Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

"Saul Bellow and the Holocaust Moment"

Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

"Saul Bellow and the Holocaust Moment"

Article excerpt

The post-Holocaust decades of the 1940s and1950s found Saul Bellow a relatively inexperienced writer, still passionately committed to idealistic humanistic agendas, and unconvinced that utopian radical politics held the answer to mankind's ills. As his left-leaning political idealism faded, he withdrew from the Parlisan Review crowd, beginning his move toward the entrenched conservatism he is now either vilified or praised for. His goal was not only to make his mark on American letters, but to make it in the international arena as well. His two abiding goals were to mount a passionate defense of the human creature and simultaneously supplant the monumental, skeptical, modernist naysayer Ernest Hemingway. He rode into American literary history on the tidal wave of the "Jewish Decades," the 1950s, which breached forever the WASP hegemony in American letters. Along with his cadre, he was greeted with a pejorative designation: "Jewish-American ethnic writer," not "American writer." Already disaffiliated from his Jewishness by his unhappy family life, he further disaffiliated himself from this parochial put-down. Perhaps he even wondered if writing about the Holocaust, still a "Jewish" topic in the minds of many, might further "ethnicize" him in the eyes of the international literary community. Bellow's subsequent mea culpas for his early disaffiliation from Judaism and for his failure to write about the Holocaust sooner are now a matter of historical record. These admissions lie scattered throughout his post-1970s essays, lectures, interviews, family conversations, and fiction, which, taken together, represent a genuine atonement. The spiritual integrity of this process was such that it precluded his offering further explanations. In this essay, I want to historicize, complicate, and dignify the issue of Bellow's writerly delay by examining the atmosphere that prevailed during the immediate post-Holocaust decades of Bellow's 1940s and '50s literary debut and by revisiting Bellow's own psychological and metaphysical journey.

From the vantage point of the 1960s, many commentators accused American Jews of having been impotent in the face of National Socialism, ground down by the trenchantly anti-Semitic Roosevelt-State-Department America, lacking in social cohesion, and generally too comfortable in the suburbs. Other commentators accused American Jews of religious disunity, stunned disbelief, and undue discouragement over the failure of the 1938 Evian conference to facilitate Jewish refugees. Nativism flourished--even Chinese immigrants, previously denied any rights to citizenship, were now more desirable American citizens than Jews. Organized boycotts of German goods, people argued, were too little too late. Even the Zionist movement stood accused of weak leadership and fracturing from within. Judaic humanism, now thought by some to have been overly idealist in the face of the Holocaust, could not guarantee a rational future for Jews after Auschwitz.

From the vantage point of the 1960s, Leon Jick wrote his influential essay "The Holocaust--Its Uses and Abuses in the American Public," claiming that "American Jewry sought to forget," and had rendered the Holocaust a "barely remembered, rarely mentioned event, of interest only to survivors" (308-09). Edward Shapiro in A Time for Healing: American Jewry since World War II, reported that "there was relatively little discussion among American Jews about the fate of European Jewry" (5), and Gerald Sorin claimed there had been a conspiracy of silence (217). By the 1970s, Jack Wertheimer insisted that the problem was not so much moral abdication and amnesia as the fact that "the trauma of the Holocaust [was] buried in the American Jewish psyche [and took a very long time to] erupt into public consciousness" (7). Edward Alexander further lamented that "the American Jewish community was simultaneously the most powerful and powerless in the world, and that it had tragically abnegated responsibility for its brethren at the crucial moment" (122). …

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