Jewish Dreams and Nightmares
There is something presumptuously proprietary about the whole idea of sorting out writers according to national, ethnic, or religious origins, like so many potatoes whose essential characteristics can be determined by whether they come from Idaho or Maine. Obviously enough, the primary focus for useful criticism of any original writer must be on the stubbornly individual imagination that has sought to articulate a personal sense of self and world through the literary medium, and this attention to individual peculiarities rather than shared characteristics is especially necessary in understanding serious writers since the middle of the last century, so many of whom have been alienated in one way or another from their native social groups. Indeed, as Kafka’s chilling confession of self-estrangement reminds us, some of the most troubled, and therefore representative, modern writers have been alienated from themselves as well, haunted by the fear that every affirmation or act of communication was a falsification, a betrayal.
Nevertheless, the onerous question of the writer’s background persists. One justifiably speaks of Melville, Hawthorne, even Poe, as essentially American writers, for their achievement cannot be intelligently grasped without an awareness of its intimate relationship with the common social and cultural experience of 19th-century America. Even more strikingly, the Jewishness of writers like Mendele, Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem obviously has the greatest relevance to any serious assessment of their literary enterprise because their fictional worlds are shaped out of the stuff of East-European Jewish life, its language, its folklore, its religious traditions, its social realia. With Jewish writers, however, the attempt to attribute literary qualities to ethnic origins is in many instances acutely problematic. The Jews, in any case a perplexing group to define, become almost perversely elusive as the process of modernization spreads after the French Revolution. It is by no means clear what sense is to be made of the Jewishness of a writer who neither uses a uniquely Jewish language, nor describes a distinctively Jewish milieu, nor draws upon literary traditions that are recognizably Jewish. If one were to compile an anthology of all the unabashed nonsense written by literary critics over the past fifty years, a good many pages would have to be devoted to what has been advanced about the Jewish values, vision, and world-view of a wide variety of apostates, supposed descendants of Jews, offspring of mixed marriages, or merely assimilated Jews, from St. Theresa and Heine down to Proust and even J. D. Salinger.
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