Academic journal article MELUS

Teaching Jewish Literature in the South: A Conversation

Academic journal article MELUS

Teaching Jewish Literature in the South: A Conversation

Article excerpt

One of the defining features of American Jewish literature as an academic subfield, as compared to other literary specialties, is how regularly it is taught by scholars who have not trained or published in the area. To explore the implications of this phenomenon, we invited two scholars who regularly teach courses in this field to discuss what they call "their shared enthusiasm for a subject in which neither has special expertise." Erin Carlston, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and Robert Cantwell, Townsend Ludington Professor of American Studies, are the only two people at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who regularly teach Jewish literature courses; Carlston teaches "Jewish American Literature and Culture," which is cross-listed in English and Jewish Studies, and Cantwell teaches "American Life and the Jewish Writer," an American Studies course cross-listed in Jewish Studies. In the following conversation, they address their motivations for teaching in this field and their experiences of doing so in a region not typically associated with academic attention to American Jewish culture.

--Lori Harrison-Kahan and Josh Lambert

Erin G. Carlston: Bob, do you have any background or training in Jewish literature?

Robert Cantwell: No. Having taken an early interest in J. D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow, however, I felt 1 could undertake a course in the Jewish novel as an informed amateur. Herzog (1964), Dangling Man (1944), The Magic Barrel (1950), The Assistant (1957), Letting Go (1962), and When She Was Good (1967)--these were my introduction in serious critical reading and permanently shaped my literary orientation. For me, they were all of a piece with my hero John Updike, who tries to make himself into a Jewish novelist in Bech: A Book (1970) and in some ways might as well be one. This speaks to the centrality of the "Jewish" novel in European and American modernism and to the Jewish role in it.

I never identified myself as a Jew until recently, and that was mainly out of affinity and temperament. I am, strictly speaking, "half Jewish" (as if one could be "half" of anything), having been raised in the industrial Midwest in a working-class Christian community without any religious training at home, though my father was the son of a Methodist minister.

What about you? Do you have any training in the field?

EGC: You're way ahead of me in terms of your novel-reading, although my graduate and postgraduate research has dealt extensively with European Jewish history and culture. I'm not trained as an Americanist, though, and my reading in Jewish literature, especially American Jewish literature, was rudimentary before I began teaching this class. Now I try to read at least one or two new novels every year to see if I can add them to the syllabus.

Since you mentioned your own upbringing--I know the biographical turn is always suspect: most of us presumably teach what we do because of some kind of personal experience, but we don't like to think that such experience is crudely determinative. But both you and I bring complicated relationships to Jewishness into the classroom.

RC: How can one offer a course in Jewish literature when I know next to nothing about Judaism itself? My mother's family were for most of my childhood exotic and inscrutable, the elder members still quite observant--I remember attending a few seders in my Aunt Ann's stuffy, soup-scented apartment on the north side of Chicago, with Uncle Nate, hatted and bearded, presiding or watching, and listening uncomprehendingly while my mother and grandmother tearfully remonstrated in Yiddish about matters opaque to me. After my father died I lived a year with Jewish cousins, through whom I encountered synagogue, an important social and emotional infusion; the following year we moved to a Chicago working-class Jewish neighborhood, ethnically and culturally dense and highly textured, where my schoolmates were the children of tradespeople, small merchants, even peddlers, one or two impecunious musicians, and, in a few cases I knew, Holocaust survivors. …

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