Is This Picasso, or Is It the Jews? A Family Portrait at the End of History

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IS THIS PICASSO, OR IS IT THE JEWS? A Family Portrait at the End of History

Mark Shechner is a Professor of English at SUNY, Buffalo. He is author of After the Revolution: An Essay on the Jewish-American Imagination, and Preserving the Hunger: An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader.

A family portrait of Jewish American writers at present would be a gallery piece for sure, something you could take right over to MOMA and display as dada. You see the teeming extended clan, alright: der zeyde (Saul Bellow), die bubbe (Cynthia Ozick), the prosperous, erratic, high-achieving sons and daughters, from Philip Roth, the eldest, down to the brat of the month, whoever it may be. But they are all brats, these kids: strong-willed, self-centered, disobedient. And up front are the grandchildren, from the homegirl and everybody's sweetheart, Allegra Goodman, to the emigre who decamped to Israel to write the saga of the wandering Jew, Allen Hoffman. As in every family, there is a grouchy second something-or-other, twice removed, who would rather not be there, like Cousin Paul Auster or Uncle Norman Mailer. But here is the strange part. They are all looking away from the artist and from each other, staring off into the distance or up at the sky or out of the frame or burying their faces in books, newspapers, sports pages, political broadsides, or the rare Torah scroll. And the painter has taken some surrealist liberties. A green cow leaps over them all, a violin hovers at top dead center, and a disembodied hand is holding a disembodied penis. Or is that a salami? Who did this? Chagall? Soutine? And what is that background? A shtetl? A ghetto? A high-rise? A diorama of Jerusalem or Brooklyn or Warsaw in ruins? Is this Picasso, or is it the Jews?

I call it "The Family, American Branch: Present, Vocal, Quarrelsome--and Invisible." Present and vocal goes without saying. Consider the novels published in 1997 alone: The Actual by Saul Bellow, The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer, American Pastoral by Philip Roth, Pandaemonium by Leslie Epstein, The Bacon Fancier by Alan Isler (who has returned to his native England, but let's count him), The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick, and a posthumous Complete Stories by Bernard Malamud. It's been a banner year, following a previous banner year in 1996. Is there no end to the Jewish bull market? Can 1998 top it? Are the Jews gathering momentum as the world plunges toward the Christian millennium?

If this is a faithful portrait of Jewish fiction writers in America, how do we explain their virtual absence from what appear to be the front ranks of American literary consciousness? A few months ago I picked up two collections of contemporary American short stories where one might expect to find this consciousness registered: The Best Short Stories of 1996, edited by John Edgar Wideman, and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, edited by Tobias Wolff. Wideman and Wolff are estimable and knowledgeable American writers, and one would imagine that if there were Jews around producing quality short fiction, these writers would have found them. Of the twenty-four stories in the Wideman anthology, I can find just one by a recognizable Jewish writer, Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Among the thirty-three stories in the Wolff collection, I can find none, though name is not always a give-away to who is Jewish. But if I've missed one or two, I've missed only that, one or two, and the question remains: if Jewish American writers are so abundant and prolific, why are they not here? Are they not good enough to gain entry into collections like these? Are they not writing short stories and sticking rather to novels? Are they ghetto'd off by themselves, away from the multicultural mix that now defines the American literary scene? Just what is the status of the Ozicks, the Merkins, the Sterns (Richard, Daniel, or Steve), the Piercys, the Doctorows, the Roths, the Apples, the Bukiets, in a literary world that features names like Lan Samantha Chang, Peter Ho Davis, Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid, Angel Patrinos, and Akhil Sharma--all names from the Wideman anthology? …