Race, Rights, and Recognition: Jewish American Literature since 1969

Article excerpt

Race, Rights, and Recognition: Jewish American Literature Since 1969. By Dean J. Franco. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. xi + 239.

Rightly or wrongly, the study of Jewish American literature has often been criticized for its conservatism, particularly its allergy to theory and its sometimes overtly celebratory character. (A friend once joked that he wanted to write a book about Jewish American literature that didn't seem like it was merely a treasury of Bubbe's favorite recipes.) In recent years, the field of Jewish American literary studies has been struggling to find a new, more expansive identity and vernacular. Dean Franco's recently published Race, Rights, and Recognition: Jewish American Literature since 1969 marks an important step in carving out the ramparts of the field and providing a portal into wider discourses that have often resisted connection with American Jewish literary studies.

At the center of Franco's volume is a canny argument: Jewish American literature--particularly Jewish American literature published from the 1970s onward--is uniquely positioned to exemplify, expose, and, sometimes, challenge the very basis of identity as it has been understood in a post-civil rights, increasingly global U.S. The book is loosely organized into two sections, one devoted to the ways in which Jewish American authors "explore the dilemma of the moral, ethical, or political conflicts that occur when individuals are also members of social groups" and the other "about global occasions for recognition and recognition's failure and the future of global recognition" (8). Also central to the book are "literary accounts of diversity and multiculturalism and theorizations of civil and human rights" (21).

As Franco makes clear from his persuasive opening reading of Saul Bellow's infamous Mr. Sammler's Planet, he is deeply engaged in a deconstructive literary project that challenges binary thinking or simplistic argument in all of its forms. He is particularly persuasive in his critique of the simplistic polar oppositions embraced by thinkers on both the right and the left when approaching Bellow. Throughout Race, Rights, and Recognition, he challenges received narratives of all kinds. His reading of the underrated Her First American, a novel by Lore Segal, uses Segal's autobiography to complicate and destabilize fixed notions of race and identity. His appraisal of Cynthia Ozick returns the politically vexed writer and intellectual to her rightful position as a radical critic of self and other in American culture. His analysis of Tony Kushner's avowedly global Homebody/Kabul places the valences of cultural Jewishness into conversation with the wider discourse of human rights. Franco's close readings are fresh and complex, but the most radical aspect of his book is the way in which these readings offer an implicit critique of what we might call literary essentialism--the conflation of writer and text at the heart of much literary criticism, particularly much of the criticism devoted to "ethnic" writers. …