To the Editor:
I do not care so much that Jacob Glatstein in his review of Nothing is a Wonderful Thing in the April Commentary not merely failed to understand but completely misrepresented the entire meaning of the book. After all, there are nudnicks even among Jews and some of them are capable of describing a portrait of heart-breakingly heroic struggle as being lacking in manners.
However, the point raised by Mr. Glatstein is one I think should be answered, preferably by a writer who also feels, as Mr. Glatstein evidently does, the need in this world of advocates for the Jewish cause.
I am not on several counts an impartial witness. The author of the book your reviewer read with closed eyes is my wife, and I myself have been accused in the past, as she is accused now, of doing a disservice to the Jewish people of this country by describing the facts of their life.
But let me have my say.
What is an advocate for the Jewish cause in the present world? Is he one who lies, or tells the truth? Is he one who distorts the facts to write a travel-folder about a human voyage through life, or is he one who presents the facts truly and in whole, so that the reader may live that life for himself and understand with his heart the beauty of its spirit and the majesty of its tragedy?
I understand the longing with which Jews look to writers today to advocate their cause by painting a picture postcard of it. But I do not sympathize with it. Do they think a picture postcard will disarm anti-Semitism? Mr. Glatstein wants my wife to write of Jews as “educators . . . legislators, judges.” That is exactly how Hitler wrote of them, all legislators, all judges, all international bankers—with results that are known to us all. No, there is no easy way to disarm anti-Semitism and I think those who urge on writers the easy way and thereby soothe themselves into imagining they are performing a service are the traitors and are the ones doing the disservice to the Jewish people and in fact to all people in general.
My wife did not write a book about legislators and judges and, if she had, I perhaps would have divorced her unless she had presented a true portrait of them—a portrait which would not have met the approval of Mr. Glatstein. She wrote instead a book about the greatest of all modern tragedies—the tragedy, not merely of poverty, but of people’s reaction to poverty. She sang, in words that even Mr. Glatstein found “teeming and gleaming” and that I and other readers and other reviewers found ardent with pity, of souls that refused indomitably to be crushed as long as they realized that Nothing was Not (Not, my dear Mr. Glatstein) a Wonderful Thing, but was in fact an instrument for perpetuating their poverty.
This, I submit, is a service to the Jewish people. To attack poverty is to attack anti-Semitism at its roots. To present Jewish life in the slums truthfully is not to lack manners but to say to the world that made those slums, “See what you’re doing, and see what great people you are doing it to.”
Emily Post may blanch, but the struggle, Mr. Glatstein, is rude and there is blood in it.
New York City
To the Editor:
This is a dangerous situation. What if I should fail in my rejoinder, and my wife rush to my rescue? The Wolferts and Glatsteins might be involved in a family feud for generations to come. I shall, however, brave the consequences, and attempt to clear up a misunderstanding that arose out of my review.
My criticism of Helen Wolfert’s Nothing is a Wonderful Thing concerned itself primarily with the book as a narrative poem, and with the “limited understanding” allotted to me, I attempted to prove that the book is a loose assortment of very bad poetry, by any accepted standards, “Jewish” or “non-Jewish.” My accuser tries desperately to separate the inseparable, the “sermon” and the criticism. Only a portion of my review was devoted to a “sermon” on the Jewish angle of the book, and it is this lesser part of my review which so angered Mr. Wolfert.
I am not an apologist for Jewish life, for the simple reason that I do not believe that we have anything to conceal from the searching eye of the honest artist. But may I remind Mr. Wolfert that experience is not necessarily synonymous with art? Assuming that it was Mrs. Wolfert’s experience, as a child of ten, to see the kind of East Side which she portrays in synthetic verse, her tale of woe does not, by its mere telling, become a good book. It should therefore be clear to Mr. Wolfert (and I shall not descend to his level of silly abuse) that “true” life may be very unreal and a wild exaggeration.
I did try to bring out in my brief “sermon” that in this case a double offense had been committed, for Mrs. Wolfert’s picture of the East Side is sheer phantasmagoria, even, as I said before, had it really been Jennie’s hard luck to live in a particularly melodramatic neighborhood. The touching appeal of “man’s inhumanity to man” is singularly inapplicable in this case. The Jewish East Side as we knew it is a thing of the past. To borrow two lines from Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Stafford’s Cabin”: “Time has made the two of them the fuel of one flame, And all we have of them is now a legend and a name.”
Yes, the Jewish East Side is now no more than a legend. To cry out for justice now about the poverty and squalor of years ago strikes me not only as Jewish apologetics but, what is worse, belated apologetics. The truth of the matter is, that even in retrospect, the clamor for justice is a misrepresentation. Tens of thousands of Jews loved the East Side. To them it was a chance for a new beginning. To all those who fled from the religious persecution and unbearable poverty of Europe, the squalor of the East Side, by comparison, appeared like comfort. The gas-meter and the kitchen sink signified deliverance from bondage. The sweat shop, and the long and dreary working hours, were rather the “blessings” of capitalism than the special curses of the East Side, and to thrust the entire problem upon this haven of refuge is not even good Marxism. The poverty of the East Side was certainly not racial, and in no way essentially different from the poverty of Red Hook or that of Little Italy.
The pathetic outcry: “See what you are doing and what great people you are doing it to,” is an outcry against imaginary Pharaohs and chauvinism of the worst sort. For who were the “persecutors” of these “downtrodden” people? Quite the contrary, the East Side represented rescue to many thousands of Jews, and if anything was remarkable about this section of our metropolis, it was the spirit with which this rescue was carried out. The quick reunion of families gave the East Side congestion a spirituality which was certainly more characteristic than all its illegitimate offspring.
Come now, Mr. Wolfert, whom are you trying to kid? You’re not really serious when you assert that I call for books about legislators and judges? And your calling upon Hitler to help you win an argument does you very little honor, indeed. I merely hinted that there should be some sort of a logical ratio, say, one Jewish judge to six whoring children and countless prostitutes.
The Jews of the East Side saw the realization of a dream in the public schools and unmolested synagogues. It is blasphemous to speak of ghettos or slums in connection with this heroic transplantation of a people. I did not object to Helen Wolfert’s Grapes of Wrath. I tried merely to show that her picture of the East Side is a distortion, at best a caricature.
I thought also that my review brought out very clearly that the English-writing Jew in this country has so far contented himself with the role of an epigone. I pleaded for something more vital, for first-rate books, for a real Jewish contribution to American letters in the manner of Dreiser, Robert Frost, James, and Melville. I tried, a bit timidly perhaps, to indicate that it is this non-awareness of our spirituality which is largely responsible for the affliction of third-rateness in either direction: when we deal with Jewish themes or when we put on the mask of anonymous worldliness. How naked and devoid of the spirit of our Jewish heritage is this book Nothing is a Wonderful Thing! Believe me, I don’t like to rub it in. I never intended to come back to this book, but Mr. Wolfert’s letter invited a restatement of my opinion. I hope that I shall not be labeled a professional Jew when I say that a book by a Jewish writer, about the Jewish people, should contain a modicum of Jewish ethics.
So much for my “sermon.” But sermon or no sermon, my review is clear as to the artistic merit of the book. I hold to my view that Nothing is a Wonderful Thing is bad poetry. On this point, I stake my poet’s license against Mr. Wolfert’s marriage license.
New York City