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.
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.
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.