Israel Zangwill Zangwill, Israel - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Israel Zangwill 1864–-1926

English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, critic, translator, lecturer, and poet.

Known as the father of modern English-Jewish literature, Zangwill enjoyed international popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for his short stories and novels in which he realistically portrayed life in the Jewish ghetto of London. Zangwill's use of humor and his tendency for optimism distinguished his work from that of other realistic writers of the era. The short story collections Ghetto Comedies (1907), Ghetto Tragedies (1893), and the novella The King of Schnorrers (1894) number among his best-known works of short fiction.

Biographical Information

The son of East European immigrant parents, Zangwill was born in the Whitechapel ghetto of London, although he later lived and was educated in Bristol. His talent and interest in writing came early, and by the time he was a teenager he had won first prize in a short story contest. After graduating from the Jews' Free School, Zangwill taught at that institution. In 1888 he quit teaching to pursue a full-time career as a writer, contributing a column to The Jewish Standard and writing novels and short stories. For two years he edited his own comic newspaper, Ariel: The London Puck. Worldwide recognition for Zangwill came upon the publication of Children of the Ghetto (1892), an episodic novel about the Jewish ghetto that had been commissioned by the Jewish Publication Society of America. After 1895, Zangwill became involved in a number or causes, including efforts to create a Jewish homeland and the women's suffrage movement. Also during this time he continued to write prolifically. Zangwill produced several dramas, which he used as vehicles to express his social and political ideas, as well as short stories and a volume of verse. Zangwill's last years were spent fraught with poor health and poorly received plays.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Over the course of his career, Zangwill published numerous works of short fiction. His stories, which included works on Jewish themes, non-Jewish themes, and mysteries, were often first published in periodicals and then amassed in collections. The Bachelors' Club (1891) and its counterpart The Old Maids' Club (1892) deal with single people whose vows to avoid marriage fall humorously by the wayside. Although termed a novel, Children of the Ghetto is not a novel by the strictest definition; instead it is a series of scenes and sketches of Jewish life and characters. Thus some critics refer to this work as a collection of short stories. The short story collections Ghetto Comedies and Ghetto Tragedies similarly depict life in the Jewish section of London, blurring the distinction between the genres of the titles. The King of Schnorrers is also considered a long short story by some critics and a novella by others. In this work, Zangwill focused on a legendary Jewish character, the wily beggar who makes himself indispensable to the community. Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898) contains biographical sketches of prominent Jewish figures. Constants in Zangwill's works on Jewish themes are his affection for people and his use of humor. Zangwill's short fiction on non-Jewish themes, which includes mystery and other genre stories, is generally considered to be unremarkable.

Critical Reception

Zangwill's most successful works were his short stories and the novella The King of Schnorrers. While his novels often suffered from discursiveness, his short stories on Jewish topics well demonstrated the author's wit within the controlled length and form of the genre. Although early critics faulted Zangwill for what they termed a melodramatic style and ironic tone, others praised the exuberant, holistic treatment of Jews and Jewish life, and soulfulness of his short stories. While some scholars explored whether or not Zangwill was a realist, others focused on the themes of love, sacrifice, suffering, assimilation, and hope, as they manifest themselves in his stories. Several commentators expressed opinions on Zangwill's concern for Jewish survival and his ambivalence about Zionism. The novella The King of Schnorrers elicited much commentary, particularly about the history of the beggar figure in Jewish society and the debate over the quality of humor in Zangwill's work.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

The Bachelors' Club 1891

The Old Maids' Club 1892

Ghetto Tragedies 1893

Merely Mary Ann 1893

The King of Schnorrers: Grotesques and Fantasies 1894

The Celibates' Club: Being the United Stories of the Bachelors' Club and the Old Maids' Club 1898

Dreamers of the Ghetto 1898

“They That Walk in Darkness”: Ghetto Tragedies 1899

They Grey Wig: Stories and Novelettes 1903

Ghetto Comedies 1907

The Ballad of Moses (poetry) 1882

The Premier and the Painter [with Louis Cowen, as J. Freeman Bell] (novel) 1888

Children of the Ghetto: Being Pictures of a Peculiar People (novel) 1892

They Big Bow Mystery (novel) 1892

The Great Demonstration [with Louis Cowen] (drama) 1892

The Master (novel) 1895

The Mantle of Elijah (novel) 1900

The Melting Pot (drama) 1908

Italian Fantasies (travel essays) 1910

The War God (drama) 1911

The Next Religion (drama) 1912

The Principle of Nationalities (lecture) 1917

Jinny the Carrier (novel) 1919

The Voice of Jerusalem (essays) 1920

The Cockpit (drama) 1921

We Moderns (drama) 1921

The Forcing House; or, The Cockpit Continued (drama) 1922

The Collected Works of Israel Zangwill (novels, short stories, dramas, essays, and poetry) 1969

The Nation (essay date 1898)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Dreamers of the Ghetto, in Nation, Vol. 66, No. 1712, April 21, 1898, p. 310.

[In the following review of Dreamers of the Ghetto, the anonymous critic faults Zangwill for his melodramatic style and ironic tone.]

An application of the methods employed by Landor in his ‘Imaginary Conversations,’ and by Louisa Mühlbach in her historical novels, to some more or less famous Jewish worthies and unworthies of recent times, may redound to an author's credit for eccentricity but not sanity of genius. The result could not fail to be bizarre, particularly when, throughout, the jester's cap and bells seem to compete for mastery with the cynic's wail. The stories, too, it must be confessed, read better when they appeared “syndicated” in various magazines and weeklies than in the present collection; the tricks of phrase and style, the exaggerations in language and sentiment, the threadbare plush of rhetoric, and the flimsy ornamentation follow too rapidly and self-consciously as the chapters are successively analyzed. If the author, in addition to his undeniable gifts, had only possessed the gift of condensation, his work would have lost in bulk and exuberance, but it would have gained largely in merit.

Unlike novelists of the Ghetto such as Kompert, Bernstein, Mosenthal, Kohn, and Franzos, not to mention Berthold Auerbach, whose romance of ‘Spinoza’...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

The Nation (essay date 1905)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “More Fiction,” in Nation, Vol. 80, No. 2083, June 1, 1905, pp. 440–442.

[In the following excerpt, the unnamed reviewer praises the exuberance of Zangwill's style in The Celibates' Club.]

The Celibates' Club is a collection of extravagant tales and character sketches which probably first saw the light in a comic paper. Each separate chapter is good enough for such a medium of publication, but the book is no better than an exhibition of the journalistic talent for writing up exhaustively from the slightest foundation of facts or fancy. Mr. Zangwill's way of writing up a subject is very superior. He is extraordinarily fluent; he can do almost...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Holbrook Jackson (essay date 1914)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Israel Zangwill,” in Living Age, Vol. 282, No. 3664, September 26, 1914, pp. 790–797.

[In the excerpt below, Jackson approves of Zangwill's holistic portrayal of modern Jewish life, which reveals the soul of a people as well as that of the author.]

[E]quipped with ability and a mind of his own, Israel Zangwill came to art. He did not come, however, as a business man marketing a gift. He had something to say and he desired to say it in the most effective manner; so he became a writer, recording at first the tragedy and achievement of the Jewish people and, later, interpreting the spirit of the age apropos of Hebrew and Christian morals and mysticism. Bare...

(The entire section is 1279 words.)

Ira Eisenstein (essay date 1951–1952)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Israel Zangwill,” in Jewish Book Annual, Vol. 10, 1951–1952, pp. 37–42.

[In the excerpt below, Eisenstein briefly discusses two major themes evident in Children of the Ghetto and several of Zangwill's stories: the tragic and noble character of the Jewish ghetto and the insurmountable schism between different generations of Jews.]

Two major themes seem to have occupied Zangwill: 1) the nobility and the tragedy of the ghetto; 2) the chasm that separates the generations from one another.

The first of these themes predominates in the Children of the Ghetto. With great tenderness, he described the seemingly bizarre...

(The entire section is 1319 words.)

Milton Hindus (essay date 1954)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Does Zangwill Still Live?” in Commentary, Vol. 17, 1954, p. 308.

[In the following excerpt, Hindus points out the strengths and limitations in style of Zangwill's work as seen in The King of Schnorrers.]

I began The King of Schnorrers with an anticipation based on a misty recollection of an old reading of Zangwill. The letdown I experienced was commensurate with my hopes. Perhaps to one who is more of an “outsider,” The King of Schnorrers may seem, as Professor Bernard N. Schilling says in his introductory essay, “an extremely funny book.” I find this hard to believe, however. Not that I think it a bad book, but it seems a good deal...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Harold Fisch (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Israel Zangwill: Prophet of the Ghetto,” in Judaism, Vol. 13, 1964, pp. 407–421.

[In the essay below, Fisch contests the notion that Zangwill was a realist; instead he maintains that Zangwill used realist techniques to teach lessons about the Jews' epic struggle for survival, demonstrating at the same time his ambivalence about the Ghetto.]

A hundred years is long enough to make and break an author's reputation. There is nothing surprising in this when we consider what has happened to Meredith, Swinburne, and even Kipling, all of whom enjoyed in their time a standing somewhat more eminent than that of Zangwill among English men of letters. But Zangwill's...

(The entire section is 6707 words.)

Maurice Wohlgelernter (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Of Tragedy and Comedy,” in Israel Zangwill, Columbia University Press, 1964, pp. 71–91.

[In the following essay from his book-length study of Zangwill, Wohlgelernter explores tragedy and comedy as complementary aspects of Jewish ghetto life in such short story collections as Ghetto Tragedies, Ghetto Comedies, The Celibates' Club, The Grey Wig, and The King of Schnorrers.]

“Over all Zangwill's work, even the King of Schnorrers,” writes the British poet, anthologist, and personal friend of Zangwill, Thomas Moult, “broods tragedy—tragedy in the Greek, the truer sense. It was instinctive in him to feel tragedy pressing...

(The entire section is 8059 words.)

Bernard Winehouse (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Israel Zangwill's The King of Schnorrers,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 10, 1973, pp. 227–233.

[In the essay below, Winehouse provides background and publication information as well as a critical overview of Zangwill's novella The King of Schnorrers, which he places among Zangwill's most competent comic works.]

It is not difficult to understand the special interest of Zangwill, the ghetto upstart and social rebel, in the schnorrer and his picaresque adventures. In the traditional schnorrer, or Jewish beggar, was to be found a paradoxical, though peculiarly Jewish combination, of poverty and learning. His wit, erudition...

(The entire section is 3166 words.)

Joseph H. Udelson (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Literary Lion,” in Dreamer of the Ghetto: The Life and Works of Israel Zangwill, University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 113–122.

[In the following excerpt, Udelson demonstrates how Zangwill's preoccupation with Jewish survival, his doubts about Zionism, and his belief in the spiritual necessity of Judaism inform his short stories in Ghetto Comedies, Ghetto Tragedies, and his novella The King of Schnorrers.]


In 1893 Ghetto Tragedies, a collection of four short stories, appeared. An expanded version, containing an additional seven stories, was published under the title They That Walk in...

(The entire section is 4192 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Adams, Elsie Bonita. “The Poetry of Mean Streets and Every-Day Figures'.” Israel Zangwill, pp. 85–106. Twayne Publishers, 1971.

Examines themes Zangwill treated in his short stories, including love, sacrifice, suffering, hope, assimilation, and failed dreams.

Benjamin, J. C. “Israel Zangwill: A Revaluation.” Jewish Quarterly 24, No. 3 (1976): 3–5.

Interprets Zangwill's writings as a defense of ethnic Judaism.

Bensusan, S. L. “Israel Zangwill.” Quarterly Review (October 1926): 285–303.

Reminiscing, the critic appreciatively highlights...

(The entire section is 204 words.)