Commentary Magazine


Zangwill in Retrospect

Israel Zangwill was born a hundred years ago this year, but in England his centenary has slipped by with barely a murmur. There have been a few rather lukewarm official tributes, but only one real surprise: an unsolicited testimonial to Zangwill's gifts as a popular historian from the ever-amazing D. W. Brogan. Otherwise, a deafening silence; and it has been left to an American publisher to mark the occasion by bringing out the first (and quite possibly, I suppose, the last) full-length critical study of Zangwill's work.1 But perhaps this is as it should be, since throughout his career Zangwill tended to have better luck in America than he did at home. The novel which made his name, Children of the Ghetto, was originally commissioned by the Jewish Publication Society of America at the instigation of Judge Mayer Sulzberger, who was looking for “a Jewish Robert Elsmere”—a counterpart to the most widely discussed English novel of the day, Mrs. Humphry Ward's story about the spiritual crisis of a young Anglican clergyman. In the event, Children of the Ghetto turned out somewhat differently, as far more of a social panorama, a portrait of a community. But the outlook for that community, as presented by Zangwill, isn't particularly bright; there is even a suggestion that it may eventually prove to be no more than a halfway house. For the Elsmere theme wasn't altogether abandoned. At the heart of the novel stands an oddly assorted group: an Oxford dilettante, a Russian rabbi, and an intelligent girl from the Whitechapel slums. All three are groping for a faith, trying to make sense of being Jewish in the world of late-Victorian London. The results are disheartening, but there is always one obvious way out; and in the last chapter, two of the trio set sail for America.

Zangwill himself knew America well, particularly in connection with his work for ITO, the Territorialist organization. It was at Carnegie Hall that he delivered the notorious speech, “Watchman, What of the Night?,” which led to his final break with Weizmann and political Zionism. But America meant much more to Zangwill than a personal platform, or a guaranteed readership. In its unique blend of races and cultures he saw it as humanity's best hope—a faith which received its most rhapsodic expression in his play The Melting Pot, originally produced in Washington in 1908. On the first night Theodore Roosevelt shouted across the theater: “That's a great play, Mr. Zangwill!”—a judgment endorsed by few critics at the time, and none since. But if not a great play, it was at any rate a great title; and Zangwill may well be remembered longest for coining an invaluable catchphrase.

Zangwill's admiration for America was passionate and sincere, however starry-eyed. Still, like the Gilbert and Sullivan character, he remained very much an Englishman, and his reputation is irrevocably bound up with the East End of London where he spent his childhood and about which he wrote his best-known book. For over thirty years he was unquestionably the literary spokesman for English Jews, the immigrant masses as well as the Anglicized middle-class. His own family were the poorest of the poor (his father was a peddler from a village near Dvinsk, in Latvia), and in Children of the Ghetto he set out deliberately to put flesh and blood on that mere statistic of the period, the “pauper alien.” As an eighteen-year-old student-teacher at a school in Whitechapel he refused to climb down when the chairman of the governors, Lord Rothschild, openly rebuked him for the “low” realism and the scraps of jargon (i.e., Yiddish) in his first published work, a pamphlet describing the Petticoat Lane market; and for the rest of his career he retained an obstinate loyalty to his origins. As a result, he became a kind of minor folk-hero; and I can testify from personal experience that a full generation after his death, when his books had long been out of print, he was still remembered in the East End as a wit, a controversialist, a tireless spokesman for Jewish causes. I must admit to feeling a certain affection for him which has nothing to do with literature: that intelligent monkey-face with the thick hair and the pince-nez almost seems to belong with the family portraits.

_____________

Yet, a sad and awkward fact has to be faced. Zangwill was a brave, shrewd, and intensely serious man, but judged by respectable standards he was not a very good writer, and though his personal qualities are apparent from his work he can hardly be said to survive on his literary merits alone. The style—at once florid, wordy, and slightly facetious—is an insurmountable barrier. There is a chapter in Children of the Ghetto, for instance, describing a wealthy Jewish family in Kensington giving a Christmas dinner. The social detail sounds convincing, and is often quite amusing, but first of all one has to fight one's way through stuff like this:

Daintily-embroidered napery, beautiful porcelain, Queen Anne silver, exotic flowers, glittering glass, soft rosy light, creamy expanses of shirt front, elegant low-necked dresses—all the conventional accompaniments of Occidental gastronomy.

Zangwill might have done better if there had been a more distinguished literary tradition directly at hand, but as it was he began his writing career in the world of the sentimental cockney journalism of the 1880's: the best-known of his early literary friends was Jerome K. Jerome of Three Men in a Boat. In such an atmosphere there was very little inducement to think hard about the art of the novel, and the style of Children of the Ghetto is matched by the plot, a loose melodramatic affair full of “strong” situations and wild coincidences.

It says much for Zangwill's seriousness of purpose that the book is nevertheless still worth reading as a slice of social history, and that for all the staginess it has an underlying authenticity. Zangwill knew his raw material through and through, and if his characters are generally overdrawn or over-simplified they are almost never travestied out of existence. The range is much wider, too, than anyone knowing of the book only through hearsay would be led to suppose: it encompasses West End as well as East End, early Zionism as well as the Shulchan Aruch, stockbrokers as well as sweatshop laborers. Some of the characters are taken straight from life, others are representative types; and there is a fair stab at explaining customs and attitudes which even well-educated English novel-readers of the day must have found almost totally unintelligible. The general tone is, of course, sympathetic, but certainly not sugary: there is far more satire and far less idealization than in, say, the Jewish parts of Daniel Deronda. As a picture of Jewish life in London during the period of the mass-immigrations from Eastern Europe it is unrivaled, and, indeed, unique, for only fleeting and often unfriendly glimpses are to be found in the work of other English writers of the period. Those who doubt that Zangwill was performing an important service in trying to dispel mysteries should remind themselves of the prejudice against which he had to contend by looking up a novel like Hilaire Belloc's A Change in the Cabinet, where the hero inadvertently strays into the East End, and the same area as the one described in the first half of Children of the Ghetto is presented as a kind of sinister bedlam.

At this hour of the day the only satisfactory study of Zangwill which it is possible to imagine is one which begins by frankly acknowledging his literary deficiencies, and concentrates on his personality and historical significance. Unfortunately Rabbi Wohlgelernter, though he doesn't make any spectacular claims for Zangwill's novels and plays, never really grapples with the problem. His book proceeds at a dutiful Ph.D. plod—“What precisely is the comic spirit? In his highly revealing Essay on Comedy Meredith tells us . . .”—and he spends more time placing Zangwill in the context of minor turn-of-the-century naturalistic novelists such as Richard Whiteing and Arthur Morrison than in following up topics which one would otherwise have supposed were of more immediate interest to a teacher at Yeshiva University. There is only the barest reference to Zangwill's translations of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, for instance, and nothing about his other translations from the prayer-book (no great shakes as poetry, needless to say, but worth a glance as curiosities: I remember how impressed I was as a child by the skill with which Zangwill managed to preserve both the complicated rhyme-scheme and the acrostic pattern in his version of Omnam Ken) .

The only previous book on Zangwill, Joseph Leftwich's biography, is badly organized and too close to its subject, but I prefer it to Rabbi Wohlgelernter's: it is more informative, and written with much greater warmth. What Rabbi Wohlgelernter does provide is a clear and methodical summary of all Zangwill's major works. It is useful to have such a record available, but on the basis of these descriptions (which I have no doubt are competent) nothing will induce me to look at the bulk of Zangwill's output. His plays and novels sound like classic instances of good sentiments making bad literature. For the most part they appear to be heavy-handed and lifeless allegories advocating humanism, idealism, pacifism, and love, with a dash of 19th-century-style nationalism. The prevailing atmosphere can be gauged from one play, The Next Religion, where the last act takes place in a temple with stained-glass windows showing three saints of the “next religion”: Emerson, Mazzini, and Swinburne.

_____________

All this is as dead as mutton today, but no one could doubt that Zangwill was in earnest when he wrote; in fact his final efforts to get his plays produced ruined his health and finances, and hastened his death. In a recent article in COMMENTARY2 Dan Jacobson characterized Zangwill the novelist as “a purveyor of exotica.” In reality he was more ambitious than that would suggest, but it might have been better for him if he had stuck to his exotica: at least he would have been cultivating the territory which he knew best. As it is, to look at a list of his works is to be struck by how few of them are on Jewish themes. He began with comic novels like The Celibates' Club, and ended with his plays: the four or five “ghetto” books (with one minor exception) were written in his late twenties and early thirties, but though they alone keep his reputation alive, in a sense they represent a detour. For whatever his other loyalties, from first to last the main drive behind his career was to turn himself into a successful English man of letters, and by and large he managed to conform to the pattern of his period, right down to the olde-worlde Sussex village where he spent the last twenty years of his life.

Zangwill was in fact far less caught up in Jewish culture, and far more ambivalent about being a Jew, than the popular legend suggests. He was a man of cosmopolitan breadth (among his own books his particular favorite was a set of travel sketches, Italian Fantasies), but there is nothing in his work to indicate that he was a contemporary of either Bialik or Sholem Aleichem. Nor was he religious, except in the cloudy terms of “the next religion.” His wife was non-Jewish (it was an exceptionally happy marriage, incidentally), and his children were not given a Jewish upbringing. Yet he tended to think that religion was the only possible justification for Jewish separatism—and he made it clear that by religion he meant “not a seat in a synagogue and a grave in a Jewish cemetery, but a faith like that which made our fathers sit Shivah for faithless children.” In one of his last speeches he quoted Charles Lamb: “Why keep up a form of separation when the life of it is dead?”

This was a question to which Zangwill, like countless other newly emancipated Jews, was unable to find a satisfactory answer. Liberated once and for all from traditional Orthodoxy, he was nevertheless anxious to maintain some kind of cultural continuity (of a positive kind, as opposed to a mere defensive reaction to anti-Semitism). As a result, his attitude was a mass of inconsistencies. Nothing could altogether uproot the tenderness and respect which he felt for the religion of his childhood, yet there were times when the whole subject clearly gave him claustrophobia, and he wished he could escape from it for good. He was less explicit about this than he was when the opposite mood was on him, and he spoke about preserving Jewish values, but the urge to escape underlies much of his work. As a political philosophy, the internationalism of his plays is hopelessly vague; in practice it means assimilation. (The hero of The Melting Pot, who foreshadows the ideal world-citizen of the future, is described as “a handsome youth of the finest Russo-Jewish type,” and as a further guarantee that he is basically a sound chap he is given the Sephardic-sounding name of David Quixano.) At one moment Judaism is seen as a priceless heritage, at the next as a millstone round the modern Jew's neck.

_____________

A common enough conflict over the past hundred and fifty years; in Zangwill's case it was doubtless intensified by the example of his parents. His father, whom he deeply admired, was a model of traditional piety; his mother, whom he is supposed to have taken after in character, was a hard-headed “pagan” who had no patience with her husband's ineffectualness in worldly matters, and eventually refused to accompany him when he set out to end his days in Jerusalem. To a considerable extent the son can be seen as living out the parents' conflict; and if he often found this oppressive, it also gave him his true subject as a writer. But unfortunately it was a subject which generally proved too much for him. Only once did he really come to grips with it—in Dreamers of the Ghetto, which is his most rewarding book (of those I have read, at least), and still deserves to be kept in circulation.

Dreamers of the Ghetto consists of a series of vivid biographical sketches of notable figures from the middle ages to Zangwill's own day. It is an excellent introduction to Jewish history for an imaginative child, doing the same kind of job Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill books do for English history. But it also has a unity and depth which only the adult reader is likely to grasp. All the “dreamers”—and they range from Uriel Acosta and Solomon Maimon to Heine and Lassalle—are rebels who are unable to find peace either inside or outside the ghetto. The dream is of “the first emancipation”; and as the subtitle of the book makes clear, in Zangwill's eyes it is “a dream which has not come true.” There is a vein of pessimism, indeed anguish, running through these stories which redeems the usual flowery style; one sees how it was possible for the French poet André Spire to feel that the course of his entire life had been changed by reading them, and that they had been enough in themselves to set him on the path from assimilation to Zionism.

Near the end of Dreamers of the Ghetto there is an account of the First Zionist Congress at Basel, which had been held only some two years previously. By including the Zionist idea in the book there is an implication that it, too, is yet another dream destined not to come true. But Zangwill had actually been won over by Herzl at their first meeting, one foggy evening in 1895 at his house in the North London suburb of Kilburn, and he was the most influential of Herzl's early English supporters. He was as inconsistent in his attitude to Zionism, however, as he was to everything else Jewish. As long as Herzl was alive he remained loyal to the official movement; but immediately after Herzl's death came the final split over the Uganda scheme and the formation of ITO. Zangwill's wisdom in breaking away from the main body of Zionism is open to question, but the whole debate now looks very remote, since in the end, after twenty years of fruitless investigations in Cyrenaica, Angola, and elsewhere, Territorialism came to nothing. This does not necessarily prove that Zangwill was wrong, of course. He foresaw trouble with the Arabs long before most of his colleagues; and who knows how many lives might have been saved if he had succeeded in establishing the Nachtasyl, the temporary refuge which he regarded as a more urgent necessity than the resettlement of Palestine? For he was severely practical in his approach to Zionism, and convinced that any port would serve in the gathering storm. He had a strong premonition of calamities to come, even if he saw the chief source of danger—not unreasonably—as Czarist Russia rather than Germany. Rabbi Wohlgelernter quotes a striking passage (from Ghetto Comedies !) about a town where attempts to organize Jewish self-defense against a pogrom have failed:

When the bombardment was over the peace of the devil lay over the ghetto of Milovka. Silent were all the fiery orators of all the letters of the alphabet; silent the Polish patriots and the lovers of Zion and the lovers of mankind; silent the bourgeois and the philosophers, the timber-merchants and the horse-dealers, the bankers and the Bundists, silent the Socialists and the Democrats; silent even the burly censor, and the careless Karaite, and the cheerful Chassid; silent the landlord and his revolutionary infant in their fortified cellar; silent the Rabbi in his study, and the crowds in the market-place.

This was the vision which lay behind Zangwill's political work; and if Territorialism eventually proved a lost cause, it was not an unworthy one. Zangwill can also take most of the credit for the one successful offshoot of Territorialism, the Galveston Project, which brought several thousand European refugees across the Atlantic.

In the end, Zangwill's importance lies outside literature: one honors the writer, and puts aside his books. Yet if his example continues to haunt one, it is as something more than a public worthy or a valuable source for the social historian. He was ultimately a tragic figure: a wanderer between two worlds, unable to give lasting expression to his dilemma. Ironically, the only work of art which does justice to him is by another man: the wonderful portrait by Walter Sickert, which shows a Zangwill somber, thoughtful, and calm. Here alone, I think, we can see into the depths at which we can do no more than guess in Zangwill's own work.


Footnotes

1 Israel Zangwill: A Study, by Maurice Wohlgelernter, Columbia University Press, 344 pp., $7.50.

2 “Jewish Writing in England,” May 1964.

About the Author

John Gross is the editor most recently of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. His “Mr. Virginia Woolf” appeared in the December 2006 COMMENTARY.




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.