Commentary Magazine


Daniel Fuchs: Escape from Williamsburg:
The Fate of Talent in America

In the life and work of Daniel Fuchs, who in the 1930’s published three brilliant novels about Jewish life in New York’s Williamsburg, IRVING HOWE sees a parable of the fate of talent in present-day America.

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Only a handful of devotees still remember the three novels Daniel Fuchs wrote in the mid-30’s. Like so many other once-promising American writers, he lapsed into silence after a brief flare of creativity. Yet even in the few years that Fuchs devoted to serious writing he showed such a rich gift for fictional portraiture of Jewish life in the American city that, given sustained work and growth of mind, he might have written its still-uncreated comédie humaine. After reading Fuchs’ work one wonders: What was the source of his talent and the cause of his silence, and, perhaps more important, what was the relationship between his talent and his silence?

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At the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn lies Williamsburg, a gray and dreary slum. During the years of Daniel Fuchs’ adolescence and young manhood, Williamsburg was the home of the poorest of New York’s Jews, a social group even less favored than those who lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was the cramped and harried life of this slum that was to be the decisive, even traumatic, influence on Fuchs’ sensibility. I doubt whether one can find another American writer whose image of life was so tightly bound by his adolescent experience, and whose entire creative effort was so painful a struggle to come to terms with memories of adolescence. Even James T. Farrell, tied as his novels are to recollections of Chicago’s South Side, has managed to break some of the holds of adolescent trauma and seek broader dimensions of experience.

For the adult creative imagination, memories of formative years are almost always a fascinating but destructive attraction. The writer who has not thoroughly thought out his relationship to the world tends to make such memories the center of his work rather than an absorbed part of his total perception. As one picks up the novels that Fuchs wrote during several summers while freed from his job as substitute teacher in a Brighton Beach public school, it seems almost as if they are still marked with the fingerprints of his adolescence, as if the heat and sour smells of the Williamsburg summer still cling to their pages.

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Summer In Williamsburg, Fuchs’ first novel, appeared in 1934, when he was still in his early twenties. Influenced by—but far more subtle than—the prevalent “proletarian” school, it is a naturalistic genre novel in which Fuchs’ relationship to his youthful experience is the major theme. As a result, he is greatly absorbed in the novel’s setting, the physical environment and sense impressions.

In the summer Williamsburg is filthy, grimy, sticky; its streets are heavy with odors from tired bodies, rotting tenements, and inappropriate cooking; and yet it is ablaze with frantic, purposeless activity. Its young people scurry around, seeking ways to escape but soon reaching the bitter conclusion that in the years of depression one can do everything but escape; ultimately one must return to the tenements. That, insisted Fuchs with a self-tormenting passion, is the law of Williamsburg life, the trap of its youth. From the first word of Summer in Williamsburg to the end of his last novel, Fuchs was obsessed with this unvarying theme: escape and the trap.

Offhand, it must be granted, this hardly seems a promising theme. It stirs unhappy recollections of such works as Jews Without Money and Street Scene, in which sentimentality softens social perceptions into bathos. But Fuchs seemed to sense that a retrospective sentimentality about the Jewish slum, even the sentimentality of total rejection, was possible only if one could look back on the slum with complacency—that is, if one fully accepted the life one had attained to outside the slum. This complacency he could never know, and so it was his desperate insecurity that saved him from sentimentality.

Through Philip Hayman, his autobiographical hero, Fuchs expressed his ambiguous relationship to Williamsburg and the world of grubbing and grasping for which Williamsburg stood. Contrary to the Erziehungsroman formula, Philip is not a precocious intellectual; he is only an earnest young man who cannot take his experience for granted. He is aware of conflicts of will, but he thinks of his will as something apart from himself, something given and predetermined. Convinced that man is helpless before the miseries thrust upon him, Philip feels wearied by the anticipation of a life he has not yet lived. All that is left to him, then, is dignified passivity.

Each of the characters in Summer in Williamsburg is a point of reference by which to define Philip’s situation: his ridiculous alter-ego, Cohen, yowling about life in a way that Philip is too wise or weary to follow; his scrupulously honest father whose morality makes him a helpless prisoner in the Williamsburg jungle; his brother Harry, who decides to earn a living rather than be decent; and his uncle Papravel, a racketeer who has travelled to the end of the amoral road. Each represents a possible path in life—and in different ways each is a trap.

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Philip might fancy himself a detached onlooker, but how could he avoid participating in the life of Williamsburg or succumbing to its values? Trapped in the dilemma of those sufficiently sensitive to reject the Williamsburg pattern but not sufficiently perceptive to understand it, Philip is doomed to the neither-nor agony of the intelligent middlebrow.

Yet a beginning has to be made somewhere: “That was the choice, he thought, Papravel or his father. Papravel, smoking cigars, piled up money and glowed with sweat and happiness, while his father sat with his feet on the window-sill in the dimness of a Williamsburg flat. . . . He was heading in his father’s direction, honest, good, and kind, but poor. . . . Look at him, Philip said, he’s old, he’s skinny, and all he has after all the years is a cigarette and a window.”

This was all that integrity and seriousness brought: a cigarette and a window. But if the meaning of Williamsburg life was that “people in tenements lived in a circle without significance, one day the duplicate of the next until the end, which occurred without meaning,” how was the chronicler of Williamsburg to end his book? What could constitute its inevitable climax?

Fuchs didn’t know. And so he had to fall back on a deus ex machina; he set one of the Williamsburg tenements on fire (in itself a delightful idea) and allowed it to kill off Cohen. Having thus been rid of his preposterous conscience-censor, Philip could now follow his brother’s path, but wearily and without enthusiasm. “Philip, waiting for the years to come to see what would happen to him, went to his dinner.”

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Philip’s dilemma in life is but a refraction of Fuchs’ dilemma as a writer. In Summer in Williamsburg Fuchs examined his experience with a fascinated conscientiousness bred in loathing, and in the end he had to admit his helplessness before it. Like Philip, he was not an intellectual; he could not enjoy the solace of comprehension, of substituting a mental ordering for an actual control of the events of his life. All he knew was that his experience was there, palpable and insistent, and that there was no way out. What then could you do with an experience that gripped and choked you, that slowly ripped you apart and even showed you—in the flesh of your elders—a portrait of your inevitable decline? You could, it is true, write about it, you could compile the human “dictionary of Williamsburg”; but did that exorcise its devil, did that remove the inescapable “marks of weakness, marks of woe”?

This was the dilemma that led to the novel’s breakdown, to the resort to melodrama. As a novel, despite frequent missteps and callow passages, it is rich with signs of talent. Fuchs wrote with a highly dramatic flare for characterization and for dialogue that is acoustically true and psychologically revealing. Yet the book ended on a note of impotence: a triple impotence: before life, which Philip could not begin, let alone meet; before thought, which Philip-Fuchs could not formulate into a usable means of ordering life; and before art, which Fuchs, in the final pages of the book, found insufficient “to give the completely truthful impression, the exact feeling.”

In its ultimate meaning this immature but significant novel was reduced to a cry for help. How escape, how get away from Williamsburg?

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To This question Fuchs’ second novel, Homage to Blenholt, gave a passing answer. Where Summer is intense, somber, and literal, Homage is irreverent, gay, and fanciful. If the experience of Williamsburg cannot be grasped and controlled, perhaps it can be laughed away.

Most of Summer’s technical difficulties are overcome in this second novel. The dialogue is bright and witty—marred only by an occasional streak of mockery which suggests that its gaiety is not quite spontaneous. The characterization is complex and free of the naturalistic grotesquerie of Summer. Most impressive of all is the novel’s top-speed ninety-page “overture” in which Fuchs’ imagination is in full command.

The novel’s characters appear in rapid order. Max Balkan, the shlemiel-hero, is a unification of Philip Hayman and Cohen of Summer: he is decent and a dreamer. He seeks get-rich schemes in order to reach the glory he values more than wealth; he dreams of chains of hot chicken-soup stands, formulas for bottling onion juice, plans for announcing movie programs over the telephone. As the novel opens he is on his way to the funeral of Brooklyn’s Commissioner of Sewers, Blenholt. Here, muses Max, was a man who surmounted the mediocrity of this “flat age,” and sought heroism and danger, if only by building a political machine of gangsters and job-holders. In his own way Blenholt found glory and greatness—a Tamburlane risen in Brooklyn. As Max drags his friends to the funeral, he muses over Tamburlane’s mighty words, in which he sees a warrant of his own future:

. . . we will reign as consuls of the earth
And mighty kings will be our senators.

Flanking Max Balkan in the company of the meek is his small-fry counterpart, Heshey, who has also discovered that to the tender-souled life offers only blows. Like Max, Heshey is in love with the world of daydreams and the fancies of the life of play.

Max’s adult friends are equally hopeless luftmenshen: Coblenz, a naive cynic who is completely at the mercy of his sensations, and Munves, a naive innocent whose joy in life is to find errors in the footnotes of the great etymologists. And finally there is Max’s father, who, though he now carries a sandwich sign for a beauty parlor, claims once to have found glory as a Shakespearean actor in Yiddish. As he reminisces about his role as a Yiddish King Lear, he is interrupted by his wife’s jeers: “Mr. Fumfotch,” she calls him.

Are the men meek, impractical dreamers? Then the women are proud realists who know that they have to cope with Williamsburg economics. Mrs. Balkan feels herself surrounded by gentle lunatics who don’t know where the next dollar is coming from—and she grimly tells herself that it is she who has to keep guard in this world. Equally hard-headed are her daughter, Rita, who finds that the only way to snare Munves is to teach him “close dancing,” and Ruth, Max’s girl, the sort of female who intends to perpetuate the race no matter what dreams men indulge in. Ruth embodies the principle of survival, and all of nature and society are her allies. Against this array Max is helpless.

For Fuchs, women are the this-worldly sex, the child-bearers who chain men to earth. His novels are disturbed by a barely hidden undercurrent of antipathy towards’ women, who seem to him anything but the romantic sex. They are rather the personification of the earth force, the champions of the reality principle: they bind men to the sort of life that ends with a cigarette and a window.

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Once having established the setting of his novel, Fuchs drives it to a swift document. Max goes to Blenholt’s funeral, where instead of glory he acquires a bloody nose, a trophy of innocence for chivalrously interfering in a dispute. His final defeat is complete and unmistakable. When he receives a letter from a company expressing interest in his idea for bottling onion juice, his hopes soar: Max Balkan, onion king! But the company has already been bottling onion juice for years and all it offers him is a three-pound bag of onions in gratitude for his interest. . . .

Reality, or what Williamsburg takes for reality, is vindicated. Max decides to get a job as a twelve-dollars-a-week shipping clerk; Munves is to abandon etymology for a delicatessen store and marriage with Rita; Mrs. Balkan is content. As for “Mr. Fumfotch,” what can he say? He tells himself: “Max was dead already for now he would live by bread alone. . . .”

Fuchs allows only one concession to the meek: little Heshey gains a victory. In an exuberant scene, he traps his tormentor, the bully Chink, in a dumbwaiter and bombards him with rotten grapefruit. But once having impressed Chink with his shrewdness, Heshey proposes a predatory alliance of his brain with Chink’s brawn. Even if the meek triumph momentarily, they must forego the purity of motive that had sustained their meekness. In the very act of triumph their meekness sours into pride, and their tenderness into arrogance.

Though it had begun as a lark, Homage to Blenholt ends on a note of quiet despair and bitterness. You may daydream yourself out of Williamsburg for a few minutes, you may fancy yourself Tamburlane, but in the end you must become a shipping clerk or a substitute teacher.

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By The time Fuchs sat down to write his Third and last novel, his conflict of values seemed largely to have been resolved. As a novel, Low Company is his most skilled piece of work—intricately and surely plotted, its prose efficient, and its characters immediately believable. Yet, having gained mastery of his medium, Fuchs used it in a disturbing way. Low Company is too slick, too flashily sophisticated; it has neither the earnest bewilderment of Summer nor the high-pitched humor of Homage.

Max Balkan and his friend Coblenz are now metamorphosed into Moe Karty, a wretched little man obsessed with gambling. Losing the money he stable from his wife’s family, and wasting his days telephoning bets from a candy store in Neptune (Brighton) Beach, Karty represents still another moral bludgeon aimed by Fuchs against those who, like himself, are tempted to rise from the earth.

Desperate for gambling money, Karty approaches an ugly brothel-keeper, Shubunka, for a loan. Shubunka refuses; he has his own troubles, for a large gangster syndicate threatens his business and his life. It is the irony of Low Company—possible only because Fuchs, having decided not to become a literary Max Balkan, has largely withdrawn his sympathy from his characters—that its only humane words come from this brothel-keeper: “He sat there at the dirty table, his head drooping, and his expression showed that he knew well this was the ungrateful way of the world. It was bitter and low, humans were always miserable in their relations with one another, but it was an old tale, he knew it and could not be shocked.”

When Shubunka begs mercy from the thugs who are driving him out of Neptune Beach, he cries: “We must not be like animals to one another! We are human beings living together in this world.” It is a significant comment on Fuchs’ view of his characters and the world they live in that the ultimate point of these words is to defend small-scale against large-scale prostitution. In the world where all men form a low and filthy company, such sentiments are merely the ironic underside of all that is low and filthy.

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As Fuchs drives his novel to its bitter end, he seems always to be saying: See what a world I come from and from which I must escape. For a moment he does pause to allow a minor character to reflect that “it was not enough to call them low and pass on.” That remark, however, is only an echo of the past, of the voices of the meek, Philip Hayman and Cohen, Max Balkan and “Mr. Fumfotch.” The author of Low Company can do little else but pass on. For he has at last discovered the great secret of the universe, the one surpassing truth that will bring him peace and allow him to escape from Williamsburg—all human beings are dreck.

Low Company begins with a message from a Yom Kippur prayer: “We have trespassed, we have been faithless, we have robbed . . . we have committed iniquity, we have wrought unrighteousness. . . .” Must not the disabused Fuchs have wondered if the forgiveness that Yom Kippur offers was not also a consolation that the trespassers and the faithless, the robbers and the unrighteous wrought in behalf of their own comfort?

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In All three of Fuchs’ novels one feels, even in the gayest parts of Homage to Blenholt, a sense of oppression and constriction, as if one were in an over-crowded and airless room. This atmosphere is suggested by a series of central though unexplicated images that the novels leave in one’s mind: the dense airless room, the heavy human body aching to rise in flight but anchored to the graceless earth, the throat gasping for fresh air but doomed to expire from the fumes of its own decay.

These images, of course, are suggested by the locale of Fuchs’ work—they are psychic equivalents, as it were, of his portrait of Williamsburg; but they are also the result of his entire outlook. For him, alas, Williamsburg is the world: he knows and can imagine no other, either in fact or anticipation, in society or the mind. This is it, a low company.

Unlike such a writer as Delmore Schwartz, who makes of Jewishness a symbol of the modern situation, Fuchs reduced all of life to a Jewish slum. But a gifted writer could not maintain this view for very long. A mediocre writer might have been able to continue writing about Williamsburg as if his relationship to it were a subject worth indefinite extension. But Fuchs’ talent was so large that it forced him to see that adolescence and its environment were not enough for a writer who wished to go beyond the “proletarian” novel, or the local-color portrait of the Jewish slum, or the formularized Erziehungsroman.

His talent confronted him with problems that his mind could not cope with. No one who had seen as much as he, no one who had seen it all with depressing clarity, could long persist in either curiosity or compassion unless he could sustain and temper it with understanding.

But understanding Fuchs never had; he was too close to Williamsburg to relate it to other areas of life—physical or moral or intellectual—and in the end he made Williamsburg the entirety of life. That left him no recourse but escape, for how could he continue to face the continued challenge of Williamsburg, a challenge that apparently would not let him rest, unless he had some sustaining and relieving vision of life? If Summer was the statement of a dilemma, and Homage the attempt to escape or surmount its choices, then Low Company was a resolution of that dilemma by surrender. As Albert Halper wrote, “Fuchs is a man with a burden. I do not envy him . . . he is a child of sorrow.”

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Low Company, with its curiously tender Cynicism, was Fuchs’ last word. There is a revealing incident in the novel in which an old man, one of those old-fashioned Jewish intellectuals who are now almost an extinct breed, spills a pail of water from his window on a crowd below in order to break up a street fight. When the crowd stares up, the old man takes “advantage of the occasion to deliver a lecture, impassionate and burning, on the decencies of human life. Everyone quite forgot the fight to hoot and yell at the intellectual.”

As he developed his skills, Fuchs could, with increasing frequency, do just what he wanted—but what he wanted became less worth doing. He enlarged his technique only to narrow his mind. As a result, those themes of his first two novels that seemed most significant became withered and barren in his last work. The theme of conflict between the meek and the proud that so sustained Homage to Blenholt; the undeluded examination of adolescence and the tense pounding at the walls of an environment that were so impressive in Summer; the theme of struggle between realistic women and imaginative men that deepened the meaning of both novels—all of these were reduced to a minor-keyed misanthropy in Low Company. In his first two novels he had tried to develop themes and construct images that might carry his work beyond himself and to the shores of some general meaning; but in his last novel he acknowledged, skilfully and sadly, that his quest for meaning was at an end. He had searched but had not found. . . .

In the late 30’s Fuchs went to Hollywood to work as a script writer, and there he has remained ever since. (There seems little likelihood that he will write the novel on Hollywood for which his friends hoped and his talents fitted him so perfectly.) It would be absurd to speak of his having “sold out” to Hollywood, for Fuchs was defeated in himself before he went to Hollywood and had he not been so defeated he would most probably not have gone there. Yet one who respects his talent cannot but wonder if he is aware of the final irony in his career: for what is Hollywood but Williamsburg in technicolor?

Perhaps the most gifted of all the American writers who dealt with Jewish experience, Fuchs was caught in the trap that awaits every artist whose talent is not nurtured by a developing and enlarging perception, and whose relationship to a world he cannot tolerate is not tempered by the pleasure of understanding it. In this sense, then, one can say that the very largeness of Fuchs’ talent drove him more quickly to silence. As William Troy has remarked: “Art is not intellect alone; but without intellect art is not likely to emerge beyond the plane of perpetual immaturity.” And Fuchs at least had the good sense to prefer silence to perpetual immaturity.

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