Three Years in America, 1859-1862, by I. J. Benjamin
Early Jewish Traveler
by John Higham
Three Years in America, 1859-1862. By I. J. Benjamin. Translated from the German by Charles Reznikoff. The Jewish Publication Society of America. Vol. I, 335 pp. Vol. II, 290 pp. Set, $7.50.
A century ago, when the foreign correspondent was almost unheard of and the social scientist was an armchair philosopher, America swarmed with scribbling travelers. Above all, they were curious about the kind of society that was developing in the New World. Their observations formed part of that second discovery of America which was one of the important concerns of 19th-century Europe; for the American social order seemed as portentous to 18th- and 19tlh-century Europeans as the untapped resources of the continent had been to the first age of discovery. The best of these amateur sociologists appraised American life with a verve and penetration that their professional successors often lacked; and their books retain an informal freshness that earnest scholarship may well envy.
Democracy in America, de Tocqueville’s great classic, has, of course, always been popular, and some of the early European commentaries on America have received a deservedly wide audience in recent years through anthologies and new editions. Many more, however, have never reached an American public and have rarely been consulted even by scholars. The present book, published originally in Germany in 1862, was very little known until Oscar Handlin seven years ago included a selection from it in an excellent anthology, This Was America. Now the whole work appears in English for the first time. Although much inferior to the more celebrated travel narratives of the period, it has a certain interest as the earliest such book by a Jew.
The author was a solemn, self-important man from Moldavia engaged in a grandiose venture of a specifically Jewish character. He called himself Benjamin II, for he had undertaken to duplicate the feats of the great medieval traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, in scouring the earth to locate and describe the scattered tribes of Israel. He had already gone far into Asia and had published a book on that stage of his journeys a few years before. His arrival in New York in 1859 marked a new phase of this worldwide quest. Wherever he went in America, Benjamin first sought out the local Jewish leaders, took note of their congregations and organized activities, and applied for the means of continuing his tour. Although his rather casually collected data are not always reliable, scholars will be glad to have easy access to the miscellaneous information Benjamin provides on Jewish communities scattered throughout the land.
Benjamin rejoiced to see the abounding prosperity of American Jewry and its freedom from oppression, and what especially struck him was the vigorous upbuilding of communal institutions. But all was not well. Congregations were riven by national divisions and by a general conflict between Orthodoxy and Reform. Many rabbis and teachers, to say nothing of the laity, knew shockingly little of either the Talmud or Jewish literature. (“It happens, not infrequently, that he, who at home enjoyed not even the benefits of a superficial education, in this country holds his head high and proud and makes a lot of noise, like an empty ear of grain.”) And, in general, a spirit of materialism had a stifling effect on spiritual values. There was a measure of truth in these strictures. They remind us that the main achievements of American Jewry a century ago were largely material and not at all intellectual or artistic.
The same charges of materialism and cultural immaturity could be made, with qualifications, against the rest of America, and Benjamin emphatically made them. Here he echoed, in fact, the main complaints that European travelers have directed at America from the beginning of the 19th century to the present. Yet apart from telling us that American women spend their time eating candy and repairing its ravages at their dentists’ offices, Benjamin hardly bothered to draw up a bill of particulars. The truth was that, disapprove though he might of the tenor of American life, its sheer vitality fascinated him. The deeper he got into America, the less attention he paid to the Jews, the less he tried to generalize his experience, and the more he yielded to a simple description of the scene before him. By far the largest part of the book deals with California, Oregon, and Utah. In spite of Benjamin’s pretentious belief that he was serving the science of geography by touring the Far West, one suspects that the earnest world missionary ended simply by having a good American time.
For the reader, however, the trip becomes more and more of a bore. If Benjamin had stuck to his original purpose, he might have done greater justice to a formative period in American Jewish life. But the wider he ranged from the things he knew something about, the more glaringly his defects as a writer and social critic stand out. Insensitive to individual character or personality, uninterested in politics, and uncurious about most social relationships, he compiled a flavorless hotchpotch. Uncritically, he set down his own random impressions, stories that others told him, and such facts as he found in local histories, almanacs, and newspapers. Since much of the book, including a long chronicle of San Francisco, is copied from the latter sources, it smells of the lamp and the library. Side by side, one finds the measurements of a giant mushroom on display in a Montgomery Street restaurant, figures on the export of wheat, the names of all the members of the Eureka Benevolent Society, and the complete proceedings of a Fourth of July celebration in Sacramento. That so prosy and shapeless a book should have been published in the first place demonstrates how avidly 19th-century Europe consumed first-hand reports about America.
There are, of course, vivid details along with the pedantic ones. Benjamin’s contempt for the Chinese on the West Coast gives a pungency to his account of their pageants and customs. His sketch of the sober respectability that had already tamed San Francisco’s night life indicates how fleeting the frontier era was. And his efforts to steal a skull from an Indian burial ground where the worms had not completed their work enlivens the return trip across the Plains. But to quarry what is usable and interesting for Western social history from these garrulous pages is a research task, and researchers will curse the editor for not helping them with an index.
An introduction by Oscar Handlin contains a brief revealing glimpse of the background from which Benjamin derived and a long, somewhat tendentious review of the forces that led to the American Civil War. But to Benjamin, the Civil War was a largely incomprehensible matter which he mentions very little.