Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1662
Publishing ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ in 1954, Bernard Malamud was at the beginning of his career, and near the beginning of a brief and remarkable period in the history of Jewish-American writing. For perhaps a decade, from the mid-1950s to the mid- 1960s, the American literary imagination seemed to have been captured by a series of books by and about Jews. In 1953 Saul Bellow published The Adventures of Augie March, a story of tragicomic misadventures set in Chicago’s Jewish immigrant milieu. In 1957 Malamud brought out his second novel, The Assistant, the tale of an impoverished Brooklyn grocer who becomes a kind of Jewish everyman. 1959 saw the literary debut of Philip Roth, whose Goodbye, Columbus was the account of a doomed love affair between two Jewish young people divided by social class.
Goodbye Columbus won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction in 1960, as Bellow’s Augie March had done in 1954, and as Malamud’s collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel, had in 1959. Equally distinguished Jewish-American writers— such as Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, and Chaim Potok—attracted attention on the literary scene during these years as well.
The novelists who made their reputations during this time didn’t always have Jewish concerns as the focus of their fiction. Still, for a decade or so, Malamud’s fiction seemed to be part of a movement of the American novel toward the lives and problems of Jews. Of course, Jewish-American fiction was not invented in the 1950s; novels by and about American Jews comprised a tradition of some significance and depth by the time Malamud began his career. In one important respect—in its theme of change and conflict between generations— Malamud’s ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ is solidly embedded in the tradition of Jewish-American fiction.
The first important Jewish-American novel was Mary Antin’s The Promised Land of 1912. Born in Russian Poland, Antin immigrated to Boston as a child in 1894 and became a social worker in the immigrant neighborhoods of that city. The Promised Land is based on Antin’s own immigrant experience, contrasting the poverty and persecution of Jewish life in Eastern Europe with the freedom and economic opportunity available to immigrants in the United States.
The vision of America is not so happy, however, in The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan (1917). Cahan was a Russian immigrant who found success in America as an editor and journalist. (He edited the The Jewish Daily Forward, the Yiddish newspaper in which Leo Finkle reads Pinye Salzman’s ad.) Like his creator, David Levinsky encounters an America where opportunity is purchased at great sacrifice. As David rises in New York’s garment industry, his success costs him love and personal integrity. Most of all, David’s success results in his betrayal of those Jewish spiritual traditions that had sustained his ancestors in Russia. David ends the novel as a representative of an immigrant generation that has lost the integrity of its ancestors.
The theme of change and conflict among generations appears powerfully in Anzia Yezierska’s 1925 novel Bread Givers . Yezierska’s novel dramatizes the conflict between Sara Smolinsky, a lively young Jewish woman, and her dictatorial father, a Russian immigrant Rabbi. Rabbi Smolinsky has devoted his life to study of the Torah, and insists that his daughters work to support him as he continues his studies in America. Sara dreams of receiving a secular American education and becoming a teacher, but to do so she must defy the will of her father: ‘‘More and more I began to see that father, in his innocent craziness to hold up the Light of the Law to his children, was a tyrant more terrible than the Tsar from Russia.’’ Sara eventually realizes her dream, becoming a...
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