Academic journal article MELUS

Socialism and Ethnic Solidarity: Samuel Ornitz's Haunch, Paunch and Jowl

Academic journal article MELUS

Socialism and Ethnic Solidarity: Samuel Ornitz's Haunch, Paunch and Jowl

Article excerpt

1

Samuel Ornitz's Haunch, Paunch and Jowl (1923) was a "commercial success, selling in excess of one hundred thousand copies" at the time of its publication (Miller 210). Despite its initial success, the book has been virtually relegated to the dusty backshelves of literary history. Few have written on it, and though the book is currently in print again, after Markus Wiener publications brought it back on the market in 1985, it deserves more attention than it has received so far for more reasons than one: not only is it a tour de force in cynical and self-deconstructing point-of-view (and in stream-of-consciousness passages foreshadowing Henry Roth's 1934 masterpiece Call It Sleep), but it is also in some ways a more poignant (if polarized) discussion of the cultural dilemmas besetting upwardly mobile American Jews in the early twentieth century than Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), to which its plot bears some resemblance. Haunch, Paunch and Jowl should not only be acknowledged as a centerpiece in early twentieth century American (Jewish) literary history in its amalgamation of naturalist, realist, sentimental, and modernist elements, but it is also of interest as a panoramic description of ideological crosscurrents and most pervasively shows the traces of one of those currents: cultural nationalism.

Haunch, Paunch and Jowl appeared anonymously in hopes that "the book would sell better if the public thought it the actual memoir of a judge who had died five years earlier."(1) Its reception in the Jewish community was mixed: "The book attracted much attention. Contemporary newspaper accounts chronicle sermons by rabbis who damned it as `lecherous and degrading.'.... On the other hand, many Jews and Jewish organizations praised the novel. It was serialized in two working class papers, the Morning Freiheit in America and, years later, in the Rote Fahne in Germany." Given one of the most apparent ideological trajectories of the novel, the responses are predictable: Ornitz (as narrative presence) does not openly reject Judaism--though the novel's protagonist does--but his novel seems to suggest that socialism of a kind ought to be the new Jewish (and American) religion. The novel suggests that a more communalist orientation would have led to a more fulfilling and more ethical life for its protagonist. In short, the novel is preoccupied with Jewish identity in ways that reveal its indebtedness to cultural Zionism.

Like a number of African American novels of the period concerned with ethnic identity, Haunch is about "passing," though of a different kind than that enacted in African American novels:(2) the protagonist lives in a Jewish-American community, poses (or "passes") as a dedicated Jew, but suppresses all emotional ties to his community, rising to success on the backs of his fellow Lower East Siders. The novel implies, through the career of its main character, that the success he gains comes at a high price: his ethnic heritage. And this heritage appears as intrinsically connected to everything that may serve as the opposite of materialism, be it idealism, spirituality, or artistic ability. It is this conceptualization of ethnicity which reveals the novel's debt to ethnic nationalism. Haunch shows that following the path of materialism is not only a betrayal of the ethnic nation but also of traits inherent to "Jewishness."

Samuel Ornitz does not seem a likely candidate for authorship of a novel indebted to Zionism. Committed to social causes--he was a member of the New York Prison Association, served as assistant superintendent of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Brooklyn, investigated labor conditions in the coal mines, and worked for freeing the Scottsboro Boys--he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, where he declined to answer the question whether or not he was a member of the Communist Party, resulting in a one-year prison sentence. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.