The Literary Scene Changes
Shifting my attention abruptly from a dissertation on Henry James to the work of Harry Golden, editor of the one-man newspaper The Carolina Israelite and author of Only in America and For Two Cents Plain, led me to think of a passage in James’s The American Scene, the travel book he wrote in 1906 after having been away for the previous twenty years and returning to a new industrialized and immigrant America that shook him up: perhaps never more so than when he was taken to the Café Royale on the Lower East Side, the high-energy, blaring home away from home and trysting place of the Yiddish writers, actors, actresses, and mistresses of the time. Thrust into their midst by his guide, the philo-Semitic writer Hutchins Hapgood, James was struck, struck hard, by the strident Yiddish and Yiddish-flavored English coming at him from all sides and the sense it gave him of an immense new energy and vulgarity. In a moment of prophetic intuition he recognized that the descendants of these vivid, vigorous talkers and shouters would someday be shaping the literature he had served and coarsening the language he had labored so hard to refine.
So was it now coming to pass. It had taken some fifty years for Jewish-American fiction writers and memoirists to come into their own, and they had done so—Bellow and Malamud, Roth and Herbert Gold, Isaac Rosenfeld and Grace Paley, Alfred Kazin and Wallace Markfield, a young writer I much admired—precisely by not trying to write like Gentiles, as most of the previous generation of acculturated litterateurs like Ludwig Lewisohn and Joseph Hergesheimer, S. N. Behrman and even Dorothy Parker had done; instead they had made their work new by letting into it the gusto of post-immigrant English and the residues of Yiddishkeit in their spirits—its anxieties and assurances, its gravity, its sentiment, its irony, its verve, its tam.
These writers were also the reason why I was now at Commentary editing a lecture ,by Alfred Kazin rather than teaching “Factual Writing for Forestry Students.” They had resuscitated, activated, and educated the Jew in me who had been languishing in an empty back room of my mind, sent there, in part, by my literary education and ambition. English literature, with its Shylock and Jew of Malta, its Fagin and Bleistein, its Eliot and Pound, was hardly music to Jewish ears and made one uncomfortable until, in time, it made him indifferent or worse. Even in the democracy of American fiction, the most memorable Jewish roles were played by two vivid stereotypes, Meyer Wolfsheim and Robert Cohn, the one a gonif, the other a pushy hanger-on. So the Jewish graduate student kept his head down or else raised it wearing a mask that would in time become his face. So it had been with Harry Levin and Lionel Trilling, our two big-time role models, so it was with the three Jewish members of the English department at Chicago. It was no accident that I had chosen to spend the last two years researching and writing about The Bostonians, for James was the cynosure of WASP refinement and academic modernism as well as of the morally strenuous private life most of us were trying to lead. As Philip Roth’s Gabe Wallach sums us up in Letting Go, “I knew it was not from my students or my colleagues or my publications, but from my private life, my secret life, that I would extract whatever joy—or whatever misery—was going to be mine.”
That was what literary studies and a campus environment of early marriage and child-rearing and the general malaise of the Eisenhower era did to your sense of yourself. If the fifties was the Age of Conformity, graduate studies was one of its main officer-training schools. Though I had come there in 1955 as a soi-disant protégé of the literary bohemian Isaac Rosenfeld, toward the end the writer I was reading the most for sustenance and direction was the literary patrician Lionel Trilling, partly because he challenged and instructed my easy liberalism with its lingering Popular Front sentiments, partly because his doctrine of moral realism was like an article of faith of my literary generation, but also because he finessed the academic game so brilliantly by swinging for the fences from a decorous stance.
To further complicate my psychodrama as a graduate student, a new branch of American literature, my own, was growing just off to one side, the view of which I shared with two classmates, Art Geffen and Phil Roth, who was already beginning to contribute to it. Instead of Fitzgerald’s Meyer Wolfsheim there was now Malamud’s Martin Bober; instead of Hemingway’s Robert Cohn, there was now Bellow’s Augie March. Also, instead of Marjorie Morningstar, there was now Brenda Patinkin.
The first immigrant generation tries to preserve, the second to forget, the third to remember. I took a few weeks off from my dissertation research to write a review of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus for the Chicago Review. Part term paper, part exercise in Jewish intuition, part a kicking over of my cautious academic traces, it ended up comparing the moral pattern of “Eli the Fanatic,” one of Roth’s stories, to a similar pattern in Malamud’s The Assistant and, with a bit of a stretch, to one in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day.
Soon after Goodbye, Columbus won the National Book Award, I received a request, through Roth, from Alan Pryce-Jones, the editor of the august Times Literary Supplement, to write three thousand words on “the Jewish part in American letters.” Five weeks of frantic research followed, in which I tried to get a grip on the before and after of what Leslie Fiedler had called “The Breakthrough.” That was my pressing, near impossible task, since I was ignorant of the before and conversant with the after only in a scattered way. But as I sped through The Menorah Journal of the 1920s and The Contemporary Jewish Record of the 1940s, as well as Commentary and Partisan Review, the New Leader and the newcomer Midstream, the lesser anthologies of Yiddish writing and the great anthology of stories edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, I would come upon say, “Gimpel the Fool” by I. B. Singer, or “Eating Days” by Lamed Shapiro, the Flaubert of Yiddish fiction, a poem by the wild H. Leivick or the delicate Mani Lieb, that despite my pressing deadline would send me into a reverie. The writing seemed to tune the strings of my discordant spirit and to provide a new harmony with the vibes from the previously rejected Yiddishkeit of my grandparents, which I had been raised to think of as mostly immigrant backwardness and poverty. What had been “greenhorn” was turning green and fertile from my reading.
I was drawn particularly to what I imagined to be the spirit of my father’s father; he had been a gymnasium student in Odessa, an early colonist in Palestine, and then a scholar and linguist who kept a samovar in the back of his glass shop where he would entertain the Elizabethport intelligentsia. He had died when I was four, leaving behind a few books that I barely looked at. It was he who had named me Theodore Herzl, which had been a further burden to a boy with a ten-letter last name ending in “off” growing up in the other, suburban and Gentile, end of Elizabeth where the last names were mostly one or two syllables.
But now in the library of Hillel House, where I’d set up shop because it had more of the books I needed than the university library did, my full name and the word “Jew” began to resonate in my mind like Beethoven’s four chords of destiny knocking on the door. I even came across a mention of a New York literary physician named Solotaroff. It was this daily, almost hourly, shock of recognition that got me through the ton of reading and gave the survey that haphazardly grew out of it a personal tone. Part fresh consciousness, part fanfare, the article received a good deal of attention, particularly in New York, and a year later I found myself having lunch with Norman Podhoretz, who said he could tell I didn’t know what I was talking about but had guessed right about 90 percent of the time, so I probably would make a good editor.
[this excerpt from the memoir represents less than a quarter of the total excerpt presented in the print edition of New England Review; copies are available for $10, shipping included]