Realists and Jews

By Carter, Everett | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Realists and Jews


Carter, Everett, Studies in American Fiction


William Dean Howells, priding himself on writing fiction that was true to life, longed to put Smith into a lyric and Jones into a tragedy.(1) Along with his friend and fellow realist, Henry James, he succeeded admirably in putting the Smiths and Joneses into his magisterial novels, but had difficulty in giving fictional life to the Levys and Cohens. Howells in Ohio and in literary Boston, and James in upper-class Old and New England, encountered Jews infrequently. When they met Jews, they were free of the vulgar anti-semitism of many of their acquaintances and several of their close friends. Howells was enthusiastic about Henry Harland's stories of Jewish tenement life; he made Harland the guest of honor at a literary luncheon and later was deeply saddened at the news that Harland, "a very good sick fellow," was fatally ill.(2) When Abraham Cahan's stories of New York Jews appeared, he praised them unstintingly. Henry James, although surrounded by infamously anti-semitic friends like Henry Adams and Paul Bourget, nevertheless escaped the infection, agreeing with his brother William that "prejudice is one of the worst evils that afflict humanity."(3) He shared Howells' affection for Harland, and was fond of Theodore Child, his worshipful Jewish admirer. Convinced of Dreyfus' innocence, he called his persecution a "sinister affaire." Paul Lemaitre's attitudes, James said, were among the "ugliest ... throughout the |Affair' in the anti-revisionist and anti-semitic interest."(4)

While agreeing with William about the evils of conscious prejudice, Henry acknowledged that unconscious prejudices were difficult to combat, and when his aesthetic sensibilities were tried, his repressed antipathies came out. He remarked about Theodore Child that he "is a Jew, and has a nose, but is handsome and looks like Daniel Deronda." He described Lady Rosebery, the daughter of Meyer Rothschild, as "large, fat, ugly, goodnatured, sensible and kind." Another titled lady he described as a "very nice, kindly, elderly childless Jewess."(5) It was James' aesthetic prejudices that came to the fore in his reaction to the swarms in the ghettos of New York. He was saddened by what he saw as the degradation of the English language as a result of the multiplication of so vital a group. One should read his much-quoted unhappiness about immigrant populations with an understanding of his hypersensitivity to changes in his beloved language: "it is in the light of letters," James wrote, "that is in the light of language ... that one stared at this all-unconscious impudence of the agency of future ravage." Listening to the sounds of "the Yiddish world," he found himself a victim in "the torture rooms of the living idiom.... The accent of the very ultimate future, in the States," he observed ruefully, "may be destined to become the most beautiful on the globe and the very music of humanity ... but whatever we shall know it for, certainly, we shall not know it for English--in any sense for which there is an existing literary measure."(6)

But despite his aversion to the sounds of immigrant speech, James, like Howells, was untained by the racial viciousness that festers in the writings, letters, and conversations of James Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton, Henry Adams, and Paul Bourget. The American realists' treatment of Jewish characters deserves to be regarded against this background of their usual decent tolerance. The few Jews they knew personally were men and women whom they accepted or rejected on the basis of their qualities, and not their race or religion. These acquaintances were usually of the literary world, or the upper class of English Jewry. From their experience in life (and they both were devoted to the realist credo of writing from experience) they could get little help in forming their fictional characters. Furthermore, there was little in the literary tradition to which they could turn when they sought to portray ordinary Jews.

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