Jewish-American Fiction Overviews - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mark Shechner

SOURCE: "The Jewish Novelist in America," in The Schocken Guide to Jewish Books: Where to Start Reading about Jewish History, Literature, Culture, and Religion, edited by Barry W. Holtz, Schocken Books, 1992, pp. 274-302.

[In the following essay, Shechner surveys twentieth-century Jewish-American fiction, focusing on those writers who declare their Jewish self-consciousness in their work.]


From the start, writing by Jewish novelists in America has been a vast enterprise. Seen from afar, the house of Jewish letters may resemble a bustling sweatshop, where writers arranged by rank and by file turn out books the way garment makers used to turn out apparel for the American clothing market. If that image belies the isolation and enclosed sensibility of the writer's enterprise, it does suggest the scale of the Jewish entry into American letters along with the hothouse atmosphere in which that literary endeavor has flourished. Writing remains, as tailoring once was, a principal Jewish occupation. Plainly, a reader's guide must proceed by exclusions, by ignoring certain books that were once read by thousands and by omitting entire careers that once appeared to define the Jewish presence itself. If the reader should find scant mention of writers once as prolific and acclaimed as Edna Ferber, Sholem Asch, Ben Hecht, Jerome Weidman, Maurice Samuel, Waldo Frank, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Budd Schulberg, Leon Uris, and Herman Wouk, or find Edward Lewis Wallant, Norman Mailer, and Chaim Potok given less than their due, it is not for any failure to appreciate their contributions to American writing.

We must also be prepared to turn a blind eye to such literary forms as poetry, theater, and film and restrict our survey of memoirs and autobiographies to writers who had significant careers in fiction. We must say virtually nothing of the Yiddish language and must skip over the culture and literature the immigrants brought with them and continued to produce in Yiddish decades after their arrival. Moreover, we are bound to favor a writing that declares its Jewish self-consciousness, however that may be conceived, as historical consciousness or as covenant or as folk culture, though, ironically, we need say little about Talmud, Torah, and Halakhah, which have small bearing on a literature whose well-springs were secular and even anti-religious. What follows, then, is a personal canon, a declaration of what I would cite as the enduring legacy of Jewish fiction in America.


In the beginning there was Abraham Cahan, whose The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), though not the first Jewish novel written in America, is the earliest to have stood the test of time. It comprehended better than any other the disruptions of immigration and the ironies of acculturation. As a socialist and reformer, of both American and Jewish life, as the editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, as the proprietor of the "Bintel Brief" letters column to that paper, and as a peripatetic walker in the city, Cahan was uniquely positioned to write the moral history of the immigrant generation: to document its experiences, underscore its conflicts, and summarize its achievements. The Rise of David Levinsky is the testament of a man whose life's work was observing the culture of his people, giving it voice, and forming the institutions through which it could realize itself and gain entry into America.

As a novel about a man who starts out as a yeshiva bokher in Russia and ends up as a tycoon in America, The Rise of David Levinsky is a quintessential statement of the collision between spirit and money, Jewish values and American promises. It portrays the Jewish soul in the throes of its transformation by capitalism, opportunity, and the need to look out for number one. During and after the great immigration, this transformation became one of the chief themes of Jewish life in America. The "Bintel Brief" column of Cahan's Jewish Daily Forward was a compendium of life in convulsive change, as immigrants and their children set about learning how to cope with the unique American conjunction of opportunity and peril.

The Rise of David Levinsky was a typical American novel of the Progressive era. Jewish in its histories and locales, it was American in its plot, exploring themes of fortune and failure, ambition and mobility, hardship at the bottom and hardship at the top. Like a garment, it was cut from a standard pattern, borrowed in this case from William Dean Howells's 1885 novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham.

But David Levinsky had another dimension that distinguished it from the documentary and the didactic: it was an experiment in creating a modern self, whose interiority went deeper than anything Jewish writers had attempted before. The character of David Levinsky signaled the entry of the individual into Jewish-American literature. Though typical he is not generic, and he is the first in a line of Jewish heroes who become individuals by virtue of being neurotics. David Levinsky's conflicts and his instinct for defeat in love—the moral counterweight to his success in business—are forerunners of the more probing, psychological literature that emerged some twenty years later with the stories of Delmore Schwartz and flowered after the war in the novels of Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Harold Brodkey, Joseph Heller, and E. L. Doctorow.

In 1917, this struggle to compose a unique self for purposes of survival was a distinctly American concept, and The Rise of David Levinsky was a Jewish novelty, though a novelty against the backdrop of a people discovering, en masse, self-reliance. As the Jews cast off their traditional habits and ways, their rituals and beliefs, it was to America that they looked for moral guidance and models of character. The great paradigm shift saw the Jews become a desanctified people and a people for whom the ceremonies of self-reliance were to be substituted for those of common purpose and common destiny. It is not surprising then that so many early books should be stories of separation and conflict: between parents and children, between tradition and exploration, between shtetl austerities and American horizons. Such books became blueprints of how, in a single generation, a culture founded upon "Thou Shalt Not" would find its new moral sanction in "The Pursuit of Happiness."

For more by and about Cahan, see his "Yekl: A Tale of the new York Ghetto" (1896), in The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York, (1978); Ronald Sanders, The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation (1969); Isaac Metzker, ed., A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward (1971); Abraham Cahan, The Education of Abraham Cahan (1969), translated by Leon Stein et al. from the 1926 Yiddish autobiography Bleter fun mein leben.

Perhaps no novel from these years better epitomizes these struggles than Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, subtitled A Struggle between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New (1925). Etched out on a smaller social canvas than Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, but in swifter, more jagged strokes, it was a doxology of liberation on the part of a young woman, Sara Smolinsky, for whom the shackles of life as a scholar's daughter were not to be suffered in a world where striking out and forging ahead were canonized in the national liturgy as inalienable rights. Bread Givers reads like a "Bintel Brief" letter in novel form. The father, a talmudic scholar cursed with four daughters, is desperate to match them with husbands who will sustain him in his old age and safeguard his privileged leisure. Sara's sisters tragically give in to their father's demands while Sara ferociously holds out for her own destiny. "Woe to a man who has females for his offspring" is the father's battle cry. "My will is as strong as yours" is Sara's retort. "I'm going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me. I'm not from the old country. I'm American!" It is not amiss to say that Bread Givers is the first Jewish feminist novel.

An immigrant herself, who did not arrive in America until she was sixteen, Yezierska set about with a passion to Americanize herself: to teach herself English and to express her wild yearnings in prose. It was as a factory worker, in her thirties, that she began writing the stories of immigrant life that would launch her career, which included an arid detour through Hollywood as a screenwriter and a brief, intimate relationship with the philosopher John Dewey. Like Cahan, however, Yezierska knew Americanization to be a tainted blessing. One might be liberated, but for what? To be independent, desanctified, and alone. With Sara Smolinsky, as with David Levinsky, the heart does not open toward the new life but grows rigid and prohibitive and, ironically, talmudic, as her form of self-assertion is a dedication to scholarship and study.

In life, Yezierska found the successes that her writing had thrust upon her unpalatable, as her talent dried up in Hollywood. After a brief stay there, which she describes ruefully in her autobiography Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950), she returned to the claustral cityscape that had formed her gifts. Rebel against Jewish life though she might, only Hester Street and its sorrows ignited her imagination, and it was after the Hollywood fiasco that she would come back to New York and write her masterwork, Bread Givers. There were other books, before Bread Givers and after: Hungry Hearts (1926), the collection of stories for which Samuel Goldwyn offered $10,000; Children of Loneliness (1923), Salome of the Tenements (1923), Arrogant Beggar (1927), and All I Could Never Be (1932). All are marked by the same rawness and desire, out of which one of Yezierska's heroines declaims: "I am a Russian Jewess, a flame, a longing. A soul consumed with hunger for heights beyond reach. I am an ache of unvoiced dreams, the clamor of suppressed desires." Of Yezierska's novels, only Bread Givers is in print, though there are two anthologies of her work: The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris, with an afterword by Yezierska's daughter, Louise Levitas Henriksen (1979), and How I Found America: Collected Stories of Anzia Yezierska, introduced by Vivian Gornick (1991). There one can experience in full measure that "ache of unvoiced dreams" and "clamor of suppressed desires," which remain as stirring and unsettling as they were some sixty-five years ago.


Any account of the evolution of Jewish writing in America must come to terms with one overwhelming fact about that history: that in the early years much of it was associated with radical ideas and left-wing movements. Throughout the first half-century of Jewish writing in America, radicalism seemed indigenous to the Jewish profile. In the 1930s especially, the Depression and fears of fascism drove many Jewish intellectuals and writers into revolutionary postures and sponsored an outpouring of "proletarian" and "popular front" novels. Since political and social agendas usually outweighed literary ones in such books, most of them have little more than historical interest today, though some, like Mike Gold's Jews Without Money (1930), transcend their parti pris through raw documentary force.

There has been no lack of efforts to explain Jewish leftism, though explanations hardly seem necessary. The greater part of the Ashkenazi Jews came to America a dispossessed people: landless, excluded, and persecuted, and discovered in America routines of labor so exploitative, when work could be found, that it is a wonder that they were not all converted to revolutionism at once. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, in which 146 workers died, remains a symbol of the working conditions that immigrants encountered in America. There are, however, reasons why the Jews among the immigrants produced much of this literature, and not others who suffered from the same Malthusian economics: 1. Their exclusion from opportunities predisposed some toward programs that promised a world reformed to abolish Jewish isolation. 2. Yiddish-speaking Jews already constituted a de facto workers' internationale of their own and looked upon internationalist movements as instruments for initiating others into their brand of brotherhood. 3. The immigrants imported the revolutionary idealism of Russia. Marxism provided a rallying point for these insurrectionary sentiments. 4. Marxism itself was a rigorous ideology whose basic tenets existed in canonical texts, allowing the Talmudic strain in Jewish culture to express itself in political terms. The road from the Yeshiva to the barricade was paved with volumes of Kapital. 5. The Jewish prophetic tradition, detached from the Law, attached itself to other eschatologies that combined moral righteousness with Millenarian visions.

Mike Gold's Jews Without Money might well stand for the whole corpus of revolutionary testaments produced by the Jewish-radical fusion. Though it is a self-consciously "proletarian" novel, a fable of working-class life with a revolutionary moral, its staying power derives not from any formulas that Gold brought from the Communist party, for which he worked as editor of The New Masses, but from a searing recollection of his childhood among those whom Jacob Riis called "the other half."

Born Iztchok Granich in 1893 on New York's Lower East Side, the son of Rumanian immigrant parents, Gold changed his name to Irwin as a youth and during the Palmer raids of 1919-20 took the name of Mike Gold, an abolitionist hero who had fought in the Civil War. Everywhere around him he saw poverty and demoralization; his own father, a manufacturer of suspenders, failed in business and Gold had to leave school and go to work at the age of twelve. The experience of poverty in an environment of predatory capitalism became the source of his revolutionary ardor and grist for his literary mill.

Behind Jews Without Money were assumptions about literature as revolutionary action. Melodramatic though those assumptions could be—all labor was misery, all ownership exploitation—they showed Gold the way to convert the impressions of his childhood into a theater of radical initiation, bringing, in effect, Dickens together with Engels. In Gold, the theater of the grotesque merged with the documentary of conditions to form one of the most graphic literatures of disaffection America ever produced.

Jews Without Money is a contra-Levinsky, a look at Jewish life through the other end of the telescope. If Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska depicted the immigrant experience as an ascent, however jagged, Michael Gold was intent on the fall, which was as American as the rise. Jews Without Money is a reminder of how immigrant society in America fell into classes and that the vast majority of the Jews did not, like David Levinsky, go into business, or like Sara Smolinsky, light out for the university. They were working people who were either self-employed at marginal levels, as pushcart vendors, or worked in whatever trades were open to them in the urban ghettos of America. For more about Gold, see Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, edited by Mike Folsom (1972).


The great Jewish book of the 1930s was Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934), though few reviewers of the time were prepared to appreciate its power. Its emotionalism was too raw and its psychologism too radical for an age that professed to have other, more social, uses for literature. It was not until 1964, when the paperback reprint was given a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review by Irving Howe, 'that the book enjoyed anything like widespread acclaim. The ordeal of the child, David Schearl, who comes to America with his mother to encounter a father who is suspicious, estranged, and given to capricious rages, is perhaps better appreciated now than in the thirties, when its brand of literary impressionism was looked on with a certain condescension.

Call It Sleep is the story of a young boy's initiation into the mysteries of his own being: the mysteries of sex and those of religion, the mysteries of origin, and those of the world around him which appears to be ruled by ominous and alien symbols. At the center of it is a grotesque family romance, dominated by a father whose smoldering rage ionizes the atmosphere. The novel's prologue, in which he and his mother are greeted at Ellis Island by a fearful and accusatory father, is a preview of all that is to befall David. Virtually a babe in arms, he is guilty of unnamed crimes.

Unlike anything else Jewish writers were doing in the 1930s, Call It Sleep was a book about symbols (basements, closets, fiery coals, rosaries), terrors, secret powers, and hidden meanings. It exposed the dark side of the psyche and read more like German Expressionist drama than anything else in Jewish-American writing. The forty pages at the end of Call It Sleep are the most powerful sustained writing ever done by a Jewish writer in America.

While other novelists were writing social dramas with occasional Marxist flavoring, Roth was writing a Freudian dissection of the soul in crisis. If Abraham Cahan in The Rise of David Levinsky invented the self for the Jewish novelist in America, it is astonishing that just seventeen years later Henry Roth, making the leap into modernism, would dismantle the self, not to restore a lost communality but to declare the vulnerability of the naked ego, alone and isolated in a strange world. The spectacular cadenza in which David hurtles through the night streets and sticks the handle of a milk ladle onto the third rail of the trolley tracks, not only brings the motifs of the book to a stunning climax but sums up a relationship to the New World that distinguishes it sharply from the Old: America is a place where loneliness can drive you insane.


The pre-war literary culture was rich in writing by and about Jews, and though most of it is time-bound, a portion retains both freshness and a documentary value. Foremost among these novels are those by Daniel Fuchs, Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936), Low Company (1937). The three novels were assembled into The Williamsburg Trilogy by Basic Books in 1961. Of the three, the first, a social portrait of a Williamsburg (Brooklyn) adolescence, an urban romance, and a bemused disquisition on adolescent movie-going, is the best known, though I am partial to the Homage to Blenholt, in which the funeral of a corrupt Commissioner of Sewers occasions a degree of civic mourning that is usually reserved for heads of state or oriental despots. In it Fuchs demonstrated a capacity for broad social satire that would later stand him in good stead as a Hollywood screenwriter. Indeed, Low Company, a hard-boiled novel about a gangland takeover of prostitution in Neptune, New Jersey, would be made into a film, The Gangster, in 1947. In all these Fuchs would demonstrate an ear for common speech, an eye for social detail, and a gift for irony. In Hollywood, where he would work continuously after 1940, Fuchs wrote or collaborated on a series of popular screenplays, including Panic in the Streets (1950), Love Me or Leave Me (1955), and Jeanne Eagels (1957).

Meyer Levin, regarded by some as the great neglected figure among the Jewish novelists, wrote his best book, The Old Bunch, in 1937. A novel about the fracturing of the Jewish community and the capriciousness of destiny in the New World, it traces a group of poor Jewish boys out of the ghettos of the Chicago West Side into the mainstream of American life. A quintessential Chicago novel in the manner of Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and Nelson Algren, The Old Bunch is dense in the gritty urban detail of downtown realism and ghetto naturalism: it is a fiction inspired by stockyards and rail yards and a life in which the impossibility of romance takes on a romantic coloration of its own. In later years Levin would divide his time among fiction, journalism, and drama, and nowadays is probably best remembered for his book about the Leopold and Loeb case, Compulsion (1956), The Settlers (1972), and for the stage adaptation he did of Anne Frank's diary, which her father denied him permission to produce. This episode would eventually lead to a strange and vivid book, the autobiographical The Obsession (1973), Levin's bitter account of his struggles with Otto Frank and a diatribe on the politics of Jewish letters in the postwar years. See also Levin's edition of Classic Hasidic Tales: Marvelous Tales of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem and of his Great-Grandson, Rabbi Nachman, Retold from Hebrew, Yiddish, and German Sources, published 1932 as The Golden Mountain.

Fuchs and Levin both were social writers, like most of the Jewish novelists who published in the 1930s. From Mike Gold's Jews without Money in 1930 to Meyer Levin's Citizens ten years later, the social muse is in the ascendant and the song of protest is the most plangent. The plays of Clifford Odets, of which Waiting for Lefty (1935) and Awake and Sing (1935) remain the most memorable, are the dramatic counterparts of this fiction. If much of this literature seems to retain more documentary than imaginative appeal, it is nevertheless needful in reminding us how Jewish life and the Jewish spirit came of age in America, through bitter days and arid scenes.


It is common knowledge that Jewish writing through the 1930s was inspired largely by the social muse, which could construct vivid tableaux of exploitation and grief even while being imaginatively constricted and compositionally banal. In due course, however, as both social integration and success came to American Jews, Jewish writers would cast off purely social agendas and adopt psychological and spiritual ones. Parable and myth, psychological complexity and moral ambiguity, Jamesian strategy and Joycean virtuosity begin to assert their presence in the fiction written by American Jews.

Precursors could be found in the novels of Nathanael West (Nathan Weinstein), most notably Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939) (reprinted in one volume by New Directions, 1969), but West's sense of Jewish identity was marginal and it was as an American rather than as a Jew that he wrote and was read. And Roth's Call It Sleep, a virtual handbook of modernist clichés, was sui generis, a brilliant interlude that made no impact on its time and left no legacy except a certain backwash of wonder and speculation.

The Jewish writers' modernization in America—their connection to the European avant-garde—can be traced back to a slim volume of stories that appeared in 1938 under the title of its lead story, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, and Other Stories, by Delmore Schwartz (1978). Schwartz's writing was more auspicious than Roth's because it had an intellectual context: Partisan Review magazine which, from the late 1930s on, was a rallying point for disaffected and militant writers and intellectuals. The stories in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities could not be characterized as "Bintel Brief" letters writ large, because Schwartz was primarily a psychological writer, the tormented stations of the soul being the keynotes of his writing. Irving Howe once called him a "comedian of alienation," which captures something of the ironic and tangential relation he bore to his time. Indeed, what would make him auspicious was that at first glance he had no relation to his time, preferring to establish an ongoing relation to eternity. If America was going to produce a Franz Kafka, it looked for a while as though Schwartz was the prime candidate. Certainly, the pathos of his first story, in which a young Delmore sits in a movie theater and watches in horror the scene of his as yet unmarried parents' courtship in a Coney Island restaurant, was like nothing the social muse could inspire.

Schwartz did not fulfill himself in fiction. His main impact would be in poetry, though that would prove fleeting, as insomnia, alcohol, drugs, and finally madness ground him down. He is, as most readers know, the Von Humboldt Fleisher of Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift. It was as a releasing agent and a guide to an alternative tradition that Schwartz affected literature. A disciple of Rimbaud and Wallace Stevens, Pound and Eliot, he claimed new horizons for others, like Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld, who would seize upon his epigrams and work them up into strategies. It was Schwartz who showed the way out of the ghettos of realism (and the realisms of the ghetto) into the more capacious worlds of symbol and allusion, parable and myth, neurosis and alienation. For more by and about Schwartz, see his selected poems, Summer Knowledge (1959), and the biography by James Atlas, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (1977).


What Schwartz inaugurated in American Jewish letters was the Europeanization of the self, and it is not too much to see Saul Bellow as the fulfillment of Schwartz's failed promise. It was in the Schwartz mode, as an underground man à la Dostoevski, that Bellow made his entry into American literature with Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), "post-socialist novels," whose basic strategies are neither the dissection of society nor the amelioration of its cruelties. Each is a subtle evocation of individual psychopathology, though in the context of real history. In Dangling Man the historical context is wartime; in The Victim it is the postwar malaise that would descend upon Jewish intellectuals for whom the bull market of fortune could not cauterize the wounds of war. While others celebrated, they despaired.

Probing the spirit in crisis would become the axial line of Bellow's thought, though he would take an occasional detour, as he did in his third novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), an idiosyncratic return to the sprawling Chicago novel of Dreiser, Farrell, and Levin. But that book is now the least memorable of Bellow's performances, substituting panorama for penetration and the vast cityscape for the vivid cameo. Far more acute was Seize the Day (1956), in which Tommy Wilhelm, a neurotic son, finds himself in a squeeze play between two fathers, a remote and narcissistic real father and a seemingly nurturing but utterly predatory therapist-father, who places a high price tag on the love he offers—Tommy's last penny for falling lard futures.

In Seize the Day, all the elements of Bellow's worldview are held in perfect equipoise. It is a comedy of capitalism, in which profit and loss are blended into health and neurosis, so that Tommy Wilhelm's final wipeout in the commodities market makes him one of Sigmund Freud's "Characters Wrecked by Success." In the figure of Tamkin, guru and commodities maven, rabbi, broker, therapist, and thief, Bellow conjured up one of his greatest inventions.

Seize the Day would inaugurate the main phase of Bellow's career, which would include Henderson the Rain King (1959), the play The Last Analysis (1965), Herzog (1964), and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970). It is possible to talk about these books, Bellow's collective chef d'oeuvre, together, since they are thematically united. They are Bellow's therapeutic novels, foregrounding issues of illness and recuperation and suggesting that to fall ill is to suffer from culture or history. Virtually all of Bellow's heroes are patients or convalescents: Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, Eugene Henderson of Henderson the Rain King, Bummidge of The Last Analysis, Moses Herzog of Herzog, and Artur Sammler of Mr. Sammler's Planet. All except Sammler are neurotics who seek relief from their symptoms and throw themselves into one curative scheme or another in their febrile searches for remedy. Tommy Wilhelm submits to a therapist-shaman who betrays him; Henderson sets off for Africa and meets up with a healer-dealer who cures him; Bummidge conducts autotherapy in front of closed-circuit TV; Herzog hands himself over to women and, when that fails, tries to kill his ex-wife's lover. Only Sammler deflects the neurotic question, since, as a Holocaust survivor, he suffers from history directly, not symptomatically.

From Humboldt's Gift (1975) to the present, Bellow's work has turned into something of a long finale, a gathering together of impressions and memories as if, time running short, there is ever so much to say. The sprawling Humboldt's Gift is the most vigorous of these books, especially in those pages devoted to the failed poet and prophet, Von Humboldt Fleisher, who is Schwartz in every detail. Bellow can be a very funny writer and in Humboldt's Gift, the figure of Humboldt/Schwartz, whose antics grow more outrageous as his schizophrenia grows more dire, permits Bellow to release his comic impulses in a virtually uninhibited way. Humboldt's fate is black, but never too black for wisecracks.

Since Humboldt's Gift, Bellow has remained productive, though his recent writing has lost something of its bite. However, a blunted Bellow is worth a dozen other writers at their sharpest. His later writing includes two novels, The Dean's December (1982) and More Die of Heartbreak (1987); two novellas, The Bellarosa Connection (1989) and A Theft: A Novella (1989); a collection of stories, Him With His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984); and a memoir of Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War, To Jerusalem and Back (1976). It is all marked by the same sardonic wisdom, the same epigrammatic briskness, the same suave urbanity, the same keen perception. Bellow is the most visual of our writers. But the newcomer to Bellow who wants to catch him at his best should start with Seize the Day and follow it up with the difficult but dazzling Herzog. There may not be two better novels in all of postwar American literature.

In treating of Bellow we are compelled to mention his boyhood chum and early comrade-in-books, Isaac Rosenfeld, whose death of a heart attack in 1956, at the age of thirty-eight, was a blow to literature. Rosenfeld's promise, though troubled and erratic, was genuine. He was the only Jewish writer of his generation to write fiction in Yiddish as well as in English, and while the accumulated harvest of writing was small, the freshness and penetration of his mind is still palpable in much of it. He left behind one novel, Passage from Home (1948), and several collections edited posthumously by friends and admirers: Alpha and Omega, short stories (1966), An Age of Enormity, essays (1962). See especially Mark Shechner, ed., Preserving the Hunger: An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader (1988), a representative sampler of Rosenfeld's essays and his fiction. Rosenfeld's writing is still capable of surprising, and delighting, those who come upon it for the first time.


Bernard Malamud's Jewish patrimony was altogether different from Saul Bellow's. Whereas Bellow came on the scene as an apostle of modernism, a disciple of Dostoevski (The Victim was based on the plot of Dostoevski's The Eternal Husband), an intellectual, who would become a professor at the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, and an anthropologist of the urban middle class, Malamud was something much homier and more available to the common reader: a child of Yiddish folk culture whose first principle was an abiding love for the little man, dos klayne mentschele, as the grandfather of Yiddish literature, Mendele Mokher Seforim, had called him.

This may not have been apparent in Malamud's first novel, The Natural (1952), in which a bizarre event in the history of American baseball, the shooting of Philadelphia Phillies player Eddie Waitkus by a woman he had engaged for the night, was yoked together, in metaphysical fashion, with Golden Bough fertility myths, to create the mythical figure of Roy Hobbs, pitcher, slugger, and tragic Osiris of the American cornbelt. It was a strained performance, and anyone who saw the 1983 film, with Robert Redford in the leading role, would be justified in wondering where the Jewish content was. But, given Malamud's subsequent career as a celebrant of Jewish folk myth and spiritual lore, in stories like "Angel Levine" and "Idiots First," The Natural may not be so alien from that world as might first be supposed, though Roy Hobbs finally is a player and not a zaddik.

Soon afterward, Malamud returned to native grounds with his two subsequent books, The Assistant (1957) and his first collection of stories, The Magic Barrel (1958). In the first, dos klayne mentschele, as an elderly Brooklyn grocery store owner, Morris Bober, is given homage as a hero of durability and fortitude, who tolerates a meager existence in a failing business because it is his lot to do so. For many readers, The Assistant remains the representative Malamud novel, for its celebration of endurance and conscience. The old grocery store, redolent of dust and neglect, the insistent weight of moral implication that leaves no act, no dialogue, no transaction free of ethical valence, the sense of moral combat between Jew, Morris Bober, and Gentile, Frank Alpine, the sustained note of lamentation—the still, sad music of daily existence—are all Malamud trademarks, and have been taken by many readers as his definitive Jewish credentials.

Yet precisely the throb of ethical pressure in The Assistant raises a problem that runs through Malamud's work: the Jewish content is wholly atmospheric and resistant to definition. When Morris Bober tries to define, for Frank Alpine, his Jewish identity in terms of the Law, he is hard put to specify what the Law is and ends up stuttering out a formula: "I suffer for you." When challenged on that, he adds, "I mean you suffer for me." To be sure, this elusiveness is typical of most Jewish writing in America, and Malamud can hardly be chastened for not knowing what no other writer is in firm possession of. It is precisely this conjunction of liturgical ignorance and tonal clarity about Jewish life that defines the entire Jewish-American literary corpus.

Malamud's minimalist sensibility, his feel for Depressionera marginality, has generally found its best vehicle in his short stories, and it was with the publication of The Magic Barrel in 1958 that Malamud's reputation as a master was made. Some of those stories are among the most consistently anthologized of any in the postwar canon: "Angel Levine" and "The Magic Barrel" are classic modern short stories, and from a second collection, Idiots First (1963), "The Jewbird" and "Idiots First" have enjoyed similar ongoing appreciation. The reader who is in search of the essential Malamud should begin with the story collections: The Magic Barrel, Idiots First, Pictures of Fidelman (1969), and Rembrandt's Hat (1974), though the quintessence of Malamud is available in his personal selection of stories, The Stories of Bernard Malamud (1983).

The novels are more erratic performances, and though all have their moments of grace, it is generally conceded that Malamud never mastered the broader architecture of the novel. A novel that is interesting for its autobiographical reflections of Malamud's own days as a composition instructor at Oregon State University (where he was not permitted to teach literature), is A New Life (1961), which examines the ironies of a new world within the new world, a land so alien from Jewish experience or sensibility that one might wonder if the grocery store of The Assistant and the English Department of A New Life can possibly be on the same planet. In The Fixer (1966) Malamud stepped out of the personal mode to write a historical novel around the actual case of Mendel Beiliss, a Jew who was tried and acquitted on charges of ritual murder in czarist Russia at the turn of the century. Malamud's Yakov Bok, like the real Beiliss, is acquitted, but not before he is subjected to humiliating persecution and converted to revolutionism.

Malamud has never been given proper credit for his courage and his willingness to take risks. Consider the range of themes in his novels: life at the margins of existence in The Assistant, the ironies of liberation in the Far West in A New Life, the pariah's lot in czarist Russia in The Fixer. In 1971 he would publish The Tenants in which two inhabitants of an abandoned building in the South Bronx, Harry Lesser (Jewish) and Willie Spearmint (black), grow increasingly hostile to each other until, in a fit of rage, they beat each other to death. Then, in 1979, Malamud would publish what might arguably be his best novel, Dubin's Lives, about a Jewish writer who leaves his wife for a younger woman and discovers, like S. Levin in A New Life had, that liberty comes with a price tag. Finally, in God's Grace (1982), Malamud attempted a curious and awkward theological parable in which a paleologist named Calvin Cohn finds himself shipwrecked with a chimpanzee named Buz in a post-nuclear-holocaust world.

I don't believe we have fully come to terms with Malamud yet, surely not so long as critics continue to see him as either a placid moralist or an expert in timeless wisdom and contemporary ethics. The variety of his experiments will finally be recognized for what they are: signs of an imagination more restless, more daring, and more experimental than it is commonly thought to be. Malamud, whose voice was given to him by an ancient culture, will one day be understood to be the most modern of American writers.


The first thing to observe about Philip Roth's career is a certain relentlessness that bears resemblance to a military campaign. Its basic marching orders are to press forward. From Goodbye, Columbus, and Other Stories in 1959, Roth's literary output has seldom lost a step, and if he has experienced any of the blocks that are common to the writer's trade, they are not visible in his accumulated work, which includes eighteen novels.

To me, the early books have aged badly. Time has dealt harshly with the stories in Goodbye, Columbus, and Other Stories (1959) and the novels Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), because Roth has gone so far beyond them that they now seem like voices from some far base camp of our literature. Certainly there is some clever social satire in "Goodbye, Columbus" and a few of the accompanying stories. It was Roth's verbal agility, his sense of the absurd, his quickness to skewer easy social targets, that occasioned the adulation he received as well as the blows he took from members of the Jewish community who found his irreverence toward his Jewish characters instigation enough to call him to his senses.

Because of this criticism and because of Roth's own fear of remaining merely clever, his next two novels were rather obstinately sober and fussily high-minded. Letting Go, in point of bulk (680 pages in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1982 edition), compared favorably to Bellow's Augie March and Levin's The Old Bunch. A book about the failures of love among graduate students, it is long and portentous. When She Was Good, a curious novel about the tragic life of a small-town girl, is today the least read and least appreciated of all of Roth's novels.

These books must be regarded as Roth's juvenilia, his investigations into his talent and his discovery that he was not fated to be the Salinger or Dreiser or Henry James of Jewish experience. Roth's own voice did not come easily, and when it came it proved to be irreverent, desperate, satirical, and unsociable. The book in which it made its debut was Portnoy's Complaint (1969), an exhibition so spectacular in both content and voice that it remains, twenty-two years since publication, Roth's signature book. Portnoy's Complaint paraded itself as a "breakthrough" novel in which psychoanalysis made its appearance as both setting and viewpoint. It was the opposite of everything the prior two books had aspired to be: raucous where they were controlled, raunchy where they were sober, irresponsible where they were dutiful. Its blend of cultural rebellion, comic mayhem, and textbook Freudianism brought Roth a mass audience and a movie contract, though not the universal approbation of literary critics or Jewish parents. The book was an exorcism, and as exorcisms will, it dealt in excess.

The Breast (1972) is a footnote. A Kafkaesque parable of an English professor who is transformed overnight into a man-sized female breast, it reads like a dream that a patient such as Alex Portnoy might have produced for his analysis. Potentially hilarious though the situation was, Roth kept the humor in check and told the story as a case history, albeit a case history narrated by the patient. Roth did not, however, jettison his comic gift in subsequent novels, he just depersonalized it and projected it outward: satirically toward President Richard Nixon, in Our Gang (1971), a bitter diatribe on one President Trick E. Dixon, and affectionately toward baseball in a slapstick noir about a team without a home field, The Great American Novel (1973). The former book is scattershot, while the latter book is mayhem in which the baseball evolves into a metaphor for Jewry and the wandering team becomes the diaspora. That the team comes to grief is the historical message of the parable, though along the way there is much of the madcap comedy that was, in the seventies, Roth's trademark.

But The Breast, Our Gang, and The Great American Novel were diversions from the main line of Roth's writing, the pseudo-autobiographical: autobiographical because Roth's own life has provided its basic situations, pseudo because they were so densely elaborated into "art" that no single image or event is dependably "true." In recent years, Roth would attempt to cast off his art altogether and tell his story directly, in The Facts (1988) and Patrimony (1991), though neither is an artless performance. Indeed, what often makes Roth's books so fascinating is the tension between confession and craft that keeps us wary of Roth's cat-and-mouse game with the truth, and with us.

In my estimation, My Life as a Man (1973) remains Roth's best novel, in part because it is abundant in social manners and in part because the counterpoint of life and art is cleverly built into the book's structure. A novel about the marital misadventures of a novelist, it contains "useful fictions," the writer's own efforts to turn his marriage into fiction, plus a long coda entitled "My True Story." The book approaches the question of truth through theme and variations, making it plain one's "true story" need be no truer than one's fictions.

If we concede the next novel, The Professor of Desire (1977) to be an interregnum, then Roth's next major opus is the trilogy of novels that appeared in rapid succession over a period of four years: The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983). We can speak of them together because Roth conceived of them as "Zuckerman variations," as one character calls them. Though there is no continuous narrative that requires us to read them in sequence, they are discrete windows on the life of the novelist Nathan Zuckerman, whose adventures at times parallel Roth's own. All are fables of martyrdom: The Ghost Writer a fable of the artist as a martyr to language, Zuckerman Unbound a fable of the artist as a martyr to his fame, The Anatomy Lesson a fable of the artist as a martyr to his critics.

The martyred artist in The Ghost Writer is Nathan Zuckerman, who has outraged his family and community with a short story which hangs family laundry out for public inspection. In his flight from censure, Zuckerman finds brief respite in the home of one E. I. Lonoff, a writer who refuses to be martyred except by sentences. In Lonoff's home, Zuckerman meets a young woman whom he fancies to be Anne Frank, and whose story of escape and flight he freely dreams up. This tinkering with Anne Frank was a gambit that most critics deemed successful, prompting some to proclaim The Ghost Writer Roth's most achieved piece of work. Certainly it is a daring conception in which Roth demonstrated that he could hit and sustain new notes, notes of wonder, mystery, and delicate irony.

One admires these books not for their plots or characters, though in Zuckerman Unbound Roth invents one Alvin Pepler, who is his most splendid grotesque, but for the delight of watching Roth do his exercises and practice his scales. If ever a writer piped at his ease, surely it is Roth in the Zuckerman trilogy. Published together as Zuckerman Bound in 1985, the novels were given an epilogue, The Prague Orgy, in which Zuckerman's trials of personal martyrdom are drowned in the greater martyrdom of a nation, Czechoslovakia. It is a report from Eastern Europe, which Roth has long been scouting, not only as a writer but as the editor of a series for Penguin Books, Writers from the Other Europe.

The final Zuckerman novel to date is The Counterlife (1986), which brings the Zuckerman variations to a furious conclusion with a Zuckerman fugue. In five episodes it counterpoints the lives of two brothers, Nathan and Henry Zuckerman, as they struggle with their heart problems (amorous and medical), their Jewish identities and faiths, and their brotherhood. As in a repertory theater, they trade lives and predicaments as snappily as actors change costumes. An elegant novel, it describes an elaborate counterpoint between the inertia of history and the agility of the imagination, demonstrating that a novel can contradict itself repeatedly and become all the more convincing. Is it any wonder that Roth's last novel to date is entitled Deception: A Novel (1990)? It plays not only with the question of truth and illusion in marriage and love, but also the question of what the writer is doing every time he puts words to paper.

Keeping the counterpoint alive on a larger scale are the recent autobiographical books, The Facts and Patrimony, the latter a tender story of Roth's father's last year. Indeed in The Facts, putatively a straightforward if miniature life story, Roth introduces the voice of a fictional Nathan Zuckerman who, as Roth's kibitzing alter ego, announces at the end that the author has got it all wrong.

After thirty-two years, Roth's career is still evolving, and still astonishing for its variety as well as for its virtuosity. Under its present marching orders, it promises books to come. About all we can predict is that each will be a surprise, since the capacity for surprise has been Roth's patrimony as an artist from day one.


The years following the war brought Jewish writers into American letters in unprecedented numbers, and novels by, about, and for Jews inundated the markets in a flow that has never stopped. Jews had come of age in American culture, and the children and grandchildren of butchers, grocers, fish peddlers, junk dealers, cutters, pressers, tailors, furriers, and rabbis made their way into the cultural arena by the force of their ambition and the keenness of their intellects. Given the Jewish proclivity for literacy and learning, Jews in any society will aspire to literature when granted the opportunity. The literature they have produced has not been unified in theme or form; they have followed their own paths and obeyed their own muses. From among the hundreds of novels and stories for which these writers are responsible, the best one can do is identify a handful that stand out in one's recollection.

Given the politicized nature of Jewish life everywhere, it is not surprising that some of this literature should be saturated in politics, and of the political novels that bear remembering, I would place E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel (1971) at the head of the list. A fable of the 1950s and the wave of anti-Communism that swept America, it is a fictionalized rendering of the arrest, trial, and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, told from the vantage point of one of the children. (There is also an actual book by the Rosenberg children, Robert and Michael Meeropol, We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg [1975]). It is a novel that links the radical generations of the 1930s and the 1960s through the figure of Daniel Isaacson, whose parents are executed as spies in the 1950s, and who becomes a radical in the 1960s. What saves the book from being just a novel of protest is Doctorow's fascination with Daniel Isaacson's inner life and the psychic disturbances that afflict him as a result of his orphanage. Doctorow's novel is, I would say, the best of the novels to come out of the Jewish-Left fusion, precisely because Doctorow subordinated his political sentiment to his novelist's instincts and allowed the book to resonate beyond the case at hand.

Another political novel that is of continuing historical interest is Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey (1947), in which one of the characters, Gifford Maxim, a blood-and-iron ideologue who has changed ideologies, was fashioned after Whittaker Chambers, whose charge of espionage in the late 1940s against State Department undersecretary Alger Hiss set off one of the most controversial political trials in recent American history. As writing, Trilling's book, a parable of the revolutionary Left in decline, is somewhat wooden, and yet it communicates something of that ideological moment in the postwar era when, to quote Yeats, the best lacked all conviction and the worst were full of passionate intensity.

I do not regard Joseph Heller's celebrated Catch-22 (1955) as the equal of either of these two novels in either style, political savvy, or intellectual sophistication. Its antic tap dance on the tragedy of war gained a certain cachet in the 1960s, when black humor reflected the mood of an anti-war generation. However, when read apart from that context, Catch-22 seems to be a whimsical and turgid performance. However, Heller's subsequent novel, Something Happened (1974), a domestic novel about the pressures and insecurities of American middle-class life, is a far better book. Its grinding rhythms and density of specification about daily life among the new suburbanites make it far more politically telling than the gallows humor of Catch-22, and it can be read as a fictionalized version of C. Wright Mills's popular sociology text of the 1950s, White Collar (1951).

Some noteworthy pieces of shorter fiction can be added to this list. The stories in Tillie Olsen's collection, Tell Me a Riddle (1961) are not themselves overtly political, though they are the decay products of a Left sensibility in retreat. A novella by a little-known writer, Meyer Liben, entitled "Justice Hunger" strikes me as a subtle portrait of the depressive mental aftermath of thirties revolutionism. It can be found in Justice Hunger, and Nine Stories (1967). Also, Isaac Rosenfeld wrote a brilliant short story entitled "The Party" about the last days of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. It has been reprinted twice, in Isaac Rosenfeld, Alpha and Omega (1966), and Mark Shechner, ed., Preserving the Hunger: An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader (1988).

It may be, however, that comic writing, pound for pound, substantially outweighs political writing by Jewish novelists since the war. Philip Roth has always had a comic edge, as have Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Wallace Markfield, Stanley Elkin, Bruce Jay Friedman, Mordecai Richler, Alan Lelchuk, and Max Apple. For many of them, the Yiddish theater and the Borscht-belt stage were formative cultural influences. A few representative books in which the reader may catch the flavor of this comedy would include Roth's Portnoy's Complaint or The Great American Novel, Markfield's Titelbaum's Window (1970), Elkin's stories in Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzer and Criers (1966) or The Rabbi of Lud (1989), Richler's Joshua Then and Now (1980), and Max Apple's The Oranging of America, and Other Stories (1977). In all of them there is an anarchistic schadenfreude that seeks to overthrow every piety, every solemnity, every symbol that in our daily lives we may hold dear. So mutinous and chaotic does this comedy get that Jewish comic novelists might be regarded as revolutionaries who have chosen language as their insurrectionary medium. If they are Marxists, they belong to the Groucho school. Certainly in stable times, their brand of revolutionism has given a lot more pleasure.

Finally, there is the whole middle range of Jewish writing that has not necessarily made a great stir but which has produced over the years some fine books, and for every book I can name here there may be a half dozen others no less deserving that I have yet to read. Some belong to the tradition of the Jewish Bildungsroman, the book of growing up and coming of age in America. Herbert Gold's Fathers: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir (1966); Mordecai Richler's St. Urbain's Horseman (1971), E. L. Doctorow's World's Fair (1986), and Alan Lelchuk's Brooklyn Boy (1990) are representative novels on that theme. Otherwise, picking and choosing at random, I'd say, read anything by Harold Brodkey, especially the thick collection of a lifetime of story writing, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1989). Brodkey may be the slowest and most meticulous writer in America, having produced just three collections of stories in some forty years of writing. But he has a delicacy of sensibility and an exactitude...

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