Article — From the September 2008 issue

Radiant Poison

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

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Let’s stop to appreciate the moment. It is the late Forties. The Second World War has ended, the reality of the Holocaust has not yet been absorbed, the United States is at the height of its glamour and power, and the future seems to belong to any who might claim it. Devotion to the claustrophobic atmosphere of one’s own hyphenated experience is at an all-time low. The enthusiasts outnumber the skeptics. They have decided to love America: surely America will love them back.

But it was not—and now they began to see that it never had been—a simple matter of American culture extending a warmhearted welcome. Such long adversarial relationships as that of the Jews and WASP America have a startling yet predictable consequence: by the time the door opens, those knocking at it are infected with the poison of self-doubt, a substance more toxic than all the historical humiliations combined. As W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin knew, for blacks the danger began with whites hating them, and ended with them hating themselves.

In the late 1950s, Leslie Fiedler wrote two essays on Jewish-American writers. One of his most penetrating points was his observation that the Jewish- American novelist had internalized the stereotype of the Jew in American literature. When he sat down to write, he had trouble shaking off the hostile or sentimental images that appeared regularly in the work of gentile writers. It’s impossible to overestimate the value of such an insight. In our own time, we see—through the efforts of would-be artists among women, gays, and blacks—how long and hard is the road that must be walked in order to leave behind both testament and stereotype, and arrive at the place where one is able to render the full, free taste of one’s actual experience. The Jews, said Fiedler with some bitterness, would become jurists, professors, theater greats, and corporate heads long before they would occupy the world of serious literature and produce a Dos Passos, a Hemingway, a Faulkner, or even a Steinbeck, a Farrell, a Penn Warren.

Interestingly enough, there were works of gut-level imagination being written by American Jews in the Thirties and Forties that were neither generic social realism nor highbrow modernism; but, aimed at the mass-market reader, they failed to gain serious consideration. It is astonishing today to read some of them and find embedded in their pages the origins of the antisocial wildness that only twenty years later would deliver Jewish-American writing as we know it into Fiedler’s Promised Land.

In 1937 a novel by Jerome Weidman called I Can Get It for You Wholesale became a runaway bestseller. Wholesale traces the period during which a big-city garment-district hustler named Harry Bogen completes his swindler’s apprenticeship and turns pro—cheating, framing, embezzling—all the while gloating about how smart he is, and how deeply stupid everyone else is.

Harry Bogen was a kind of guttersnipe not seen before in Jewish- American writing. There is not a page in the book on which Harry is not scheming. Scheming is his life’s blood. When he gets what he wants he no longer wants it—it’s the next thing on his ever growing list that he must have, and that next thing inevitably involves gobbling someone up. A psychic tapeworm is at work in Harry. He must eat others because he himself is being eaten from the inside out. But as few can sustain thinking of themselves as cannibals, it becomes necessary to dehumanize those whom one is about to consume. Thus, Harry speaks of everyone—and I mean everyone—he encounters in vivid, degrading epithets: Jews are “kikes” and “mockies”; blacks are “niggers”; women, “pots,” “pussies,” and “bitches”; and gentiles get the simple, perpetual sneer “goyim.” In 1941, four years after the publication of Wholesale, Budd Schulberg published What Makes Sammy Run? and it was “Sammy Glick” rather than “Harry Bogen” that entered the American language as a euphemism for ruthless self-advancement, New York Jewish style. But for my money, it was the wrong choice; as raw as Sammy Glick is, Harry has him beat by a mile.

Wholesale isn’t about a primitive on the make; it is the primitivism itself flung down on the page, talking fast and hard in your ear and in your face. It’s an extraordinary act of mimicry, prefiguring the work of Bellow and Roth in that not only is it voice, all voice, nothing but voice; it’s a voice working its way into the reader’s ear like a plumber’s snake, moving directly and relentlessly, carefully avoiding vital organs like the heart, straight down to the gut.

Harry Bogen is the deracinated Depression itself: survival in a world where all bets are off. For readers of the psychologically (as well as physically) starved Thirties, Harry was an anodyne. No matter that he was a predator: readers loved that he was eating so well. Wholesale is a literary equivalent of the blaxploitation movies that forty years later had African-Americans cheering on the bloodthirsty protagonist: it, too, wanted blood—someone’s, anyone’s.

Wholesale is at once of its moment and a harbinger of the writing that, less than a generation later, would mine similar material with a skill and a worldliness Weidman could not possibly have had at his disposal. Rightly perceived as a piece of popular fiction powered by vicious daring, Wholesale nonetheless revealed a level of Jewish-American angst more murderously unforgiving than had previously been imagined. Ultimately, that angst would define the work of writers who learned to hammer their molten fury into the tempered steel of a weapon. The question, then as now: To be used against whom?

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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