Academic journal article Shofar

Putting the "Jewish" Back in "Jewish American Fiction": A Look at Jewish American Fiction from 1977 to 2002 and an Allegorical Reading of Nathan Englander's "The Gilgul of Park Avenue"

Academic journal article Shofar

Putting the "Jewish" Back in "Jewish American Fiction": A Look at Jewish American Fiction from 1977 to 2002 and an Allegorical Reading of Nathan Englander's "The Gilgul of Park Avenue"

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. The Jewish American literary renaissance of the last two decades has been sparked largely by an overt concern with Jewishness on the part of a younger group of writers. These writers confirm sociologist Marcus Lee Hansen's theory of third generation return, the idea that grandsons will want to remember parts of their grandparents' lives that the fathers have wanted to forget, in this case their Jewishness. Such third generation return can be seen in the works of Michael Chabon, Allegra Goodman, Rebecca Goldstein, and Tova Reich, among others, and the phenomenon is depicted allegorically in Nathan Englander's short story "The Gilgul of Park Avenue." The transformation undergone by the main character of Englander's text, Charles Luger, who suddenly realizes that he has been masquerading as a WASP but is really a Jew, can be seen as a representation of the historical trajectory of Jewish American literature itself.

Twenty-five years have now passed since Irving Howe made his famous statement that "Jewish American fiction has probably moved past its high point,"(1) and no doubt some would argue that time has proven him right, that no younger writer has yet equaled the career of Saul Bellow (with the possible exception of the not-much-younger Philip Roth). Nevertheless, it also seems safe to say that any reports of the complete demise of Jewish American fiction -- such as Leslie Fiedler's lesser known comment that "the Jewish American novel is over and done with, a part of history rather than a living literature"(2) -- were greatly exaggerated. Indeed, into the turn of the 21(st) century, Jewish American fiction remains a vital, important, frequently read and discussed, prize-winning literature. In fact, there seems to have been a renaissance in Jewish American fiction beginning in the 1980s, shortly after Howe's statement was published, and gaining remarkable steam in the 1990s with the works of young writers such as, to name but a few, Michael Chabon, Allegra Goodman, Melvin Jules Bukiet, and Nathan Englander.

Howe, usually a perceptive critic, failed to see this development on the horizon largely because of the assumptions underlying his definition of Jewish American fiction, a definition that emphasizes the second adjective in the phrase rather than the first. To Howe, Jewish American fiction is based on certain constants: the immigrant experience, either as a Yiddish speaker or the child of a Yiddish speaker, almost always in an Northern urban environment where the family plays a dominant role. As this way of life was coming to an end, Howe saw American "Jewishness" fading away and believed that younger writers would not have enough of a connection left to enable them to produce Jewish American fiction. Given his definition, Jewish American fiction did indeed reach its peak, and necessarily so, with Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth. Most younger Jewish American writers are far removed from the immigrant ethos and, therefore, depictions of such a lifestyle have in fact almost ceased to exist, except as nostalgia or historic recreation.

But Howe's is not the only possible definition of Jewish American fiction. If one has a definition that puts the emphasis on the first word in the equation, Jewish, one sees a Jewish American fiction that has not only thrived since 1977 but has in fact reached heights unscaled by the earlier writers.(3) Several factors that contributed to this renaissance were not taken into account by Howe. First of all, in the entirety of Howe's introduction to Jewish American Stories, which became a sort of standard textbook anthology, there is not a single mention of the Holocaust. In retrospect, this seems an amazing omission for a critic writing in 1977. The Holocaust has, obviously, become a significant area of emphasis for literary productions by many younger Jewish American writers, particularly the not insignificant number of those who are children of Holocaust survivors. …

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