes possession of an historically and socially constituted self through which she may view her present; at the same time, the simultaneous distancing of the present self from past and childhood allows a more analytic view of them.

It is not simply her movement from one period of time, from one geographical place to another which allows her a deeper understanding. From early on, she is “deprived” of any single society into which she might be inducted. She is made painfully aware of the differences in power and practice between the larger Russian community and that of her own Jewish family and community living within the Russian Pale. But she also, as an individual, begins to distance herself from the beliefs and practices of the Jewish community. She observes her father quietly breaking Jewish laws, and then breaks the law herself. She waits for God's punishment, which doesn't come. Already questioning the existence of God, she is further estranged from the Jewish community by her recognition that as a girl she is cut off from opportunities to which her brother has access.

Her move to America and her induction into its civil religion through its settlement houses and public schools is not then her first opportunity to take the measure of a community which is bent on the task of inducting her into it. The Russian nation-state had made clear to her and to her family that they were not to be allowed full membership in it. The family's response was migration. She perceived America—and there were large elements of self-deception in this—as accepting her. She longed to be a part of the American nation as she and her family had never been of the Russian state; the young girl who had never felt fully accepted even by the Jewish community in Polotzk, wanted now to be a part of American history and the American community. Throughout her life she went back and forth between a celebration of her acceptance into the American community, and a polemic against America's treatment of immigrants.4 It is hard not to believe that her claimed admiration for George Washington and for the American civil religion did not have a touch of the motives of her father in hanging the czar's picture in the living room in Polotzk when he knew the police were coming. If, indeed, in her efforts to become one with the heroes of her promised land, she engaged in some deception of herself and others, she nevertheless benefitted from her uneasy relation with each of the social contexts which constituted her self, entering and reentering these different worlds, never fully at home in any of them, but using each to take the measure of the other.5


Richard Wright, like Mary Antin, grew up in a situation in which he was alienated from his peers, his family, the religious community to which family members belonged, and most of all from the white society of the American South of the early part of this century. More than a third of the way through his autobiography, filled with details of his extraordinary and conflict-filled childhood, Wright reports that he was enrolled in a Seventh-Day Adventist School in which his Aunt Addie taught. He describes his fellow students as docile, without will, and emotionally flat.

I was able to see them with an objectivity that was inconceivable to them. They were claimed wholly by their environment and could imagine no other, whereas I had come from another plane of living, from the swinging doors of saloons, the railroad yard, the roundhouses, the street gangs, the river levees, an orphan home; had shifted from town to town and home to home; had mingled with grownups more than perhaps was good for me.6

Wright here turns what might have been a summary lament for the displacement and the wide and cruel experiences of his childhood into a celebration of the broadened capacities his moving among multiple societies had engendered in him and a recognition that the other boys in the school had suffered a narrowing of their perceptual and imaginative possibilities in the univocal environments in which they had grown.

Wright shares with Mary Antin the ambiguity of desiring to be a part of a community and of relishing his aloneness. He moves to a public school, and in a grocery store at lunchtime with his classmates, he goes hungry rather than tell them that his grandmother has, for religious reasons, forbidden him to work on Saturdays, and that, consequently, he has no money:

Again and again I vowed that some day I would end this hunger of mine, this apartness, this eternal difference; and I did not suspect that I would never get intimately into their lives, that I was doomed to live with them but not of them, that I had my own strange and separate road, a road which in later years would make them wonder how I came to tread it.

(BB [Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth] 140)

Later, Wright and his mother joined a Methodist church. He longed also to be a part of this community, but he remained the observer. “I liked it and I did not like it: I longed to be among them, yet when with them I looked at them as if I were a million miles away” (BB 140). He liked the people in the church, and they urged him to become a member, to be baptized. At a revival meeting, he tells us, the preacher separated the few non-church members from the others. The mothers of these boys and other church members prayed and sang hymns while they awaited the boys' decisions to come forward and be baptized.

The mothers knelt. My mother grabbed my hands and I felt hot tears scalding my fingers. I tried to stifle my disgust. We young men had been trapped by the community, the tribe in which we lived and of which we were a part. The tribe, for its own safety, was asking us to be at one with it.

(BB 169)

Wright tells us that if he refused to join the church, which was equated with refusing to love his mother, he would be perceived as a moral monster. His mother pulled his arm and he walked with her to the preacher. “I had not felt anything except sullen anger and a crushing sense of shame. Yet I was somehow glad that I had got it over with; no barriers now stood between me and the community” (BB 170). But, of course, Wright would rebuild the barriers, and re-enact the drama of joining, distancing himself from, evaluating, and leaving other communities throughout his life.7

Whatever conflicts Wright had with family, friends, and church paled beside his collision with the culture of the white South. His mother was at first unwilling to explain to him just how matters stood between white and black society in the early decades of the twentieth century. But he soon became aware of the dangerous situation in which he lived. He heard a story of a black woman whose husband had been killed by a white mob. She asked to recover her husband's body, and with a weapon concealed in the sheets in which she was to wrap the body, she shot four of his killers. This story captured the imagination of Wright, who felt powerless in his dealing with older whites, and he fantasized about repeating the woman's actions if he were faced with a white mob.

Throughout his life, Wright refused to behave in ways others expected; this was especially true in his relations with whites. He celebrated this confrontational quality in himself and saw it as crucial to the person and writer he was to become. Just as he rebelled against the formal public educational system, he rebelled also against the values and practices which constituted the informal education system for Blacks in the American South. He refused to accept white definitions of what it meant to be a young black man, prompting one of his classmates, advising him about getting a job, to warn him to learn how to live in the South if he didn't want to get killed. “‘Dick,’ his friend, Griggs, warned him, ‘look, you're black, black, black. Can't you understand that?’” (BB 202-3). It is this sort of learning, this sort of understanding that most of us being inducted into communities are quite good at. We learn our roles, playing them out in an unquestioning fashion. We remain unaware of other options. We perform the roles defined for us by a community in order to be fully accepted into it. But Wright, who was alienated from family members, from his school friends, and from his religious community, who had refused to accept his place in communities which arguably had much to offer him, was not about to pay the price in belief, attitude and behavior to gain acceptance by southern whites.

His friend urged him to think before he acted or spoke.

What Griggs was saying was true, but it was simply utterly impossible for me to calculate, to scheme, to act, to plot all the time. I would remember to dissemble for short periods, then I would forget and act straight and human again, not with the desire to harm anybody, but merely forgetting the artificial status of race and class.

(BB 204)

This forgetting on Wright's part does not, of course, represent a flight from consciousness of his situation, but a refusal to go down a road in which behaviors that begin as dissimulation end as defining the self. He contrasts his inability to learn his role with the abilities of his peers who learn theirs all too well. Speaking of young black men working with him as hotel employees when he was seventeen, Wright says,

I began to marvel at how smoothly the black boys acted out the roles that the white race had mapped out for them. Most of them were not conscious of living a special separate, stunted way of life. Yet I knew that in some period of their growing up—a period that they had no doubt forgotten—there had been developed in them a delicate sensitive controlling mechanism that shut off their minds and emotions from all that the white race had said was taboo.

(BB 216)

Here is the real loss of consciousness, the real forgetting that allows a kind of learning, a learning of roles imposed by those with no intention of allowing the young black men full participation in the larger community. Wright understood the nature of the social pedagogy at work, saw the tragedy of the internalization of white values by those who “learned” what it was to be black.

Wright's understanding of the ways in which he was perceived by whites in power left him feeling lost. He never knew when he would make a mistake and be punished for it. He sensed the arbitrariness of this world in relation to him. “I no longer felt bound by the laws which white and black were supposed to obey in common. I was outside those laws; the white people had told me so” (BB 220). Wright perceived the deception and despotism at the heart of the laws and institutions of the white society, and its cynical purposes in assigning demeaning roles to blacks. And so he stepped outside.

It is easy to read Wright's autobiography as only a rejection of his childhood and the people and places that were a part of it. He tells us,

I was building up in me a dream which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle. I was feeling the very thing that the state of Mississippi had spent millions of dollars to make sure that I would never feel … In me was shaping a yearning for a kind of consciousness, a mode of being that the way of life about me had said could not be, must not be, and upon which the penalty of death had been placed.

(BB 186-87)

On the one hand, as Mary Antin did, Wright rejected his childhood; but on the other, as with Mary Antin, he celebrated it. A full understanding of each must capture both the rejection and the celebration and identify precisely what is being rejected and what is being celebrated.

At two separate points in his autobiography, Wright pauses in the naturalistic descriptions of the terrors of his childhood, to offer in a lyrical, incantatory style, impressions of the sights and sounds of his childhood.

There was the delight I caught in seeing long, straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.

There was the faint cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet garden paths in the early morning.

There was the vague sense of the infinite, as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.8

These powerful and positive memories of his childhood surely were the beginnings of the intense and energetic experiencing of the world that Wright was to carry with him throughout his life. At his grandmother's home in Jackson, a young boarder, a schoolteacher named Ella, tells a still very young Richard the story of Bluebeard. “The tale made the world around me be, throb, live. As she spoke, reality changed, the look of things altered and the world became peopled with magical presences” (47). Wright's lively experience of the world was enhanced by stories, and though he was forbidden to read fiction, he eventually began writing it himself, taking an odd pleasure in the fact that his earliest readers were baffled by his imaginative efforts. Wright tells us that by the time he was twelve he had already developed an attitude toward life that he would carry with him. He saw himself as skeptical, seeking, tolerant yet critical, sympathetic, and at once tender and cruel, violent and peaceful.

He looked for the suffering in others he knew he would find. “… It [the attitude he had developed as a child] made me love talk that sought answers to questions that could help nobody, that could only keep alive in me the enthralling sense of wonder and awe in the face of the drama of human feeling which is hidden by the external drama of life” (BB, 112). Wright himself then tells us that his fundamental emotional and intellectual attitudes toward life were formulated in his childhood in Mississippi. That these experiences are reported as cruel and terrifying ones does not undermine his claim; they were nevertheless transformed by him into educational experiences, experiences that helped to form the inquiring and sympathetic attitude toward the world he describes.

But Wright did leave things behind him, rejected them, moved into a genuinely new life. There were real tensions and ambiguities when he looked back on that old life through the eyes of a man who had taken as his own American and World literature, who had gone to Chicago and New York, who had lived an active political, personal, and literary life, and who was about to take his place on the world stage. He speaks of coming back to see his father, a quarter-century after they had been separated. He sees the two of them as forever strangers. “I was overwhelmed to realize that he could never understand me or the scalding experiences that had swept me beyond his life and into an area of living that he could never know” (BB, 42). The early fear of his father had turned to a distancing. There was a gulf. New things had been learned. There was also understanding from a new perspective, a looking at the past through a new conceptual structure. With Wright, as with Mary Antin, there was an educationally fruitful ambiguity, a painful double vision of the world.


Fear and powerlessness were not, as in Wright, dominant notes in Eva Hoffman's childhood. Growing up in post-war Cracow, Hoffman was heir to her family's experience of the Holocaust. She was herself subject to anti-Semitic comments. What emerges, however, from the portrait of her childhood in Cracow, is an essentially bright, happy and confident child, headed for a career as a concert pianist. America was no promised land for her. She objected to her parents' decision to emigrate to Canada.

In a lyrical passage early in her work, Hoffman celebrated the experience of her childhood:

… The country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love. It lives within me despite my knowledge of our marginality … It has fed me language, perceptions, sounds, the human kind. It has given me the colors and furrows of reality, my first loves.9

The intensity of her childhood experiences gives her a point of view from which to take the measure of the values and practices she encounters later in Canada and in the United States.

Like Antin and Wright, Hoffman does not grow up in a community that speaks in one voice. There is no simple induction into a set of beliefs and way of life. She is caught up by the complex forces of Polish and Russian nationalism, of international communism and Roman Catholicism, and of her own tenuous Judaism. It is painful and confusing, but she escapes the absolutism of the closed society. Hoffman notes that the teachers in school don't take seriously the official history they teach. The oppressive king in the communist text becomes a Polish patriot in the teacher's discussion.

Later in Vancouver, a history teacher points to Poland on a map, and Hoffman realizes that to her fellow students, Poland is only this bit of color, whose location they will quickly forget. To her, it is the center of the universe. From now on, she tells us, she will see Poland with this double vision, through her own eyes, and through the eyes of her classmates. “I have been dislocated from my own center of the world, and that world had been shifted away from my center” (132). She discovers that what was central to her own life is peripheral to others. This sort of discovery, here taking a geographic form, seems a central educational event. Access to other ways of looking at the world calls into question the absolute character of our own understanding of it.

In the United States, in discussions with friends, Hoffman celebrates this playing off of one perspective against another. She sees it as her intellectual strength. It enables her to identify the assumptions from which others work. It allows her to define her world in a wider and more critical fashion. Crucially she does not claim to ascend into some empyrean air outside of all culture, but points to her understanding of the play of cultural forces on herself and others as providing her with an understanding denied those who have not undergone the sort of displacement experiences she describes. She sacrifices the certainty of monocultural individuals, unable to examine their own assumptions because they lack the sympathetic and imaginative capacities to situate themselves in another perspective, for the uncertain understanding allotted to those who seek to incorporate multiple perspectives into the meanings they assign to their experience.


Despite the fragmented conditions of our society, some educational theory and policy making continues to be made with an eye primarily to inducting people into what are taken to be its common values. A recent formulation of such an approach suggested that,

devotion to human dignity and freedom, to equal rights, to social and economic justice … to the rule of law, to civility and truth, to tolerance of diversity, to personal and civic responsibility, to self-restraint and self-respect,—all these must be taught and learned and practiced.10

Not a bad list as such lists go. Twenty-four hundred years previously, in directing educational practice in his imagined society, Plato had, among other things, urged that care be taken in the ways in which Gods and heroes were depicted in stories told to the children. He wanted them shown as rational, courageous and moderate, fit models for the children. Every society has sought in ways more or less educationally sound to pass on its values to its young.

It is a peculiarity of the modern world, however, that we turn the values of these different societies, and their efforts to pass them on to their members, into objects of scrutiny. We, whoever the “we” may be, and to the extent that we are modern, recognize ourselves as one of many societies engaged in the business of sustaining and passing on the values, institutions, and practices which constitute us. We recognize also the fragmentation in our own society. Individual societies lose the confidence, stemming from a perception of themselves as standing at the center of the world, in their peculiar relation to a divine order or pattern of history. It is not just that the center doesn't hold; we cannot locate it.

Such a situation presents problems for those engaged in the task of formulating a moral or civic education in modern societies. When we no longer work from a pre-modern blindness to the claims of other cultures, when we no longer see our own values as possessing a special, sacral character and history, how do we ground our value claims? Various strategies are possible, including simply denying the complexities of modernity. But an honest educational policy can be formulated which introduces society's young to the modern situation, a situation which minimally recognizes that many societies, within themselves, make at least partially conflicting claims about what it means to lead a good life, and that there are real differences over which of these ways are more worthwhile. Indeed, there are differences over the issue of whether such comparative questions may fruitfully be asked.

A kind of cosmopolitanism, then, must be at least a part of the sort of person a modern education would want to aim at. Indeed, there can no longer be any shaping of a character for a particular culture; that sort of vision of education becomes anomalous in the modern situation. Thus, the immigrant, the outsider, the person moving from one society to the other, and, importantly, undergoing the experience in a reflective fashion, becomes the model for what it means to be educated in the modern world. For what is needed henceforth is a capacity to measure the values of one society against another, to embrace the radical decentering of the world brought home by the movement from one culture to another.

Thus, when contemporary educational theorists talk about teaching students to think critically, rather than merely inducting them into the ongoing values of the society, they are reflecting the fragmented situation in which we find ourselves. The call for such critical thinking can too easily be confused with cultural assimilation or a notion of reason falsely assumed to be operating outside of any cultural ground. A look at the actual progress of outsiders and immigrants like Antin, Wright, and Hoffman as they recall, assimilate, confront, and dance along the edges of the different cultures in which they live, provides us with a rich set of concrete attitudes and strategies for learning that, together, comprise an alternative educational ideal in the modern world.


  1. Emile Durkheim (trans. Everett Wilson and Herman Schnurer), Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education.

  2. William Boelhower's understanding of immigrant autobiography as emanations of a macrotext illustrating “anticipation, contact, and contrast: Old World reality versus New World ideal; New World ideal versus New World reality; Old World reality versus New World reality” (p. 40) in, however legitimately, emphasizing the question of whether the autobiographers choose celebration of the old world or assimilation to the new, masks the educational questions of the ways in which they construct their intercultural experience. Immigrant Autobiography in the United States: Four Versions of the Italian-American Self.

    Following Boelhower, Siep Tiefenthaler studied three Jewish-American autobiographers, Ludwig Lewisohn, Anzia Yezierska, and I. B. Singer, and concluded, “Instead of creating a new self, a new world self, through a process of one-way assimilation to standard norms and values provided by the Anglo-American Christian cultural inventory, these three autobiographers tried to achieve cultural identity of their own either by renegotiating their initial assimilatory attempts, or by an act of rejection of and resistance to such smooth assimilation” (p. 49). In the same essay, Tiefenthaler says “… Mary Antin's The Promised Land can be seen as a prime example of smooth, one-way assimilation” (p. 37). “The Search for Cultural Identity: Jewish-American Immigrant Autobiographies as Agents of Ethnicity.” Again, this view of autobiographers only in terms of ethnic celebration versus smooth assimilation, cuts us off from further exploration of the complex and educationally fruitful ways in which someone like Mary Antin went about the business of moving between cultures.

  3. Mary Antin, The Promised Land. 9.

  4. Mary Antin, They Who Knock at Our Gates.

  5. For a fuller interpretation of the Antin autobiography, see my “The Education of Mary Antin.”

  6. Richard Wright, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth. 116. Hereafter BB in text.

  7. See Wright's American Hunger, which tells of his life as a young adult in Chicago and New York. American Hunger was the original title of the full autobiography which Wright submitted for publication, and included the text of Black Boy and what later came to be American Hunger. I confine myself here to Black Boy, but Wright's other autobiographical work, and his deeply autobiographical fiction, especially The Outsider, further illustrate my argument that immigrants and outsiders have a special opportunity to construct their experiences in educationally fruitful ways. I also do not touch on the question of the “truthfulness” of Wright's reporting in this essay, an important issue among interpreters of his work.

  8. BB, 14. His list goes on for two pages, and there is a similar one on 53-55.

  9. Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, 74. Recall Wright's lyrical recollections. Listen to Antin: “I was eating strawberries the other day, ripe, red American strawberries. Suddenly, I experienced the very flavor and aroma of some strawberries I ate perhaps twenty years ago, … I became a child again, … I wandered about Polotzk, … I rode the Atlantic in an immigrant ship …” (Antin 92-93). Neither Wright nor Antin is usually perceived as celebrating childhood.

  10. Education for Democracy, 8.

Works Cited

Antin, Mary. The Promised Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911, 1969.

———. They Who Knock at Our Gates. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914.

Boelhower, William. Immigrant Autobiography in the United States: Four Versions of the Italian-American Self. Verona: Essedue Editions, 1982.

Durkheim, Emile. Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education, trans. Everett Wilson and Herman Schnurer. Glencoe: The Free Press, 1961.

Education for Democracy. A Statement of Principles. Guidelines for Strengthening the Teaching of Democratic Values. A Joint Statement of the American Federation of Teachers, The Educational Excellence Network, and Freedom House. 1988.

Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. New York: E. P. Dutton and Sons, 1989.

Proefriedt, William A. “The Education of Mary Antin,” The Journal of Ethnic Studies, 17.4: 81-100.

Tiefenthaler, Siep. “The Search for Cultural Identity: Jewish American Immigrant Autobiographies as Agents of Ethnicity,” MELUS 12.4 (Winter 1985): 37-51.

Wright, Richard. American Hunger. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

———. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: Perennial Library, 1937, 1966.

Andrew Clifford (review date 15 December 1989)

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SOURCE: Clifford, Andrew. “Teach Yourself American.” New Statesman and Society 2, no. 80 (15 December 1989): 38-9.

[In the following review, Clifford argues that Hoffman's language in Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language is too Americanized to adequately articulate the division between her Polish heritage and American upbringing.]

Immigrants arriving in their new country make similar choices to those made by the indigenous children who are growing up in it. They have to decide, principally, what to accept, reject and rework in their new adult or foreign culture. While the young take up their options to some extent unconsciously, a typical immigrant can hum and hah about each item and attitude to be selected or refused.

That this can provide ample material for an autobiographical novel seems unquestionable—after all, the ambiguous eye of a foreigner, who wants to be part of a world from which he or she feels distanced, seems to occupy a position analogous to that of a western conception of the artist. Eva Hoffman has faith in these parallels between artist and immigrant, but her rather overwritten book Lost in Translation makes one realise that a real artist constructs a more complex perspective than mere critical distance.

Her book is divided into three parts, telling of her life in Poland up to the age of 13, then her experiences in Canada and America after her Jewish parents decided to emigrate in 1959; and finally of her successful, somewhat bittersweet incorporation into American culture, where she now works as an editor of the New York Times Book Review.

But there is little in the book which lives up to its title's promised ideological mediation and flux. There is instead a kind of TLS analysis of the different feelings of nostalgia and resentment which her immigration provoked in her. And the narrative progresses into a rather uninteresting and unconvincing tale of self-fulfilment—and consequently bypasses many of the most important issues of class, gender and subjectivity that could have been raised.

For Hoffman makes her tale thoroughly personal; and since for the most part she does not possess a novelist's gift for piercing observations or thumbnail sketches, her book also lacks the kind of individualistic incisiveness which writers more conservative than her can still achieve. Far from her position as an immigrant enabling her to gain any radical purchase on her new culture, the only critique she seems to offer of America is to be wistful about Poland in comparison.

Indeed, although she imagines herself to have largely retained her Polish identity, her style of writing, stacked with metaphors and similes, rationally personal and with a kind of low-key lyricism, is pure literary Americanese—not without its poignancy, but also with a lot of scraping around and being metaphysical instead of explicit.

While undergoing psychoanalysis, towards the end of the book, Hoffman finds she has started to recall her most profound childhood memories in the American language of her adopted country, instead of in Polish as had previously been the case. This, apart from sounding too much of a conceit to ring true about the real experience of remembering, carries with it an over-literal understanding of how a different language brings with it different ideological positions. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Hoffman conflates the internalised meanings of a new language with merely learning its vocabulary.

This inexactness is typical of a book which is seemingly about language, philosophy, and the modern cultural inheritance, and yet which never succeeds in being moving or telling, because really it's just an old-fashioned autobiography about immigrant nostalgia and adaptation.

Read simply as an account of what it's like to be a liberal American, Lost in Translation is not unenjoyable—even if its tendency to reduce experience to a kind of adult Dear Diary prose is hard to overlook. But Hoffman's translation from Polish to American has been just that bit too complete and one feels by the end of the book that the only way she can really return to her Polish past is with a travel brochure and phrase book.

Philip Marsden (review date 4 December 1993)

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SOURCE: Marsden, Philip. “Sweet are the Uses of Diversity.” Spectator 271, no. 8630 (4 December 1993): 44.

[In the following review, Marsden offers a positive assessment of Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe, calling the work “profound and provocative.”]

The re-emergence of Eastern Europe used to be such a simple issue. The communists were gone, and everyone was free to be like us. Accustomed to seeing those beyond the Iron Curtain as somehow homogenous, we expected them to become free uniformly as well.

But they haven't. Difference has become the antidote to ideology. For comprehension we must now wade through a mire of proto-democrats, turncoat communists, neo-fascists, gun-wielding nationalists and mafia hoods. To look for clues in towns from the Baltic to the Black Sea is to be met with a barrage of discordant voices: street traders, currency touts, buskers, guitar-playing Christians, swaying followers of Hare Krishna, purring BMWs, German beer hoardings.

‘Welcome to post-modern time’, says Eva Hoffman wryly, towards the end of her profound and provocative book [Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe]. ‘The shrinks will surely follow.’

Eva Hoffman comes from New York—at least the part of her that wrote that. The other part is a Polish emigrée who, as a girl in 1959, left Cracow for the United States. She recorded this wrenching transition in Lost in Translation, a piece of immensely powerful autobiography which, with its sharp-edged honesty, its universality, brought the experience of exile to the level of poetic revelation.

In the years following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Eva Hoffman returned to Poland. She travelled south through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria. Her main quest, which is reenacted in a hundred conversations and encounters, is a temporal one: she was searching for history as it happened.

To begin with, in Poland, she fails to find it. In the Warsaw streets, she peers into the still haunted faces and finds them unaltered. ‘History,’ she concludes, ‘is a hyperbole’.

The signs of change do eventually reveal themselves, and she begins to weave their confusing patterns. She is as sharp as Milosz on the ironies and tensions of the post-war years in that generation which had been half-destroyed by Nazism, lured by communism, betrayed by Russia and had to make the ghastly choice—if they wanted to remain in their homeland—between joining a corrupt Party system or shrinking into ‘internal emigration’.

Her writing is at its sharpest in Rumania, that most damaged of all Eastern European states. She makes it appear also the most emblematic. Ceausescu and the absurd horrors of his régime read now like the clearest examples of a vanished age. Myth succeeds through exaggeration, and the Rumanian experience was nothing if not a burlesque form of the more insidious methods used elsewhere in the eastern bloc.

And now, Hoffman suggests, the question is which comes first, political reform or economic development—which is the chicken and which the egg? In Rumania, she concludes, the question is irrelevant; in Rumania, there is no chicken and no egg.

There are some comic little touches in this book (the Bulgarian taxi-driver for whom everything from a broken chair to a gypsy with a bear becomes an elaborate metaphor for the state of the country). There are poignant pen-portraits—dissidents, intellectuals, fierce-eyed writers—sketched during long sessions of tea or vodka. There is a pervasive sense of Eastern Europe's burgeoning diversity, its attempts to break free of the brutish collectivism of its recent past.

But Eva Hoffman's reflective approach makes it tempting to ask more of the book: should we feel more or less optimistic having read it? She herself is prudently ambivalent. Elsewhere she talks of the ‘acceptance of ambiguity’ in Eastern Europe. Frequently she is met with the cry: ‘But we are practically Oriental!’ And suddenly our own linear, literal-minded thinking becomes useless.

Perhaps it is Hoffman's own Polish provenance that enables her so successfully to convey the otherness of Eastern Europe. A certain nobility comes both from her own prose and from many of the people she meets. Whether this is simply the nobility of suffering or the survival of some trait that we have squandered, remains one of the enigmas of this book. What happens in Western Europe is increasingly dictated by what happens in the East. High-minded talk of aid (or military intervention) is so much whistling down the wind. Perhaps all we can really do is sit and watch—and pore over books like this one.

Merilyn Oniszczuk Jackson (review date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Jackson, Merilyn Oniszczuk. “Pictures in Dissolving Frames.” Belles Lettres 9, no. 3 (spring 1994): 59.

[In the following review, Jackson argues that Hoffman's attempts to bring a journalistic perspective to her travels through Eastern Europe in Exit into History conflict with the rest of the work's “lyrical” and “personal” tone.]

From her solitary travels during 1990-91 through five newly liberated Eastern European countries, Eva Hoffman compiled Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe. In it she portrays the diverse people she encountered as they struggle to catch up to free world economies. Hoffman, a former New York Times editor, hopes that an accurate picture will emerge from her writing, “as from fragments of a mosaic.”

An immigrant to Canada, Hoffman chooses her native Poland as her starting point. She calls on Adam Michnik, Lech Walesa's old friend and advisor, a Solidarity legend, and editor-in-chief of Warsaw's leading daily, Gazeta Wyborcza. Coincidentally, I visited Gazeta that same day to interview another Solidarity legend—the paper's deputy editor, Helena Luczywo—and Hoffman aptly depicts the staff's youthful energy. She insightfully analyzes Walesa's behavior and Solidarity's disintegration and takes great care not to be judgmental—a sensitivity sustained throughout her book.

Vaclav Havel's counsel to live “as if you are free” appears in varied forms as Hoffman talks with writers, workers, farmers, priests, artists, and ex-communists in her travels. How people lived with or without fear of the communists (referred to frequently as Them or They) is one of Hoffman's major conversational topics. Work and its subversion under communism is another. People speculate about who will carry the future, who will fade into the past. They talk of Jews—their absence and reappearance; of Gypsies and Turks—their presence and persecution.

From Poland where the linkage between labor, opposition press, university, and the Church first corroded communism, Hoffman travels to Prague. There, prior to the split, the “Czechomania” of the day sweeps her into a Prague mobbed with international youth drawn by “the ‘Velvet Revolution,’ with its philosopher king … rock bands … the most hip of them all.”

Yugoslavia had not yet erupted, but the region's politics heaved with danger and discomfort, and Hoffman admits to some anxiety. What if she gets lost among unfriendly strangers without a common language? What if she cannot find food, or carry her luggage? She wonders if this “Gypsy wandering” as a woman alone “is defeminizing.”

From Prague and Budapest, where urban elegance mitigates the lack of manners and creature comforts, Hoffman crosses into Romania and Bulgaria. In Romania she witnesses an abject, uninformed populace living in the misery of physical and aesthetic poverty. Hoffman broods as she crosses Transylvania, “There's probably in every traveler's fantasy a Bermuda Triangle of the mind.”

Bulgaria's capital, the Byzantine city Sofia, “no less than Bucharest, offers a spectacle of almost pure nothingness.” Curiously, it is the only country she visits where she hears feminism discussed seriously. A male member of parliament is pressed to apologize for calling the female MPs chatterboxes. She also finds “an almost fantastical imagination.” For example, in a main square a model community run by hundreds of people, with its own city services and free medical care, appears as a tent city.

A sense of journalistic responsibility sometimes intrudes into this otherwise lyrically written and personally felt book. It is a fragment of Hoffman's mosaic that has to be forced to fit. Hoffman, aware of this problem, tells a disarming story of an evening in a Bulgarian cultural club where her new friends ask “are you doing business, or are you enjoying yourself?” When a Bulgarian journalist there interviews her, she observes, “The world is becoming a sort of Mobius strip of interviews, in which the interviewers and interviewed … blend.”

In New York, Hoffman observes, Polish is one of the seven most frequently heard languages. With borders dissolving everywhere, the East Europeans are coming to inspect us. Perhaps Hoffman's original metaphor is too rigid. The picture she projects is fluid, moving, more Mobius strip than Mosaic.

Anne Applebaum (review date 5 December 1994)

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SOURCE: Applebaum, Anne. “A Gathering of Dissidents.” New Republic 211, no. 23 (5 December 1994): 46-9.

[In the following review of Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe, Applebaum contends that Hoffman's position as an American outsider in Eastern Europe makes it difficult for her to understand the subtleties of the region's political situations.]

About halfway through her journey across the six nations of Central Europe chronicled in Exit into History, Eva Hoffman has an odd experience. She is in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and she is sitting in a wine bar, drinking the potent white wine for which the Slovaks are justly famous. Jozef, her companion, is an intellectual, a man who translates books of philosophy into Slovak. He tells her that he doesn't mind that his own works, also composed in Slovak, are not read: “It doesn't matter whether the world pays attention,” he says. “Each culture is a self-contained organism. It has all the elements it needs.”

She finds this vision of sufficiency and self-containment “cheering,” and begins to warm to the man. But then the talk turns to the brief period of Slovak independence, from 1939 to 1945. During that time Slovakia was a de facto Nazi puppet state and Father Tiso, the leader of independent Slovakia, was a de facto Nazi puppet. Still, he was perceived by the Slovaks as authentic. As elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, Hitler played upon thwarted national ambitions for his own ends; he gave some nations, Slovakia among them, their first experience of sovereignty. That this required certain compromises seemed to many at the time less important than the fact of nationhood itself. But to Hoffman, who correctly remembers the anti-Semitic atrocities of the Tiso regime, it hardly seems believable that anyone could still defend it.

Casually, she asks Jozef about Slovak nationalism. “Fully expecting a good, progressive answer,” she is stunned when he begins to defend Tiso, and experiences “something like a suspension of belief.” Her preconceived images don't seem to work: here is Jozef, described as “nice” and “genial,” an intellectual like herself, a former dissident, a man who has “nothing of a fanatic about him,” professing a belief in something she holds to be evil. A small gulf opens up, she writes: until now she has been traveling in Poland, the familiar, much-loved country of her childhood, and in the Czech lands, also well known to her through writers such as Milan Kundera and the comfortably Western figure of Vaclav Havel. Here in Slovakia, she has encountered what seems to be a different kind of nationalism, a “burning, nineteenth-century kind of nationalism, which overcomes other scruples because it involves basic questions of selfhood,” and she is shocked.

This moment of discomfort is one of the most interesting in Hoffman's book, because it illustrates a larger problem that most Western travelers in Central Europe—and by this I mean mainly Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia—now face. Good dissidents, bad nationalists, nice intellectuals, evil Communists: our stereotypes of Central Europeans are very strong. Perhaps this is because the Central Europeans under communism had to make choices that we in the West never had to face—difficult, ethical choices, with no prizes awarded for being morally correct—while at the same time they maintained a culture and a way of life that we recognized as similar to our own. One made exceptions for the Balkans, and one assumed that Russian culture was somehow alien to our own, but the Central Europeans were both heroic and demonic in ways that we in Western Europe or America could easily imagine. But could we really? Now that we are able to come closer to Central Europe, to travel there freely, to talk to people without the complications of censorship and fear, we are also finding that the categories into which we have placed people from the “other” Europe for the past forty years are no longer valid. In some cases, we may be discovering that they were never valid at all.

Hoffman's book is an excellent case study of this confrontation between the Central Europe that Westerners expect to discover, and Central Europe, the place itself. The book tells the story of a journey (actually two journeys: Hoffman went in 1990 and again in 1991) from Warsaw to Sofia, via Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria: the nations of Central Europe plus the two stable Balkan states. Avoiding the descriptions of bad food and restless natives that characterize the Etonian-on-a-bicycle style of travel writing as applied to Eastern Europe, Hoffman goes out of her way to meet whomever she can. She asks serious questions—about economics, about politics, about the moral changes taking place—almost endlessly.

Because it is the story of a personal journey, Exit into History cannot help but reflect and explore the preconceptions of its author. Born in Poland, Hoffman moved to Canada as a child. Later, as a teenager, she made a definite decision to cease being a Pole and to become American instead; that earlier journey was beautifully described in Lost in Translation, Hoffman's classic tale of immigration and adjustment in America. Her background gives Hoffman the empathy, the curiosity and the language to speak at length to Central Europeans (with Polish and Russian she gets by, and needs translators only in Hungary and Romania) yet she perceives herself as an American, openly asks what she calls American questions and brings American assumptions, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unconsciously, to her task.

In her introduction Hoffman establishes herself as an outsider by reminding us that Eastern Europe was, for Westerners, always the exotic “other”: “When Shakespeare wanted to indicate a fabulous never-never land, he called it Illyria” (Illyria being, of course, a perfectly acceptable name for Bulgaria). But it is Hoffman's assumptions about the people whom she meets that mark her most clearly as an outsider. It is impossible not to note, for example, that the words “good,” “progressive,” “dissident” and “liberal” often come up together. In Hungary, she notes that a conservative party has won the elections, “after the progressive dissidents have had their brief shining moment,” and in Poland it is the “progressives” who think pluralism is the road to Europe, while the “nationalists” believe in ethnic homogeneity.

Assigning such terms of praise and blame ought to be a difficult task. There were many kinds of dissidents in Central Europe before 1989, and it is not always easy to establish which ones were progressive then and which ones are progressive now. Nor is it so clear who is a liberal and who is a nationalist, and what those appellations mean in a given context. But there is in Central Europe a prototype dissident, a category of dissident-as-recognized-by-The New York Review of Books: this is the sort of dissident that we Westerners always heard about and read about in the past, and this is who Hoffman seems to mean when she talks about “progressives.”

Prototype dissidents were always intellectuals, inevitably involved in the publishing of underground books, and invariably speakers of English or French. Having reached university in the 1960s, after the death of Stalin and before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, they lived their formative years during a period of relative openness within the Warsaw Pact and thrived in those countries that remained relatively open. Most, therefore, were Hungarians or Poles, although a tiny number were Czechs. Adam Michnik and Gyorgy Konrad, two of what Hoffman calls Central Europe's Great White Gods, make appearances, but Hoffman speaks at length with many such people, including Helena Luczywo, the managing editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, a post-dissident Polish newspaper, and Miklos Haraszti, the ex-Maoist who is now a prominent Hungarian parliamentarian, as well as a whole host of filmmakers, magazine editors and Czechs who work in publishing.

It is true that such people are among the most articulate in post-communist Europe; but it is equally true that this type of dissident enjoyed an exaggerated prestige before 1989. This is because most belonged to the moderate, left-leaning wing of the opposition. Indeed, most were also born into Communist families, as Hoffman realizes in Poland: “As I talk to my dissident friends, I discover an interesting twist … it turns out that many of them are their [the communists'] children.” As such, they were less liable to be persecuted, and often found it easier to talk to foreigners, and easier to go abroad. Western journalists (myself included) knew many of them before 1989. We relied on them for information about the activities of the underground—and made many of them more famous abroad than at home.

Since the fall of communism, this particular type of dissident has proved (with a few exceptions) to be phenomenally bad at democratic politics. Perhaps it was because they came of age, as Hoffman puts it, in an “era of grand moral drama” and then suddenly found themselves in “the era of issues,” expected to make decisions about budgets, factories, unemployment and banks. Perhaps it was because they led lives isolated from those of their compatriots. Luczywo tells Hoffman that when people accuse intellectuals of not understanding the real conditions of Polish life, “frankly, I don't know what they're talking about.” Hoffman agrees. But someone like Luczywo was privileged: as the daughter of a prominent Stalinist, she would have (ironically) grown up much wealthier, much better connected and much better read and traveled than others. Her failure to see this is itself revealing.

Not recognizing their isolation, they made mistakes. When Poles voted the “wrong” way in the 1990 presidential elections, Bronislaw Geremek, another leading former dissident, went on T.V. to accuse the Polish people of immaturity, whereupon his party's popularity dropped even further. Pursuing democratic politics much in the way they pursued dissident politics, they also squabbled, divided into tiny factions and printed libelous stories about one another. Politicians with roots in the old opposition won the decided majority of votes in the most recent Polish elections; because these were divided into a dozen parties, however, half of which were too small to win the 5 percent of votes necessary to enter parliament, politicians with roots in the old Communist Party ended up with a majority of parliamentary seats.

The most successful non-Communist politicians in Central Europe have been those who abandoned the idea that they, as dissidents and intellectuals, had a historical right to be in power. Vaclav Klaus, prime minister of the Czech Republic, understood the need to create a professional, free-market political party, specifically designed to win elections. If Hoffman is occasionally guilty of beatifying the dissident intellectuals so beloved of outsiders in the past, she also acknowledges that this new type of politician is the politician of the future. Meeting Zsolt Nemeth, a leader of FIDESZ, Hungary's self-consciously youthful liberal party, Hoffman is impressed by the absence of Marxism, reformed or otherwise, in his thinking: “We were fed up with it, honestly,” he tells her. Nemeth also accepts the way in which power has broken up some of his friendships: “We understand it as a part of the political process,” he says, speaking in a way, Hoffman notes, that a former dissident like Miklos Haraszti never would.

There were also, of course, other people who opposed the Communist regime in Central Europe. But instead of coming from Communist families, they came, perhaps, from the wartime partisan movements in Poland, or were even the children of Tiso supporters in Slovakia. Less likely to speak English or French, more deeply attached to prewar traditions, they rejected communism absolutely, never attempted to reform it, and therefore were noticeably absent from the postwar intellectual circles that enjoyed more freedom to debate and to publish abroad. In certain countries, their existence was well known. One of the reasons that Polish Communists agreed to hand over power in 1989 was their fear that the next generation of dissidents would be far more fiercely anti-Communist, and therefore much harder to contain and to manipulate, than the generation that came of age in 1968.

In other countries, the strength of their popular support came as a surprise. This was most notable in places where the actual survival of the nation had been threatened by historical circumstance or Soviet occupation: in Slovakia, as well as the Baltic states and Ukraine (which Hoffman does not get to). How to judge movements led by such people is one of the trickiest questions facing a Western traveler to Central and Eastern Europe. Easily dismissed as “nationalists,” and therefore neither progressive nor liberal, there is nevertheless more to them than meets the average Western eye.

Undoubtedly, by maintaining a tone of high disapproval when faced with Central European nationalists, Westerners can, at times, miss the point. It is curious to remember now, but nationalism was once progressive and liberal, a part of the definition of progressivism and liberalism. The nation, the national will, the national spirit: those were the causes of the French revolutionaries in 1789 and the Hungarian revolutionaries in 1848, of Mazzini and Masaryk, of romantic poets and youth movements such as Young Italy and Young Poland. In the nineteenth century, nationalism was about linguistic and cultural rebirth, and the opponents of nationalism were the forces of aristocratic reaction—multinational empires such as Austro-Hungary and Russia.

By twisting Central European nationalism into a negative force, aimed at the destruction of other nations, Hitler destroyed the positive connotations of the word “nationalism” almost completely. The war in Yugoslavia has finished that task in our generation. It is the qualities of Hitler's or Milosevic's nationalism for which we look, almost automatically, when we hear of a “nationalist” leader or movement in Central Europe, and it is this kind of nationalism that Hoffman fears might now revive: “Extreme nationalism, anti-Semitism, the gamut of unpleasant social tendencies.” But even these undesirable phenomena can be perceived to exist where they do not. Because of what we have read of Central Europe's history, even when nationalism is hardly more than patriotism in this part of the world, it is always feared to herald something worse.

This assumption—that nationalism is inevitably an illiberal, anti-progressive force in Central Europe—is the one that Hoffman starts with, and it is the one that most clearly marks her as an American. Yet it is hard for anyone to deny that the nationalism of the past few years, at least as manifest in Central Europe, often has been of the positive sort. The rediscovery of history has had its comic moments (arguments over whether the Polish eagle on the coat of arms should wear a crown), but the effect it has had on the pride and the motivation of individuals may turn out to be very important; the revival of national literature in Slovakia may seem very obscure, but who knows how many poets may eventually be rescued for world literature.

Distinctions must be made—the magical street demonstrations that brought down the Communist regime in Prague were inspired by nationalism, as were the more desperate battles of the Romanians, as are the Russian army's ambitions in the former Soviet Union and the Serbs' ambitions in Bosnia—and by the end of the book, Hoffman is willing to make them. The blood feud between Hungary and Romania reminds her of nothing so much as the family feud described in Huckleberry Finn: an “absurd, violent quarrel whose causes have long been forgotten.” On the other hand, she recognizes that the rebirth of Turkish culture in Bulgaria—which also entails a sort of nationalism—has an unusual beauty to it: “modern and premodern, it seems to me—blended in a curious, baffling mix.”

Finally, there is another set of stereotypes to be dealt with. If it is true that “good” dissidents have often turned out to be poor democrats, and that “dangerous” nationalists have often helped to bring about cultural revivals in Central Europe, then what should Westerners expect from former Communists, once the very definition of the enemy? The answer as presented in Hoffman's book is: almost anything. Hoffman's encounters with Them, as Poles used to call their Communist rulers, are curiously various. In Helena Luczywo's father, Ferdynand Chaber, she finds an unrepentant Stalinist whose “eyes are still—always—on the Cause and some entity like Mankind,” despite the fact that Helena suspects her father of having committed “monstrous” acts. In Romania, on the other hand, Hoffman meets a former Stalinist whose “complicity in a terrible history has never ceased to disturb him.”

What is largely missing from Exit into History—perhaps because Hoffman visited too early to spot the phenomenon—is the younger, more ordinary sort of Communist, the Communist who never believed, who joined the party for the sake of a career, and who has spent the years since 1989 converting his political power into financial power and inevitably back into political power again. It is a rule, in fact, that wherever former Communists were allowed to remain respectable, wherever there was no clear break with the past, they are now back in control. Nomenklatura capitalists, as they are called, now control most of the Polish private sector, as well as the Polish parliament; former Communists, transformed into nationalists, completely dominate public life in Slovakia. Former Communists also now dominate Hungarian political life, in partnership with former dissidents of the traditional type.

Only in the Czech Republic, where Communists were forbidden to run for public office and the files of suspected police informers were opened, have they retreated into the background. Unpleasant as this process may seem to outsiders (and it seems downright cruel to Hoffman), it has proved to be the only way to keep the political process relatively free of the debilitating corruption that the Communist old boys' network inevitably brings with it. Oddly enough, it can be much harder to see the former Communists as they are—as small-minded, unscrupulous men—than it is to perceive them as victims of their own youthful idealism, or as evil men of the highest order.

Good and bad, right and wrong, heroes and demons: by the end of Hoffman's book, the categories that she appears to apply during the first half of the book have dissolved quite a bit. Perhaps this is because she traveled from Poland, the country best known to her, to Bulgaria, Shakespeare's Illyria, a place that lies, she admits, “beyond my preconceptions and prejudices.” Perhaps it is also because any extended encounter with Central Europe—like any encounter with a place that has existed largely in myth—leads to the dissolution of preconceptions and prejudices altogether.

Danuta Zadworna Fjellestad (essay date summer 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6361

SOURCE: Fjellestad, Danuta Zadworna. “‘The Insertion of the Self into the Space of Borderless Possibility’: Eva Hoffman's Exiled Body.” MELUS 20, no. 2 (summer 1995): 133-47.

[In the following essay, Fjellestad explores the marginalization of Central European American literature by focusing on how Hoffman's Lost in Translation portrays the immigrant writer's experience.]

For the European, even today, America represents something akin to exile, a phantasy of emigration and, therefore, a form of interiorization of his or her own culture.

—Jean Baudrillard, America

Our present age is one of exile.

—Julia Kristeva, “A New Type of Intellectual”

The demand to recognize an irreducible presence of the Other in American literary history has brought about qualifications or the substitution of “American” with ethnic-specific adjectives, leading to distinctions between, for instance, African American, American Indian, Asian American, Chicano, Hispanic, and Puerto Rican literature. Redefining American Literary History, edited by A. La Vonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. (1990), may serve as a typical example of recent critical anthologies of American literature. And, although in the critical/theoretical debate on the meaning of “ethnic,” a broad spectrum of positions could be mapped, in anthologies and histories of American literature “European ethnics” are almost never mentioned (The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 1990, edited by Paul Lauter being an exception). From the perspective of a European academic interested in American literature, this predominant absence of the category of European American literature is quite baffling. Even if the ideological motives behind this recoil from Eurocentrism may be understandable and even desirable, some of the unspoken assumptions behind it strike me as problematic. What bothers me most is the implied homogenization of Euro-American literature. I think that the assumptions informing this unitary perception of Euro-American literature need careful reexamination. In what follows, however, I will only very briefly outline a few general and very tentative queries, hoping to open a debate on the principles of present-day constructions of ethnic literature. My initial remarks on the problematic neglect of Central European literature will serve as a pre-text for a more detailed discussion of Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989). I will approach Hoffman's book as an example of postmodern autobiography written by a Central European étrangère. What I would like to argue for is an insertion of what may (awkwardly) be called Central European American literature in the “Other” canon of American literature.1

The first assumption encouraging a homogenizing view on Euro-American literature seems to be the persistent myth of the so-called “European model” of voluntary immigration, acculturation and assimilation that leads directly to a seamless if not quite painless absorption. From this vantage point, the melting pot is an apt metaphor in the case of Euro-Americans who, once acculturated, merge into the mainstream (read: oppressive) culture. And although the idea of the melting pot has been challenged since its very birth (the production of Israel Zangwill's play of that name in 1908), the concept seems to have reasserted its grip on the public awareness in recent years, as Rudolf Vecoli points out in his “Return to the Melting Pot: Ethnicity in the United States in the Eighties.”2 The classic success tale often quoted as embodying this belief is of course Mary Antin's The Promised Land (1912). In criticism, Antin's narrative has been interpreted as “a prime example of smooth, one-way assimilation. Her autobiography is a singular celebration of her successful transformation from an Old World shtetl girl into a New England Woman.”3 Few critics seem to have noticed the ambiguities and deep contradictions in Antin's autobiography; William A. Proefriedt's illuminating reading of The Promised Land is an exception rather than the rule.4 It is indeed surprising that deconstruction-inspired suspicion of any “seamless” reading has not as yet led to a radical re-examination of The Promised Land and of the “straight line” theory of assimilation. My feeling is that the deconstructive critical gaze has been averted from Antin's text because the writer is a Caucasian immigrant.

The second popular assumption behind the recoil from what has come to be called “Eurocentrism” is the naive yet stubborn belief that Europe is a cultural—if not political—unity. This lumping together of all countries in Europe ignores the fact that in the forty-five years of post-war Europe at least two generations of Central and East Europeans have grown up in a political and social system which created specific cultural techniques for constructing, monitoring, and controlling the self, techniques which were radically different from those in the West. The two Europes have come to speak mutually incomprehensible languages, if by language we understand a cultural system.5 It seems to me that this cultural specificity of Central Europe is all too flippantly passed over in the process of revising the American canon; the otherness of Central Europe is all too easily domesticated and assimilated into the sameness of the culture of the West. Hence the patent absence of such writers as Joseph Brodsky or Czeslaw Milosz in many ethnic-specific anthologies of and critical books on American literature.

Granted, there is a whole industry of critical interest in immigrant literature. However, although on the whole “archeological” studies on European Americans have been relatively rich, the post World War II wave of Eastern and Central European immigration remains a virtual terra incognita.6 Moreover, the letters, memoirs, and autobiographies of various ethnic groups which have emigrated to the New World from Europe are scrutinized primarily as documents of social history; seldom are they treated as literature in the sense of belles-lettres. There are of course perfectly good reasons for that. To name just a few: the aesthetic value (however defined) of letters is as a rule considered negligible compared to their informative function; the vast majority of “economic” emigrants to the United States consisted of illiterate or poorly educated people; few of those who did write memoirs had any literary ambitions and a vast majority of them wrote in their native languages.

It is also somewhat surprising that, while the experiences of the turn of the century European emigrants to the New World have been recorded by them in numerous memoirs and autobiographies, the refugees from the Communist system have seldom bothered to document their plight. They are only marginally present in literature, despite the fact that among the hundreds of thousands of post Second World War “Communist” emigrants a substantial number can boast of university education. The Central European intellectual emigrés to the West have so far produced but a handful of texts addressing the problem of emigration. Slawomir Mrozek, Czeslaw Milosz, Milan Kundera, Joseph Brodsky, Josef Skvorecky, Vassily Aksyonov, Alexander Wat and, more recently, Adam Zagajewski and Stanislaw Baranczak are among the precious few. Yet these refugees from the Communist countries remain in a literary no-man's land in their new homelands, exiled from American literary histories, anthologies and public discussions on ethnic literature. This situation is particularly puzzling because the United States is the home of such Nobel Prize laureates as Milosz and Brodsky and a country known to be proud of its long tradition of ethnic and emigrant literature.7 Considering the rarity of stories of the post-war exile and the strange absence of Central European emigrant autobiography, the recent publication of Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language is significant in itself. Viewed by Hoffman herself as a book that follows up “a trace of the other story behind the story of triumphant progress” of Mary Antin's tale (163), Lost in Translation is, to the best of my knowledge, the first “postmodern” autobiography written in English by an émigré from a European Communist country.8 The book records the author's life path from the post-war Poland of her childhood, through the pains of emigration to Vancouver, British Columbia, in the late 1950s, and further on through the process of acquiring a university education in the United States (at Rice, Texas, and Harvard), to a successful career in the New York publishing world.

The trajectory of Hoffman's fate may be viewed as a typical success tale: from the strict, prison-like Communist system of Central Europe to the free world of North America.9 But Hoffman destabilizes such neat divisions and complicates the popular picture by focusing on the charms and blessings of the System and the terrors and curses of the Promised Land. This problematization of formulaic descriptions of the two political, social, and cultural systems emerges as Hoffman re-visions and reconstructs her Polish self through her American identity, and re-examines her American subjectivity through the memory of her Polish selfhood. Hoffman's re-presentation of her experience becomes a deep probing into the phenomenon of exile in the second half of the twentieth century.10 The book speaks of the results of the loss of what poststructuralist wisdom would call a romantic illusion of unity and center and of the costs and rewards, the joys and the terrors, of being thrown into the postmodern world of constantly shifting boundaries and borderless possibilities.

It is precisely the question of borders and boundaries that is central to the exiled self. Paradoxically, in the Communist system, with its explicit rules and principles aimed at regulating every aspect of the citizens' lives, even their ideology and morality, Eva can perceive herself as a free agent. Felt as something imposed and external, the boundaries of the System are clearly defined, and as such they can be trespassed and broken, giving a feeling of freedom. Once in Canada and then in the United States, the narrator feels lost: the old familiar System with its clear network of rules has disappeared and the boundaries of the new world are invisible to her. Carrying the old System now within herself, she tries to impose its rules upon the new territory. Simultaneously, she stumbles upon imperceptible boundaries within the new culture and as a result is lost between the two systems' networks, or, as she puts it, she falls “out of the net of meaning into the weightlessness of chaos” (151).

To describe the moment of crossing the borders, of initiation into exile, Hoffman self-consciously employs two tropes typical of emigrant autobiography: that of division into two and of second birth. She compares her train journey towards the new destination with “scissors cutting a three thousand-mile rip” through her life (100). On the third night in the new country, she has a nightmare in which she is drowning in the ocean and, scared, wakes up in the middle of a scream which she calls “the primal scream of my birth into the New World” (104). Thus the physical and geographical separation from the mother country becomes also a symbolic separation from one's moorings; the familiar, well-mapped territory gives way to an incomprehensible space.

To describe her emotional response to the New World, Hoffman repeatedly resorts to the image of flatness and desert. In her new world, she observes only sterility and absence of depth. The Canadian landscape appears “vast, dull, and formless” (100); the Canadian interiors seem “oddly flat, devoid of imagination, ingenuous” (102); the spaces are “plain” and “obvious”; even the Canadian accent is “flat.” Smoothness is another term that Hoffman uses, in particular to describe her impression of Canadian and American faces. For her, the cheerful looks seem to be imitations of the expressions in ads and commercials, and as such they are strangely impersonal and unreadable. She senses danger in the matted look in the eyes of her new friends, because it “flattens [her] features” (147), obliterates her. She links this “open sincerity of the simple spaces, open right out to the street” (102) with lack of privacy, depth, interiority.11

Another image is that of a desert. At some point Hoffman refers to Canada as her “lush Sahara” and the oxymoron echoes Baudrillard's view of America12: “Culture, politics—and sexuality too—are seen exclusively in terms of the desert, which here assumes the status of a primal scene. Everything disappears before that desert vision. Even the body, by an ensuing effect of undernourishment, takes on a transparent form, a lightness near to complete disappearance” (America 28). Both the image of flatness and of a desert signal a terrifying rather than liberating disappearance of boundaries and imply an unmapped and therefore both unknown and unknowable territory.

Also the Promised Land's internal landscapes are arranged in different formations. The insertion into the Canadian culture forces Eva to suppress, or rather restructure, her emotional world. For instance, she learns that in English there is a prohibition against using uncharitable words. This knowledge makes her refrain from passing explicitly strong judgments at the cost of suppressing her instincts and her quick reactions. While in Polish she might have called the people she meets “silly” and “dull,” in English she forces herself to call them “kindly” and “pleasant” (108). Her emotional life is invaded by the new taboos. Having to express gratitude for hand-me-down clothes and to make other gestures of kindness, Eva is “beginning to master the trick of saying thank you with just the right turn of the head, just the right balance between modesty and obsequiousness,” but in her heart she feels “no gratitude at being the recipient of so much mercy” (104).

Eva's odyssey of comprehending the other culture is paralleled by her experience of her own otherness. Emigration forces her not only and not primarily to learn how to move in a strange external landscape; the inner landscape has to be remoulded. Eva's thoughts, feelings, impressions have to be cast in language; but which one, if Polish does not cover the new physical world and English seems inadequate to describe the inner?13

Ironically, Eva's entry into the English language at the age of fourteen begins with a phrase of silencing: “shut up” is what she hears all around her on her first day in school. Years afterwards, a graduate student in English literature, Eva experiences a return of this “shuddup” to silence her Polish self. Faced with the question of marriage, she is faced with the problem of making her choice in English or in Polish. In a dramatized dialogue between the two languages, two cultural systems emerge:

Should you marry him? the question comes in English.


Should you marry him? the question echoes in Polish.


But I love him; I'm in love with him.

Really? Really? Do you love him as you understand love? As you loved Marek?

Forget Marek. He is another person. He's handsome and kind and good.

You don't feel creaturely warmth. You're imagining him. You're imagining your emotions. You're forcing it …


For her, each language structures the process of decision-making along different coordinates and preferences: the Polish “no” to marrying an American is a response to an absence of (Polish) “creaturely warmth” towards the man; her English “yes” to the marriage question is rooted in a critique of her Polish understanding of love as a “romantic illusion” that has to “shuddup” (199). She realizes that “between the two stories and two vocabularies, there's a vast alteration in the diagram of the psyche and the relationship to inner life” (269). Making a choice in Polish means following one's passion and a sense of duty to oneself; a choice in English entails reasoning and calculating. (And reasoning wins: she marries her American only to divorce him later on.)

Language acquisition is far from an innocent intellectual activity; in Lost in Translation it is presented as a carnivorous process. From the start, English “invents” another Eva (121), not only changing her intellectual perception of the world, but inscribing itself into her body, becoming incorporated “in the softest tissue of [her] being” (245). Attuned to the noise of “the Babel of American voices” but lacking a voice of her own, Hoffman feels powerless against the invasion of other voices, voices of the Other: “They ricochet within me, carrying on conversations, lending me their modulations, intonations, rhythms. I do not possess them; they possess me,” she writes (220). She is conscious of her experience of a linguistic construction of her self.

But by far the most painful form of exile is not the expulsion from her “natural” geographical, political, social, cultural, or linguistic milieu, but Eva's exile from her own gendered body. The physical and intellectual are always linked in Eva's account. “Telling a joke is like doing a linguistic pirouette,” “laughter is … the eroticism of conversation” (118), she observes. In the New World, the gaze of others dislodges her perception of her own body. While in Poland, Eva is considered a “pretty young girl”; on the other side of the Atlantic she is suddenly found “less attractive, less graceful, less desirable,” and “a somewhat pitiful specimen” (109). The othering of her body is most violent when she is subjected to actions aimed at making her body look like “typical” American female bodies. For others, her “other” body is intolerable, and it has to be acculturated, remolded to fit new categories of beauty and decency; it has to be harnessed to conform to the local category of femininity. Eva's armpits are shaven, her eyebrows plucked, her hair set up in curls, her feet forced into high-heeled shoes and her breasts modestly bridled by a bra. This external acculturation of the body only augments the sense of alienation which, Eva feels, “is beginning to be inscribed in [her] flesh and face” (110).15

Thus her experience of exile becomes a lesson in what after Bourdieu may be called symbolic violence, a lesson in the legitimate ways of (re)presenting her body to others and to herself.16 Through social criticism and censorship she is taught the “right” gestures, manners, ways of walking, dressing, and looking at the world. New social power relations are inscribed onto her very body, turning her into a stranger to herself.

An outsider to the American construction of the feminine of the fifties, Eva has to consciously learn the highly standardized semiotics of dating and behavior towards the other sex in the New World; in comparison, the conventions of Polish dating seem “natural” because its rules have never been spelled out. In fact, though, in both cultures the codes of sexual behavior are mediated through an elaborate social process of education. In Poland Eva is initiated into the world of sex by books: Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis? with the scenes of Roman orgies, Boccaccio's Decameron with “scenes of hermits giving in to fleshly temptresses” (28) and Ann of Green Gables with its portrayal of complications in romantic love. Like one of the family maids, Eva studies For Women for advice on how to be glamorous, sexy, and constantly seductive. Most of all, however, Eva's Polish world is filled with her childhood companion and first boy friend, Marek, and their “tousles and sex games” (40). Marek is the center of her erotic and emotional universe. While in Poland, she never questions her own femininity, she merely tries to find ways of expressing it. Faced with the Canadian feminine, Eva recognizes the fact that “the allegory of gender is different here, and it unfolds around different typologies and different themes. I can't become a ‘Pani’ [lady, mistress, madam, Mrs.] of any sort: not like the authoritative Pani Orlovska, or the vampy, practical Pani Dombarska, or the flirty, romantic woman writer I once met. None of these modes of femininity makes sense here, none of them would find corresponding counterparts in the men I know.” Unsure of how to transpose herself “into a new erotic valence” (189), Eva is initiated into the rules and constraints of sexual behavior by her new friend Penny and the artifacts of American culture: ads, movies, literature. The male faces are understood as handsome because they resemble figures in cigarette ads (148); her first American boy friend's male beauty is mediated through the images she has seen on posters and in the movies (187). Ultimate Americanization means for Eva being able to “recognize sexuality in the American grain” (245). This recognition means for her not merely knowing about the sexual rules but first of all having them inscribed onto her body so that they stop being cultural and begin to feel “natural.” But her becoming a woman in the American grain can never end in a return to “nature”—Eva's destiny is an awareness of culture-generated rules, principles, constraints, boundaries and borders which mark emotional life and relationships, especially between the sexes. Thus Hoffman's book registers a recognition not only of the impossibility of such a “return” but also of the fictionality of every construct of nature.

Despite the constantly recorded pain of exile, Lost in Translation may be seen as an account of a relatively successful process of coming to terms with one's otherness. Writing her book, Eva speaks after all not from a socially marginal position but from what can easily be perceived as a center (the intellectual world of New York). One could argue that she merely recapitulates the process of marginalization and subsequent centralization.17 And yet, quite ironically, Eva's success trajectory means moving from one kind of marginality to another. In Poland her marginality was linked to her Jewishness and was a source of strength and pride. Not saying the words of the prayer at school, refusing to weep with the others to mourn the death of Stalin, eating Jewish bread—that is, resistance against the dominant group, stressing one's marginality, made her, in her mother's words, “perhaps better than others.” Silence, lack of tears, matzoth became markers of difference which she experienced as something positive. In the Polish Communist culture whose dominant ideology extols homogeneity, an individual's gesture of differentiation is an act of defying the centre, an act of courage. By a strange reversal, in the New World with its central ethos of difference, sameness seems to be the object of everybody's desire. In Eva's experience of herself the value of difference is shifted: “to be different” now reads “to be worse,” and as an emigrant she finds herself decentered and powerless. Paradoxically, her ultimately successful journey to the inner circles of New York's professional life results in yet another and more complex form of exile, that of a postmodern subject. That is, her sense of physical and emotional exile in geographical, social, and cultural terms is now overshadowed by her awareness of being exiled from selfhood into subjectivity.18 Aware of being constructed by a variety of competing discourses, Eva finds herself in the precarious position of “always simultaneously [living] in the centre and on the periphery” (275). Ultimately, Eva is thrown into the postmodern world, into the poststructuralist universe.

Eva's poststructuralist world is first of all a world of awareness of the problematic nature of self-consciousness. The narrator suggests that it is in her awareness that her exile should be situated: “From now on, I'll be made, like mosaic, of fragments—and my consciousness of them. It is only in that observing consciousness that I remain, after all, an immigrant” (164). This closing statement of the middle section of the book (called “Exile”) summarizes the experience of her physical and cultural expulsion from the native country and her socially and culturally successful adaptation to the New World. At the same time, the same observation marks the beginning of a permanent state of exile, an exile that she says she shares with her American generation. This form of exile may be called postmodern in its “acute sense of dislocation and the equally acute challenge of having to invent a place and an identity … without the traditional supports” (197; emphasis added).

Eva's narrative is full of marked tensions between her intellectual understanding of her condition and her experience of loss. The titles of the three parts of Lost in Translation (“Paradise,” “Exile,” “The New World”) bring forth a whole range of biblical and cultural associations, the most prevalent of which is a loss of innocence coinciding with leaving behind one's childhood and entering one's teens. Exiled from what she experiences as “nature” into the American culture, she loses the (seeming) immediacy of experiencing her self as herself. When, in an attempt to come to terms with the loss, Eva decides to undergo psychotherapy, she sees it as a cure against her “American disease,” defined as “anomie, loneliness, emotional repression, and excessive self-consciousness” (268). Ironically, the homologue of her “talking cure,” the cure of writing her book, turns out to be saturated with self-conscious reflections on her consciousness. Her vocabulary is surfeited with self-conscious references to literature and postmodern theory and philosophy. Sometimes with a touch of irony, sometimes in despair, Hoffman turns to the insights of Freud, Lacan, Jameson, Derrida and others to understand and name her condition.19 A child of her (postmodern) age, Eva tries to intellectualize even her suffering. She clearly posits a difference between her own distance from her feelings and her mother's total symbiosis with her emotions: “My mother cannot imagine tampering with her feelings, which are the most authentic part of her, which are her. She suffers her emotions as if they were forces of nature, winds and storms and volcanic eruptions” (269). Yet Hoffman's attempts to affirm a (poststructuralist) fragmented, decentered, and fictional self are subverted by outbursts of rage and an acute sense of loss. Eva's knowledge of her social and cultural subjectivity fails to offer her a satisfactory explanation of her experience of pain. Intellectually embracing subjectivity, she seems to create a space for selfhood when she phrases the following question: “Suffering and conflict are the best proof that there's something like a psyche, a soul; or else, what is it that suffers?” (273).

Throughout, Lost in Translation dwells on the question of relationship between lived experience, its textual representation, and theoretical discourse interpreting both the experience and its representation. For Hoffman, the space between the memory of her selfhood and her intellectual understanding of herself as a script becomes the space of exile.

It is this exile that seems to generate Hoffman's writing, quite in keeping with Kristeva's view of exile as the very condition of writing: “How can one avoid sinking into the mire of common sense, if not by becoming a stranger to one's own country, language, sex and identity?” (“A New Type of Intellectual” 298). Eva's is a truly contingent mode of being. She feels caught between two incompatible narratives of being, the Polish story telling her that “circumstance plays the part of fate,” the American story anchoring fate in character. This radical incompatibility generates the process of never-ending translation, of both interpretation and transference. Eva can never securely inhabit any one system: she is engrossed in a constant process of crossing boundaries. Unlike the fiction of Mary Antin's America with its central ethos of “a steady, self-assured ego, the sturdy energy of forward movement, and the excitement of being swept up into a greater national purpose,” Eva's Promised Land offers a postmodern narrative of “the blessings and the terrors of multiplicity” (164), always reminding Eva of the contingent nature of (her)self.

In its mixture of various modes of expression, in its abundance of metacommentary, in its awareness of structuralist and poststructuralist theories, in its predominant concern with linguistic and cultural constructions of the self, Lost in Translation resembles such tales of exile as Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior or Ihab Hassan's Out of Egypt. Stanislaw Baranczak's term for this kind of text, “semiotic memoir” (224), strikes me as exceptionally felicitous since it may be seen as evoking both the Saussurian-Peircean signifying processes and Kristeva's semiotic chora.

In its intellectual interest in the costs and rewards of exile, Eva Hoffman's book has much in common with the books by Milan Kundera, Stanislaw Baranczak, Czeslaw Milosz, or Julia Kristeva. A careful examination of the treatment of exile by Central European writers as compared to that of other ethnic exiles (for example, those from other Communist regimes: Central American, South East Asian, Chinese) bears the promise of yielding interesting insights into the various techniques of constructing a sense of self-identity. The striking generality of the phenomenon of exile in the present-day world should not obliterate the culture-bound specificity of the experience and representation of exile.

All said and done, it strikes me that it would be a loss to the new American literature if texts like Hoffman's were to remain marginalized because classified as “mere” emigrant autobiography or silenced because they have been written by some European by birth. The ideological critique of Eurocentrism should not turn into a renewal of the imperialistic politics it denounces.


  1. It is true that many names of Central and East European writers can be found in various anthologies and literary history books if they happen to be Jewish; indeed, at times the impression is created that East and Central European equals Jewish, even if Jewishness has been of very little importance in the texts of those writers.

  2. For a succinct introduction to the debates over the “melting pot” versus “cultural pluralism” theories, see Jules Chametzky's article. See also Werner Sollors's Beyond Ethnicity.

  3. See Stepp L. Tiefenthaler, “The Search for Cultural Identity: Jewish-American Immigrant Autobiographies as Agents of Ethnicity,” 37. Also see William Boelhower, “The Brave New World of Immigrant Autobiography”; James Craig Holte, “The Representative Voice: Autobiography and the Ethnic Experience.”

  4. See William Proefriedt, “The Education of Mary Antin” and his scattered comments on Antin in “The Education of Eva Hoffman.”

  5. The difficulty—if not impossibility—of cultural translation, even when the speakers share the same natural language, may be illustrated by the recent traumas of East and West Germany after the reunion. Obviously the same words cover different mental (although socially constructed) concepts. It is tempting to see this as an illustration of the sliding of signifieds. For a very illuminating discussion of the problems of translating such concepts as “liberal,” “justice,” “democracy,” etc. from Polish into English (and vice versa), see Stanislaw Baranczak, Breathing under Water, 9-15. Baranczak discusses how such concepts gain different charge depending on the political system, society, and historical traditions which have shaped them and in which they are used.

  6. For an illuminating—though dated—review of studies on the European immigration to the United States see Rudolph J. Vecoli's “European Americans: From Immigrants to Ethnics.”

  7. I admit that there are serious problems of classification here, the most serious of which is, no doubt, the question of language itself. Since many Central European emigrés write in their native languages first, the English translations of their books may be viewed as belonging to foreign rather than American ethnic literature. I wonder to what extent Sollors's claim that “writers of national fame or of striking formal accomplishments or of international fame are often categorically excluded from the realm of ethnic writing” (242) holds in the case of Milosz or Brodsky.

  8. Hoffman sees Mary Antin as her “ancestress” (162). Both women were born in Jewish families in roughly the same geographical region: Mary Antin (1881) in Polotsk, Russian Pale, Eva (Wydra) Hoffman (1946) in Cracow, Poland. Both Antin and Hoffman were just thirteen years old when they emigrated with their families to the North American continent. Finally, both settled down on the East Coast (Antin in Boston, Hoffman in New York). In their autobiographies, both women celebrate education. Some episodes in Hoffman's book seem to be direct re-writing of passages in Antin's memoir. To give just one example: both writers describe Americanization of their names. But while Antin is disappointed that she is called just Mary, which sounds too much like her Hebrew Maryashe (Russian Marya), Hoffman regards the change in spelling of her name from Polish Ewa to English Eva as a “small, seismic mental shift” which makes her a stranger to herself (105). It is worth noting that although the title of Hoffman's book uncannily echoes Isaac Bashevis Singer's autobiographical Lost in America, he is never mentioned in Lost in Translation. Yet another echo is that of John Barth's classic postmodern text, Lost in the Funhouse, the implications of which I cannot explore here.

  9. The ratio of “success” to “failure” stories may be different in various ethnic groups, but despite numerous “real life” success stories among Polish-Americans, the success narrative is very rare in the literature of this ethnic group. Franciszek Lyra, in his short survey of Polish-American literature, points out the fact that the “success story,” as presented in the memoirs and letters of Poles who have emigrated to the United States, is a very modest one indeed: “The majority of the memoirists belong to the intermediary social class between the lowest and the lower/middle stratum. In America, a handful made it into the middle class. There are neither men of letters nor intellectuals among them” (68).

  10. In an oblique way, Lost in Translation is an attempt to re-define experience. I agree with Joan W. Scott when she writes: “Experience is not a word we can do without, although, given its usage to essentialize identity and reify the subject, it is tempting to abandon it altogether” (797). Just like the concept of experience, exile also seems to be attracting more and more critical interest; see for instance Julia Kristeva.

  11. This external flatness seems to compensate a constant and merciless travelling inside the self; her American friends are fine-tuned to any changes within their selves. Her Polish friends believe that they just have an identity or character: they focus on the external world, the world outside the self. If the American mode is confessional, the Polish is factual, anecdotal, Hoffman observes. “A culture talks most about what most bothers it: the Poles talk compulsively about the Russians and the most minute shifts of political strategy. Americans worry about who they are” (264).

  12. In common parlance “America” and “American,” as used by emigrants (and many other non-Americans, I suspect), become very protean and homogenizing concepts. At times “America” stands for the United States of America, at times for the whole North American continent, or for the ideal world of freedom, equality, and opportunity. “American” may refer to constructions of culture “typical” of the United States only or of North America in general; at times “American” is used as a synonym for “Western,” to describe everything that is perceived as different from, say, Central European culture and social system. In her autobiography, Hoffman's use of “America” and “American” may be confusing at times, as the two terms are sometimes given geographical and historical specificity but are often used as very general and abstract constructs.

  13. Hoffman's analysis of the role of language in the construction of her self and her experience is clearly informed by the Bakhtinian/Foucouldian understanding of discourse. It is quite surprising that in her otherwise very self-conscious narrative Hoffman seems to persistently avoid explicit references to the role of class, gender, or race in designating her own speaking position.

  14. This dialogue is of course also a dialogue between Eva's (Polish) childhood memories and beliefs and her adult (English) set of values and convictions, a point which I cannot pursue here.

  15. Lost in Translation explores both existentialist and poststructuralist conceptualization of alienation. The teenage Eva is a kind of Sartreian existentialist; the adult Hoffman appears to be a Foucauldian. Most often, the author of Lost in Translation inhabits the site between the two positions. Hoffman thus problematizes the poststructuralist understanding of the experience of alienation as stemming “from the creation of new identities in new intersubjective contexts, not from some existential split between the social and the true self” (McGowan 245) but by introducing the category of memory of a “true self.”

  16. See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction. Toril Moi gives a very lucid presentation of Bourdieu's main concepts and analyzes their usefulness to feminists in her “Appropriating Bourdieu.”

  17. To regard Hoffman's autobiography as belonging to “the genre of the American success story,” as William Proefriedt does (“The Education of Eva Hoffman” 124), means to focus on traditional markers of the author's social climb. But such an interpretation misses the main point of the book, it seems to me. Hoffman proposes other perspectives and other criteria for constructing the emigrant experience; she problematizes the whole genre of emigrant autobiography.

  18. I do not intend to enter the quagmire of theoretical discussion on self and identity, but it may be useful to state that “selfhood” denotes here the liberal and humanist concept of identity, whereas “subjectivity” is conceived of as an identity which is linguistically and discursively constructed. Cf., for instance, Belsey, Critical Practice, 57-59.

  19. Throughout her book, Hoffman analyzes and deconstructs whatever observations she makes. Proefriedt puts it well indeed when he writes: “In the task of assigning meaning or recognizing the impossibility of finding meaning, she is there first, sucking dry the import of the events of her life” (“The Education of Eva Hoffman” 124).

Works Cited

Antin, Mary. The Promised Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912.

Baranczak, Stanislaw. Breathing under Water and Other East European Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990.

Baudrillard, Jean. America. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1988.

Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. London: Routledge, 1980.

Boelhower, William. “The Brave New World of Immigrant Autobiography.” MELUS 9.2 (1982): 5-23.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984.

Chametzky, Jules. “Beyond Melting Pots, Cultural Pluralism, Ethnicity—or, Déjà Vu All Over Again.” MELUS 16.4 (1989-1990): 3-17.

Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1989.

Holte, James Craig. “The Representative Voice: Autobiography and the Ethnic Experience.” MELUS 9.2 (1982): 25-46.

Kristeva, Julia. “A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident.” The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. London: Blackwell, 1986.

———. Etrangers à nous mêmes. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1988.

Lyra, Franciszek. “Following the Cycle: The Ethnic Pattern of Polish-American Literature.” MELUS 12.4 (1985): 63-71.

Machann, Clinton. “Hugo Chotek and Czech-American Fiction.” MELUS 6.2 (1979): 32-40.

McGowan, John. Postmodernism and Its Critics. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Moi, Toril. “Appropriating Bourdieu: Feminist Theory and Pierre Bourdieu's Sociology of Culture.” NLH 22 (1991): 1017-49.

Proefriedt, William. “The Education of Eva Hoffman.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 18:4 (1990): 123-34.

———. “The Education of Mary Antin.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 17.4 (1989): 81-100.

Prosen, Rose Mary. “Slovenian-American Literature: Louis Adamic's Grandsons and Frank Mlakar's He, the Father.MELUS 5.4 (1978): 52-62.

Scott, Joan W. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 773-97.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Tiefenthaler, Stepp L. “The Search for Cultural Identity: Jewish-American Immigrant Autobiographies as Agents of Ethnicity.” MELUS 12.4 (1985): 37-51.

Vecoli, Rudolph J. “European Americans: From Immigrants to Ethnics.” International Migration Review 6.4 (1972): 403-34.

———. “Return to the Melting Pot: Ethnicity in the United States in the Eighties.” Journal of American Ethnic History 5.1 (1985): 7-20.

Publishers Weekly (review date 25 August 1997)

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SOURCE: Review of Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, by Eva Hoffman. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 35 (25 August 1997): 53.

[In the following review, the critic lauds Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews as objective and well-researched.]

Anticipating controversy like that engendered by Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, Hoffman sets out to determine Poland's complicity in the Holocaust in Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews. Although her Jewish parents had been harbored for two years during the war by a Polish peasant, and she herself was born in Cracow, Hoffman proves to be objectively tough-minded in weighing both documented and anecdotal evidence, observing that the country is the embattled terrain of three competing sets of memory: Jewish, Polish and Western.

Historicizing her well-researched study, Hoffman (Lost in Translation) reviews the relationship between the two cultures going back to the Renaissance and finds that Poles were more tolerant of certain classes of Jews, especially the szlachta, or nobility, who entered into economic alliances with them. However, the burgher class considered Jews competitors, and at the lower rungs of Polish society, Jews were thought of as alien, as “Others,” Jews on their part viewed Polish Christians as blasphemous. Yet pluralism in the country prevailed, not as ideology but in ordinary life. Hoffman pinpoints 1648 as a turning point in Polish-Jewish relations that prefigured WWII, when for nine years the Cossacks rampaged across the land, and the Poles, although not indifferent to the Jews, looked primarily to their own defense. Hoffman also follows politics in Poland during the partitions from the end of the 18th century to WWI with Poles and Jews alike clinging to their individual collective identities. With independence in 1918, a complementary relationship prevailed: Poles as farmers, Jews as merchants.

Ultimately focusing on the shtetl (town) of Bransk as emblematic of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust, Hoffman relies on a collective book of memory gathered in 1947, the Yizkor Book, which makes clear that the two cultures were, as Hoffman notes, “familiar to each other but unknown to each other.” When the Nazis criminalized acts of compassion, the Poles who were in a position to help the Jews had to overcome the strong sense of division, for traditionally, “Poles and Jews did not include each other within the sphere of mutual and natural obligations.” With gut-wrenching poignancy, Hoffman concludes that had the two groups been more integrated, more Poles would have felt the imperative to help Jews.

Jaroslaw Anders (review date 12 October 1997)

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SOURCE: Anders, Jaroslaw. “Poles Apart.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 October 1997): 10.

[In the following review, Anders discusses Hoffman's theories about the roots of Polish anti-Semitism in Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews.]

[Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews] was conceived as a companion volume to a documentary of the same title made by Marian Marzynski that aired on the PBS news show Frontline in April 1996. It has become much more than that three-hour film; Shtetl is a thoroughly researched and powerfully written guidebook to one of the most contested areas of recent European past.

Marzynski, a Polish filmmaker living in Chicago, visited Bransk, one of the former shtetls, or Jewish settlements, in eastern Poland to probe the memories of its now exclusively Polish population about their former Jewish neighbors whose fate was settled during the Holocaust. He also interviewed Jews from Bransk now living in America or Israel. At the end of his journey, he came up with a mixed and more than a bit disturbing story.

In Bransk, Marzynski met people like Zbyszek Romaniuk, a young Pole who lovingly unearthed, often literally, the Jewish past of his native town. Marzynski talked to older people, still scarred by the horrors they witnessed during the war and still trying to cope with their feelings of helplessness in the face of the ultimate evil. Yet he also found Poles who openly declared their indifference to the Jewish fate or who rejoiced at having their town, and Poland in general, finally free of the Jewish presence. There were also chilling clues about something much worse: acts of complicity with the Nazi murderers, crimes committed against Jewish neighbors out of greed or hatred and gratuitous acts of cruelty.

In his film, Marzynski highlights the heroism of many Poles, in Bransk and elsewhere, who risked their lives to save Jews, and he pays tribute to a Polish family that helped him, a Jewish child, survive the war. And yet his camera focuses mainly on those who seem to confirm the notion of Polish anti-Semitism. Marzynski's film created a furor in the Polish community in the United States and in Poland. It was decried as tendentious, even slanderous. Letters of protest were issued by Polish organizations and signed by prominent Polish personalities. Even the film's hero, Romaniuk, felt obliged to distance himself from the allegedly skewed message. It was a sad reenactment of the drama that erupts whenever Polish-Jewish relations, especially during World War II, are mentioned in less than glowing terms. (Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, the controversy about the presence of Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz, and the fiftieth anniversary of anti-Jewish riots in the Polish town of Kielce are other recent examples.)

Eva Hoffman, an American Polish writer from a Jewish family who frequently writes on Eastern European subjects, visited the same sites and talked to many of the same people depicted in Marzynski's film, and she is able to probe much deeper than the documentary could. By placing the story of Bransk, its Poles and Jews in the context of their centuries-long coexistence, Hoffman shows why the Poles and Jews differ so much in looking at their own history and why their mutual relations were much more complex than both sides admit. “My aim,” Hoffman writes, “is not to absolve any more than it is to condemn, but it is, at the very least, to complicate and historicize the picture.”

For many centuries, the Polish lands, more specifically their eastern borderlands, were the closest thing to a European homeland for the Jewish Diaspora. Jews started to arrive there in larger numbers in the late Middle Ages, escaping from religious persecution and economic uncertainty in western and southern Europe. In the vast, multiethnic, loosely woven domains of the Polish crown, they found relative tolerance, economic opportunity and a chance to nurture a rich and lasting cultural identity.

That does not mean that Jewish life in Poland was an idyll. Jews had to cope with restrictions, discriminatory laws and occasional hostilities from the Poles or other ethnic groups of the Polish kingdom. Yet for a variety of reasons, they developed into a unique social phenomenon: a nation within a nation with considerable political, economic, religious and cultural autonomy. Their very numbers provided them with a modicum of protection. At times they made up more than 10٪ of the country's population and were a clear majority in many eastern shtetls.

Hoffman suggests that the Polish-Jewish cohabitation was a prototype of contemporary multiculturalism. Poles and Jews lived for centuries in a symbiotic relation. They met on a daily basis, conducted multiple transactions and, in some cases, they grew remarkably similar to one another. They shared the same rhythms of the peasant life: They ate the same food, borrowed each other's folk tunes and pined for the same brooks and meadows. Most Poles, irrespective of their personal disposition, must have seen Jews as a part of the Polish landscape, as natural and immemorial as stork nests and weeping willows.

And yet on a deeper human level, each group remained almost impenetrable to the other. One danger of this “multiculturalism” was the very “separatedness” that Polish Jews were allowed, and later expected, to maintain. Pole and Jewish “otherness” became their defining factor. Of course, as a dominant culture, Poles would often callously disregard the will of minorities and draw imaginary boundaries between them and others. And yet, as Hoffman demonstrates, for a long time the isolation of Jews from Polish society was as much the result of their own decision to preserve their identity as it was of Polish discrimination. There were practically no social contacts between the communities, and there was a shocking, at least by modern standards, ignorance of each other's culture and religious beliefs, which opened the way to myth, superstition and fantasy. This unusual mixture of familiarity and estrangement, says Hoffman, “was so persistent as to have become a kind of unified truth—the simultaneous existence of benign, even warm acceptance, and a gap that could at any time widen into a gulf.”

The gap started to widen rapidly at the end of the 18th century, when Poland lost its independence and was carved up by its three powerful neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria. Polish nationalism germinated in captivity and basically preserved on the spiritual and mythological level something that no longer existed. Polish nationalism was never based on the concepts of race or territory but rather on cultural tradition, language and, increasingly, Catholic faith.

For a while, it seemed that even this new form of Polish national consciousness would keep its pluralistic, multiethnic character. The 19th century poet Adam Mickiewicz, the foremost legislator of the Polish imagination, treated Jews with mystical reverence and believed they would play a prominent role in Poland's resurrection. However, a much narrower, exclusive concept of nationhood started to prevail, and Jews, preoccupied with their own survival among political upheavals and shifting borders, were cast as foreigners who threatened the essence of the Polish identity. “Jews were still the main Other, the Polish alter ego,” writes Hoffman, “but this otherness was no longer primarily religious or caste-based, or even cultural. Instead, it had become practical and ideological.” Thus Polish anti-Semitism was born.

How much does all that bear on what happened in Poland during the Nazi occupation? Hoffman rejects the argument that “ordinary Poles were naturally inclined, by virtue of their congenital anti-Semitism, to participate in the genocide.” The destruction of Jews was engineered by the Nazis for their own devious purposes and not to please Poles. Under the German occupation, Poland was a suppressed, exploited slave nation and, as was not the case in some states that allied themselves with Hitler's Reich, there were no large-scale attempts made to cooperate with the final solution.

Yet Polish behavior during and immediately after the Holocaust poses more than one question. This also happens to be the time when Polish and Jewish memories diverge most. Poles remember themselves as an undaunted, noble nation bravely resisting the Nazi occupation. There is no doubt they suffered terrible losses. This suffering and loss had to be compensated by a sense of spiritual victory, a syndrome of morally pure, heroic victimhood.

Jews, on the other hand, even those who survived the war thanks to Polish assistance, tend to see the Poles as indifferent and callous, eager to profit from the Jewish misfortunes and, most of all, totally unpredictable. In many Jewish accounts, the Poles during the war were enigmas, people who could just as easily have been angels of salvation as messengers of death.

Historical records suggest that this new sense of apprehension and uncertainty was not entirely groundless. Hoffman reports that even among the small and highly homogeneous Polish population of Bransk, individual responses to Jewish pleas for help were not only widely diverse but often hard to explain by such factors as culture, religious values, even a person's prewar sentiments toward Jews.

She attributes this state of moral confusion to the extreme perversity of the Nazis, who encouraged cruelty and penalized common human decency. Helping Jews during the war was punishable by death, and sometimes whole families, even villages, were destroyed in retaliation. Yet Hoffman realizes that even the most extreme circumstances cannot fully explain that degree of amorality. In other equally dangerous endeavors, for example, involvement with the Polish underground, ordinary Poles showed more consistent human solidarity and resolve. Poles' relative indifference to the Jews' fate was rather a case of tribal thinking, of “us” versus “not us.”

In one of the saddest statements of the book, Hoffman writes: “During the war, it was the sense of separatedness that—whatever the nuances of personal attitude—had to be overcome by any Pole who made a conscious decision to help. Before the war, most Poles and Jews did not include each other within the sphere of mutual and natural obligations. A Pole who decided to risk his or her house, life and family for a Jewish person was stretching his compassion beyond the bounds of absolute responsibility. And there are Jewish survivors honest enough to say that if the roles had been reversed, they cannot vouch for how they would have acted toward people whom they still call ‘the goyim.’”

The last part of Hoffman's statement is impossible to prove and speculative. Jews were a minority, very much at the mercy of the Polish majority, and any reversal of those roles moves us into some purely hypothetical territory. Yet it is undoubtedly true that while Jews perished, some Poles tried to help, some others tried to harm and the rest thought it was all very sad but not necessarily their business.

Of course, it is not the moral extremes that cause us problems today. The heroes receive our deserved respect, and criminals meet with unanimous condemnation. It is rather the large, mostly anonymous and still enigmatic middle, with its endless shades of indifference, denial, contempt, helplessness and moral confusion, that is the object of the ongoing Polish-Jewish debate. The enigma that the Poles presented to Jewish eyes (and also, as suggested in more penetrating Polish accounts, to their own) continues to bother, especially because of political restrictions, it was largely unexplored in the Polish postwar culture. Moral ambiguity is particularly hard to accept when confronted with the brutally unequivocal reality of the Holocaust. Hence the repeated and emotionally charged attempts on both sides to reach some kind of final clarification, a collective balance sheet of good and evil.

Hoffman is skeptical about the feasibility of that effort. She writes: “All acts of memory are to some extent imaginative; we can no longer reconstruct ‘the full truth’ of the Shoah or of a long and various past. But one thing is sure: the truth and the past were far more striated, textured, and many sided then either nostalgia or bitterness would admit.” What especially concerns the author is the possibility of reducing the debate to a set of sweeping generalizations and automatic moral reflexes. That would be a most uncomfortable outcome, especially now, when the debate is increasingly among those who have only a secondhand knowledge of the actual events. Thus she warns her Jewish readers that the horrors of the Holocaust, combined with the memory of the prewar Polish trespasses, can easily upset the sense of proportion and overshadow other parts of the wartime experience. As for the Poles, they should try to abandon their instinctive defensiveness and boldly face the less praiseworthy facts of their past. The issue of Polish anti-Semitism is not an invention of some anti-Polish cabal. It really existed and, in a nasty, residual form, it exists today, even though there are practically no Jews left in Poland.

In the Jewish memory, Poland was, and is, a homeland turned into a slaughterhouse, a place so painful that everything in its orbit appears with relentless, unbearable intensity—a fact too seldom realized by today's Poles. Such a place demands a special kind of remembrance. “At this point the task is not only to remember,” writes Hoffman, “but to remember strenuously—to explore, decode, and deepen the terrain of memory.”

This, as her own book clearly demonstrates, does not undermine our right to condemn the vicious and honor the righteous. It just makes the process more demanding—and in the end more worthwhile—both in the moral and intellectual sense.

Eunice Lipton (review date 3 November 1997)

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SOURCE: Lipton, Eunice. “Unknowing Neighbors.” Nation 265, no. 14 (3 November 1997): 26-7.

[In the following review, Lipton praises Hoffman for her unique approach to the question of Polish anti-Semitism and complicity in the Holocaust in Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews.]

Shtetl is a daring and generous book, measured in style, passionate in intent. It was, I do believe, written for love. Not for the love of a person or a country, but for some configuration of home, for a laying bare of mysterious and destructive ancient mechanisms that, once understood—one hopes, one prays—may bring warring partners, even a divided heart or country, to actually see the other side, allowing each to have a home, a place from which to understand and to desire.

Eva Hoffman was born in Poland to Jewish parents in 1945 and immigrated to Canada when she was 13. She is the author of the witty and poignant memoir Lost in Translation (1990) and the less compelling but interesting journalistic trek through Eastern Europe, Exit into History (1993). In Shtetl she wades into the roiling waters of one of the most hotly contested and feverishly felt subjects in the discussion of the Holocaust, the question of the responsibility of Poles toward Polish Jews. “This book is an effort,” she writes, “to counter … the notion that ordinary Poles were naturally inclined, by the virtue of their congenital anti-Semitism, to participate in the genocide, and that Poles even today must be viewed with extreme suspicion or condemned as guilty for the fate of the Jews in their country. My aim is not to absolve any more than it is to condemn, but it is, at the very least, to complicate and historicize this picture.”

Even so, Shtetl may seem to many an apologia. To them any thoughtful treatment of Poles will feel like a betrayal, so fixed is their conviction of Polish guilt. This is as true in Paris as it is in New York, among gentiles as well as Jews. For example, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, generally considered the most powerful recent film about the Holocaust, is laced with a hatred of Poles and a certainty of their anti-Semitism.

Hoffman has set herself a difficult task. But her book is not an apologia. It attempts something both grander and simpler, a conversation in a new key. Hoffman sets the two polities, Jews and Poles, next to each other in history, side by side. Over centuries. She marshals historical data against selective remembering, not against the individual memory of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale and elsewhere, but against the certitudes many of us have built chaotically, haphazardly over time, out of glimpses of documentary footage, anguished memoirs, wrenching historical fiction. Hoffman tries to understand and track the calamity of the Holocaust in the particular shtetl of Bransk in northeastern Poland. Before the war Bransk's population was more than 50 percent Jewish. Today, there isn't a single Jew left. How could one neighbor fatally turn his back on another?

In addition to her examination of history, Hoffman suggests that a handle with which to grasp the catastrophe would be “to see the story of Polish-Jewish coexistence as a long experiment in multiculturalism avant la lettre”—an experiment that obviously failed dismally. At a time of intense local hatreds in ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the former Soviet Union, Ireland and even Canada, Hoffman attempts to understand one of the modern age's most infamous and searing hatreds. One can't but admire her.

Her story of Bransk is almost ethnographic in the prosaism of its details and in its often deadpan presentation. Gone is the edginess and poetry of Lost in Translation, almost as if imagination were subsumed here in passionate intent. Bransk is about 180 kilometers east of Warsaw, near the Belarus border. It's not clear why Hoffman selected this town, although in the first line of her acknowledgments she thanks Marian Marzynski, the director of Shtetl, a 1996 Frontline documentary about Bransk. There is quite a bit of overlap in the territory covered by the film and the book, but there is a fundamental difference: The film leaves one with the impression that Poles were and still are anti-Semites. Perhaps this conclusion is what inspired Hoffman to write her book.

In a compact 258 pages she gives us the history of life in this town over 400 years. She attacks no one. There is no polemic here. Methodically she builds her case with specifics about the shared life of Jews and Poles. She searches for what went wrong.

They were fundamentally different peoples. The Poles were mostly peasants, the Jews tradespeople and artisans. And the Poles were Catholic. “The peasants were bound to the land as firmly as the Jews were tied to religion, and their day, week, and year were marked by the demands of working their farms and tending their animals, as the Jewish calendar was marked by religious signposts.” But there they were, standing next to each other at the market-place, at the tailor's, at the inn. They didn't call on each other socially, they certainly didn't marry and they never stepped into the other's houses of worship. But willy-nilly they learned a little of each other's languages and gestures, jokes and music. They conversed. Yet they existed “below the level of meaningfulness” to one another. They did not know each other.

Hoffman powerfully shows the importance of Poland to Jews. Nowhere else on the European continent did Jews create as rich a culture. This is where Yiddish society flourished, the language, the literature, Hasidism, the Bund, Zionism. It's no coincidence that the faux Philip Roth in the wacky and brilliant Operation Shylock wanted to round up the Ashkenazic Jews in Israel and bring them back to Poland.

“Unlike other minority groups, Jews had no wish to assimilate. … they wanted, above all, to preserve their identity intact and unaltered. … Quite exceptionally, the Jews in Poland were pressed into neither exile nor assimilation,” Hoffman says. This remarkable circumstance enables us to understand that the Jews both thrived in Poland and also remained so separate that their Polish neighbors didn't know or care about them. They could turn their backs when the Germans demanded it. Not every Pole, but most. And the Jews played their part in this not-knowing. “Both nations,” writes Hoffman, “had their syndromes of superiority. … The impact of Polish prejudices was perforce far more injurious to the Jews than vice versa. … But Jewish separatism was also an active choice.” At their friendliest, there was a condescension expressed in each's language: “our Jews,” “our goyim.”

Her analysis of the tragedy is simple and eloquent: “the two communities were mutually impenetrable.” They never took each other in. This may seem naïve, too psychological, even spiritual, but Hoffman is in the good company of, among others, the Jewish French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote that no one can obey the injunction “You shall not kill” unless the Other is regarded as an equal. One must look into the eyes of the Other in order not to do harm. “The banal fact of conversation,” wrote Levinas, “quits the order of violence. … To speak, at the same time as knowing the Other, is making oneself known to him. … I not only think of what he is for me, but also and simultaneously … [what] I am for him.”

As Hoffman sees it, this is precisely what Poles and Jews could not do. And this in her opinion spelled the doom of the Jewish peoples of Poland and, ultimately, of Europe. How could they arrive at a common good if they could not even look at each other?

It's the most ordinary of psychological strategies to bind up one's most complex and troubling emotions and maneuver them into a single narrative line, held in place like the rectangles in a Mondrian painting. So a reader will finish a sentence in Shtetl, a paragraph, a page, and just when she begins to doubt her certainties, they'll freeze up on her again. She'll read, “After all, for about six hundred years Poland was one of the most important centers of Jewish life in the world. … Jews were a highly visible and socially significant presence—a constituency that had to be reckoned with.” Poland couldn't have been that bad for the Jews. She nods her head thoughtfully, but then thinks: All Poles are anti-Semites; they worked willingly, joyously in the camps. Each and every one of them. She doesn't want the messiness of Hoffman's balancing act. Sadly she remembers Primo Levi's words: “I do not know, and it does not much interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer. I know that the murderers existed, not only in Germany, and still exist … and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation.”

Hoffman is the product of other histories besides the Holocaust. That's why she could write this book. She knew she was Jewish and “that's why everyone died in the war.” And as a child she was obsessed with death. She counted her breaths. But Poland is also her childhood Eden. She calls the first part of Lost in Translation “Paradise.” She relishes the narrow mysterious streets of Krakow, summers in the foothills of the Tatry Mountains. Then she comes to North America and makes a life first as an immigrant child, then as a Harvard-educated intellectual and writer. She becomes an editor at The New York Times Book Review.

In 1977 Hoffman returned to Poland briefly for the first time and in 1990 and 1991 made lengthier visits. She has many friends there, evidently a vivid and affective life. One assumes she has written Shtetl for many reasons. But au fond, it seems to me, she wants to set her ancient world right. It's her home. She obviously can't live with mere hatred. Nor should we.

Andro Linklater (review date 14 February 1998)

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SOURCE: Linklater, Andro. “Poles Together—And Apart.” Spectator 280, no. 8845 (14 February 1998): 32.

[In the following review, Linklater examines the central argument in Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, praising Hoffman's “provocative thesis.”]

Laziness can kill. When a peasant in the market-place of Bransk, a small town in Poland 100 miles from the Russian border, tells Eva Hoffman how he helped dispose of Jews who had been murdered by the Nazis, carrying so many corpses in his cart to a mass grave that he had to wash the blood off in the river, the story triggers a chain of associations. Poland after all was where anti-Semitism became most deadly, where the word pogrom was invented, where a population of about three million Jews in 1939 was reduced to around 300,000 by 1945, and, since the war, to less than 10,000. Evidently, the peasant must be part of the national collusion in that holocaust. It is Eva Hoffman's provocative thesis in Shtetl that not only is this lazy thinking, but the ignorance it displays is what makes today's neo-Nazi racism possible.

Herself a Polish, now American, Jew, she has set out to examine the nature of Polish anti-Semitism or, to quote one of many eloquent phrases, ‘to remember strenuously’ what happened to the Jews living in its small towns. Bransk serves as a template, and especially its Jewish shtetl (the word is Yiddish for little town), the self-contained community which ran most of the shops and markets, and was governed by a mixture of rabbis, tradition, and argument. Such was the setting for the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and more widely for the humane, quarrelsome, schmaltzy image of the Ashkenazi Jew.

Her conclusion is an eye-opener. That the peasant disliked Jews was evident from his pleasure at their absence from a town where they had once constituted almost 20 per cent of the population. But as a boy, in the 1940s when they were starving in their Nazi-created ghetto, he had also taken them food through the barbed wire. A similar pattern of contradictory impulses appears repeatedly in Hoffman's broad sweep through Polish history.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the number of attacks on Jews, verbal and physical, grew to the point where in the 1930s Jack Rubin, who emigrated from Bransk to America, could say, ‘Oh we always knew the Poles were anti-Semites.’ Yet for 600 years, until the disintegration of Poland during the Napoleonic wars, the Jews had in fact enjoyed a level of toleration unknown in other European countries; laws protected them from libel and physical attack, and tradition allowed them a degree of independence which amounted to self-government. ‘Here they hold those who do ill [to Jews] responsible and punish them severely,’ wrote the 16th-century Itzhak of Trok; ‘here, they even support Jews with favourable privileges so they can live happily and peacefully.’ So conscious were they of Polish attitudes that some Jews conflated ‘Poland’ with the Hebrew word polin meaning ‘here thou shalt lodge’, and thought of the country as their promised land.

Much of this toleration may have been the consequence of old Poland's chaotic, mixed (scarcely half the population were actually Poles) clanlike society, and following its partition in 1815, Jews faced harsher treatment. Bransk, now within the Russian sector, felt the influence of the conquerors' anti-Semitic legislation, but more significantly the stateless Poles themselves clearly began to take out their humiliation on neighbours who did not share their nationalist yearnings. Even so, it is a sobering realisation that the incidents, noted in the records of the Bransk shtetl, are not much worse than those suffered by many West Indian and Asian communities in Britain.

Only in the 1930s, this book argues, when newly independent Poland was racked by unemployment, did organised racism arrive, but then it came with frightening violence—aided by the mutual ignorance which the shtetl's inturned existence had fostered. Yet even during the Nazi occupation, Hoffman finds many instances of Poles protecting Jews, among them the Pole-hating Rubin who owed his life to a Polish farmer who sheltered him from the Germans for months.

It is Hoffman's argument that the exclusiveness of the shtetl, crucial though it was to Jewish identity, encouraged latent anti-Semitism, and in consequence both Pole and Jew were defenceless against a systematic racism which played on their strangeness to each other. And because neither now wants to think clearly of the circumstances in which the Holocaust occurred, each remains equally vulnerable to neo-Nazis determined to exploit their ignorance.

Her argument clearly applies to other multicultural societies, and has particular import now that British Muslims have begun to follow the example of educational separatism set by Anglicans, Catholics, and Jews. Ethnic identity bought at the price of isolationism serves neither the smaller nor larger society.

Sarah Phillips Casteel (essay date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Casteel, Sarah Phillips. “Eva Hoffman's Double Emigration: Canada as the Site of Exile in Lost in Translation.Biography 25, no. 1 (winter 2001): 288-301.

[In the following essay, Casteel evaluates how Hoffman portrays the social and physical landscapes of Canada in Lost in Translation.]

Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman's 1989 account of her family's difficult emigration from Poland to Canada and her own subsequent immigration to the United States, is described in the back cover blurb as “A classically American chronicle of upward mobility and assimilation” (emphasis added). Ignoring the fact that almost a third of Lost in Translation takes place in Canada, critics have also tended to classify the book as American immigrant autobiography. In the critical literature, the Canadian portions of the narrative are discussed as though they were continuous with the American portions, the term “American” applied indiscriminately to either side of the border.1 Yet Hoffman herself draws a sharp distinction between the Canadian and American periods of her life, as the book's tripartite structure makes clear. The first section of the book, in which Hoffman lovingly reconstructs her postwar childhood in Poland, is entitled “Paradise.” The second section, which records the 1959 immigration of Hoffman's Polish-Jewish family to Vancouver, their struggle to establish themselves there, and the profoundly disorienting impact of this displacement on the teenage Hoffman, is entitled “Exile.” In the third and final section, entitled “The New World,” Hoffman immigrates to the United States to attend Rice University, which is followed by graduate studies at Harvard and a successful professional life in New York. Thus we see that according to Hoffman's schema, Canada and America are not at all continuous; instead, Canada is firmly excluded from the categories of the New World—modernity, success, new beginnings—that will ultimately make the United States a place of possibility for her.

In my view, it is worth attending more closely to Hoffman's distinction between Canada and the United States, not so much by way of attacking the insensitivity of American literary critics to the Canadian content of the book, but rather for what Hoffman's treatment of Canada adds to our understanding of this much discussed autobiography. Hoffman's treatment of Canada will be examined here from two perspectives. First, her opaque and troubling depiction of Vancouver will prove to be fundamentally bound up with the problem of traumatic memory that haunts her both as an immigrant and as a child of Holocaust survivors. Second, it will become apparent that Hoffman's insistence on the Canada/U.S. division is tied to her search for a narrative structure that can make sense of her past. Hoffman's often perplexing representations of Vancouver register key tensions surrounding the genre of immigrant autobiography and in particular the literature of double emigrations.


Many have commented on the highly idealized quality of Hoffman's portrait of her native Cracow, which is filtered through the nostalgia of her childhood memories, and which rests on a conception of childhood as a state of plenitude. Little notice has been taken, however, of the peculiarities of Hoffman's largely unsympathetic treatment of Vancouver. Hoffman describes Canadian society as profoundly inhospitable; in her view, the rigidity and conformism of 1960s Vancouver made it impossible for the Polish-Canadian community to assimilate, condemning it to an empty mimicry of Canadian social conventions. But perhaps more striking than Hoffman's attacks on the unwelcoming and provincial character of Vancouver is her description of the Canadian physical environment, which she consistently characterizes as a blank, gray, and monolithic space, a “no place” and a “nowhere.” From the very first, the Canadian landscape possesses an eerie unreality. The St. Lawrence Seaway which greets Hoffman's arrival in Canada strikes her as “ineffably and utterly different from the watery landscapes” to which she is accustomed (Lost [Lost in Translation] 92).2 The vocabulary of absolute foreignness, of coldness and isolation, which Hoffman establishes in the passage about the St. Lawrence, continues to be employed in her description of the train ride from Montreal to Vancouver and throughout her portrayal of Vancouver itself. It is as though she has no other palette at her disposal.

While still in Poland, Hoffman's father had associated Canada with majestic wilderness and freedom, but to her own ear Canada produced echoes of the Sahara: vast and vacant. Once arrived in Canada, Hoffman finds that the urban landscape of Vancouver, with its manicured lawns and its sparsely populated, “relentlessly symmetrical” streets, has an “eerie quietness.” Vancouver houses lack depth and dimension. They are thin and insubstantial, containing flat, undifferentiated, hygienic surfaces. Even Vancouver's celebrated physical beauty finds no favor with her. She recoils from it, judging the mountains imprisoning rather than magnificent:

It is the prevailing opinion of humankind that this is beautiful, breathtaking. But my soul does not go out to these spectacular sights, which reject me, because I reject them. I want my landscapes human sized and penetrable; these mountains look like a picture postcard to me, something you look at rather than enter, and on the many cloudy days they enclose Vancouver like gloomy walls.

(Lost 134)

The intensity of Hoffman's attachment to the landscape of her Polish childhood is thus matched by the depth of her hostility towards her new Canadian surroundings.

Hoffman's characterization of the Canadian landscape as harsh and alienating conforms in many respects to a long-standing tradition of Canadian writing about nature. Northrop Frye could be describing Hoffman when he writes in The Bush Garden: “I have long been impressed in Canadian poetry by a tone of deep terror in regard to nature. … It is not a terror of the dangers or discomforts or even the mysteries of nature, but a terror of the soul at something that these things manifest” (225). Margaret Atwood quotes this same passage from Frye to preface her discussion in Survival of the tendency among Canadian writers to view nature as hostile and indifferent. Both Frye and Atwood note that throughout Canadian literature, the landscape appears unresponsive and lawless, rendering it inimical to a Wordsworthian communion with nature, and isolating the individual who attempts to engage in such a communion.

Hoffman's response, then, is not untypical of those who have come into contact with the Canadian landscape. But why (at least in recollection) had Canada held such associations for Hoffman before she had arrived, and why had it held such different associations for her father? Furthermore, what exactly is the “something” manifested in the Canadian landscape that induces in her “a terror of the soul,” as Frye puts it? We might begin by noting that Hoffman frequently qualifies her descriptions of the landscape with an admission that her ability to see her surroundings is extremely limited: “I walk through those streets not seeing anything clearly, as if a screen has fallen before my eyes, a screen that obscures and blurs everything in my field of vision” (Lost 135). She acknowledges that “Even on those days when the sun comes out in full blaze and the air has the special transparency of the north, Vancouver is a dim world to my eyes, and I walk around it in the static of visual confusion” (Lost 135). Yet she fails to reflect on what such admissions might suggest about the nature of her portrait of Vancouver. One of the hallmarks of her autobiography is Hoffman's remarkable degree of self-awareness, her ability to interpret her own condition for us, yet rarely does she apply this kind of rigorous self-analysis to the Canadian sections.3 While elsewhere in the autobiography we are conscious of a distinction between Hoffman's mature writing self and her recollected self, in the Canadian sections Hoffman seems largely unable to distance herself from her teenaged perceptions.4 And so we are faced with something of a conundrum: a highly articulate and self-reflexive autobiographer who becomes suddenly silent and unpenetrating in the middle portion of her narrative.

In my view, Hoffman's strangely opaque treatment of Vancouver is fully intelligible only when we read the Canadian landscape as serving a symbolic function as well as a representational one. In his penetrating book on landscape, William H. New cautions us against reading images of landscape as neutral descriptions of a physical reality; instead, we must always be conscious that “land” and “nature” are tropes that carry particular sets of conventions (5-11). Representations of landscape embody attitudes and mindsets as much as they do physical geographies, as Atwood suggests when she notes that “landscapes in poems are often interior landscapes; they are maps of a state of mind” (49). Indeed, Hoffman's fondness for speaking of a “geography of emotions,” an “internal geography,” or an “internal landscape” supports a symbolic reading. Such phrases point to a more subjective spatial logic at work in the autobiography, one which recognizes psychological and emotional maps which exist alongside and often in conflict with conventional geographies. For instance, when the family is faced with the decision of whether to immigrate to Israel or to Canada, Hoffman notes that according to her “internal geography,” Israel is closer to Poland than is Canada. Israel has some prior associations for her as the “real home” of the Jews, while Canada is a word without meaning, nothing more than a blank space in her mind.5

To an extent, Hoffman's landscape is always symbolic, but the preponderance of the symbolic mode in the Canadian section has to do, I would suggest, with the fact that it is in this section that the problem of memory becomes most acute. Each of the three sections of the book not only refers to a different geographical space—Poland, Canada, the U.S.—but also corresponds to a different commemorative mode. The Polish section, as I have noted, is suffused with nostalgia. The American section is very much taken with the liberating possibilities of a kind of willed amnesia. The Canadian section is where we become aware of the limits of both the nostalgic and amnesiac modes. In the Canadian section, the traumatic memories that have been repressed or pushed aside by these nostalgic and amnesiac tendencies become suddenly obtrusive and problematic.

Vancouver is the place where Hoffman experiences exile in its most raw form, where she first suffers the humiliations and disorientations of immigrant life, and thus it is heavily tainted in her mind by the trauma of immigration. Hoffman's highly impressionistic portrayal of Vancouver is not so much objective description as it is a projection of her own deeply troubled psychological state, the emptiness and dejection she feels as she loses her language and her sense of rootedness. Hoffman encourages such a reading, particularly in her account of a nightmare she has shortly after her arrival in Vancouver. In her dream she is drowning, “cast adrift in incomprehensible space,” and she awakes screaming in terror (Lost 104). The dream heralds the arrival of what she calls “the Big Fear”—the acute anxiety that accompanies her displacement—and she soon recedes into a zombie-like state of “silent indifference.” As we have seen, Canada is filtered through Hoffman's eyes, which are clouded over and dim. Thus for her the Canadian landscape—whether it be the St. Lawrence or the Rocky Mountains—is banal, abstract, and formless. The flatness and emptiness of which she accuses Vancouver manifest her own sense that immigration has emptied her of the richness of her internal life, so that she has become “impalpable, neutral, faceless” (Lost 147).

When Hoffman had first learned of her parents' decision to emigrate, the prospect of moving to Canada had filled her, she writes, with a “horror vacui.” This association of Canada with a terror of emptiness never leaves her. In Vancouver, she is plagued by a profound awareness of loss, and she declares her nostalgia to be an illness. She feels pregnant with images of Poland, and yet it is a “pregnancy without the possibility of birth.” Ultimately, she can endure her memories of Poland only by repressing them:

After a while, I begin to push the images of memory down, away from consciousness, below emotion. Relegated to an internal darkness, they increase the area of darkness within me, and they return in the dark, in my dreams.

(Lost 116)

Hoffman's account of the psychological impact of her emigration does much to explain the unremittingly desolate quality of her portrait of Vancouver, but it may also be linked to a deeper kind of trauma. Late in the book Hoffman tells us of a visit she makes to Vancouver during which her parents recount a disturbing wartime story about a close relative whose hiding place was exposed by a fellow Jew. Hoffman can hardly bear to listen to this story, which she had not heard before, and she feels paralyzed by the dilemma of whether to break the silence surrounding her parents' wartime past: “Indecent to imagine, indecent not to imagine. Indecent not to say anything to my parents, indecent to say anything at all. … We stop, and go on to talk about something else, in normal tones” (Lost 252). This scene casts Hoffman's association of Canada with the “horror vacui” in a different light. Hoffman's depiction of Vancouver as a place of vast emptiness, silence, and blankness coincides with the sense of a void that often afflicts the children of Holocaust survivors.6 The desert-like qualities she attributes to the Canadian landscape are suggestive of what has been described with reference to Holocaust literature as a “memory hole,” a painful awareness of the absence of memory.7 Hoffman's powerful account of her repression of images of the past, and the resultant “phantom pain,” the trace of a lost memory that weighs on her consciousness, resonates significantly with discussions of Holocaust memory and postmemory.

Hoffman was born in 1945 to Jewish parents who had survived the war by hiding in forest bunkers. Although she devotes little space to her parents' story, its very absence suggests how much this legacy weighs on her. Hoffman would appear to suffer from what Marianne Hirsch calls “postmemory,” a term that designates “the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they ‘remember’ only as the stories and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right” (“Projected Memory” 7).

Two distinct forms of response are typical of children of survivors: on the one hand a powerful compulsion to remember and commemorate the past, and on the other an inability to come to terms with the legacy of the Holocaust and a consequent repression of it (Fine 187-91). In Lost in Translation, Hoffman's response tends more toward the latter, as she tells herself that there is no point in “duplicating suffering.” A marked silence about the prewar past is maintained by her parents; the disconnect between her parents' pre- and post-war life is so great that Hoffman describes the war as her parents' “second birthplace.” Hoffman herself perpetuates her parents' silence. The word “Holocaust” does not appear until 250 pages into the book, and the Holocaust is always confined to the margins of the narrative. Because she wants to present Poland in a positive light, she is anxious to downplay questions of Jewishness in the Polish sections. Holocaust memory also occupies little space in the American section of the book, where it fits ill with the American-style optimism Hoffman is trying to cultivate. America signifies the possibility of self-reinvention, of leaving the past behind, and so is not conducive to remembrance. Vancouver, which Hoffman dubs her “shtetl-on-the-Pacific,” is where Hoffman's parents, the keepers of memory, reside, and so no escape from memory is possible here. Thus it is Vancouver that becomes the locus of Holocaust memory, or to be more precise the place where the problem of this memory becomes most palpable.8 As the immediate scene of exile, and more profoundly, as a signifier of Holocaust memory and postmemory, Canada takes on a supremely negative valency.


Traumatic events can be defined as those which resist incorporation into narratives (Bal viii-ix). It is therefore not coincidental that Canada, which is doubly inscribed by traumatic memory in Lost in Translation, is also the site where problems of narrative construction tend to surface. As an autobiographer, Hoffman is exceptionally aware of the tradition of immigrant autobiography that precedes her, and she tends to frame her experience in terms of autobiographies by earlier writers. She is very much concerned in Lost in Translation to find a narrative structure that can make sense of her past and that can aid her in her autobiographical project of producing a coherent self. Yet she is often unable to make sense of her story: “The patterns of my life have been so disrupted that I cannot find straight lines amid the disarray” (Lost 158). Rewriting the past will help her to understand that past, for it is in the act of writing that she can both construct a meaningful narrative about her life and also construct a more unified self. But what kind of story should she tell about herself? What kind of map should she use? She wants desperately to “get the blocks of her story into the right proportions,” and she exhibits a strong desire for a sense of continuity and wholeness, but both the disjunctive experience of her double emigration and the lingering memory of her parents' Holocaust past ensure that her life story cannot be narrated with smooth, clean lines.

One of the great costs of emigration for her has been the loss of a meaningful framework through which to understand her experience, for as she notes, “It is only within such frames and patterns that any one moment is intelligible. Pattern is the soil of significance; and it is surely one of the hazards of emigration, and exile, and extreme mobility, that one is uprooted from that soil” (Lost 278). As an Eastern European Jewish immigrant to North America, she has numerous narrative models at her disposal, and yet none satisfies her.9 She doubts whether the available models for immigrant fates ever feel entirely natural to those whose lives they are meant to represent. Hoffman identifies most closely with Mary Antin's 1912 autobiography The Promised Land, a linear narrative of successful Jewish assimilation, and yet she finds this model inadequate to her own experience of linguistic fragmentation and cultural schizophrenia. Hoffman suffers from a kind of belatedness as well. She arrives after the major waves of Jewish immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which had produced a strong tradition of Jewish-American autobiography, and when she does arrive, she finds herself in Vancouver rather than the Lower East Side. Thus she is both temporally and spatially removed from the literary tradition which might best offer her a sense of belonging and a narrative framework. Though she does not say so, the Vancouver setting does not fit the genre of Jewish-American autobiography whose practitioners she so envies, and indeed only seems a hindrance to her goal of becoming a “New York intellectual.” If Alfred Kazin complained in his autobiography A Walker in the City of having to travel the long distance from Brownsville to Manhattan to get to the “real America,” so Hoffman's journey from Vancouver to New York is that much farther and more arduous.

Hoffman does eventually succeed in her ambitions; like Kazin she reaches the “real America” and takes her place in New York intellectual circles, where she feels at home and knows all the codes. Despite the postmodern qualities of the narrative, its fragmented and disjunctive structure, its preoccupation with post-structural linguistics, Lost in Translation remains very much a story of assimilation and of “making it.”10 The completion of her autobiography is in itself a marker of her successful assimilation. Yet the Canadian episodes provide an ironic counterpoint to the American success narrative that dominates the later parts of her autobiography. The Canadian narrative, which is more Malamud than Mary Antin, forms a dark underside to the generally optimistic American narrative. Where America represents the possibility of self-invention, of shedding the old self and beginning again,11 Canada stands for non-assimilation, non-integration, for the irreconcilability of the Old World and the New. On return trips to Vancouver, even after she has achieved success in America and is firmly established there, she is overcome once again with “the Big Fear.” Her hard-won American self-assurance is shattered when the old feelings of fragility and vulnerability return: “Within hours of arrival here, I'm no longer a hybrid but an oxymoron. My professional, self-confident, American identity recedes like an insubstantial mirage” (Lost 248). In this way, while Hoffman's American narrative increasingly comes to resemble those of her Jewish-American predecessors in its assimilationist leanings, it is continually threatened by the Canadian narrative of disjunction, disconnection, and failure. Yet at the same time, the designation of Canada as the place of exile leaves the American section free to move forward towards a brighter future. The narrative function of Canada is thus to unburden the American narrative of the problem of exile, but the Canadian narrative also undercuts its American counterpart and calls into question its viability.

Canada also functions to relieve the American narrative of the much discussed problem of the Holocaust and narrativization. If Hoffman is struggling to impose a meaningful pattern on her immigration history, she is equally struggling to find a story she can tell about her parents' past (which is both uninterpretable and also inescapable). In Lost in Translation, she fails to find such a story, the Holocaust remaining highly marginal in a book that wants to construct Poland as idyllic and America as a land of optimism. But in later books, particularly in her most recent work Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, Hoffman has been able to acknowledge much more fully her dilemma of how to reconcile her Polish and Jewish loyalties.12 In Shtetl, when Hoffman worries about a “pathology of silence” that has surrounded the Holocaust, and when she insists that “we need to stop splitting our own memories and perceptions in half, and pushing away those parts which are too distressing for owning or acknowledgment” (257), she may have in mind her own silences in Lost in Translation. In both Shtetl and in her second book Exit into History, Hoffman sets out to correct some of the nostalgic tendencies that had shaded her portrait of Poland in Lost in Translation. But in Lost in Translation, the tension generated by her nostalgia for Poland on the one hand, and her duty as daughter of Holocaust survivors to remember the past on the other, remains quite buried and unresolved.

This tension manifests itself in the opaque and troubling Canadian passages. The no-place to the North provides a narrative space in which the unnarratable can be bracketed, contained. Vancouver, which is located at the other end of the continent from New York, is a conveniently peripheral location in which to lock away that which interferes with her ability to continue along the trajectory she has mapped out for herself in the United States. And yet the Holocaust remains a disturbing presence. “There's no way to get this part of the story in proportion,” Hoffman tells us, referring to her parents' stories from the war. “It could overshadow everything else, put the light of the world right out. I need seven-league boots to travel from this to where I live. And yet, this is what I must do” (Lost 253). And she does, as she gets on her airplane back to New York and quite literally distances herself from her parents' memories. But while Canada allows Hoffman to defer the problem of narrating Holocaust memory, it also periodically serves as a painful reminder of the impossibility of narrative, of what has been pushed aside so that her story can move forward.

A suggestive counterexample to Hoffman's projection of the past and of Holocaust memory onto the Canadian landscape can be found in Saul Bellow's Herzog. In Bellow's semi-autobiographical novel, whose antihero is (like Bellow himself) an American Jew born in Montreal, the Canada-U.S. border also functions as a divider between past and present, Old World and New. But while Hoffman distances herself from the Old World memories that are being preserved by the “shtetl-on-the-Pacific” in Vancouver, Bellow's Herzog nostalgically clings to his recollections of his Montreal ghetto childhood, which his adult and increasingly assimilated American life threatens to erode. For Herzog, Americanization represents a betrayal of his values and his immigrant Jewish roots, as his friend insists:

So back of it all is bourgeois America. This is a crude world of finery and excrement. A proud, lazy civilization that worships its own boorishness. You and I were brought up in the old poverty. I don't know how American you've become since the old days in Canada—you've lived here a long time. But I will never worship the fat gods.


Thus Herzog resembles Lost in Translation in its location of the Old World past north of the border, but shows that Canada can just as readily stand for that which needs to be held onto as it can for that which needs to be escaped.

For Herzog, Canada is the alternative space to America and is therefore a candidate for idealization. By contrast Hoffman, a double-emigrant, has not two but three possible locations, as the tripartite structure she adopts and her emphasis on the idea of triangulation remind us. This triangularity is what is obscured by the bipolar structure (Poland vs. America) that critical readings have tended to impose on the book. Bipolar readings fail to elucidate Hoffman's presentation of Canada because they disregard the double-emigration structure that makes possible her negative construction of Canada. If Canada had been her final destination, it could not have been identified so absolutely with exile—as indeed it is not for her sister who remains in Vancouver.

We can see this pattern at work in the writings of other double-emigrants. Bharati Mukherjee, for instance, has quite vociferously privileged the United States (her second adoptive homeland) over Canada (her first) in a manner similar to that of Hoffman. Michael Ondaatje, on the other hand, has tended to favor Canada (his second adoptive homeland) as being more invigorating than Britain (his first). In a recent interview, Salman Rushdie enthusiastically celebrated his move form London to New York, quoting Sonny Mehta, the president of Knopf: “He said, ‘You know, Salman, for people like you and me, it's a very good idea at some point to leave the British Empire.’ And I think he's absolutely right” (Max 69). Here Rushdie attributes his delight in his new home to his having finally escaped the former British Empire, but he may also be expressing pleasure simply at the fact of having arrived at an alternative destination.

This pleasure of the second arrival is not restricted to those who have crossed two national borders. It is the chief subject of The Enigma of Arrival, V. S. Naipaul's account of the “second childhood” he experienced upon his move from London to the English countryside. Kazin's narrative also revolves around a second arrival, this time within America rather than England, and this time moving towards the city rather than away from it.13 What each of these examples suggests is a structural principle according to which the second destination of the emigrant may take on values that are independent of specific circumstances, and that produce a contrasting evaluation of the first destination. Bipolar readings of immigrant narratives relying on an Old World-New World binary risk overlooking these kinds of gradations in representations of the immigrant experience.


In the final scene of her autobiography, Hoffman casts herself as a new Eve against the Edenic backdrop of a friend's New England garden, where she is busily learning the names of the flowers. The friend declares that she is going to make Hoffman feel at home in the New World, and indeed, Hoffman has been reborn in America, her relationship with nature and language restored in all its fullness:

Right now, this is the place where I'm alive. How could there be any other place? Be here now, I think to myself in the faintly ironic tones in which the phrase is uttered by the likes of me. Then the phrase dissolves. … The language of this is sufficient. I'm here now.

(Lost 280)

There is a subtle rejection of memory in this Adamic scene, in which Hoffman tells herself that the place where she now finds herself is the only place, complete unto itself. But looked at from the vantage point of the Canadian narrative, this affirmative and amnesiac conclusion seems less fully resolved. After all, it is Canada's role as the place of exile and as the receptacle of excess memory that makes possible a scene such as this.

Hoffman has written recently of the dangers exile presents for narrative construction, noting that the exilic perspective tends to freeze one's image of the homeland in a mythic realm, a “space of projections and fantasies” (“The New Nomads” 52). What we learn in Lost in Translation, however, is that the homeland is not the only space that can be subject to such distortions. Rather, the country of exile can also become the screen on which the psychological distress of the immigrant is projected, and this is particularly the case when the country of exile is subsequently abandoned in favor of a second destination. As we have seen, Hoffman's privileging of America is made possible by a double-emigration structure which distributes the experience of exile and assimilation over the narrative space of two countries. The example of Hoffman's autobiography and its treatment of Canada suggests that we need to adopt less binary ways of reading immigrant narratives so that we can become more sensitive to the interplay between memory and geography in representations of second arrivals and double emigrations.


  1. See for instance Fjellestad 139 and Zaborowska 229, 245. Fjellestad complains about the homogenization of European-American literature, but then fails to distinguish between Canadian and American cultural contexts. Zaborowska's blurring of Montreal and New York in the following quotation is symptomatic of a broader critical tendency to collapse together Canada and the U.S.: “The narrator's love for the country of her childhood is the reason that Hoffman's book opens not with a view of the Statue of Liberty but with the acute memory of her pain of loss when the ship to Montreal sailed” (233).

  2. This passage recalls Northrop Frye's observation that “To enter the United States is a matter of crossing an ocean; to enter Canada is a matter of being silently swallowed by an alien continent” (217).

  3. William Proefriedt notes that “Hoffman's prescient insight into herself and the times in which she lives undercuts, to a considerable extent, the work of interpretation. She has done the job for us” (124).

  4. An important exception is a brief passage in which she reflects on the “mercureal changeability of all reality under the pressure of the soul” and observes that “Vancouver will never be the place I most love, for it was here that I fell out of the net of meaning into the weightlessness of chaos. But now I have eyes to see its flower-filled gardens, and hear small kindnesses under the flat Canadian accents” (Lost 151). This passage is too singular and marginal, however, to offset the overall effect of her treatment of Canada.

  5. Another example comes towards the end of the book, when Hoffman speaks of the moment when the immigrant glimpses the internal map of the people among whom she now lives—the set of cultural norms and habits of mind that governs their lives—and realizes that she will always feel always slightly off-kilter because her internal map does not match theirs (Lost 265).

  6. See Fine 187; Felman and Laub 64-65.

  7. See Sicher's discussion of the “memory hole,” in which “the past is a ‘trace’ in the present that haunts the second generation with the presence of the absent memory, an amnesia in which the only memory is of not remembering anything” (30).

  8. Marianne Hirsch is the only critic to my knowledge who has pointed to a connection between Hoffman's repression of the legacy of the Holocaust and her treatment of Canada, but her discussion is very brief (“Pictures” 77).

  9. Mark Krupnick suggests that Hoffman herself never fully overcomes this difficulty when he insightfully remarks that her “compositional recourse to the pattern of paradise lost, exile, and the quest for a new paradise within is as constraining as the Exodus pattern of enslavement and liberation in Antin” (458).

  10. As William Proefriedt notes, “Her perspective … does not exclude Hoffman's autobiography from the genre of the American success story. She shares with Antin a willingness to sketch out the trajectory of her climb” (124). Zaborowska disagrees, choosing instead to emphasize “the impossibility of completely successful assimilation and cultural translation” in Hoffman's work. She finds that the book “defies traditional immigrant narrative structure. … It does not end with any kind of arrival that suggests permanence, acceptance by the dominant culture, and complete fulfillment and satisfaction” (228). The discrepancy between Zaborowska's and Proefriedt's readings testifies to the complexity and multivalency of Hoffman's thinking about assimilation. Nonetheless, I find ample evidence of a progressivist narrative which exists in an uneasy tension with Hoffman's postmodern suspicion of such narratives.

  11. Her generally positive view of America is illustrated by her discussion of the riff as the paradigmatic American literary form. The riff has no rules, no fixed destination, and its fluidity bespeaks the possibility for self-invention: “this is America where anything is possible, and this slip-and-slide speech, like jazz, or action painting, is the insertion of the self into the space of borderless possibility” (Lost 219).

  12. Questions of Jewishness remain fairly marginal in Exit into History, although she does here clearly state her dilemma: “If I came to Eastern Europe in part to understand it as an adult, then I find that the Polish and Jewish parts of my history, my identity—my loyalties—refuse either to separate or to reconcile. At the very moments when my attachment to Poland … is strongest, I upbraid myself for insufficient vigilance on behalf of those who suffered here—on behalf, really, of my parents, who survived the Holocaust in awful circumstances. Every time I hear Poland described reductively as an anti-Semitic country, I bridle in revolt, for I know that the reality is far more tangled than that” (101). In Shtetl Hoffman addresses this problem head on, but we might note that she avoids telling her parents' story directly. Instead, she relates interviews she has conducted with survivors whose stories parallel that of her parents. This avoidance of direct narration suggests that she continues to struggle with the problem of Holocaust memory.

  13. Although in narratives such as Kazin's and Bellow's the protagonist only emigrates once, the original emigration of the parents from Europe is such a strong presence for the child that it is as though the child himself had undergone it. It is in this sense that Kazin's move to Manhattan or Herzog's move to the United States can be read as second emigrations.

Author's Note: I would like to thank the participants in the “Autobiography and Changing Identities” conference and Professor Rachel Adams of Columbia University for the generous suggestions and insights they offered in response to earlier versions of this paper.

Works Cited

Antin, Mary. The Promised Land. 1912. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1996.

Bal, Mieke. “Introduction.” Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. Eds. Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1999.

Bellow, Saul. Herzog. 1961. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1965.

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Fine, Ellen S. “Transmission of Memory: The Post-Holocaust Generation in the Diaspora.” Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory after Auschwitz. Ed. Efraim Sicher. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1998. 185-200.

Fjellestad, Danuta Zadworna. “‘The Insertion of the Self into the Space of Borderless Possibility’: Eva Hoffman's Exiled Body.” MELUS 20.2 (Summer 1995): 133-47.

Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: Anansi, 1971.

Hirsch, Marianne. “Pictures of a Displaced Girlhood.” Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question. Ed. Angelika Bammer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. 71-89.

———. “Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy.” Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. Ed. Mieke Bal. Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1999. 3-23.

Hoffman, Eva. Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe. New York: Penguin, 1993.

———. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. New York: Penguin, 1989.

———. “The New Nomads.” Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss. Ed. André Aciman. New York: New Press, 1999. 35-63.

———. Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Kazin, Alfred. A Walker in the City. 1946. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1974.

Krupnick, Mark. “Assimilation in Recent American Jewish Autobiographies.” Contemporary Literature 34.3 (Fall 1993): 451-74.

Max, D. T. “The Concrete beneath His Feet” [interview with Salman Rushdie]. New York Times Magazine 17 Sept. 2000: 68-70.

Naipaul, V. S. The Enigma of Arrival. New York: Knopf, 1987.

New, William H. Land Sliding: Imagining Space, Presence, and Power in Canadian Writing. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997.

Proefriedt, William. “The Education of Eva Hoffman.” The Journal of Ethnic Studies 18.4 (Winter 1991): 123-34.

Sicher, Efraim. “The Burden of Memory: The Writing of the Post-Holocaust Generation.” Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory after Auschwitz. Ed. Sicher. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1998. 19-88.

Zaborowska, Magadalena J. “Love Thy Foreigner.” How We Found America: Reading Gender through East European Immigrant Narratives. Ed. Zaborowska. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1995. 225-59.

Petra Fachinger (essay date summer 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5912

SOURCE: Fachinger, Petra. “Lost in Nostalgia: The Autobiographies of Eva Hoffman and Richard Rodriguez.” MELUS 26, no. 2 (summer 2001): 111-27.

[In the following essay, Fachinger compares and contrasts the work of Hoffman and Richard Rodriguez, exploring how the two writers articulate their own unique immigrant experiences in America.]

In “The Plural Self: The Politicization of Memory and Form in Three American Ethnic Autobiographies,” in which she compares N. Scott Momaday's The Names, Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera, and Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez concludes,

Ethnic autobiography gives “new meanings” and new possibilities to the term autobiography. Using “retrospection to gain a vision for the future,” … ethnic autobiographers create a hybridized, double-voiced form of autobiography in which collective ethnic memory and individual memory are linked in a dialogue.


Although Browdy de Hernandez's argument is convincing with respect to the three writers she discusses, I will demonstrate that some “ethnic” American autobiographies resist hybridization and double-voicedness. Hybridization, as Mikhail Bakhtin defines it, is “the mixing, within a single concrete utterance, of two or more different linguistic consciousnesses, often widely separated in time and social space” (429). Furthermore, Bakhtin's definition of double-voiced discourse is “another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way” (324) so that double-voiced discourse is always “internally dialogized” (324). The examples of double-voiced discourse that Bakhtin cites are “comic, ironic or parodic discourse, the refracting discourse of a narrator, refracting discourse in the language of a character and finally the discourse of a whole incorporated genre” (324).

I would like to suggest that “ethnic” discourse could consequently be read as the discourse of an “ethnic” writer who dialogizes the dominant language by self-consciously resorting to “ethnic” form and language to express his or her intentions in a “refracted” way through the dominant language. Since autobiography is traditionally both a “western” and an “androcentric” genre, “double-voicedness” in “ethnic” autobiography would be apparent in the “refraction” of conventional discourse, that is, in its rewriting, or, at least, in its self-reflexive questioning of autobiographical conventions.

A comparison of texts by writers of different ethnic/racial background also raises certain methodological questions. After a brief overview of the current debates over methodological concerns regarding critical writing about “ethnic” literature, I will compare and contract the autobiographies of Eva Hoffman, a Jewish Polish immigrant to the United States, and of Richard Rodriguez, a Mexican-American, to demonstrate that neither is hybridized and double-voiced. In doing so, I will not neglect the differences between the respective diasporic locations of the two writers. Other autobiographies by so-called visible minority writers born in the United Stated lend themselves to comparison with Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, such as Maxine Hong Kinston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts and Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road, not least because, like Rodriguez's autobiography, their texts have been criticized for misrepresentation by members of their “own ethnic” groups. However, I choose to compare a text by a non-Anglo-Celtic immigrant and that of an American-born writer whose ethnic group has experienced colonization in a way not shared by any other group in the United States. The similarities and differences between these autobiographies are instructive, and a comparison of the two can provide significant insight into the intricacies involved in comparing two texts that are both consent oriented1 and that share a number of narrative strategies, even though their authors and the autobiographical selves represented in the texts belong to different “ethnic” groups.

The main question one needs to consider when comparing the texts of writers with different “ethnic” backgrounds is how one can read these texts as sharing ways of conceptualizing the pull of two or more cultural loyalties without losing sight of the fact that their “ethnic” communities have experienced different degrees of dislocation, colonization, and racism. Two approaches to ethnic literature have been prevalent in recent American criticism: the cultural pluralist approach, which claims that each ethnic group's experience within mainstream American society is different and that this difference is reflected in their texts, and the approach that assumes that all ethnic writing shares a collective experience. Proponents of the latter have been criticized for “relegating ‘race’ to a mere feature of some ethnic groups” (Wald 22) and for disregarding the fact that European Americans are usually no longer exposed to racism.

The endeavor to look for similarities while discounting differences also obscures the distinction between first and second generation as is obvious, for example, in William Boelhower's Immigrant Autobiography in the United States: Four Versions of the Italian-American Self. Furthermore, Boelhower attempts to prove that all immigrant American autobiographies deal with the protagonist's “transformation” or Americanization. As he sees it, the immigrant anticipates America as a country of hope and renewal, a fact that is reflected in the biblical language with which America is usually described in these autobiographies. Claiming general validity for this model, Boelhower maintains that the range of cultural strategies exemplified in the four Italian-American texts that he discusses could just as easily be illustrated by the texts of any other ethnic group. By testing Boelhower's typology with Chinese-American and other Asian American immigrant autobiographies, however, Sau-ling Cynthia Wong has found that many of these autobiographies deviate from the pattern Boelhower suggests in that they display “a pragmatic, matter-of-fact attitude towards the idea of going to America on the part of Chinese immigrant autobiographers” (Wong 155). She concludes that while his typology may apply to European immigrant experience, it does not apply to that of non-European groups.

Like William Boelhower, Werner Sollors assumes that all ethnic groups share a collective experience. He claims that to understand American literature as “a poly-ethnic literature, it is essential to use comparative methods. Comparing Afro-American, Jewish-American, and Irish-American novels of the 1930s thus becomes as essential as comparing writings by immigrants and writings by their descendants” (“Nine Suggestions” 96). In Beyond Ethnicity, he explores the similarities between “black” and Jewish writing. He points out that Charles W. Chesnutt's “The Wife of His Youth” and Abraham Cahan's Yekl: A Tale of the Ghetto resort to the same symbolism to depict the tension between the hereditary and the contractual (156) while James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky use similar literary strategies in doing so (168). Interestingly enough, Sollors foregrounds Jewishness in this latter comparison rather than Cahan's Lithuanian and Levinsky's Polish descent. By doing so, he fails to do justice to the complexity of “descent” and the relevance of potentially conflicting “loyalties.”

Although I agree with Werner Sollors that criticism of “ethnic” writing requires comparative methods, it needs to be more observant of cultural differences. Mary E. Young, for example, in Mules and Dragons: Popular Culture Images in the Selected Writings of African-American and Chinese-American Women Writers, bases her comparison of these two groups of writers not only on their histories, “but also [on] each group's response to the stereotyped images that have become part of American cultural history” (ix). Thus Young claims that Native American women, Hispanic women, and Jewish women have also been stereotyped, but that none of these stereotypes has been as persistent as the stereotypes of African American and Chinese-American women. Likewise, Inderpal Grewal, in her comparison of Sara Suleri's Meatless Days and Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera, observes that although both texts “share a concern with the breakdown of ethnocentric dualities, which they both see as sources of oppression” (251), the different diasporic locations of the two writers make it impossible to analyze Anzaldúa's “‘borderland’ through theories of Asian diasporas” (248). Finally, Shirley Lim in her study of the difference between Anglo American and Asian American poetry also takes an “ethnocentered” approach. She justifies her focus on stylistic and textual features that differentiate Asian American from Anglo American poetry by arguing that an emphasis on the differences is necessary to “correct” (51) “the inherent bias of the Anglo-American mainstream” (51). In her opinion, ethnopoetics asks for “an informed socio-cultural approach which counteracts the privileging of the dominant culture” (59).

Following Shirley Lim's call for an “informed socio-cultural approach,” I suggest combining the methodologies of the two theoretical camps and to consider several questions before setting out to compare and contrast “ethnic” texts. First of all, do the authors of these texts have any antecedents in their “own ethnic” group, and do they choose to acknowledge them? Eva Hoffman, for example, can look back to a long tradition of Polish-American autobiography, Jewish and non-Jewish, as Magdalena Zaborowska has shown, and she does refer to some of these texts. Since intertextuality plays an important role in most “ethnic” writing, it would be worth asking if a text by a writer from one “ethnic” group serves as a model for a writer with a different “ethnic” background, as Richard Wright's Black Boy provided a model for Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart. On the other hand, does an “ethnic” text rewrite a more established text, as, for example, John Courno's Autobiography rewrites The Education of Henry Adams and Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City writes back to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”? (See Boelhower “Making.”) If a minority writer chooses to rework the text of a writer who belongs to a different minority, he or she, in doing so, might want to draw attention to the fact that the discrimination to which both groups are subjected is comparable. Consideration of whether the ethnic groups to which the two writers belong share a common experience of racism or a similar experience of discrimination and stereotyping is therefore important. If minority writers, on the other hand, write back to a text of the canon, they usually intend to “rupture” and destabilize this text to uncover its underlying ideologies.

Over the last few years, interest in literary predecessors has justifiably fallen into disfavor among comparatists for being Eurocentric and essentialist. The discussion of predecessors, however, is not reductive as long as it is not preoccupied with verifying sources and influences rather than being concerned with exploring intertextual dynamics and diasporic locations. For, as Shirley Lim points out, “the differences in cultural contexts create significant differences between readers' expectations and authors' intentions, between the untrained readers' conventional, culture-bound responses and the trained readers' ethno-sensitive interpretations” (56). Therefore, if two texts such as Abraham Cahan's and James Weldon Johnson's exhibit “striking similarities,” as Werner Sollors puts it, one needs to ask whether these two texts can be read as representative of their “ethnic” groups. This question leads to what is probably the most important question: Who is the intended audience, and how have the texts been received both by readers of the same “ethnic group” and by readers of the mainstream? As Gayatri Spivak has pointed out in a discussion of multiculturalism with Sneja Gunew, “the question ‘Who should speak?’ is less crucial than “Who will listen?’” (194). Both critics agree that when a writer from the margin confronts the dominant culture, this audience will affect the construction of that writer's identity by virtue of the choices it makes in reading the writer's work.

Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language relates the experience of a Jewish Polish girl emigrating first to Canada with her parents and younger sister and eventually to the United States. The chapters that are concerned with the preadolescent and adolescent autobiographer's bios focus on her happy life in Cracow, her unhappy life in Vancouver—for the young Hoffman the word “Canada” had “ominous echoes of the ‘Sahara’” (4)—and her Americanization, that is, assimilation into middle-class America through institutional education.2 Hoffman interrupts biographical chapters with essayistic meditations on the difficulty of living “between” two languages and her struggle to achieve fluency in English.

Although the three chapter headings, “Paradise,” “Exile,” and “The New World,” seem to suggest that Hoffman is inverting the conventional immigrant model in which the “Old World” figures as a place of hardship or even persecution, and the “New World” is anticipated in utopian terms, a close reading of the text shows that the place where Hoffman finds her true fulfillment is New York and not Cracow. Cracow appears as a paradise only in comparison with her “exile” in Canada/Vancouver, not with her life in the United States. Cracow stands for all that Canada/Vancouver is not: her childhood Cracow offered stability because of its long history, it was a place in which “the signifier” was not “severed from the signified” (106), and in which the self was one with its surroundings. Paradoxically, in Hoffman's retrospective description, the aura of Cracow is not significantly tainted by Polish anti-Semitism and the fact that her grandparents were victims of the Holocaust, a fate which her parents only narrowly escaped.

In Vancouver, the place of “exile,” the adolescent autobiographer undergoes an unsettling Anglicization of her name, an experience described in many immigrant novels and autobiographies. Her family also moves considerably down the social scale, and her parents have even greater difficulty adjusting to the new life than their daughters. Their feelings of disorientation and displacement anticipate what has become another commonplace in immigrant literature, the role reversal in the parent-child relationship. The teenaged Eva explains: “I'm a little ashamed to reveal how hard things are for my family—how bitterly my parents quarrel, how much my mother cries, how frightened I am by our helplessness, and by the burden of feeling that it is my duty to take charge, to get us out of this quagmire” (112). Richard Rodriguez describes a similar role reversal in his own family once he and his siblings achieve fluency in the dominant language while their parents communicate in heavily accented and not always grammatically correct English.

The chapter entitled “Exile” concludes with a reference to Mary Antin's autobiography, The Promised Land. Hoffman points out that in certain details Antin's story so closely resembles her own that “its author seems to be some amusing poltergeist” (162) come to show her that her life is not unique. The parallels between the two writers' lives are uncanny indeed. The Promised Land is usually read as a narrative of success, a story of a model assimilation. Antin was born into a Jewish family in Polotzk, a town within the Russian Pale. Faced with czarist anti-Semitism, the Antins decided to emigrate to the United States, settling in Boston when Mary was thirteen—Hoffman's age when her family emigrated. Hoffman claims that the similarities between Antin's biography and her own end when it comes to the interpretation of their respective lives, especially Antin's reading of her new life as an untarnished success story: “For, despite the hardships that leap out from the pages, Mary insists on seeing her life as a fable of pure success: success for herself, for the idea of assimilation, for the great American experiment” (163).

However, contrary to what Hoffman seems to suggest, Mary Antin is quite aware of these hardships, of her older sister's less privileged life, and of the “sad process of disintegration of home life” (271). Furthermore, the similarities between Hoffman's text and her predecessor's are less tenuous than Hoffman is willing to admit. Like Antin, Hoffman gives credit to the American education system as the main assimilating force and she praises American education just as enthusiastically as does Antin: “For one thing, I've learned that in a democratic educational system, in a democratic ideology of reading, I am never made to feel that I'm an outsider poaching on others' property. In this country of learning, I'm welcomed on equal terms, and it's through the democratizing power of literature that I begin to feel at home in America” (183-84). Thus for Hoffman, the Ph.D. in English Literature, which she received from Harvard, becomes the “certificate of full Americanization” (226).

This ode to education is also reminiscent of the glorification of American education by eighteenth-century male American autobiographers like Benjamin Franklin. And like Franklin, “whose name [she has] never heard” (137), the teenaged Hoffman devises programs of “physical, intellectual, spiritual and creative” (137) self-improvement, efforts similar to those that turned Jimmy Gatz into Jay Gatsby. Franklin's description of his achievements, raising himself “from the poverty and obscurity in which [he] was born … to a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world” (3), anticipates Hoffman's account of her own success. In both texts, conversion, the objective of spiritual autobiography, is transformed into wealth and social prestige. Hoffman fails to acknowledge the inadequacy of an eighteenth-century male vision which, among other things, assumes the absence of racial and sexual prejudice and discrimination in a classless society in the contemporary context. On the contrary, she discounts issues of race, class, and gender in her own description of school and university. Being also relatively unconcerned with her Jewishness, as I have mentioned before, she blames her struggles for Americanization on the fact that English was not her first language, discounting the possibility that her Jewish-Polish descent might have been an obstacle.

While similar life stories have been told by other European immigrants to the United States, especially Eastern European immigrants, the innovative technique of Hoffman's autobiography is its essayistic investigation of the role of language in the process of assimilation. It describes the tension between the “ethnic” language, which for Hoffman remains the language of privacy and intimacy, and the “New World” public language which Eva “learns from the top” (217) and which will ultimately separate her from Cracow and estrange her from her parents. Hoffman's privileging of the “public” over the “private,” her refusal to reflect on the androcentric tradition of autobiography, her adoption of the male model of self-representation, and her endorsement of the American story of successful assimilation, have motivated me to discount issues of gender in theorizing Hoffman's and Rodriguez's respective diasporic locations. According to Sidonie Smith,

If [the woman autobiographer] inscribes a ‘masculine’ story of cultural significance she approaches the center of ‘autobiography’ from her position of cultural marginality; but she simultaneously becomes implicated in a complex posture of transvestism, becoming a ‘man’ and thereby promoting the ideology of the ‘same.’ In telling her life as a ‘man,’ she collaborates in the marginalization of woman and her story.


The extent to which Hoffman values public over private is apparent in her comparison of her own position with that of her mother's:

I've gained some control, and control is something I need more than my mother did. I have more of a public life, in which it's important to appear strong. … My mother stays close to herself, as she stays close to home. She pays a price for her lack of self-alienation—the price of extremity, of being in extremis, of suffering. She can only be herself; she can't help that either. She doesn't see herself as a personage; she's not someone who tells herself her own biography.


By claiming in a rather patronizing manner that her mother lacks the skill to address the public in English and therefore has no autobiographical self, Hoffman marginalizes and silences her. She also firmly believes in keeping private and public self separate: “I've developed a certain kind of worldly knowledge, and a public self to go with it. That self is the most American thing about me; after all, I acquired it here” (251).

This statement uncannily echoes Richard Rodriguez's Prologue to his autobiography where he claims, “my book is necessarily political … for public issues … have bisected my life and changed its course. And, in some broad sense, my writing is political because it concerns my movement away from the company of family and into the city. This was my coming of age: I became a man by becoming a public man” (7). Both authors imply that the only identity worth having is a “public” identity, steeped in middle-class “public” discourse. Why would the identity of an immigrant woman in Vancouver and the identity of a Mexican worker be less authentic, “public,” or political than that of an urban writer? And how can Polish, and particularly Spanish, be conceived as languages that are less “public” than English in North America?

Like Hoffman, Rodriguez argues that literacy in the dominant language has social transformational power. Thus, he does not blame his Mexican descent for his struggle as a boy to fit into mainstream society, but his parents' lack of education and the fact that they spoke Spanish at home. In the Prologue, entitled “Middle-class Pastoral,” Rodriguez assumes a representative voice by claiming that his experience is a typically American one: “This is what matters to me: the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer from college to discover bewildering silence, facing his parents. This is my story. An American story” (5). Rodriguez describes the scholarship boy, a term he borrows from Richard Hoggart, as a student who imitates his teachers in an attempt to become like them, tries as hard as he can to lose his accent, distances himself as much as possible from his ethnic heritage, and is not able to form an original thought.

By this definition, the scholarship boy seems to be a close relative of the “mimic man.” For Frantz Fanon, mimicry is the result of colonial indoctrination through which Caribbeans have been coerced into seeking cultural identity through the imitation of Western models. Derek Walcott considers the politics of imitation and the dilemma of the mimic man as endemic to all of America, not just the Caribbean: “The Old World, whether it is represented by the light of Europe or of Asia or of Africa, is the rhythm by which we remember” (7). Indeed, “melting pot” ideology is based on the idea of repetition and imitation, and as Robert F. Sayre has shown, the instinct of emulation, “which is imitation and something more” (154), has been identified as the main impulse in the making of self as described in many American autobiographies. Public figures like Benjamin Franklin, in addition to imitating classical and European models, also see their mission as providing role models through their autobiographies, “looking to the West and other directions to the new American who will one day imitate [them]” (Sayre 167). For consent-oriented immigrants from Eastern Europe and members of so-called visible minorities, American models of identity seem to be equally alluring. The attempts of Eva Hoffman's autobiographic self to lose her accent and join the mainstream by imitating role models are just as desperate as those described by Rodriguez.

What seems to legitimate a comparison between Rodriguez's and Hoffman's texts is that in many ways the former asks to be read as immigrant autobiography. As William Boelhower points out, “immigrant autobiography is a schooling text,” describing the “transformation of [the] protagonist from an alien to a sovereign American self” (“The Necessary Ruse” 303). Although Rodriguez, unlike European immigrants, is not able to relive the journey on the Mayflower, his move out of the family enclave, like Zora Neale Hurston's out of the black community of Eatonville, has a symbolic function similar to the trans-Atlantic voyage. What usually separates immigrant experience from that of the second generation is the fact that the American born do not have direct memories of the “Old World”; their understanding of the “Old-World” culture is mediated by their parents. Chicanas/Chicanos of the Southwest, however, live so close to the Mexican border, and Hispanic culture pervades American culture to such a degree, that it could be argued that Mexican-Americans' access to the “Old World” is at once synchronic and diachronic. On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind that Mexican-Americans are mestizas and mestizos, victims of various colonization processes.

The parts of Rodriguez's text which discuss his life could easily be divided into the three sections that Eva Hoffman uses to describe her own assimilation. Although the paradise of Rodriguez's childhood was not in rural Mexico, but in a house on Thirty-ninth Street in 1950s Sacramento, Spanish, the language of family and intimacy, isolated him from the world. His fluency in English, the language of the classroom, finally made it possible for him, so he claims, to integrate fully into mainstream American society at the cost of estrangement from his parents and the loss of fluency in Spanish. He points out that what he needed to learn in school was that he had the right to speak the public language of the “gringos.” His childhood “exile” then, similar to that of Hoffman, was created by his feelings of inferiority and alienation from the mainstream because of the lack of language fluency.

The comparability of Rodriguez's autobiography to immigrant autobiography is also partly sustained by his ambiguous, sometimes even obsequious, discourse on race, his disavowal of Chicano heritage, and his refusal to engage in, and more importantly, to politicize ancestral memory. While Hoffman identifies to a certain extent with the autobiographical experiences of Antin, Nabokov, Kazin, and Podhoretz, all fellow Eastern European immigrants to the United States, Rodriguez does not acknowledge any of his predecessors in the long and rich tradition of Mexican American autobiography,3 giving the impression that he sees himself as separated from the Mexican-American community and its political struggles, outside socio-historical reality and colonial history. At the beginning of his autobiography, Rodriguez claims: “Aztec ruins hold no special interest for me. I do not search Mexican graveyards for ties to unnamable ancestors” (5). Working on his Ph.D. in English Renaissance literature, Rodriguez, when asked by “a group of … Hispanic students [who] wanted [him] to teach a ‘minority literature’ course” (161), replies that he “didn't think that there was such a thing as minority literature” (161). He confesses that after this encounter he “became a ‘coconut’—someone brown on the outside, white on the inside. … some comic Quequeg, holding close to [his] breast a reliquary containing the white powder of a dead European civilization” (162). He eventually refuses to accept a job offer from Yale because he suspects that his race had given him an advantage over other applicants. This conclusion has led him to become a fervent opponent of bilingual education and of affirmative action.

Paradoxically, in his autobiography, Rodriguez is very concerned with a skin color that reveals his “Indian” descent and describes himself as the least European looking in his family: “I am the only one in the family whose face is severely cut to the line of ancient Indian ancestors” (115). In “Complexion,” he discusses the prejudice against dark skin within Mexican culture. He explains, for example, that some Mexican women risk abortion by taking “large doses of castor oil during the last weeks of pregnancy” (116) to lighten their unborn children's skin color and how “children born dark grew up to have their faces treated regularly with a mixture of egg white and lemon juice concentrate” (116), yet he discounts his experience of racism. Admitting that “in public [he] occasionally heard racial slurs,” he minimizes their significance by pointing out that “in all, there could not have been more than a dozen incidents of name-calling” and by concluding that because of the paucity of racist evidence, he “was not a primary victim of racial abuse” (117). Consequently, he claims that he “didn't really consider [his] dark skin to be a racial characteristic” (125), but that he felt his “dark skin made [him] unattractive to women' (125) since the women in his family were so worried about giving birth to “dark-skinned” children. Rodriguez suggests that the panacea for his dilemma and that of fellow Mexican-Americans is monolingual education.

Apparently unaware of the interest postcolonial critics4 have taken in the figure of Caliban to demonstrate the complexities of relationships between colonizer and colonized, Rodriguez opens his book with the words: “I have taken Caliban's advice. I have stolen their books. I will have some run of this isle” and “in Beverly Hills will this monster make a man” (3). Although he seems to be alluding to Caliban's subversive potential with these words, Rodriguez puts his education to the service of the status quo. Like Hoffman, who, as mentioned above, refers to her Ph.D. as the “certificate of full Americanization,” Rodriguez argues that education dismantles social and therefore “racial” and “ethnic” boundaries. For a consideration of Rodriguez's diasporic position, it is significant that he fails to problematize and, more important, to politicize his sacrifice, that is, his decision not to complete his Ph.D. and to turn his back on the academic world although he was a promising scholar and enjoyed teaching.

However, the important difference between Hoffman's and Rodriguez's diasporic locations comes to bear when one considers how their texts are being read and by whom. As far as I know, no one has criticized Hoffman for discounting her Polish and her Jewish selves in favor of her public American self in the way Rodriguez has been attacked for selling out to “white America.” Neither does she feel the need to define her audience in her text. Rodriguez, on the other hand, considers it important to draw attention to the fact that his reader is European American, well-educated, male, and “white”: “All that I know about him is that he has had a long education and that his society, like mine, is often public (un gringo)” (182). Despite their similar educational backgrounds and academic and professional achievements, Hoffman will hardly ever find herself in a position where she is addressed by the mainstream as a member of a minority, while Rodriguez will always be constructed as insider informant of a culture that “grates against” (3) that of the United States, to use Gloria Anzaldúa's words.

What Hoffman and Rodriguez do have in common is their nostalgia for a pastoral past. This nostalgia prevents them from linking collective ethnic memory and individual memory in a dialogue, a narrative strategy that, according to Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, is characteristic of “ethnic autobiography.” Nostalgia, as bell hooks points out, is “that longing for something to be as once it was, a kind of useless act,” which is different from “a politicization of memory,” “that remembering that serves to illuminate and transform the present” (147). Hoffman's and Rodriguez's texts are problematic because they avoid the “politicization of memory.” Gloria Anzaldúa, by contrast, acknowledging the multiplicity of conflicting languages that people who live “between cultures” speak, lists eight languages to which she can resort, ranging from standard English to Tex-Mex and Chicano Spanish. Although Anzaldúa criticizes Mexican-American culture, above all its patriarchal and homophobic tendencies, she does not believe in abandoning Mexican culture altogether, a measure Rodriguez promotes. Instead, she revives Aztec history and mythology in her writing to counter prevailing cultural hegemonies.

Hoffman's and Rodriguez's autobiographic selves, on the other hand, by making mainstream culture the center of their perception, view reality in terms of dichotomies: failure versus success, chaos versus order, private versus public, family versus city, past versus future, insider versus outsider, communal versus individualistic, Old World versus New World, loyalty versus betrayal, masculine versus feminine, macho versus effeminate, and language of the past versus language of the present. They essentialize “English” as a monolithic structure that opens the door to privilege once the novice has “made some run of” it. Since Hoffman and Rodriguez believe in the separation of the private and the public, there is no discussion of homosexuality within the Mexican-American community—in other contexts Rodriguez identifies himself as a gay man—and failed marriage between immigrant and non-immigrant Americans respectively—Hoffman only briefly mentions her divorce from her American-born husband. Neither of the autobiographical selves thinks that it is possible “to go home again,” neither personally nor culturally speaking. Interestingly enough, both Hoffman and Rodriguez do go “home” physically in their subsequent autobiographical ethnographies Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe, published in 1993, and Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, published in 1992, in which they assume the position of the American confronting the Eastern European and the Mexican Other respectively. By creating this alterity, Hoffman and Rodriguez prevent the dialogue between “collective ethnic memory and individual memory” (Browdy de Hernandez) from taking place.


  1. In Beyond Ethnicity, Sollors regards the conflict between descent, Americans' position as “heirs, [their] hereditary qualities, liabilities, and entitlements,” and consent, their “abilities as mature free agents and ‘architects of [their] fate,’” as “the central drama in American culture” (6).

  2. The theme that Jewish emigrants ended up in the wrong place in Canada pervades Jewish Canadian autobiography and fiction as Gerson has shown.

  3. See, for example, Padilla who discusses the nineteenth and early twentieth-century predecessors of contemporary Mexican-American autobiography.

  4. I am thinking here of critics like Brydon, Dorsinville, Walcott, and Zabus.

Works Cited

Antin, Mary. The Promised Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1987.

Boelhower, William. “The Making of Ethnic Autobiography in the United States.” American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 123-41.

———. “The Necessary Ruse: Immigrant Autobiography and the Sovereign American Self.” Amerikastudien 35.3 (1990): 297-319.

———. Immigrant Autobiography in the United States: Four Versions of the Italian-American Self. Verona: Essedue Edizioni, 1982.

Browdy de Hernandez, Jennifer. “The Plural Self: The Politicization of Memory and Form in Three American Ethnic Autobiographies.” Memory and Cultural Politics: New Approaches to American Ethnic Literatures. Ed. Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., and Robert E. Hogan. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1996. 41-59.

Brydon, Diana. “Re-Writing the Tempest.” World Literature Written in English. 23.1 (1984): 75-88.

Dorsinville, Max. Caliban without Prospero: Essays on Quebec and Black Literature. Erin, Ontario: Press Procepic, 1974.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Pluto, 1986.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Berkeley: U of California P, 1949.

Gerson, Carole. “Some Patterns of Exile in Jewish Writing of the Commonwealth.” ARIEL 13.4 (1982): 103-14.

Grewal, Inderpal. “Autobiographic Subjects and Diasporic Locations: Meatless Days and Borderlands.Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Ed. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994. 231-54.

Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End, 1990.

Lim, Shirley Geok-Lin. “Reconstructing Asian-American Poetry: A Case for Ethnopoetics.” MELUS 14.2 (1987): 51-63.

Padilla, Genaro M. My History, Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican American Autobiography. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1993.

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam, 1988.

Sayre, Robert F. “Autobiography and the Making of America.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 146-68.

Smith, Sidonie. “The Impact of Critical Theory on the Study of Autobiography: Marginality, Gender, and Autobiographical Practice.” Auto-Biography Studies 3.3 (1987): 1-12.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

———. “Nine Suggestions for Historians of American Ethnic Literature.” MELUS 11 (1984): 95-96.

Spivak, Gayatri C., and Sneja Gunew. “Questions of Multiculturalism.” The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon During. London: Routledge, 1994, 193-202.

Walcott, Derek. “The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 16.1 (1974): 3-13.

Wald, Alan. “Theorizing Cultural Difference: A Critique of the ‘Ethnicity School.’” MELUS 14.2 (1987): 21-33.

Wong, Cynthia Sau-ling. “Immigrant Autobiography: Some Questions of Definition and Approach.” American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 142-70.

Young, Mary E. Mules and Dragons: Popular Culture Images in the Selected Writings of African-American and Chinese-American Women Writers. Westport: Greenwood, 1993.

Zaborowska, Magdalena. How We Found America: Reading Gender through East European Immigrant Narratives. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1995.

Zabus, Chantal. “A Calibanic Tempest in Anglophone & Francophone New World Writing.” Canadian Literature 104 (1985): 35-50.

Publishers Weekly (review date 23 September 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 272

SOURCE: Review of The Secret, by Eva Hoffman. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 38 (23 September 2002): 47.

[In the following review, the critic commends the “philosophical” subtext in The Secret.]

Can a clone contain a new human soul or just a photocopy? Hoffman brilliantly meditates on this mystery in her auspicious fiction debut [The Secret] as she examines the bond between Iris and Elizabeth Surrey, which gives new meaning to the well-worn term “my mother myself.” Iris's search for identity begins when the teen discovers her birth in 2005 was achieved via cloning. Iris's single mom, Elizabeth, fled Manhattan to the Midwest to rear Iris after becoming estranged from her parents and sister. They live a quiet, symbiotic life until Iris turns 12 and her mother falls in love with Steven, a professor, who becomes disturbed by the unnatural closeness of the two and leaves. It's not long before Iris, in a tailspin of heart-wrenching confusion, flees home to see if she is more than just an extension of someone who is “not quite a mother and more than one: home, sibling, the larger part of myself, as much me as my limbs or bloodstream.” Unraveling the secret of self takes her on a quest not easily ended. The relentless first-person viewpoint showcases the emotional and spiritual ramifications of being a cloned child: “I was her, I was her, I was her … Then who was I, who was she, what had she done? Did she steal my soul, my very self, or did she give me her own, by an unspeakable act of black magic?” Some SF readers may find the philosophical musings old hat, but wiser ones won't.

Anita Desai (review date 19 December 2002)

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SOURCE: Desai, Anita. “Cards of Identity.” New York Review of Books 49, no. 20 (19 December 2002): 70-2.

[In the following review, Desai praises Hoffman's prose in The Secret, noting that Hoffman's experience as a nonfiction author contributes to the novel's realistic and “affecting” tone.]

Eva Hoffman's previous books have been piercingly specific about time and place—a Polish shtetl, the Holocaust, the New World as experienced by a new immigrant. In her first novel, The Secret, she abandons that grounding in the historical moment and space and goes the whole fictional length into an imagined world set in an imagined future.

The world is still a recognizable one: the book opens in a small college town near Chicago where a mother and daughter live in a “wooden house with two porches, a leafy yard and pleasing, eclectic clutter inside,” even if the narrator plays with “robodolls” and watches “virtual videos” called Just for Real. Her relationship with her mother is of a primal, visceral intensity:

We moved in our own special atmosphere, as in a semi-liquid surround, an amniotic fluid that incorporated us both and within which there was a connecting passage or cord, along which silent sounds and messages and electrical pulses travelled back and forth. We seemed to move in tandem, always knowing when the other was happy or sad, hungry or impatient. Sometimes, as we looked at each other silently, I felt as if I'd entered her and was looking at myself from inside her eyes. She sponged me up and I felt some of her own substance passing into me along the connecting corridor, like nourishment, like juice.


She would lift me up and fold me to her till the heat and softness of her body enveloped me and absorbed whatever small unhappiness was inside me into herself, until I felt dozy and fluid, like those amoebae under a microscope that maintain their amorphous shape for a moment and then merge with the organic surround. … I felt, as I raised my face to hers, that I was looking at the very image of beauty, but also at an enlarging looking-glass, into which I entered through her eyes and in which I dissolved, becoming indistinguishable from her, becoming her.

At times even the child is frightened by this experience and eventually she picks up hints that the relationship that seems almost animal is not entirely natural. A rare visit by her aunt Janey allows her to overhear a conversation in which her mother is accused of something “monstrous” and

as I stood there, riveted by the voices coming out of my mother's study, I felt a dense darkness come over the hallway, as if the sun had been there and had gone; and I sensed a cold, scary emptiness opening within me, where a cosy warmth and safety had been. … I felt, beyond the scary gaping space, an intuition of another kind of Being, inorganic, non-biological, non-human entirely. The Weirdness. The Thing. The black matter lurking in the back of myself, into which I could vanish or metamorphose. …

She struggles to escape into her own separate identity by insisting on going to school, against her mother's wishes. There she skips rope with her friends and learns the multiplication tables but continues to be made aware that she is not like the other children; they eye her with suspicion and disquiet. A more serious situation arises when a man comes into her mother's life. An occasion for the green-eyed monster to enter into the child's Eden, one might think, but—on the contrary—the child falls as much in love with Steven Lontano as her mother does. When he places his hand on her mother's, her mother puts her own hand on the child's, creating a physical bond, and

so it was only natural that I wanted to sleep with them sometimes, to partake of the warmth which coursed between them and which, I felt, also belonged to me.

She had often slept in her mother's bed and wants to continue doing so when Steven has begun sharing it. When he picks her up and returns her to her own bed, the mother objects, sharply, and follows the child. He tries to explain in a reasonable way why she should not sleep with the man who fills the role of a father in her life. She replies, “But you're not my real father … and I was here first.” When he points out that “she chose me to be there for her,” the child argues, “No … she chose you for both of us.” After all, she and her mother “shared a delectable, frightening, powerful secret—though what it was, I could not have said, or maybe, could not allow myself to say.” Admitting defeat, it is Steven who departs and the child who protests, “But what has changed? We still love you.” “I wish you wouldn't speak in the plural all the time,” he says. His feelings for her are summed up when he puts his hand on her shoulder and says, “Poor Iris, poor child.”

This might not strike us as an unknown or unique situation in the complicated tangle of human lives. What is unusual is that it is the child who laments his departure and blames her mother for it. “I want to know about my father,” she asserts, and determinedly sets out to uncover her mother's secrets. In the basement she finds letters from her grandmother to her mother, photographs of her mother that are uncannily like her, and, finally, her own birth certificate: “Father's Name: None. Method of Birth: Cloning. Laboratory: Rosen, McPherson & Park.”

The reader has been led to expect this revelation for quite some time; the clues have been coming thick and fast, e.g., “We looked like sisters who, by rights, should have been twins. Or like identical twins who by some fluke were ageing at different speeds.” But this confirmation of our suspicions leaves some questions unanswered: in the year 2025, that is, around the time in which the book is set, will cloning be as outrageous and contested an idea as in 2002? Early on we have been told that “the nuclear family—the nuke—was dead as the dodo by the time I came along. It had exploded, or imploded, or done both at the same time,” and Iris had noticed, at school, that daddies were few and far between; she had chosen for a friend a little girl who actually had one and had noted wistfully, on being lifted onto the shoulders of one, “a shadowy longing. So this was what male shoulders were like, straight and steady. This was the feel of masculine energy.” We have here, then, a scientifically produced clone who experiences human feelings just as we know them. This produces a schizophrenic buzz in the narrative tone, and a giddying swing as of the ground not being steady under one's feet. We are being presented with a vision of the world as it will, or might, become, but through the horrified reactions of someone rather like any of us today.

On discovering that “I was a replica—an artificial mechanism, a manufactured thing. … My sense of myself as a young girl with her very own, unique self—an illusion …,” she claims that “the knowledge nullified me. I was not a real person. I was not anyone.”

Quite aware of this dichotomy, Hoffman chooses to come down on the side of traditional melodrama: “I staggered back to my room,” “I experienced something like vertigo …,” “I threw myself on the bed and couldn't cry,” and, finally, “I walked out of the house in which I'd grown up and into the grey, misty dawn.”

The split between a conventional reaction and an unconventional situation is bridged by the figure of the Adviser; conversations with him intersperse the narrative at crucial moments since the narrator turns to him for enlightenment in a very twentieth-century manner. Informed of Iris's shock at discovering the secret of her birth, he assures her it is the usual revulsion a child feels on learning how it came to be born. Of course in this case it is precisely the opposite—revulsion at not being created by the usual “fleshly means,” at being

merely animated matter, programmed into a semblance of life by carefully applied moisture and heat. I thought I could hear the incessant clicking of protein sequences within me, polymerase chain reactions going through their mindless motions sub-molecular matter dividing, combining, changing shape, exchanging signals and bleeps. Directed by what? By whom?

She acknowledges that the rage and despair she feels are not dissimilar.

The New York she travels to has the same disquieting fracture line running through it. So much is recognizable—the northern tip all tenements and condemned projects, the fashion and wealth all confined to the other end—but there are futuristic touches added like cosmetics. The entertainments now provided at artists' studios in TriBeCa and Cult Town are the creation of “organic art,” i.e., artists at computer terminals turning out “cross-species composites” that are “sort of real and sort of not,” and “Mnemonic Aids” that implant imagined memories into the brain so that it is “like watching a homemade movie.” Iris once again shows herself strongly in favor of the traditional, and says “no thanks” to it all: “No thanks, no thanks, no thanks.” She did not choose the method of her procreation, and she does not choose the world that made it possible.

Conveniently stumbling upon an office building near Rockefeller Center bearing the sign “Rosen, McPherson & Park: Genetic Engineering and Modification, Suite 2305,” she inveigles her way in by pretending to be a student of cell biology engaged in research for a paper. The scene she enters is depressingly banal: “like a somewhat antiseptic kitchen of a mildly experimental restaurant” with “several metal-topped tables with bottles, syringes, Petri dishes and plain plastic containers.” Nothing high-tech or futuristic about it at all. Dr. Park, a Korean—yes, he is a member of one of those sinister yellow races out of the movies, with a face “either extremely young or ageless” and eyes that are “canny, calm”—explains the science of cloning to her as if she were a kindergartner, so simplistically as to be implausible, and he also recognizes her because—of course—it was he who performed the “operation” on her mother. She lashes out at him: “It's you who performed a dirty trick. … It's you who created a deception. A living lie. That's what I am, a walking, talking fake. Do you know how that feels?” This is followed by a great deal in the Iris-the-Tragedy-Queen mode: “buffeted as if by great gales, by violent clashing waves. … I nearly keeled over from a strange pain. I was in a state of—I can only call it chaos” and “I felt sea-sick, heart-sick, mind-sick.”

But now a switch takes place. So far the narrator has been anguished and tormented by her fears and discoveries; now she begins to emphasize her lack of feeling. She takes up with Piotr, a man she meets at a panel discussion on “Creations and Recreations: Whither Human Design?” Although he is “feverish with passion” and she moves in with him quickly, she herself feels very little. She had hoped he would “jolt me into feeling something strong. Something vivid,” but he does not. He suggests the Affect Simulator, a “small, horizontal missile” in which she lies down, in the dark, and allows narrow beams of light to alter the “hormonal balance and pituitary gland outflow” so that she might experience love, jealousy, anger, hate, etc., in adjustable degrees of intensity.

It turns out that the body can tell the difference between natural and artificially induced feelings: they are simply not the same. She cannot shake off her suspicion that whatever feelings she has have been implanted in her by Dr. Park. Piotr pronounces her a zombie. But when she walks “out into the muggy summer sunlight of mid-Manhattan” and is nearly run over by a “street shuttle,” she swerves out of the way and so discovers a perfectly healthy instinct for self-preservation.

which implied, perhaps, a strange kind of self-approval. I didn't, apparently, hate my condition enough. Which meant that I had to figure out how to go on living with it. How to go on being. How to go on.

She goes on very determinedly, to begin with, by finding out her grandparents' whereabouts in Florida and traveling to Palm Beach to confront them. They live in a condo in Eldertown rendered in bleak, bright images. They are elderly, of course, and shocked by her arrival, so shocked that the grandmother suffers a heart attack and dies, confusing, on her deathbed, this granddaughter with the absent daughter. Iris returns to confront her mother and assaults her physically as well: “I raised my fist and hit. I was trying to shatter the Mirror's reflecting surface.” (The Adviser had presented her with the useful, if worn, Narcissus image of mirror/pool and voice/echo.)

We wrestled blindly, with an awful intimacy, body meeting body, body meeting itself … a line of pure violence joining us now as love once did. Her reflecting features contorted, love and hate twisting into each other, and twisting her face.

“Who are you?” she said. … “What are you?”

“You,” I answered. … “I am you.”

She does not quite kill her mother. “‘Goodbye, Elizabeth,’ I whispered and her name sounded immensely strange on my lips. My mother, my sister. My mother, my twin, ‘Goodbye for now,’” and once again Iris finds herself walking out “into the dark funnel of night.”

Having performed the ritual murder of the parent according to Freudian dictum, the child now walks free. And freedom, she finds, is a lonely state. She is driven into visiting her mother's discarded lover and persuading him to make love to her, but it only gives her “a kind of nausea, as if one part of myself were ill with the other.” The truth is that the series of climaxes through which Hoffman has led us with speed and efficiency has now come to an end; we are at a plateau, and Hoffman must “find closure.”

It comes with a banality typical of our century. Seating herself at a computer, Iris picks a man called Robert from the Consciousness Site much as one might from a Lonely Hearts column of another time. At first, they correspond in riddles but when the riddles have been answered, “I felt let down, as though something had been shattered, something dark but precious. … My secret magic, magic lack. I wanted and didn't want it to be known.” In abandoning the secret, giving it up to Robert, she actually initiates another stage of her life—more mundane, more happy.

Before meeting him she had imagined his “slender long male body” stretched on the deck of a boat in a translucent blue bay, “his face etched against the wind, the air, the sun.” And so he proves to be; Hoffman is perfectly aware of the romantic tradition. “Reader,” she writes, “you must forgive me,” for when she meets him, he is “slim and tanned” all right and carries with him “some refraction of sun and water.” So “things progressed quickly between Robert and me, along the most familiar plot-lines, the oft-travelled trajectory.” In this condition of self-consciousness, Iris even looks up a walk they take in Central Park in the Plot Classifier and finds it categorized as a “Basic Convention,” but she gives the scene, and the moment of the first embrace, its full gravity, divested of any irony: “In that long, burgeoning moment, the Weirdness had vanished. It had dispelled itself like a vaporous fog.” A love scene follows along the lines of the Basic Convention except that in this case she feels “the original image” erased and replaced by what is “not-me but also not-Her.” A person is given identity when it is recognized and Robert recognizes and loves hers. “To be is to be perceived. I felt perceived by Robert, in my very me-ness, which seemed to thicken and tone up in his presence. …” Another rule of the Convention—the Happy Ending—has been achieved.

Conventional and unconventional then, just as Hoffman planned.

The plot—young girl grows up and struggles to find her own identity—is familiar, but in most examples the writer reflects upon the reality we know, not the one we imagine. This gives Hoffman's characters their ambiguity. They are and they are not like us—sufficiently like for us to recognize them as fellow human beings and unlike enough to rouse us to speculate on their possibilities. A brave venture for a writer whose known and acknowledged forte has been her ability to study and convey the historical moment—the Holocaust in Poland, then immigration to the United States. Those books had a warm, rich density to them, filled as they were with the memory of the physical and the living.

By comparison, The Secret is composed in cooler, paler shades, watercolors rather than oils or crayons. Her images and metaphors are drawn frequently from science: e.g., “heavy-metal density” and “decryption engines,” and there is a theoretical cast to much of the writing:

We know that stars collapse and emerge daily without such rhyme or reason; but in the mind, unless we want to fall into a chaos of non-meaning like some supernova imploding and scattering into cosmic debris, we have to segment our lives …, we have to divide ourselves into units of sense.

Even descriptions of landscapes and cityscapes are given a luminous wash that covers them with a kind of film, making colors soothing and harmonious and with no jarring notes. One might be drifting, in the course of this novel, from dream to nightmare to dream again. In the Midi, where she travels with Robert, for instance, they visit

a softly hilly area, with gently dipping valleys and stretchy, flower-dotted meadows. The pastel grasses glowed over the body of the landscape, the wind bending them in great shimmering swathes, in rolling rustling waves. Melodious waves.

Out of this dreamy landscape, a figure emerges: Is it her mother or a dream-mother? Her blond hair blows in the wind, and she almost blends into the pale grasses. They do not speak but

I felt an immense, sad longing. A long, long sadness. I had loved her so and I was going to lose her. To leave her. … Without a sign or a sound, she turned and started walking away; and within moments she vanished into the tall grasses and the shimmering, flickering air.

At a Cistercian abbey the lovers test its known acoustic tricks that amplify even a whisper into a deep, resonant tone that echoes on and on. When it comes to her turn, she finds herself breaking into tears as she whispers, “Mother, forgive me. I didn't mean … I didn't know … I was not myself.” A sharp and poignant reality breaks into the calm beauty of the scene, pierces it and alters it. The fracture lines run in every direction.

Toward the end of her memoir, Lost in Translation, Hoffman and her sister sit talking to their elderly parents. The mother, recalling the first time she heard a radio or saw a film, remarks, “To think what I've lived to see.” “You must think Alinka and I are some kind of monsters,” Hoffman responds. “Through this time telescope I see my sister and me as sci-fi creatures, with shiny, hard carapaces, living in a sci-fi world. …”

She writes of being driven to that twentieth-century panacea, psychoanalysis:

“I've contracted this American disease, and now I have to get the American cure,” I tell my shrink accusingly.

“And what's the disease?” he asks politely.

“Anomie, loneliness, emotional repression, and excessive self-consciousness, the latter of which is encouraged by your profession,” I say.”

First as a Jew in Poland, then as an immigrant in the US, Hoffman learned how the outsider can appear and be made to fee' a monster and what adjustments, at what sacrifice, have to be made to finally belong to and be accepted by society. In The Secret it is not history that has created such a situation, but science. Whatever the cause, she understands the situation and gives us an account that is affecting.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 November 2003)

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SOURCE: Review of After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust, by Eva Hoffman. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 22 (15 November 2003): 1350.

[In the following review, the critic calls After Such Knowledge a “commendable contribution” to Holocaust studies, noting Hoffman's engaging representation of the challenges faced by the children of Holocaust survivors.]

[After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust, l]iterate if sometimes arid essays on the world—intellectual, cultural, and emotional—of the Holocaust's “second generation.”

Memoirist Hoffman (Shtetl, 1997, etc.), a representative of that generation, writes, “I was the designated carrier for the cargo of awesome knowledge transferred to me by my parents, and its burden had to be transported carefully, with all the iterated accounts literally intact.” Literally intact: to tinker with the narrative of the survivors, she writes, in order to streamline, even to make more comprehensible, would have been “to make indecently rational what had been obscenely irrational. It would have been to normalize through familiar form an utterly aberrant content.” It is a terrible responsibility, this burden of keeping alive and unbowdlerized the murder of so many millions; it inserts the realities of the first generation into the lives of the second, such that, she writes, “the facts seemed to be such an inescapable part of my inner world as to belong to me, to my own experience. But of course they didn't; and in that elision, that caesura, much of the post-generation's problematic can be found.” The problematic is real, writes Hoffman: it is all to easy for the second generation, laden with the “emotional sequelae of our elders' experiences,” to feel that it has no history of its own, that “we are secondary not only chronologically but, so to speak, ontologically.” But the burden is necessary, Hoffman suggests, if only as a means of bearing living memory into history and into “our consciousness of the world” in a time when many—whether children and grandchildren of the second generation or a new generation of Germans—look, perhaps understandably, to forget about the past and move on.

A commendable contribution—but no match for Melvin Bukiet's superb second-generation anthology Nothing Makes You Free (2002).

Publishers Weekly (review date 24 November 2003)

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SOURCE: Review of After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust, by Eva Hoffman. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 47 (24 November 2003): 54-5.

[In the following review, the critic lauds Hoffman's essays in After Such Knowledge, praising the collection as a “beautifully wrought, deftly argued examination of how we might attempt to understand the Holocaust.”]

“Sixty years after the Holocaust took place … [and] this immense catastrophe recedes from us in time, our preoccupation with it seems only to increase,” writes Hoffman in [After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust,] this beautifully wrought, deftly argued examination of how we might attempt to understand the Holocaust. In seven short essays, Hoffman (Lost in Translation, etc.) focuses on the consciousness and experience of the Holocaust's second generation—the children of survivors—as theirs is a “strong case-study in the deep and long-lasting impact of atrocity.” Synthesizing personal history (born in Cracow, Poland, in 1945, Hoffman left at the age of 13 with her parents) with astute gleanings from the fields of psychoanalysis, sociology and literary criticism, the book considers such diverse concepts as how the “trauma” of the Holocaust is constructed, the role of emigration and national identity in shaping the second generation's narratives of their lives and how works as diverse as Marguerite Duras's The War: A Memoir and Bernhard Schlink's The Reader helped shape a series of conflicting ideas about victimhood and responsibility. But the power of Hoffman's vision comes in her posing vital questions: “what happens when we focus on ‘memory’ itself rather than its object”; how do we sort through the question of personal and collective responsibility, “distinguish shadows from realities and fable from history” in order to understand what can be done to redress the past? Hoffman writes with a subdued but vibrant passion. In the end, she suggests that Holocaust studies now take on the difficult question of “the range of Jewish behavior during the Holocaust,” particularly the missed opportunities for resistance. Such a daring, controversial challenge is emblematic of Hoffman's brave and forthright thinking and places this volume in the vanguard of Holocaust studies.


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