Being an American, we have been told repeatedly, is a complex fate, and being an American writer still more so: traditions ruptured, loyalties disheveled. Yet consider how much more complex, indeed, how utterly aggravating, it could have been to grow up in an American subculture, one of those immigrant enclaves driving itself wild with the clashing hopes that it would receive the New World’s blessing and yet maintain a moment of identity neither quite European nor quite American. The rise and fall of such subcultures is said to be intrinsic to the American experience, and no doubt it is. But when one looks into conventional accounts of our literature, it is hard to ﬁnd much evidence that our writers ever felt themselves to be strangers in the land—though about their estrangement from the cosmos everyone speaks. It is hard to ﬁnd evidence of that deep, rending struggle which marked those writers who had to make, rather than merely assume, America as their native ground.
The whole of our literary history for the past century might be reworked so as to encourage a richer sense of what cultural inﬂuence really signiﬁes—a sense, for example, that it is not enough simply to trace lines of continuity, since these lines are blocked, distorted, and even obliterated by recurrent outcroppings of transported Europe. Toward such a history I would here offer a few words, based not on hard evidence, of which we have little, but on recollections of the experiences shared by a generation of American Jewish writers. I will use the ﬁrst person plural, though with much uneasiness, since I am aware that those for whom I claim to speak are likely to repudiate that claim and wish to provide their own fables of factuality. Here, in any case, is mine.
Lines of connection from writer to writer are never as neat or as “literary” as historians like to make out. Between master and disciple there intervene history, popular culture, vulgarization, organized forgetting, decades of muck and complication. Still, if only to ease my argument, we may agree that for writers like Robinson and Frost, Ralph Waldo Emerson towered as an ancestor imposing and authoritative, sometimes crippling, and that he ﬁgured for them not merely through the books they picked up at home or had to read in school, but through the very air, the encompassing atmosphere, of their culture. How much of “transcendentalism” remains in their writing everyone can estimate on his own, since no one has yet found a scale for weighing weightlessness; but that the pressures of this weightlessness are at work upon their writing seems beyond dispute. Despite inner clashes and discontinuities, American culture moves from the generation of Emerson to that of Robinson and Frost, as a bit later, that of Crane and Stevens, with a more or less “natural” or spontaneous rhythm. There is a passing on of the word.
But for young would-be writers growing up in a Jewish slum in New York or Chicago during the twenties and thirties, the main ﬁgures of American literature, as well as the main legends and myths carried through their ﬁctions and stories, were not immediately available. What could Emerson mean to a boy or girl on Rivington Street in 1929, hungry for books, reading voraciously, hearing Yiddish at home, yet learning to read, write, and think in English? What could the tradition of American romanticism, surely our main tradition, mean to them?
Together with the poems of Browning and Tennyson, such young people took in the quasior pseudo-Emersonian homilies their Irish teachers fed them at school. They took in the American legends of an unspoiled land, heroic beginnings, pioneer aloneness, and individualist success. All of these had a strong, if sometimes delayed, impact. In the course of this migration of myth from lady teachers to immigrant children there had, however, to occur twistings, misapprehensions. Besides, we immigrant children did not come as empty vessels. We had other stories. We had stories about legendary endurance in the Old World; stories about the outwitting of cruel priests; stories about biblical ﬁgures still felt to be contemporaries though by now largely ripped out of their religious setting; stories about endless martyrs through the ages (while America seemed to have only one martyr and he, in beard and shawl, had a decidedly Jewish look).
These stories of ours were the very material out of which cultures are made, and even as we learned to abandon them with hurried shame and to feign respect for some frigid general who foolishly had never told a lie, or to some philosopher of freedom who kept slaves, we felt a strong residue of attachment to our own stories. We might be preparing to abandon them, but they would not abandon us. And what, after all, could rival in beauty and cleverness the stories of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and the angel, Joseph and his brothers?
Raised to a high inclusiveness, a story becomes a myth. It charts the possibilities and limits for the experience of a people, dramatizing its relations with the universe. We are speaking here of possession: that which we know, or remember, or remember that we have been forgetting. We are speaking about those tacit gestures, unseen shrugs, ﬁlaments of persuasion which form part of subverbal knowledge.
For a time, then, we tried to reconcile our stories with the American stories. The two of them would coexist in our minds, awkwardly but fruitfully, and we would give to the one our deep if fading credence and to the other our willed if unsure allegiance.
With American literature itself, we were uneasy. It spoke in tones that seemed strange and discordant. Its romanticism was of a kind we could not really ﬁnd the key to, for while there were ﬁgures of the Jewish past who had striking points of kinship with the voices of Concord, we had partly been deprived of the Jewish past. (When the comparison was ﬁrst made between Whitman’s poetry and the teachings of Hasidism, it came from a Danish critic, Frederick Schyberg; but most of us, who ought to have noticed this immediately, knew little or nothing about Hasidism, except perhaps that it was a remnant of “superstition” from which our fathers had struggled to free themselves.)
Romanticism came to us not so much through the “American Renaissance” as through the eager appropriations that East European Jewish culture had made in the late nineteenth century from Turgenev and Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov. The dominant outlook of the immigrant Jewish culture was probably a shy, idealistic, ethicized, “Russian” romanticism, a romanticism directed more toward social justice than personal fulﬁllment. The sons and daughters of this immigrant milieu were insulated from American romanticism by their own inherited romanticism, with the differences magniﬁed and the similarities, for a time, all but suppressed.
American romanticism was more likely to reach us through the streets than the schools, through the enticements of popular songs than the austere demands of sacred texts. We absorbed, to be sure, fragments of Emerson, but an Emerson denatured and turned into a spiritual godfather of Herbert Hoover. This American sage seemed frigid and bland, distant in his New England village—and how could we, of all generations, give our hearts to a writer who had lived all his life “in the country”? Getting in touch with the real Emerson, whoever that might be—say, with the Emerson radiant with a sense of universal human possibility yet aware enough, in his notebooks, of everything that might thwart and deny—this was not for us a natural process of discovering an ancestor or even removing the crusts of misconstruction which had been piled up by the generations. It was a task of rediscovering what we had never really discovered and then of getting past the barriers of sensibility that separated Concord, Massachusetts, from the immigrant streets of New York.
These were real barriers. What could we make of all the talk, both from and about Emerson, which elevated individualism to a credo of life? Nothing in our tradition, little in our experience, prepared us for this, and if we were growing up in the thirties, when it seemed appropriate to feel estranged from whatever was “ofﬁcially” American, we could hardly take that credo with much seriousness. The whole complex of Emersonian individualism seemed either a device of the Christians to lure us into a gentility that could only leave us helpless in the worldly struggles ahead, or a bit later, when we entered the phase of Marxism, it seemed a mere reﬂex of bourgeois ideology, especially that distinctive American form which posited an “exceptionalist” destiny for the New World.
Perhaps a more fundamental way of getting at these matters is to say that we found it hard to decipher American culture because the East European Jews had almost never encountered the kind of Christianity that ﬂourished in America. The Christianity our fathers had known was Catholic, in Poland, or Orthodox, in Russia, and there was no reason to expect that they would grasp the ways or the extent to which Protestantism differed. We knew little, for instance, about the strand of Hebraism running through Puritan culture—I recall as a college student feeling distinct skepticism upon hearing that the Puritan divines had Hebrew. (If they had Hebrew, how could they be Gentiles?) It was only after reading Perry Miller in later years that this aspect of American Protestant culture came alive for me. All that was distinctive in Protestant culture, making it, for better or worse, a radically different force in confrontation from Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, we really could not grasp for a long time. We read the words but were largely deaf to the melody.
For most of us, individualism seemed a luxury or deception of the Gentile world. Immigrant Jewish culture had been rich in eccentrics, cranks, and individualist display; even the synagogue accepted prayer at personal tempos. But the idea of an individual covenant with God, each man responsible for his own salvation; the claim that each man is captain of his soul (picture those immigrant kids, in white middy blouses, bawling out, “O Captain, My Captain”); the notion that you not only have one but more than one chance in life, which constitutes the American version of grace; and the belief that you rise or fall in accord with your own merits rather than the will of alien despots—these residues of Emersonianism seemed not only strange but sometimes even a version of that brutality which our parents had warned was intrinsic to Gentile life. Perhaps our exposure to this warmed-over Emersonianism prompted us to become socialists, as if thereby to make clear our distaste for these American delusions and to afﬁrm, instead, a heritage of communal affections and responsibilities.
Then, too, Jewish would-be writers found the classical Americans, especially Emerson and Thoreau, a little wan and frail, deﬁcient in those historical entanglements we felt to be essential to literature because inescapable in life. If we did not yet know we surely would have agreed with Henry James’s judgment that Emerson leaves “a singular impression of paleness” and lacks “personal avidity.” Born, as we liked to ﬂatter ourselves, with the bruises of history livid on our souls, and soon to be in the clutch of New World “avidities” that would make us seem distasteful or at least comic to other, more secure, Americans, we wanted a literature in which experience overﬂowed. So we abandoned Emerson even before encountering him, and in later years some of us would never draw closer than to establish amiable diplomatic relations.
Hardest of all to take at face value was the Emersonian celebration of nature. Nature was something about which poets wrote and therefore it merited esteem, but we could not really suppose it was as estimable as reality—the reality we knew to be social. Americans were said to love Nature, though there wasn’t much evidence of this that our eyes could take in. Our own tradition, long rutted in shtetl mud and urban smoke, made little allowance for nature as presence or refreshment. Yiddish literature has a few pieces, such as Mendele’s “The Calf,” that wistfully suggest it might be good for Jewish children to get out of the heder (school) and into the sun; but this seems more a hygienic recommendation than a metaphysical commitment. If the talk about nature seemed a little unreal, it became still more so when capitalized as Nature; and once we reached college age and heard that Nature was an opening to God, perhaps even his phenomenal mask, it seemed quite as farfetched as the Christian mystiﬁcation about three gods collapsed into one. Nothing in our upbringing could prepare us to take seriously the view that God made his home in the woods. By now we rather doubted that He was to be found anywhere, but we felt pretty certain that wherever He might keep himself, it was not in a tree, or even leaves of grass.
What linked man and God in our tradition was not nature but the commandment. Once some of us no longer cared to make such a linkage, because we doubted either the presence of God or the capacity of man, we still clung to the commandment, or at least to the shadow of its severities, for even in our deﬁlements it lay heavily upon us.
I think it ought to be said that most of us were decidedly this-worldly, in that sardonic Yiddish style which, through the genius of a Sholom Aleichem or occasionally a Peretz, can create its own darkly soothing glow. Our appetites for transcendence had been secularized, and our messianic hungers brought into the noisy streets, so that often we found it hard to respond to, even to hear, the vocabulary of philosophical idealism which dominates American literature. Sometimes this earth-boundedness of ours was a source of strength, the strength of a Delmore Schwartz or a Daniel Fuchs handling the grit of their experience. Sometimes it could sour into mere candy-store realism or sadden into park-bench resignation. If the imagination soared in the immigrant slums, it was rarely to a Protestant heaven.
I am, of course, making all this seem too explicit, a matter of words. It went deeper than words. We had grown up, for instance, with the sovereign persuasion, which soon came to seem our most stringent imprisonment, that the family was an institution unbreakable and inviolable. Here, though we might not yet have known it, we were closer to the Southern than to the New England writers. For where, if you come to think of it, is the family in Emerson, or Thoreau, or Whitman? Even in Melville the family is a shadowy presence from which his heroes have ﬂed before their stories begin. And where is the family in Hemingway or Fitzgerald? With Faulkner, despite all his rhetoric about honor, we might feel at home because the clamp of family which chafed his characters was like the clamp that chafed us. When we read Tolstoy we were witness to the supremacy of family life; when we read Turgenev we saw in Bazarov’s parents a not-too-distant version of our own. But in American literature there were all these strange and homeless solitaries, motherless and fatherless creatures like Natty and Huck and Ishmael. Didn’t they know where life came from and returned to?
Glance at any signiﬁcant piece of ﬁction by an American Jewish writer—Schwartz’s “America, America,” Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel,” Bellow’s “The Old System”—and you will see that the family serves as its organizing principle, just as in Jewish life it had become the last bulwark of defenselessness. Even in the stories of Philip Roth, which herald and perhaps celebrate the breakup of immigrant culture, there is ﬁnally a crabbed sort of admiration for the family. The Jewish imagination could not so much as conceive a ﬁction without paying tribute, in both senses of the word, to the family.
We had, to be sure, other and more positive reasons for keeping an uneasy distance from American literature. We felt that together with the old bedclothes, pots, and pans that our folks had brought across the ocean, they had also kept a special claim on Russian culture. Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov—though not the sensationalist and anti-Semite Dostoevsky—were very close to us. They had been liberally translated into Yiddish and read by the more advanced Jewish youth of Eastern Europe. Breathing moral idealism, they spoke for humanity at large; they told us to make life better and, as it seemed to us then, what better word could literature tell? The works of these masters revealed a generosity of spirit at the very moment that the spirit of the East European Jews was straining for secular generosity. In the devotion of the Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia to Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov it almost came to seem as if these were Jewish writers! Tolstoy presented some problems—perhaps we regarded him as a Jew for Jesus. But the other two, they were ours! I remember Isaac Rosenfeld, the most winning of all American Jewish writers, once explaining to me with comic solemnity that Chekhov had really written in Yiddish but Constance Garnett, trying to render him respectable, had falsiﬁed the record. Anyone with half an ear, said Rosenfeld, could catch the tunes of Yiddish sadness, absurdity, and humanism in Chekhov’s prose—and for a happy moment it almost seemed true.
Coming as strangers who possessed, so to say, the Russian masters, we could afford to be a little cool toward the American ones. What was Dreiser to Tolstoy, Anderson to Turgenev, and the sum of all American short stories to one by Chekhov? These Russians formed a moral dike guarding the immigrant Jewish intelligentsia and then their children from the waves of American sensibility and myth. Like the Yiddish culture from which we had emerged, we were internationalist in our sentiment before we were part of any nation, living in the exalted atmospheres of European letters even as we might be afraid, at home, to wander a few streets away.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that the young would-be Jewish writers were themselves only tenuously connected with the Jewish culture from which they had emerged. They were stamped and pounded by the immigrant experience, but that was something rather different from the Jewish tradition. Brilliant and vital as the immigrant experience may seem to us now, it was nevertheless a thinned-out residue of the complex religious culture that had been built up over the centuries by the East European Jews. A process of loss was being enacted here—ﬁrst, the immigrant culture was estranged from its Old World sources, and second, we were estranged from the immigrant culture. Especially were we estranged from—in fact, often ignorant of—those elements of religious mysticism and enthusiasm, ranging from the Cabalists to Hasidism, which had wound their way, as a prickly dissidence, through East European Jewish life. It was, for many of us, not until our late teens that we so much as heard of Sabbatai Zevi or Jacob Frank, the false messiahs who had torn apart the life of the East European Jews in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even as the ﬁerce self-will of the immigrant culture kept us at a certain distance from American literature, so did it also screen out “reactionary” elements of the Jewish past.
I sometimes think that respectful Gentile readers have been badly gulled by the American Jewish writers into believing that they, the writers, possess a richer Jewish culture than in fact they do. The truth is that most of the American Jewish writers are painfully ignorant of the Jewish tradition. When they venture to use a Yiddish phrase they are liable to absurd mistakes. There is a delicious bit revealing this condition in a story by Irvin Faust about a Brooklyn boy who has gone for a season to Vermont and is asked by the farmer’s daughter, “Myron, talk Jew to me.” He has to scramble in his memories to ﬁnd a phrase: “Ish leeba Dick.”
“Oh,” Rita Ann moaned softly, “say that again.” “Ish . . . leeba . . . Dick.”
“Oooh. What’s it mean?”
This I remembered, at least to a point. “I love you . . . Dick.”
The work of the American Jewish writers represented an end, not a beginning—or perhaps more accurately, its end was in its beginning. It was a sign of the breakup of Jewish community and the crumbling of Jewish identity; it spoke with the voice of return, nostalgia, retrospection, loss. And even if we chose to conﬁne our sense of Jewish experience to the immigrant milieu, something that would already constitute a major contraction, many of these writers didn’t even command that milieu in a deep, authentic way. Abraham Cahan, Henry Roth, and Daniel Fuchs did command it, with their very bones; Delmore Schwartz and Michael Seide made wry poetry out of their boyhood recollections; Saul Bellow recreated the immigrant world through ironic scaffoldings and improvisations; Bernard Malamud, by some miracle of transmutation, summoned in English an occasional true replica of the Yiddish story. But the work of many American Jewish writers is ﬁlled not only with cultural and linguistic errors; more important, it also suffers from a gross sentimentalism, a self-comforting softness, with regard to the world they suppose themselves to be representing or reconstructing. Especially is this true of those younger writers who are, so to say, exhausting the credit of their grandfathers’ imaginations, making of the East Side a sort of black-humored cartoon, half-Chagall, half-Disney. By now it is clear that the world of our fathers, in its brief ﬂare of secular passion, gave the American Jewish writers just enough material to see them through a handful of novels and stories. The advantages of remembered place soon gave way to the trouble of having lost their place. Which is why so many of the American Jewish writers seem to enter the second half of their careers as displaced persons: the old streets, the old songs, have slipped away, but the mainstream of American life, whatever that may be, continues to elude their reach. America, it turns out, is very large, very slippery, very recalcitrant.
For the American Jewish poets, whom I have largely ignored here, things may yet turn out more favorably. Once milieu and memory are exhausted, Jewishness can take on the strangeness of a fresh myth, or at least myth rediscovered; that myth need have no precise location, no street name or number; and the Bible may lose its tyranny of closeness and become a site to be ransacked. Something of the sort has happened in the last few decades among Yiddish writers, the novelists and storytellers among them ﬁnding it more and more difﬁcult to locate their ﬁctions in a recognizable place, while precisely an awareness of this dilemma has yielded the poets a rich subject.
But now I must retrace my steps and make things a little more complicated. For if I’ve been talking about the pressures that kept us at a certain distance from American literature, it must surely be remembered that there were other pressures driving us, sometimes feverishly, toward it.
With time we discovered something strange about the writing of Americans: that even as we came to it feeling ourselves to be strangers, a number of the most notable writers, especially Whitman and Melville, had also regarded themselves as strangers, though not quite in the blunt and deprived way that we did. Whitman saw himself as a poet-prophet who necessarily had to keep a certain distance from his culture—a stranger in the sense proposed by Georg Simmel, that is, a potential wanderer who “has not quite lost the freedom of coming and going,” so that even when “ﬁxed within a particular spatial group . . . his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it. . . .” The Whitman who has often been seen as “furtive,” the wanderer of the streets who comes into touch with everyone but remains close to no one, is a stranger, making of that condition the metaphysical coloring of his persona.
In the early years of the immigrant culture, Whitman was the most popular American writer (except perhaps Poe) among Yiddish readers and writers; there are odes addressed to him in Yiddish and some rough translations of his shorter poems. One reason for this affection was that to the Yiddish-speaking immigrant intelligentsia Whitman seemed really to mean it when he invited everyone to make himself at home in the New World. They detected in Whitman an innocence of soul which touched their own innocence; they heard in his voice strains of loneliness which linked with their own loneliness; they saw him as the American who was what Americans ought to be, rather than what they usually turned out to be. They may have been misreading him, but, for their purposes, very usefully.
By the time our turn came—I mean, those of us who would be writing in English—Whitman had lost some of his charm and come to seem portentous, airy, without roots in the griefs of the city, not really a “modern” sensibility. In 1936 “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” might not speak very strongly to a boy in the slums, even one who had often crossed on the Staten Island ferry on Saturday nights; it would take several decades before the poem could reveal itself in its grandeur, this time to the aging man that boy had become. But probably not until the late thirties or early forties did there come into our awareness another American writer who seemed to speak to us as comrade to comrade, stranger to stranger. Herman Melville was a “thicker” writer than Whitman, “thicker” with the pain of existence and the outrage of society, a cousin across the boundaries of nationality and religion who seemed the archetypal young man confronting a world entirely prepared to do him in. Had we known Redburn in time, we might have seen Melville as the tenderfoot only a step or two away from the greenhorn, and we would have been enchanted by the great rhetorical outpouring in that book where Melville welcomes immigrants, all peoples, to the American fraternity. We would have seen the young Melville as a fellow who had to work in a ship—I was about to say, in a shop—where he was hooted at because he wanted to keep some of the signs of his delicate youth. And we would have seen him as a writer who bore the hopes, or illusions, that we were bearing about the redemptive possibilities of “the people.”
But the Melville book that we knew was, of course, Moby Dick, quite enough to convince us of a true kinship. Melville was a man who had worked—perhaps the only authentic proletarian writer this country has ever known—and who had identiﬁed himself consciously with the downtrodden plebs. Melville was a writer who took Whitman’s democratic afﬁrmations and made them into a wonderfully concrete and fraternal poetry. If he had been willing to welcome Indians, South Sea cannibals, Africans, and Parsees (we were not quite sure who Parsees were!), he might have been prepared to admit a Jew or two onto the Pequod if he had happened to think of it.
The closeness one felt toward Melville I can only suggest by saying that when he begins with those utterly thrilling words, “Call me Ishmael,” we knew immediately that this meant he was not Ishmael, he was really Isaac. He was the son who had taken the blessing and then, in order to set out for the forbidden world, had also taken his brother’s unblessed name. We knew that this Isaac-cum-Ishmael was a mama’s boy trying to slide or swagger into the world of power; that he took the job because he had to earn a living, because he wanted to fraternize with workers, and because he needed to prove himself in the chill of the world. When he had told mother Sarah that he was leaving, oh, what a tearful scene that was! “Isaac,” she had said, “Isaac, be careful,” and so careful did he turn out to be that in order to pass in the Gentile world he said, “Call me Ishmael.” And we too would ask the world to call us Ishmael, both the political world and the literary world, in whose chill we also wanted to prove ourselves while expecting that ﬁnally we would still be recognized as Isaacs.
The stranger who wore Redburn’s hunting jacket and subjected himself to trials of initiation on Ahab’s ship, this stranger seemed “one of us,” as we could never quite suppose the heroes of Cooper or Twain or Hawthorne were “one of us.” These remained alien writers, wonderful but distant, while Melville was our brother, a loose-ﬁsh as we were loose-ﬁsh.
To be a loose-ﬁsh seemed admirable. Alienation was a badge we carried with pride, and our partial deracination—roots loosened in Jewish soil but still not torn out, roots lowered into American soil but still not ﬁxed—gave us a range of possibilities. Some we seized. The American Jewish writers began developing styles that were new to American literature. That we should regard ourselves as partisans of modernism, defenders of the European experimentalists against middlebrow sluggards and know-nothing nativists—this followed a pattern already established in America. Decades earlier the ﬁrst struggling painters to escape from the immigrant Jewish milieu, ﬁgures like Abraham Walkowitz and Max Weber, had leapt across their worthy American contemporaries in order to become pupils at the School of Paris. That, simultaneously, we should respond with pleasure and draw upon the styles of the popular Jewish entertainers, from Fanny Brice to the Marx Brothers, from Willie and Eugene Howard to S. J. Perelman—this too was made possible by the freedom of our partial deracination.
Not ﬁxed into a coherent style, we could imitate many. Not bound by an enclosing tradition, we could draw upon many. It was a remarkable feat for Alfred Kazin, still under thirty and living in Brooklyn, to write a book called On Native Grounds, in which he commandeered the whole of American prose ﬁction. It was a canny self-insight for Paul Goodman to declare his cousinship with Emerson and his American patriotism as a sign of anarchist desire, even though most of his friends, including me, were not quite sure what he was up to. And it was a display of sheer virtuosity, the virtuosity of a savored freedom, for Saul Bellow to write in Henderson the Rain King a pure Emersonian ﬁction, quite as if he had ﬁnally wrenched loose from Napoleon Street and the Hotel Ansonia.
Imitation could not always be distinguished from improvisation. If I ask myself, where did the style of the Partisan Review essay come from, I think I know a few of the sources. The early Van Wyck Brooks may be one, Edmund Wilson another, and some Continental writers too. But I want also to add that we made it up, or, rather, the writers of a decade earlier, those who started out in the middle thirties, dreamed it out of their visions or fantasies of what a cosmopolitan style should be. They drew upon Eliot and Trotsky, perhaps also Baudelaire and Valéry, but ﬁnally they made it up: a pastiche, brilliant, aggressive, unstable.
It remains, then, an interesting question why it was that while the ﬁrst literary passions of the American Jewish intellectuals were directed toward modernism, there was rather little modernist experimentation among the American Jewish writers of ﬁction. I have a few simple answers. In their imaginations these writers were drawn to Eliot and Joyce, Kafka and Brecht, but the stories most of them composed had little to do with the styles or methods of modernism. Modernism had come to America a decade earlier, in the twenties, with Hemingway and Faulkner, Eliot and Stevens, Crane and Williams. By the thirties, when the generation of Schwartz and Bellow began to write, experimentalism no longer seemed so very experimental; it was something one rushed to defend but also, perhaps, with some inner uneasiness. To the revolution of modernism we were latecomers.
But more. Reaching American literature with heads full of European writing yet also still held by the narrowness of experience in the cities, the American Jewish writers turned inevitably and compulsively to their own past, or to that feverish turf of the imagination they declared to be their past. It was the one area of American life they knew closely and could handle authoritatively, no more able to abandon it in memory than bear it in actuality. The sense of place is as overpowering in their work as, say, in the stories of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor; it soon becomes a sense of fate: hovering, lowering, conﬁning, lingering, utterly imperious.
In the end, as we like to say, it was upon language that the American Jewish writers left their mark. Just as the blacks left theirs upon the vocabulary of American music, so the Jews brought to the language of ﬁction turnings of voice, feats of irony, and tempos of delivery that helped create a new American style—probably a short-lived style and brought to fulﬁllment in the work of a mere handful of writers, but a new style nonetheless. Style speaks of sensibility, slant, vision; speaks here of a certain high excitability, a rich pumping of blood, which the Jews brought with their baggage, a grating mixture of the sardonic and sentimental, a mishmash of gutter wisdom and graduate-school learning. I think it no exaggeration to say that since Faulkner and Hemingway the one major innovation in American prose style has been the yoking of street raciness and high-culture mandarin which we associate with American Jewish writers.
Not, to be sure, all of them. There really is no single style that is shared by these writers, and some—Delmore Schwartz in the artiﬁce of his antirhetoric, Michael Seide in the mild purity of his diction, Tillie Olsen in her own passionate idiom—clearly challenge the generalizations I shall nevertheless make. For what I want to assert is that the dominant American Jewish style is the one brought to a pitch by Saul Bellow and imitated and modiﬁed by a good many others.
In the growth of this style one can see reenacted a pattern through which our nineteenth-century writers created the major American styles. Cooper and Hawthorne, though fresh in their matter, still employed versions of formal Augustan prose; even as they were doing so, however, a language of native storytellers and folkloristic colloquialism was being forged by the humorists of the Old Southwest and the Western frontier; and then, to complete a much-too-neat triad, Twain and Melville blended formal prose with native speech, the heritage from England with the improvisations of American regions, into a style that in Twain might be called “puriﬁed demotic” and in Melville “democratic extravagance.”
A similar development, on a much smaller scale, has been at work in the ﬁction of the American Jewish writers. The ﬁrst collection of stories by Abraham Cahan, Yekl, is written in a baneful dialect so naturalistically faithful, or intent upon being faithful, to the immigrant moment that it now seems about as exotic and inaccessible as the argot of Sut Lovingood. Cahan’s major novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, employs, by contrast, a ﬂavorless standard English, the prose of an earnest but somewhat tone-deaf student worried about proper usage. More interesting for its mythic narrative line than for verbal detail, this novel shows Cahan to be not quite in possession of any language, either English or Yiddish, a condition that was common enough among the immigrants, and in the case of their occasionally talented sons would become the shifting ground upon which to build a shifty new style. The problem foreshadowed in Cahan’s work is: How can the Yiddishisms of East Side street talk and an ill-absorbed “correct” prose painfully acquired in night school be fused into some higher stylistic enterprise?
One answer, still the most brilliant, came in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, a major novel blending a Joyce roughened to the tonalities of New York and deprived of his Irish lilt with a Yiddish oddly transposed into a pure and lyrical English but with its rhythms slightly askew, as if to reveal immigrant origins. In Roth’s novel the children speak a ghastly mutilated sort of English, whereas the main adult characters talk in Yiddish, which Roth renders as a high poetic, somewhat offbeat, English. Thus, the mother tells her little boy: “Aren’t you just a pair of eyes and ears! You see, you hear, you remember, but when will you know? . . . And no kisses? . . . There! Savory, thrifty lips!” The last phrase may seem a bit too “poetic” in English speech, but if you translate it into Yiddish—Na! geshmake, karge lipelakh!—it rings exactly right, beautifully idiomatic. Roth is here continuing the tradition of Jewish bilingualism, in the past a coexistence of Hebrew as sacred and Yiddish or Ladino as demotic language; but he does this in an oddly surreptitious way, by making of English, in effect, two languages, or by writing portions of this book in one language and expecting that some readers will be able to hear it in another.
Yet, so far as I can tell, Roth has not been a major stylistic inﬂuence upon later American Jewish writers, perhaps because his work seems so self-contained there is nothing much to do with it except admire. Perhaps a more useful precursor is Daniel Fuchs, a lovely and neglected writer, especially in his second novel, Homage to Blenholt, where one begins to hear a new music, a new tempo, as if to echo the beat of the slums.
This American Jewish style, which comes to fulﬁllment and perhaps terminus with Bellow, I would describe in a few desperate phrases:
A forced yoking of opposites: gutter vividness and university reﬁnement, street energy and high-culture rhetoric.
A strong infusion of Yiddish, not so much through the occasional use of a phrase or word as through an importation of ironic twistings that transform the whole of language, so to say, into a corkscrew of questions.
A rapid, nervous, breathless tempo, like the hurry of a garment salesman trying to con a buyer or a highbrow lecturer trying to dazzle an audience.
A deliberate loosening of syntax, as if to mock those niceties of Correct English which Gore Vidal and other untainted Americans hold dear, so that in consequence there is much greater weight upon transitory patches of color than upon sentences in repose or paragraphs in composure.
A deliberate play with the phrasings of plebeian speech, but often the kind that vibrates with cultural ambition, seeking to zoom into the regions of higher thought.
In short, the linguistic tokens of writers who must hurry into articulateness if they are to be heard at all, indeed, who must scrape together a language. This style reﬂects a demotic upsurge, the effort to give literary scale to the speech of immigrant streets, or put another way, to create a “third language,” richer and less stuffy, out of the fusion of English and Yiddish that had already occurred spontaneously in those streets. Our writers did not, of course, create a new language, and in the encounter between English and Yiddish, the ﬁrst has survived far better than the second; but still, we have left our scar, tiny though it be, on their map.
The other day a gentile friend of mine remarked that in getting from City College in uptown Manhattan to the City University’s Graduate Center at FortySecond Street she had had a long shlep. She used this word without a trace of selfconsciousness, and she was right, for what she had experienced was not quite an inconvenience nor even a drag; it was a shlep. The word in Yiddish bears a multitude of burdens, as if to take a New York subway comes, as indeed it does, to taking on the weight of the world. Shlep is becoming part of the American language and in the hard days ahead it can only help.
But there is more. There is the shlepper, in whom the qualities of shlepping have become a condition of character. There is a shleppenish, an experience that exhausts the spirit and wearies the body. And as virtual apotheosis there is shlepperei, which raises the burdens of shlepping into a statement about the nature of the world. Starbuck unable to resist Ahab was a bit of a shlepper; Prufrock afraid to eat his peach made his life into a shleppenish; Herzog ground down by his impossible women transformed all of existence into sheer shlepperei.
Of such uncouth elements is the American language made and remade. Upon such renewals does the American experience thrive. And if indeed our dream of a New World paradise is ever to be realized, this time beyond mere innocence, how can we ever expect to get there except through the clubfoot certainties of shlepping?
Reprinted from A Voice Still Heard: Selected Essays of Irving Howe, edited by Nina Howe and published by Yale University Press. From Yale Review 66 (Summer 1977): 4.