Article — From the September 2008 issue

Radiant Poison

Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and the end of the Jew as metaphor

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At the turn of the twentieth century, if you were a Jewish immigrant, it was unlikely that you thought of the English language as anything other than a tool of survival. Yet a mass of writing in English—mainly melodrama and didacticism—poured out of a vibrant subculture. Mixed in amid the dross were a small number of novels and stories written with a kind of desperate inventiveness by women and men of sensibility. One of the strongest of these is Anzia Yezierska’s 1920 story collection, Hungry Hearts. Set on New York’s Lower East Side, immersed in the life of the streets, the work is yet precocious, concerned as it is not with documenting social misery but with the idea of an inner life thwarted by self as well as world. Today, these stories can be read as artifacts.

In Yezierska’s work, whether the narrator speaks in the first person or in the third, the story is inevitably divided between the moment when she announces her “wild, blind hunger” for her own life and the moment when she realizes that she is trapped by a repression from which any hope of release is dim. The bakery window against which Yezierska presses her nose is not America; it is self-possession. At the end of her autobiography she writes, “I realized that the battle I thought I was waging against the world had been against myself, against the Jew in me”—that is, the self she has experienced as shamed and fearful.

There is no subject, really, in Yezierska’s writing. The work is all language, language by the rushing mile, language that the writer stops up, cuts off at one length or another, calls a story or a novel but which, in fact, is only the ongoing sound of that unleashed voice announcing its overwhelming necessity. Occasionally, there comes a page radiant with clarity and detachment, and the reader takes hope—now the story will go forward!—but turn that page and we are heading once more into the hurricane. The performance is astonishing. And all the more so when one realizes that forty years on it will be repeated with infinitely greater sophistication and impact, but not much more detachment or control.

College-educated Jews born of immigrant parents in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century wanted badly to leave that testifying voice behind. Coming of age in the 1930s, many of this generation felt liberated enough in imagination to think of themselves as Jewish- American rather than simply as Jewish. The tricky thing for the Jews of that generation was how to talk and write American without sounding like one newly arrived to the culture.

In this context, Delmore Schwartz is the Richard Wright of Jewish-American writing. He is the writer without whom—the one whose work formed the bridge between immigrant writing and the writing that was to become more authentically Jewish- American than his own. Born in Brooklyn in 1913 into a household where more Yiddish than English was spoken, he was a paragon of the arriviste generation of Jewish-American intelligentsia. His personality was marked by a tidal wave of brilliant speech that blended his immigrant experience with the sound of the street, and came out of the mouth of a man who read Eliot and Pound each morning before breakfast. He saw himself as an alienated Jew who was yet convinced that to serve a literary culture imprinted by European modernism was a holy mission. In his writing, Schwartz would always be both precocious and reverential, at one and the same time an original and a keeper of the culture.

All his life he would remember how much he had suffered being a Jew at Harvard when he went to teach there at the end of the Depression. Cambridge in the Forties was death for Delmore. Even as he despised the patricians in the English Department, he found himself yearning for their recognition and acceptance, and for this he hated himself. Feeling compromised, he was driven to put on a frantic display of urban Jewish smarts, an outrageous behavior that, of course, alienated the Harvard grandees all the more. It was only standing at a bar in Greenwich Village, surrounded by friends and intellectual well-wishers, that he found the responsive presence he required to feed the writing self he now identified with saving literature from the philistines. This was a crusade of immense chutzpah, one that reflected the speed and urgency with which the Jews of his generation responded to the invitation, however grudging or partial, to imagine themselves not only partaking of American culture but influencing it as well.

It was one of those incendiary periods in social history—the late Thirties and early Forties—when, out of the break-up of class stability, there arises a complicated promise of change that is experienced by some as salutary, by others as threatening. The Great Depression had brought about an extraordinary leveling of social hierarchies—suddenly, all kinds of people did not know who they were or where they stood—and this circumstance had released emotional extremity of every kind. Thousands of people remembered the Depression as a time of indiscriminate kindness, and thousands remembered it as a time of shocking murderousness. Out of this agitation came an energetic pathology.

Thus, in the Thirties and Forties, there were more Jews breaking into white-collar jobs, the arts, and the professions—right alongside a virulent Jew-hatred that made itself felt at every level of society, from the most sophisticated to the most primitive, and nowhere more than in New York City. Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel, Focus, was a frightening but plausible fable of the polite anti-Semitism of corporate Manhattan meeting the Christian Front variant in lower-middle-class Brooklyn. The novel tells the story of an amiably conservative WASP working in a big Midtown firm who, in his adult life, suddenly finds it necessary to wear spectacles. As soon as he puts the glasses on, a startling change occurs in his appearance: he looks Jewish. From there the novel takes off. The protagonist loses his job, is ostracized in his neighborhood, and at last is not only threatened but attacked. The book is one long, anxiety-provoking read.

Yet agitation was better than stasis. For intellectually ambitious Jews, this period was the equivalent of the Sixties and Seventies for African- American intellectuals: the door of assimilation had been opened wide enough that some of them (if turned sideways) could walk through, even while just across the threshold stood the gatekeepers gazing quizzically, with either thinly disguised distaste or open hostility.

There was only one way for intellectual Jews of these decades to be taken seriously, and that was through the replication in their work of high culture. No intellectual Jew walking through the door of American literary life in the Forties would have dreamed of drawing attention to himself by writing otherwise. From Laura Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement (the protest novel of popular fiction) to Miller’s Focus (the paranoid realism of the incensed middlebrow) to Saul Bellow’s The Victim (the brooding modernism of the future major novelist), we have, in whatever class of literature these books occupy, work that could have been written by any one of a significant number of imaginatively sympathetic gentile writers. The boldness of these books lay in writing about Jews; it did not lie in sounding like Jews. That, in itself, would prove the most vital, if not telling, complication of all.

is the author of The Men in My Life (Boston Review Books), a collection of criticism, due out this month, from which this essay is adapted.

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