Article — From the September 2008 issue

Radiant Poison

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

For some twenty-five or thirty years—between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s—a single explosive development in our literature made the experience of being Jewish-in-America a metaphor that attracted major talents, changed the language, and galvanized imaginative writing throughout a Western world badly in need of a charge. Its two pathbreaking stars—one at the start, the other at the end—were Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, a pair of writers who strong-armed the culture into accommodating the experience. Not another writer after Roth could lay claim to the metaphor with the demanding savvy that he and Bellow had brought to the enterprise.

In its glory days, Jewish-American writing was an indicator of a cultural shift that a couple of million Americans had thought they’d never live to see: a shift that ushered in a final phase of assimilation for Jews at levels of American life previously unavailable to them (very much like the shift that has occurred over the past few decades for blacks, women, and gays). This shift was welcomed half a century ago with a violent rush of words that announced the arrival of a narrating voice whose signature traits were a compulsive brilliance, an exuberant nastiness, and a take-no-prisoners humor edged in self-laceration. These traits never deserted the work of those years; rather, they were integral to the entire undertaking.

An angry fever inhabited these writers of the Fifties and Sixties, one that burned with a strength that routinely threatened either to purge or to consume the body upon which it fed. Conventional English could not address the condition. It required a syntax and a sentence structure that could fan the fever, spread the infection, stimulate a nervous system clearly in distress. The American language was ready to accommodate. Virginia Woolf had once complained that she couldn’t find the words to make an English sentence that would describe what illness felt like to her, because as an Englishwoman she was constrained from taking liberties with the language. This is exactly what outsider literature does in this country: fashions the language anew, precisely so that it can express what it feels like to be ill. That, essentially, is what Jewish-American writing at its best has done. In my view, it would never be about anything else. In the hands of a Saul Bellow or a Philip Roth, such expressiveness could—did—set off a literary charge of epic power.

They were thoroughly at one with their “illness”—that is, their newfound brashness over having been marginalized—these Jewish-American writers of the Fifties and Sixties, closing the gap between author and narrator to a degree not before seen in American literature. At the heart of the enterprise lay a self-regard that made the writing rise to unmatched levels of verbal glitter and daring, even as its dangerously narrowed scope ruled out sympathy, much less compassion, for any character on the page other than the narrator himself. Most especially was sympathy denied those closest to the narrator, the people he purportedly knew best: friends, family, lovers; particularly lovers—these, counterintuitively, acted only as a foil for the narrator’s biting sense of insult and injury. Saul Bellow once said to his biographer, “I had no idea that our moment would be so short.” The wonder is not that the moment was short but that it lasted as long as it did, and that it created so much influential prose out of so limited a sense of empathy.

Theirs was a magnificent instance of writers and a time well met. Postwar American literature—from the Beats to Norman Mailer to the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit—was ripe for declarations of outrage. What, after all, had it meant to have won the war only to be living inside the straitjacket of Cold War anxiety? Jewish-American writing, with its own scores to settle, was happy to join in the indictment—but what an irony its huge success was. Behind that singular forward thrust—beginning with the publication of The Adventures of Augie March in 1953—lay a history of social integration that took so long to complete itself that by the time it did, the bad taste in the mouths of these writers had become toxic. It was this very toxicity that earned them emblematic status in a culture characterized by moral exhaustion and liberationist breakout.

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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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April 2019

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