Other Literary Forms
Israel Zangwill is better known for his novels and short stories than for his plays. His novel Children of the Ghetto: Being Pictures of a Peculiar People (1892) was an immediate critical and popular success. Its detailed portrayal of social and economic life in London’s Jewish quarter presented believable characters, often torn between the traditional world of Eastern European Jewry and the new science and theology of the nineteenth century. Recent critics praise this novel, as well as the short stories in Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898) and The King of Schnorrers: Grotesques and Fantasies (1894), a series of comic vignettes, describing the adventures of a Sephardic Jew in eighteenth century London, whose wit and intelligence make him the king of beggars, or schnorrers. Essays in newspapers and journals, some collected into books, expressed Zangwill’s ardent support for Zionism, women’s suffrage, and pacifism.
Israel Zangwill’s only award was a five-pound prize granted him by Society magazine for a humorous short story in 1881. The story, “Professor Grimmer,” was the first published work of its seventeen-year-old author.
Zangwill was proud of the favorable reception his ghetto novels and stories found among non-Jews. He believed his work countered traditional negative English literary stereotypes by creating positive images of England’s Jewish immigrants as they struggled with life in London’s slums. Zangwill was not the first person to use the melting-pot metaphor to envision the United States as a fusion of nationalities. However, his play helped popularize the image, which became a controversial topic in twentieth century debates over whether assimilation or multiculturalism was preferable for immigrants.
Israel Zangwill, hailed in his time as “the [Charles] Dickens of the ghetto” and praised as a peer of classic writers such as Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and George Bernard Shaw, made his single outstanding contribution to the realm of mystery fiction when he was twenty-seven years old. Serialized in 1891 and published in book form in 1892, The Big Bow Mystery, Zangwill’s unique crime novel, has been termed the first full-length treatment of the locked-room motif in detective literature. Zangwill has thus come to be proclaimed the father of this challenging mystery genre, and properly so. On the fictional trail to the solution of the Big Bow murder, the author’s professional sleuths, along with a number of amateur newspaper theorists and assorted curbstone philosophers, offer a number of ingenious alternate explanations of the puzzle, possible hypotheses that through the years have inspired other literary craftsmen involved in constructing and disentangling locked-room mysteries. In addition, The Big Bow Mystery offers a graphic picture of late Victorian life in a seething London working-class neighborhood. Zangwill effectively combined social realism of the streets with a realistic depiction of the...
(The entire section is 681 words.)