A Fever of Ethnicity
MORE and more, America comes to seem the land of perpetual identity crisis. First there were the founding Wasps, outcasts, misfits, dissidents, and adventurers who in the momentous crossing of waters had torn themselves loose from the Old World ties of tradition and community. In the vast solitude of the American wilderness-as Oscar Handlin and others have contended-the new settlers had to live with a new kind of existential loneliness that called into question familiar assumptions of value and identity. The characteristic response to this insistent dread inspired by an unpeopled, disorienting new landscape was less a distinctive American identity than a distinctive American fantasy: a self-consciously masculine ideal of craggy independence, toughness, cool resourcefulness, and resolute self-discipline. By the 1950′s, that ideal had become for many as factitious as its tinniest embodiments in Hollywood cowboy heroes and fictional private-eyes; and Americans, now no longer preponderantly Wasps, began to look elsewhere for images of identity.
The great vogue of Yiddishkeit, beginning in the late 50′s and peaking in the mid-60′s, was the first signal break from Wasp cultural hegemony, at least on a literary level. Whatever the falsifications and the sentimentality fostered by the vogue, Jewish Americans felt encouraged to look freshly at who they were in the light of their own distinctive experience, while other Americans (some of them undoubtedly Wasps) tried to see in the distorting mirror of Jewishness possibilities of selfhood neglected by the dominant Wasp culture.
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