Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

The reviewers who discussed Two Worlds in 1956, the year of its American publication, primarily considered the specific identity of the author. David Daiches was a distinguished scholar, writer, and university lecturer descended from a long line of Orthodox Jewish rabbis. George Adelman, reviewing the memoir for Library Journal, Saul Bellow, writing for Saturday Review, Milton Hindus, writing for Chicago Sunday Tribune, and several others saw the book as one written by a master of language and literature, humorous and appealing, a Jewish story of a memorable father by his son.

What seems to have been ignored is the implicit but universal struggle of the son. In that sense, the true story has much broader appeal and wider relevance. Twelve years after the first American publication of Two Worlds, William G. Perry, Jr., published Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years (1968), in which he discussed results of interviewing large groups of students at Harvard University during their undergraduate years. He concluded that normal development involves a questioning and reassessment of family and community values and a final definition of oneself related to an informed choice of vocation. In the same year, Erik H. Erikson first published Identity, Youth, and Crisis (1968) and confirmed many of Perry’s conclusions about adolescent development.

Stories of such quests usually begin with the hero’s leaving home to test his powers in the larger world. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), James Joyce strikes a familiar note when his hero, Stephen Dedalus, identifies himself by placing his name at the top of a list of locations. The locations start with Stephen’s presence in his schoolroom class in chemical “elements” and the list continues, suggesting widening concentric circles, so that, finally, “the world” is followed by the ultimate in one’s address, “the universe.” When Stephen leaves home, he leaves his mother, his father, his siblings, Catholicism, and Ireland, calling on an adoptive father, Daedalus, to help him. Perhaps he may return after a broader perspective helps him clearly sort out who he is. This biographical novel was first written as Stephen Hero in 1903.

Ralph Ellison’s hero in Invisible Man (1947) is forced to search actively for a meaningful identity in order to be perceived as a man. The conflicts are infinitely complex and symbolic in this novel of growing up, but they certainly involve a testing of worlds and a quest for identity.

If Two Worlds is significant, it is so at least partly because the youthful agony of divided loyalties makes the story vital. The conflict between childhood dreams and parental hopes, between personal needs and real or imagined family expectations, is not new. The search for identity, if new in any respect, is merely newly recognized.

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