Academic journal article Shofar

Nathanael West's Indian Commodities

Academic journal article Shofar

Nathanael West's Indian Commodities

Article excerpt

If the imaginary Indian, from the moment of the nation's founding, served as a flexible figure through which to work out questions of "American" identity, Indianness came to serve in the early twentieth century as a category through which Americans could also define what it meant to be modern. American modernism had nativist and nationalist inflections; American moderns demonstrated their commitment to a national artistic culture through their "Indianness," which was cast as fundamentally opposed to Jewishness. This discussion seeks to address Jewish American literary response to this nativist modernism through a discussion of Nathanael West, whose ambivalent relationship with both Jewishness and aesthetic modernism continues to preoccupy and vex his critics. This essay reads West's preoccupations with Indians, Jews, and the marketplace through the unfixable Jewishness dramatized in his 1934 novel A Cool Million, whose modernist parody of racial and ethnic typologies succeeds in thoroughly undermining them.

Way out West in the wild and woolly prairie land,

Lived a cowboy by the name of Levi,

He loved a blue blood Indian maiden,

And came to serenade her like a "tough guy."

Big Chief "Cruller Legs" was the maiden's father

And he tried to keep Levi away,

But Levi didn't care, for ev'ry ev'ning

With his Broncho Buster, Giddyap! Giddyap!

He'd come around and say:

Chorus:

Tough guy Levi, that's my name, I'm a yiddish cowboy.

I don't care for Tomahawks or Cheyenne Indians, oi, oi,

I'm a real live "Diamond Dick" that shoots 'em till they die,

I'll marry squaw or start a war, for I'm a fighting guy.

Levi said that he'd make the maiden marry him

And that he was sending for a Rabbi,

The maiden went and told her father,

He must not fight because she liked the "tough guy,"

"Cruller Legs" gave the "Pipe of Peace" to Levi

But Levi said I guess that you forget,

For I'm the kid that smokes Turkish Tobacco,

Get the Broncho Buster, Giddyap! Giddyap!

Go buy cigarettes.

- 1907 Tin Pan Alley song(1)

If the imaginary Indian, from the moment of the nation's founding, served as a flexible figure through which to work out questions of "American" identity, Indianness came to serve in the early twentieth century as a category through which Americans could also define what it meant to be modern. Michael North argues that the "story...of becoming modern by acting black was to be retold over and over;"(2) alternatively, the story of becoming modern by acting "red" was to have specific nationalist and nativist incentives. For Walter Benn Michaels, the emergence of "nativist modernism," which was interested in questions not only of art but of language, citizenship, culture, and race, constitutively involved "the transformation of the opposition between black and white into an opposition between Indian and Jew."(3)

Up until the twentieth century, however, Indians and Jews had been imagined by both Europeans and Americans as racially consanguineous. The orthographic slip in, for example, Othello between "Indian" and"Iudian" reflected a real confusion in European minds between Indian and Jew.(4) The theory that the Indians of the New World were in fact descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel was widely popularized in the mid-17(th) century by an Amsterdam rabbi and subscribed to throughout the 19(th) century by Puritans, Jews, and Indians alike, who used it to argue, variously, national, religious, or political legitimacy.(5) This initial historical identification of Indian with Jew is ironized by what seems to be, in the 1907 song reproduced at the beginning of this essay, a union of "grotesque extreme anomalies." Indeed, much Jewish "redface" in twentieth century popular culture -- from Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor to Woody Allen and Mel Brooks -- relies for its meaning on a profoundly dialectical relationship between Indian and Jew, in which kinship and unlikeness are plumbed in equal parts. …

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