American Jewish Writing
To the Editor:
In “Sentimentalizing the Jews” [September], Robert Alter justifies his denial of the “Jewish character” of American Jewish fiction by an analysis of several recent novels which indicate that “Jewishness” has become a sentimental myth rather than a live response to realities. His point is that the sentimental myth “usually represents the failure of a culture to come to terms with some vital aspect of its own life.”
. . . If it were merely a question of the novels Mr. Alter selects for analysis, there would be little reason to quarrel with his assertions. I agree that much of what passes for Jewishness has become modish and has led to the kinds of stereotypes which for similar reasons plagued the proletarian novels of the 30′s. However, Mr. Alter asserts considerably more than this. . . . If, as Mr. Alter writes, “the so-called renaissance of American Jewish literature has come into being out of what is, from the Jewish point of view, almost a complete cultural vacuum,” then it should follow that no such renaissance has actually occurred. Writers of fiction like Bellow, Malamud, Philip Roth, Mailer, Wallant, and Herbert Gold, as well as critics like Kazin, Howe, Podhoretz, and Fiedler, may be of Jewish descent but they cannot have made any significant contribution to something mistakenly called “American Jewish literature.” . . . Yet never before this past decade have serious Jewish writers in such impressive numbers and with such remarkable talents produced a literature in which the Jew as American and the American as Jew have appeared so centrally and so consistently. . . . This is indeed a peculiar cultural phenomenon on the American literary scene. Contrast, for instance, the negligible treatment of American Jewish writers in Lewisohn’s The Story of American Literature (1932) or in Kazin’s On Native Grounds (1942) with the attention accorded them in Ihab Hassan’s 1961 study of the contemporary American novel.
Another dubious thesis is contained in Mr. Alter’s declaration that “From the larger American point of view, the general assent to the myth of the Jew reflects a decay of belief in the traditional American heroes—the eternal innocent, the tough guy, the man in quest of some romantic absolute—and a turning to the supposed aliens in our midst for an alternative image of the true American.” The statement itself sets up an antithesis which is untenable. The traditional innocents, tough guys, and romantic absolutists of American literature, whether in Melville, Twain, Fitzgerald, or Hemingway, are precisely the aliens Mr. Alter sees as constituting a new and alternative image. . . .
I would also question Mr. Alter’s belief that the prerequisite of a distinctive literature is a general cultural milieu that is “alive.” Although I am not quite sure exactly what Mr. Alter means by this, I imagine that Matthew Arnold’s more elaborate formulation in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” is what he has in mind. And I rather suspect that, like Arnold, Mr. Alter is chasing his own critical tail. For doesn’t a distinctive literature gain recognition when—and only when—the critic who accepts this formulation discovers the vitality of a cultural milieu? Was the cultural milieu of Mississippi “alive” before the publication of Faulkner’s novels? What of the America from which Henry James fled? Or the America of Hemingway? Or the paralyzed Dublin out of which Joyce created his masterpieces? In short, even granting Mr. Alter’s assumption that the general state of Jewish culture in America is “almost a complete . . . vacuum” . . . . there is nothing in the condition which necessarily precludes the production of a great work of art.
But I think that what troubles Mr. Alter is less the literary quality of American Jewish writing than the claim of its being significantly Jewish. It has surely not been Jewish in the way that the fiction of Milt Gross, Arthur Kober, and Leo Rosten has . . . nor has it been pervaded with a Jewish sensibility compounded of gefilte fish, barmitzvahs, overstuffed matriarchs, and ersatz touches of local color. But it is certainly Jewish in the sense that its central characters have been predominantly Jews, however narrow a construction we put upon the word; . . . that they live in communities that are Jewish or largely inhabited by Jews; and it is Jewish because in Asa Leventhal, Augie March, Tommy Wilhelm, and Moses Elkanah Herzog, in Eli Peck, Sergeant Nathan Marx, and Gabe Wallach, in Morris Bober, Leo Finkle, and S. Levin we confront characters whose involvements suggest that they are attempting to come to terms with some vital aspect of their own life within a society where their attachments to what they conceive to be Jewish are still strong enough to precipitate the essential conflicts of fiction. They may not approach God with the religious directness of Hugh Nissenson, whom Mr. Alter praises, but they have demonstrably sought to rediscover the ways by which God is manifest in the world. In this they have perhaps been more profoundly religious. . . .
Mr. Alter is disturbed because so few American Jewish writers command a cultural heritage of any depth within the historic Jewish community. . . . But this is irrelevant for it misses the quintessence of American Jewish writing—the poignancy that marks the confrontation between American culture as actuality and historic Jewish culture as ideal, a confrontation made possible only by an awareness of what is peripheral and vestigial within the community and within themselves as Jews and creative artists. And it is from this confrontation that the best American Jewish writing has flowered.
Mr. Alter writes that “The American Jewish writer of Jewish descent finds himself utilizing Jewish experience of which he is largely ignorant. . . .” But this is only a description of the ignorant writer. Like all who are ignorant of the realities of experience and lack the imaginative power to relive them in their own flesh, he inevitably becomes the ideologue of art. He is to be found on the fringes of every genuine movement. Mr. Alter’s machinery—his “reversal of the critical perspective” and his “double sentimental myth”—explains only the ignorant and second-rate. It tells us nothing about the creative American Jewish writer and his distinctive achievements during the past decade.
Bronxville, New York
To the Editor:
. . . None, I daresay, of the writers discussed by Mr. Alter, sat down to create a “Jewish literary renaissance.” They are simply galut Jews with a talent for writing . . . responding to the present cultural climate, which happens to be favorable to Jewishness, by acknowledging their own Jewish origin. They don’t quite know what to do with it. Too proud or rebellious to be religious—even if they happen to come from religious homes, which they often don’t—they are yet compelled, in the process of writing, to face the fact that they are Jews. This is their predicament and it definitely is not like that of other American writers. . . .
To the Editor:
Robert Alter’s article touches a raw nerve. . . . The Judaism of the contemporary Diaspora is not rooted in a vital and autonomous Jewish culture, . . . a fact which . . . might well signal the eventual decline and even extinction of the American Jewish community.
What are the reasons for this? . . . Certainly, they are partially attributable to the dynamic forces and energies of the 20th century, which have been acting on all human institutions in a profound way. But a further reason appears to be that the Jewish intellectuals are no longer listening to the Jewish spiritual leadership. Perhaps this is because the rabbinate today in America is not giving enough attention to the really significant and vital aspects of our heritage. In many communities, the rabbis neglect their principal tasks of teaching and inspiring the congregants and are drawn into undignified personality conflicts or arguments about procedural technicalities. . . . The popularity of the rabbi’s wife . . . has become more important than the influence of his sermons; the rabbi’s connection with his civic club has become more significant than his relationship with his religious school; the rabbi’s personal appearance means more than the quality of his mind. . . . The lay leadership of the congregation senses this lack of effective spiritual leadership, and arrogantly delegates to itself the authority to decide all questions of importance—spiritual, administrative, and temporal. This pathetic spectacle . . . has no doubt contributed greatly to the symptoms as they are described by Mr. Alter. . . .
Mark R. Bernstein
Charlotte, North Carolina
To the Editor:
. . . I fear that the need of modern American Jewish writing to portray the Jew as “quaint” goes deeper than the desire to strike pay dirt. A “character” is harmless; a buffoon evokes laughter. The American Jewish writer seems to be saying to the world around him, “See how harmless I am? You wouldn’t want to hurt me, would you?”
The writer is forging a stereotype for all of us, and we may someday find it a trap.
(Mrs.) Clara Wishner
Helmuth, New York
To the Editor:
I have been waiting for someone to write an article like Robert Alter’s “Sentimentalizing the Jew.” I did not do it myself because I would have been called a malicious old writer jealous of these young Jewish writers whose novels are now being praised, while my Hear, Ye Sons, published and acclaimed way back in 1933, has long been out of print and forgotten. But now that Mr. Alter has said so well everything I might have said and more, . . . I want only to reinforce his observation that the primary fault of the current “Jewish” novels is their lack of Jewish information. . . . And this lack is reflected in the reviews of these novels which, though highly favorable, never talk about Jewish content. Looking over my old reviews of Hear, Ye Sons (please believe that I am not boasting), I have been struck by the repetition of phrases like “so thoroughly Jewish,” “written out of rooted knowledge,” “written with art and scholarship.” Like Mr. Alter, I think our young “Jewish” writers are mistaken in thinking that “the name or idea of the Jew” is sufficient “to conjure up all sorts of images, from epiphany to pogrom, of a unique history, and a unique moral heritage.” And I, too, have been offended by the tendency to insinuate the image of Christ into “Jewish” heroes. . . .
To the Editor:
Mr. Alter’s fine article on sentimentalizing the Jew in fiction calls to mind a similar tendency . . . in movies. . . . As film critic Pauline Kael once lamented, the Jew can never be depicted as other than honorable on the screen—though he can be portrayed as ineffectual. The example she cited was that of the Jewish storekeeper in the filmed version of “West Side Story.” Emasculated, humble, kind, he was placed, as is frequently the case, vis à vis some prototype of brutality—in this instance a gang of teenage hoods. . . . John Crosby made the point several years ago that the only character allowed to appear as the villain in movies and TV nowadays is the obvious Anglo-Saxon type—and as a staunch “WASP,” I protest.
Robert C. Bernholm
To the Editor:
I hope that Robert Alter’s article will be the first of a long-needed series protesting . . . the saccharine philo-Semitism that is now so popular, and so dangerous as well . . . insofar as it contributes to what sociologists have begun to call “the American religion,” a tolerant, soulless ecumenicism. . . .
Philip Roth boasted in 1963 that his knowledge of Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and of the Bible, was practically nil and his books would seem to bear that out. In The Prize, Irving Wallace has one of his characters pull a well-worn Talmud from his pocket, a feat equivalent to hiding the Encyclopedia Britannica up one’s sleeve. Hortense Calisher, in a sensitively written story, “A Short Forever,” . . . has the celebrants at an anniversary party dance a hora to the tune of Hatikvah. In a story by Sylvan Karchmer, anthologized in the Treasury of American Jewish Stories, the father goes to see a dying woman to sing the Kaddish for her, an evidence of the author’s confounding of the administering of the Sacrament for the sick with Orthodox Jewish custom. By writing about Jewish custom with so little understanding of it, these writers are showing contempt for it; otherwise, they would spend time on research to authenticate the details of their stories as they do when writing about Swahilis or Swedes. . . . Small wonder that the “Jewishness” that comes out of much contemporary literature by American Jewish writers is false, adulterated, and smugly ignorant. . . .
Maplewood, New Jersey
Mr. Alter writes:
Mr. Stark, co-editor of an anthology of American Jewish writing with the melodramatic title Breakthrough, is of course the kind of promoter of Jewish literature I had in mind, and his letter is a good example of the apologetic mentality criticized in my article. We hardly need the authority of Ihab Hassan to know that Jewish writers who in no way disguise their origins are now a central movement in American literature. This could be a significant new stage in the development of a pluralistic American culture, but hardly in respect to the development of a real Jewish culture.
There are, to be sure, some instances of American Jewish writing where the informing imagination is authentically Jewish and use of Jewish materials legitimate—much of Herzog, a few stories of Malamud and Roth. But why do Jews have to expropriate interesting American novelists like Mailer and Wallant, or bad ones like Herbert Gold, simply because of their ethnic origin? Mr. Stark suggests that all the characters and—apparently—all the writers he cites are to be considered Jewish for seeking “to rediscover the ways by which God is manifest in the world.” Such portentous phrase-making plays fast and loose with God, something that almost all the writers named—whose perspectives are usually quite naturalistic—have had the integrity not to do. Or again, Mr. Stark would have us believe that American Jewish writing represents a “confrontation between American culture as actuality and historic Jewish culture as ideal.” But if these writers’ knowledge of historic Jewsh culture is at best scanty, as Mr. Stark himself half concedes in his understandably fuzzy formulation, then the ideal of Jewish culture dragged into literature is likely to be empty, sentimental.
There are some serious confusions in Mr. Stark’s argument. In connection with American literary myths, I used “alien” in a clearly cultural and historical sense—the Jews as the embodiment of a culture palpably foreign to America, offering the American new habits of mind and action, a new burden of past experience, with which to become himself. Mr. Stark misunderstands “alien” into “outsider.” As for renaissances, I suggested that a writer needs the verbal, symbolic, rhetorical, ideational materials of an ongoing cultural tradition—which Faulkner, Joyce, James, even Hemingway, each in different ways possessed. What I did not say was that a writer had to be in harmony with his society. Indeed, some of the greatest Jewish writers from the prophets on have been spiritual expatriates in the midst of their people. Similarly, I did not claim that today’s serious Jewish writers had a sensibility compounded of gefilte fish, etc. Those who write about Jews are clearly reacting against such vulgarities; my objection is that these are paltry and finally boring things against which to react. Writers like Mendele, Peretz, Bialik could on occasion protest against three thousand years of intimately known Jewish experience—a kind of dissidence that has real resonance.
As for Mr. Gartner, it is natural enough that American Jewish writers should have to face the fact that they are Jews, but too often they end up merely faking the fact, in the various ways I indicated in my article. (Vide Mr. Tushnet’s charming little anthology which makes the point very well.)