To the Editor:
Robert Alters “Updike, Malamud & the Fire This Time” [October 1972] says of The Tenants that “the supposed vying for the role of chief victim is nowhere present in the novel. Black victim-hood cries out from every page of Willie’s writing, but Lesser un-hesitantly grants his prerogative to the black writer while his own work is in no way concerned with the Jewish role as victim, and he makes very little of that role outside his work.” I must take issue with this position, for I think Malamud’s Harry Lesser is a Jew who is caught in a web of self-victimization and the main character in the book he is writing is no less than a reflection of himself. In fact, Harry Lesser’s “claustrophilia, his fixation on the allures of withdrawal and sordid self-interment” not only points to self-victimization but also has intrinsic connection with the racial situation.
Harry Lesser is a man who is out of touch with his feelings, a man who fears human involvement, love, and death. Harry can’t finish his book because he uses art as a way to control life, “to keep death in place” as he thinks. His obsession with remaining in the tenement, his affair with Willie’s mistress, and his treatment of Willie himself all show him to be a man who has deluded himself into thinking he is fair-minded and compassionate. Harry is a Jewish intellectual who, by his own admission, can’t love, condescends when he criticizes another’s work, and secretly takes delight when his criticism strikes home: “The black, eyes tumid, beats his head against Lesser’s wall, as the writer, not without pleasure, looks on.”
Actually, Willie Spearmint may be seen as a double for Harry Lesser and Willie’s stories, filled with violence and hatred, are reflections of Harry’s hatred of himself as a human being. Lesser virtually isolates himself from his deepest feelings as well as from commitment to another; he fears and negates his mortality and thus violates his own humanity. Thus Harry may be seen as a victim of his own worst fears and Willie Spearmint is the man he can treat no better than he does himself.
Seen in this light, Malamud’s story of a Jew and a black man has intrinsic meaning for the racial situation. The Jew, “everyman,” must affirm life for himself if he is to affirm it for the stranger. The ending of The Tenants is tragic; at the moment that the death blows are struck, Harry perceives that he and the black man can feel each other’s pain. Mercy is needed, as well as daring, to accept the pain that comes from immersion in life.
Division of Comparative Literature
The Ohio State University
To the Editor:
If it were not so indicative of the permissiveness of contemporary literary criticism, I might find it amusing that a scholarly analysis of novelistic motivations such as “Updike, Malamud & the Fire This Time,” by Robert Alter could completely ignore a prime mover—perhaps the prime mover—money.
I find it hard to believe that there could be a more redeeming objective stimulating some of the utterly foul fare available over the counter these days.
Miscegenation and even integration are too remote from the experiences of the average buyer of $7 or $8 books to warrant their introduction into the story line for the enhancement of “sociological perspectives.” Their main value is shock, and the attainment of bestseller listing.
H. T. Rowe
Ridgewood, New Jersey
Robert Alter writes:
Marcia Gealy’s letter combines an insight with a confusion. The idea that Willie can be seen as Lesser’s double, the externalization of his own self-hatred, is a suggestive one. I am unpersuaded, though, that Malamud consciously controls this doubling with the moral-didactic sureness that Miss Gealy suggests, or that Lesser’s particular neurotic pattern, which she sees so well, makes him at all acceptable as an “everyman” of the racial situation. We may all have our neuroses, but Lesser’s are so pronounced, so peculiar, so self-destructive, so much the reflection of Malamud’s obsessive concerns, that I find it difficult to imagine such a character as our surrogate in the confrontation between white and black.
Finally, I must stand by my assertion that a vying for victim-hood between Jew and black is quite absent from the novel because, as I made clear in context, I was talking about historical victim-hood, not self-victimization. It’s one thing to victimize oneself out of some deep-seated masochistic urge, quite another to be the object of a lynching or a pogrom; and in the novel the Jew yields the crown of historical suffering uncontested to the black man.