Commentary Magazine


Enlarging America by Susanne Klingenstein

Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930-1990
by Susanne Klingenstein
Syracuse. 492 pp. $34.95

Ludwig Lewisohn, a Berlin-born Jew who came of age in Charleston, South Carolina, and as a youth made himself over into a churchgoing Southern gentleman, had to leave Columbia University in 1903 without his doctorate in literature because, he was told, there was no future for him in the field: the prejudice against hiring Jews in English departments was insuperable. Two decades later, reflecting on the appointment of a number of Jewish scholars in American colleges and universities, Lewisohn, who by then had become an influential drama critic, noted that in one discipline alone the old resistance still remained firm: “Prejudice has not . . . relented in a single instance in regard to the teaching of English.” Perhaps this was because the study of English, unlike that of science or even philosophy, was intimately bound up with the particularities of culture. Those who ran the English departments—the “Angry Saxons,” in the phrase of the art connoisseur Bernard Berenson—were determined to protect Tennyson’s “treasure/of the wisdom of the West” from barbarous East European invaders.

Of course, all this would change. Susanne Klingenstein, a German-born Jewish teacher of writing at MIT who did her graduate work and research at Harvard, has taken the story of that change as her special province. Her first book, Jews in the American Academy: 1900-1940 (1991), provided brief intellectual biographies of such early figures as the philosophers Harry Wolfson and Morris Raphael Cohen and the literary scholars Joel Spingarn, Jacob Zeitlin, and Lionel Trilling. In her judgment, it was Trilling’s ultimately successful breakthrough at Columbia—he received a full-time appointment to the English faculty in 1939—that brought to a “happy end” the story of what had hitherto looked like an impossible “Jewish folly.” In her new book, she deals with the next generation or two of literary scholars and critics, bringing the story more or less up to the present.

The book’s first section, “The Harvard Circle,” describes and analyzes the careers and ideas of Harry Levin, a pioneering interpreter of Joyce, Proust, and Eliot; M.H. Abrams, the greatest modern scholar of English romanticism; and Daniel Aaron, a seminal figure in American studies. These formidable Jewish minds, who entered the university from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, professionalized literary scholarship by replacing parochial standards of “custom” and “taste” with the criteria of intellectual excellence. But they had no intellectual interest in their own Jewish heritage, and were not religious.

This creates some difficulty for Klingenstein, who wants to identify ways in which the Jewishness of these scholars was somehow relevant to them or their scholarship. In the case of Levin, she decides that his “secret blemish” established a kinship between him and other mavericks in the Harvard of his day like Irving Babbitt, the apostle of “neo-Humanism,” and the homosexual F.O. Matthiessen. As for Abrams, who wished to forge a relation to Christian culture without formally embracing it, he developed a doctrine of imaginative sympathy and consent whereby, for example, Dante’s Catholic universe could be extradited, through the formal medium of poetry, to “all of us.” Even Aaron, far more distant than either Levin or Abrams from a sense of Jewish identity, wrote a “Jewish book” when he edited the diary of a half-mad racist named Arthur Inman: by exercising his special gift for entering another person’s mind, Aaron betrayed his links to “an all-consuming obsession in postmodern Jewish literature, namely, the uncertainty of what and who is real.”

When she moves on to the postwar Harvard figure of Leo Marx, Klingenstein wisely gives up this attempt to identify the elusive Jewish element In 1949, Marx left Harvard for the University of Minnesota, where he founded the American-studies program. Staffed largely by acolytes of F.O. Matthiessen, the program attracted the subjects of Klingenstein’s next two portraits, Allen Guttmann, who “cared as little about being Jewish as Marx,” and Marx and Guttmann’s foil, the engaging, Brooklyn-born Jules Chametzky. Rejecting the cosmopolitan idea of American literature, Chametzky stressed regional, ethnic, racial, and sexual factors, and made a point of providing a forum for those previously “unheard voices” of whom we now hear so very much.

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That relatively minor figures like Guttmann and Chametzky should receive so much attention in this book—more, in fact, than a commanding authority like M.H. Abrams—is symptomatic of the problems in assuming, as Klingenstein does, a linear progression toward some happily expanded conception of what literary study consists of. In any case, the second half of Enlarging America shifts from the culture of Harvard to that of Columbia, and from professors of literature to literary critics.

Klingenstein begins here with four “refractions of Lionel Trilling,” each purporting to show how the example set by Trilling helped ease the integration of Jews into the American literary world in general. The four are the novelist-critic Cynthia Ozick and the editor-critic Norman Podhoretz, both of whom began but did not end in English departments; the academic literary critic Steven Marcus; and the feminist literary scholar Carolyn Heilbrun. (Some of the anecdotes in this section, particularly those concerning Ozick and Podhoretz, are among the liveliest in an anecdote-filled book.) Klingenstein then turns, in a concluding section titled “The Rediscovery of Origins,” to three literary scholars—Robert Alter, Ruth R. Wisse, and Sacvan Bercovitch—who received doctorates in English in the 1960’s but, in a further complexification of the American story, ended up applying the critical perspectives gained in their general literary studies to the interpretation not only of English but of Jewish texts.

Alter, a student of both Trilling and Levin and a longtime professor of comparative literature at Berkeley, has also written important essays and books on Hebrew literature, including the Bible, thereby constructing, in Klingenstein’s words, “an oeuvre that was unimaginable when Trilling and Levin attended college.” Wisse’s 1992 appointment to a chair at Harvard in Yiddish and comparative literature marked both a “closure and a new beginning”: if assimilated Jewish scholars ready to give up their “particularity” had long been handsomely rewarded with places in departments considered central to the university’s purpose, now a Jewish scholar working on a Jewish subject had been admitted to the inner sanctum. Bercovitch, a specialist in American literature at Harvard and the capstone of Klingenstein’s discussion, actually does not quite belong in this grouping. Although he has done some translating from Yiddish, and in general seems to represent for Klingenstein the condition to which all literary scholarship should aspire, the “Jewish” element in his work is almost as elusive as it is in that of Levin, Abrams, or Aaron.

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This is in many ways a formidable book, prodigiously researched and written with vigor. For better and for worse, Klingenstein at times resembles a James Boswell with a tape recorder: diligent and ingenious in tracing personal and intellectual influences, she frequently seems to lack a sense of proportion or to know when to stop. Do we, for example, really need to be told the complete story of Sacvan Bercovitch’s parents and of Jewish life in Ukraine to fathom his work?

On the other hand, when it comes to some crucial matters Klingenstein is mysteriously reticent. Politics is one of them. The (non-Jewish) F.O. Matthiesssen, for example, is presented here as a Christian idealist rather than as the apologist for Stalinist brutality that he was. More egregiously, although Klingenstein’s typical pattern is to move deliberately through her subjects’ books, Ruth Wisse’s If I Am Not for Myself . . . The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews (1992), one of the most significant Jewish works of the past 50 years, goes unmentioned in text, bibliography, or index. Nor do we hear of the long, hostile review of the book that was written by Alter, here depicted by Klingenstein as an “unpolemical” person who would never use literary criticism “to advise a people on what it should or should not do.”1

By ignoring the dispute between Wisse and Alter—a dispute over whether, for Jews, the safety of the Jewish people or the imperatives of liberalism should assume priority—Klingenstein misses a fine opportunity to bring her overall argument into focus and reach a balanced assessment of the benefits the enlargement of America has brought to academic Jews as Jews. Is there any connection at all between the success story of Jewish integration into the academy and the fact that, at a guess, 90 percent of Jewish professors of English cannot read their way around a dreydl, or that virtually every professor in this book, except for Wisse, espouses the de-rigueur liberalism that dominates today’s campuses, not least on the issue of the security of Israel?

Klingenstein’s Panglossian manner tends to override all qualms. True, she ends her book by remarking that the Jews’ “integration into literary academe, unlike that of any other group, was accompanied by the almost complete loss of their cultural heritage and concomitant communal self-esteem.” But in view of the sanguine tone of the previous 400 pages, this recognition seems too little, too late.

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Footnotes

1 For my own discussion of this episode, see “The Nerve of Ruth Wisse” in the May 1993 COMMENTARY.

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