American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

conditions of crisis," writes the author. "It has often been charged with being a bookish fantasia about history, full of rather bloodless schoolmasterish jokes. But to have seen it in Germany soon after the war, in the shattered churches and beerhalls that were serving as theaters, with audiences whose price of admission meant the loss of a meal . . . it was an experience that was not so cool. I am very proud that this year ( 1957) it has received a first and overwhelming reception in Warsaw. The play is deeply indebted to James Joyce Finnegans Wake." Personally, its bookish quality is one of the things I like about the play, and its jokes are often good; in fact, as entertainment The Skin of Our Teeth is excellent, full of charm and ingenuity; its only defect is that whenever it tries to be serious, which is quite often, it is pretentious and embarrassing. I quite believe the author's statement about its reception in postwar Germany--he enjoys a much greater reputation abroad than here--and I agree that the audiences responded to it because it seemed to speak to them of the historical cataclysm they had just been through. I find this fact, while not unexpected, depressing. The bow to Finnegans Wake is a graceful retrieve of a foul ball batted up in the Saturday Review fifteen years earlier by Messrs. Campbell and Robinson, the authors of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. They hinted at plagiarism, but I think one should rather admire the author's ability to transmute into Midcult such an impenetrably avant-garde work. There seems to be no limit to this kind of alchemy in reverse, given a certain amount of brass.

Alfred Kazin


The Jew as Modern American Writer

Emma Lazarus, who wrote these lines inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty ("Give me your tired, your poor . . . Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free"), was the first Jew whom Ralph Waldo Emerson ever met. Emerson's daughter Ellen, an old Sunday-school teacher, noted how astonishing it was "to get at a real unconverted Jew (who had no objections to calling herself one, and talked freely about 'our Church' and 'we Jews'), and to hear how Old Testament sounds to her, and find she has been brought up to keep the Law, and the Feast of the Passover, and the day of Atonement. The interior view was more interesting than I could have imagined. She says her family are outlawed now, they no longer keep the Law, but Christian institutions don't interest her either."

Emma Lazarus had been sending Emerson her poems for years; he responded with uncertain praise, for they were excessively literary and understandably raised questions in the mind of so subtle a critic. But although she was not to become a consciously "Jewish" poet until the Russian pogroms aroused her, her being a Jew had certainly distinguished her in the literary world of Victorian America. She was that still exotic figure, that object of Christian curiosity, "the Jew"--and to descendants of the New England Puritans, straight out of their Bible.

____________________
"The Jew as Modern American Writer" by Alfred Kazin. Reprinted from Commentary, April 1966, by permission; all rights reserved.

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