Literature and Anti-Semitism
To the Editor:
The review of my book, The Image of the Jew in American Literature [Books in Review, March], by Elinor Grumet is a caricature. It exhibits careless reading, downright misreading, and assertions contrary to fact.
The reviewer is exercised because I had the temerity to approach the problem of anti-Semitism in literature in the broadest sense and as a whole, in “folklore, in mass culture, and serious literary works alike.” Of course there are differences, but material is anti-Semitic, intended or unintended, whether it occurs in low or high literature. In my preface I made my purpose clear: “The present study is by no means strictly literary in intent, since we are mainly interested in discovering the image of the Jew in the United States throughout its history. If some authors seem to receive far more attention than their literary quality merits, it is not because literary quality or lack of it is misapprehended, but rather because their work is valuable in revealing attitudes toward the Jew.” Since the status of each type is clear from the context, and since I make frequent judgments as to literary quality, I am at a loss to understand what basis Miss Grumet has for asserting that I assign “equal weight to expressions of wildly unequal import.” I was interested in exploring attitudes in writings intended for all publics, and not only for readers of high literature.
Is this an invalid objective for investigation? The reviewer asserts that the “Jewish use of literary surveys . . . to ‘set the record straight’ is an exhausted . . . tradition.” Isn’t it a little early to declare the subject exhausted? My study is the first and only comprehensive survey of the phenomenon in the several literary genres in the United States from the end of the 18th century to Abraham Cahan. . . .
I suspect that the reviewer is bothered by the casting of a candid eye upon great figures like Hawthorne and Henry James. Great writers are ill-served by abject worship. For instance, the reviewer complains that I “imply”—not that I wrote—that “The Golden Bowl is no different from a dime novel.” This is false. The only inference that can legitimately be drawn from what I wrote is that there are unpleasant Jewish stereotypes in the James novel and, in another chapter, that there are unpleasant Jewish stereotypes in the dime novel. Does she wish us to believe that the Jewish stereotype is less a stereotype if done by a James than by a dime novelist?
I was entirely sensible of the hazards of parochialism in a study such as mine, and I explicitly warned the reader against them. In my introduction I wrote: “When one confronts a documented history of ill-will toward the Jews manifested in most literature through nearly the entire gamut of writers, from the great to the untalented, there is danger that one’s perspective may be skewed. . . . Perhaps one is tempted to depreciate hitherto venerated literary figures, but such a response to the treatment of the Jews in literature would be itself ill-considered and lacking in perspective.”
The reviewer gives ample evidence of careless reading.
Item. The reviewer charges that I “confound malicious intent with mere habit or the desire to pander to mass taste.” No examples are offered. In fact I was scrupulous throughout to make such distinctions. Of many examples, I cite one: “Many writers did not know Jews”; they “uncritically accepted the current lore about Jews, . . . resorted to the familiar stereotype, and often fell into anti-Jewish locutions as if they were figures of speech . . . idioms.” Furthermore, I was very careful to point out the ambivalence in the attitudes of many writers.
Item. The reviewer tries to minimize the anti-Semitism in Hawthorne which I documented with over a page of quotations. She comments on “a single remark in Hawthorne’s English notebooks on the ‘repugnance’ he felt toward Jews.” The whole section is too long to quote, but here are only a few sentences from this “single remark.” Hawthorne sat opposite a bearded Jew at a London dinner and he describes this Jew, with whom he doesn’t say he exchanged a word: he was “the Jew of Jews; the distilled essence of all the Jews that have been born since Jacob’s time; he was Judas Iscariot; he was the Wandering Jew; he was the worst, and at the same time the truest type of the race. . . . I never beheld anything so ugly and disagreeable, and preposterous, and laughable, as the outline of his profile; it was so hideously Jewish, and so cruel. . . . I rejoiced exceedingly in this Shylock, this Iscariot; for the sight of him justified me in the repugnance I have always felt toward his race.” An antipathy so intense may well have influenced his rendering of the Jew in his fiction. In a whole chapter, summarily dismissed by the reviewer, I suggest a possible connection between this feeling and his conception of the Wandering Jew in about a half-dozen of his works. . . .
Item. The reviewer writes that I was “loyal to the myth that all major writers at the turn of the century were virulently anti-Semitic.” False. On the contrary, I was scrupulous in each case to draw conclusions based on a presentation of documented evidence in that case, and the results varied. Some writers were ambivalent; others, like Mark Twain and Howells, while at times ambivalent, were nevertheless on the whole sensitive to the Jewish predicament; a few, like Henry Adams in his letters and Frank Norris in his characterization of Zerkow in McTeague, were “virulently anti-Semitic.” . . .
Item. The reviewer charges that “nowhere” did I “draw on . . . the information” in the valuable primary material discovered by Rudolf Glanz. If she will consult my Index under “Glanz, Rudolf,” she will find on pages 531, 537, 546, and 564 references to Glanz material that I used. In fact, throughout my book I used primary material, in each case drawn from the complete works of the author treated.
Item. Nowhere did I “dismiss” Edgar Rosenberg’s From Shylock to Svengali. On the contrary, I call it a “brilliantly written and highly selective study.” In my introduction I discuss the contrasting methodological approaches of Montagu Modder and Rosenberg. . . .
Miss Grumet concludes her review with a quotation from a book I wrote about thirty years ago—nor does she inform the reader of this time lapse—as if in all respects that book represents my thinking of today, as if I had learned nothing in the interim. In view of this dubious procedure, as well as her misreadings and misrepresentations of my present book, is it any wonder that I deeply suspect that she was predisposed to condemn my book?
Elinor Grumet writes:
Contrary to Louis Harap’s suspicion, when I undertook to review his book I was excited by its extensive compilation of new material in a field sorely in need of such groundwork. It was only on carefully reading it that I took strong exception to its critical assumptions about that fascinating material.
Mr. Harap rejects my review in part because he conceives that I venerate “literature” and am disturbed by his bold coupling of popular and “high” materials, as well as by his frank discussion of the anti-Semitic feelings of the great. Actually, my disappointment with his book stems from the fact that I esteem literature as a craft like any other, and would approach both his work and that of “great writers” accordingly. Mr. Harap’s disavowal of a “strictly literary” intent does not exempt him from being judged by accepted critical standards.
I took exception to Mr. Harap’s method of deducing authorial “attitude”—ascribing, for example, the sentiments of Henry James’s characters to the novelist; attempting to demonstrate the “essential identicalness of [David] Levinsky with Cahan himself”; introducing as evidence of a writer’s prejudice the work of his close friends. Thus, I do not dispute the indisputable evidence of Hawthorne’s prejudice, but I question whether it may be read into The Marble Faun, and whether the distinction between Hawthorne’s feelings of social disgust for Jews and his use of the pliant metaphor of the Wandering Jew can be so summarily collapsed.
In pursuing a writer’s attitudes—as he does in his discussion of James, Hawthorne, and Cahan, for example—Mr. Harap is not merely recording “unpleasant Jewish stereotypes” in fiction, but is opening up serious questions of intent and of the relationship between personal feeling and creative work, which he meets only with an oversimplified psychology. In certain sections, like the one on Ambrose Bierce, the material presented is almost entirely biographical; Emma Lazarus’s commitments to commendable social causes are carefully enumerated in praise of her attitude. With such a basic confusion about the object of study, the point Mr. Harap wishes to make in each of these particular cases, beyound the “exposure” of feelings—the exposure of each person’s apparent nature—is unclear. This is the point with which my review began.
As for turn-of-the-century writers, Mr. Harap’s conclusions are not at all as clearly conceived in his book as they are in his letter. He writes of the realists: “All of them were, to a lesser or greater extent, swept along by the prejudiced or racist attitudes toward the immigrants prevalent in the later years of the century. At best, one can say of the realists’ attitude toward the Jews on the whole that it was ambivalent; at worst, in Norris’s case, it was plainly anti-Semitic.” In the text, such distinctions disappear in an argument that proceeds by innuendo. Mr. Harap adduces the “ambivalence” of Howells from the author’s simple categorical rejection of anti-Semitism in a symposium in the American Hebrew: “Why,” writes Mr. Harap, “did he not, as did friends like Edward Everett Hale and Oliver Wendell Holmes, make some attempts at analysis [of the problem]?” Clearly, for Mr. Harap, “ambivalence” is an infinitely elastic term, and “anti-Semitism” comes only in degrees, not in kinds.
Finally, despite his few words of praise for Edgar Rosenberg’s book, Mr. Harap does in fact dismiss Rosenberg’s methodology. Had he not, he might have saved himself from confusing the truths of literature with the truths of social reality, or the feelings of an author with the possible feelings of his audience.