Imaginary & Other Jews
To the Editor:
Although I have not read the story by Paul Goodman described in Herb Greer’s fine and thoughtful article, “An Amateur Jew” [March], its theme is strikingly similar to that of John Berryman’s “The Imaginary Jew,” a story based on an unpleasant experience Berryman once had in Union Square, in which he was mistaken for and persecuted as a Jew by a right-wing lout.
One difference between the story Mr. Greer describes and Berryman’s is that Berryman (or his protagonist-narrator, who is largely a stand-in for himself) is trying not to defend a particular Jew but to defend his own political principles and to establish a measure of historical truth. Another difference is that Berryman does not give ground to his persecutor, an Irishman, but only accepts his Jewishness, metaphorically speaking, a few days after the incident. . . .
There must be a whole genre of literature devoted to this theme of mistaken identity as well as a complementary genre which would include, for example, Daniel Deronda, in which the mistake turns out to be true. Herb Greer’s piece, though nonfiction, manages to straddle both genres and would be an admirable addition to either.
Herb Greer Writes:
I do not remember reading the Berryman story, but I have looked at it now, and again read the Goodman piece, “The Facts of Life.” Neither quite fits my description, but both deal in different ways with the experience I tried to explore. My memory had to reach back a few decades, to when I more or less lived in the British Museum reading room for two years and plowed through enormous amounts of material, including issues of the Kenyon Review, where Berryman’s story first appeared. I might have conflated the two, favoring Goodman in my memory because his story was in the same anthology (New Directions 13) as some rather bad adolescent poetry of mine.
In any event, I was dead chuffed, as they say in Britain, by Mr. Kornfeld’s very kind and graceful compliment on my piece, and I hope this explanation won’t spoil it for him.