Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature, by Hana Wirth-Nesher. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 224 pp. $39.50.
In an era when so much literary criticism hovers above texts and barely engages them, it is refreshing to read a book that not only deals with texts but discusses textual language as well. Wirth-Nesher's very subject is language, not only as the thematic concern of a goodly number of Jewish American writings, but, even more importantly, as what structures much of the literature in this tradition and produces its distinctive, dynamic qualities. For Wirth-Nesher textual language itself calls forth reading, and such reading as American Jewish literature requires is anything but straightforward and simple.
Call It English covers a wide range of American Jewish fictions (and some poetry and drama as well), from the inception of the tradition in the novels of Abraham Cahan, Mary Antin, and Henry Roth, through the classical period of Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick, into the more recent productions of writers like Aryeh Lev Stollman and Leon Wieseltier. The contemporary reach of Wirth-Nesher's study is crucial to the achievement of her book as a whole. As she herself puts it,"Jewish American literature offers testimony of multilingual awareness not only among immigrant writers where we would expect this to be the case but also among their descendants who have retained attachments to languages other than English, at times despite their meager knowledge of them" (p. 3).
Thus, for example, Mary Antin's struggle to achieve unaccented speech, which is, she discovers, not as easily achieved as a flawless English prose, and without which she cannot achieve her perfect assimilation into American culture, recurs, startlingly, decades later in the stutter of Philip Roth's Merry Levov in American Pastoral. That stutter, as Wirth-Nesher interprets it, is (as she puts it in relation to Antin's accent), a form of "the body remembering" (p. 56) what the intellect would otherwise choose to forget. For Jewish writers-even that presumably most assimilated of Jewish writers Philip Roth-the absorption of Jews into American culture is never as complete and seamless as it might at first appear. Or, to take another example, what is in early texts like Antin's or, for that matter, Abraham Cahan's and Henry Roth's, an unpronounceable English, marking the immigrant's difference from the world he or she has recently entered, metamorphoses in later writets such as Aryeh Lev Stollman, Art Spiegelman, Tony Kushner, Jacqueline Osherow, and Leon Wieseltier into an equally unpronounceable Jewish language (Yiddish and/or Hebrew), which marks for the now ostensibly assimilated Jew a comparable inability (or perhaps it's only an unwillingness) to let go of his ot her immigrant past. …