Voices of America

Jews have made an extraordinary mark on postwar U.S. literature

Books

December 11, 2005|By VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH | VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Have Jewish Americans influenced American literature more than other groups in the past 50 years?

When one considers the literature of post-World War II America, the answer appears unequivocal:

Arthur Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Lillian Hellman, Cynthia Ozick, Susan Sontag, E.L. Doctorow.

The works of these writers had phenomenal impact; their keen and often brazen deconstruction of postwar America shattered complacency well beyond the literary canon. Ginsberg's Howl re-created American poetry with its singular lyricism that echoed Whitman: part gay ode, part kaddish. Sontag's Notes on Camp turned gay demimonde culture into intellectual theory; her The Way We Live Now defined postmodernist fiction as inextricably linked to Jews and gays.

The complex and often harrowing postwar period was delineated by a queasy mix of unsavory McCarthy-esque politics and "Ozzie and Harriet" social mores that inevitably led to the socio-political schism of today's culture wars. The new cadre of Jewish writers rewrote American prose, changing the literary subject.

Postwar Jewish American writers were unrelentingly political and uncompromisingly intellectual. They were also unflinchingly open about the anti-Semitism hinted at for decades in American literature and stage-whispered about in daily life. In their work, the concomitant horrors of the Holocaust and the still-raw wound of the war took on appropriately epic proportions.

Mailer's exquisite The Naked and the Dead stands as the greatest war novel ever written, besting Crane and Tolstoy. The title of Heller's Catch-22 has become an unofficial epigraph for our times, and its commentary remains disturbingly immediate after four decades. ("All over the world, boys on every side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives. There was no end in sight.")

Bellow dragged non-Jews into the grisly nightmare world of the Holocaust through the eyes of his protagonists; and he exposed the disturbing experience of Jews in the alleged melting pot of assimilationist America. Mr. Sammler's Planet implicates America in anti-Semitism; The Adventures of Augie March has a protagonist rejecting his Jewishness because of it.

Roth took a lighter tack, staring boldly through the keyhole of American sexuality, recounting all with alacrity and not a hint of shame in Portnoy's Complaint - a decidedly non-WASP-y portrait of America's bedroom that laid bare the sexual and social hypocrisy of WASP America.

Thus Jews became the voice of America in these works - and its conscience as well, for these writers, undeniably brilliant, also coined a new prose currency: They were the anti-Existentialists, their work rife with themes of individual freedom, moral responsibility and social contract, daring to suggest that the predicate of the nation itself, the West European heritage and the determinant concept of assimilation might be suspect - tainted with racism at best, murder in the heart at worst.

American Jews inevitably did assimilate - slid away from the immigrant roots so poignantly described in Bellow's work. Anti-Semitism became the narrow purview of white supremacists. Yet the consistent influence of Jewish writers has not receded; the work of these compelling voices, with their emphasis on identity politics, vivid sexuality and questions of God and country, all opened the door to other dynamic American literature, notably African-American, feminist and gay writing.

In tossing out the necessity of a Euro-WASP protagonist and Euro-WASP themes, Jewish writers created and designed the space where multiculturalism now resides. (It seems no coincidence that Bellow roomed with Ralph Ellison in Paris in the 1950s.) Jewish writing from the postwar period to the present legitimized the literary perspective of the Other.

A more recent phalanx of Jewish American writers has raised the bar on prior ideas about assimilation, ethnic identity (what makes a Jew a Jew?) and where, exactly, the American Jew fits in our still-tense ethnic village.

Tony Kushner, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Safran Foer are among the most lauded of current Jewish writers, with Pulitzers and National Book Awards to match those of Bellow, Mailer, Roth, et al.

These are risk-taking writers of the first order, much as their predecessors were - their prose exciting and fresh, their themes political and subversive.

Chabon, like Malamud, loves and writes about that most all-American of sports, baseball. But where Malamud's The Natural was a raw attempt at literary assimilation, Chabon eschews that; his protagonists, many of them gay, defy any and all assimilation.

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