Guest Editors' Introduction: Finding Home: The Future of Jewish American Literary Studies

By Harrison-Kahan, Lori; Lambert, Josh | MELUS, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Guest Editors' Introduction: Finding Home: The Future of Jewish American Literary Studies


Harrison-Kahan, Lori, Lambert, Josh, MELUS


It is widely recognized that Jewish writers were leading figures in American literature in the twentieth century. They were so influential in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, that John Updike remarked that the stories in Bech: A Book (1970) concerned "a writer, who was a Jew with the same inevitability that a fictional rug-salesman would be an Armenian," while Truman Capote, harking back to an anti-Semitic canard, complained about a "Jewish literary mafia" (Inge 158). By the mid-1970s, with the awarding of Nobel Prizes in Literature to Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, both native speakers of Yiddish, the contributions of Jewish writers to American literature garnered international attention. Yet one could hardly claim today that contemporary English departments and the profession at large locate Jewishness at the center of the study of modern and postmodern American literature. Only the rare department, for example, includes a scholar whose training or research specialization qualifies him or her as an expert in this subfield. (1) Indeed, many literary critics betray skepticism and anxiety about whether Jewish American literature is a viable avenue of scholarly inquiry, despite the prominence of twentieth-century Jewish American writers. Ask almost any young scholar who has worked or considered working on Jewish American literature, and he or she will tell you about discouragement received in graduate school from professors and advisors, some questioning whether the topic makes a valuable contribution to current trends in American literary scholarship, others pragmatically warning that such a specialty will not lead to a stable academic future, especially given the glutted job market. (2)

In 2009, our questions about why such a potentially vibrant field of study was being neglected led us to organize a Modern Language Association roundtable that would assess the state of Jewish American literature as a discipline. When we titled the session "Does the English Department Have a Jewish Problem?" our goal was, in part, provocation. Judging by varied responses to the session and the standing-room crowd that gathered to hear the panel of discussants, our question seemed to touch a nerve. (3) How, we asked, should we account for the imbalance between the lack of emphasis placed on Jewishness by English departments and the influential roles Jews have historically played in the production, consumption, and transformations of American literature? Why are so many senior scholars who work on Jewish American literature pessimistic about the future of this area of study? In light of exciting new contributions to the subfield by established and emerging scholars, what could be done to insure its institutional viability and future fertility? Will Jewish American literature remain homeless, relegated to disciplinary exile, or might it find a home in the twenty-first century English department?

We were not the first to express concern about a potential "Jewish problem" in the humanities. In the 1990s, critics including Sara Horowitz, Arnold Eisen, Edward Alexander, Gregory S. Jay, and Evelyn Torton Beck argued that multiculturalism's mission to give voice to historically silenced groups (which more often than not translated into "people of color") led to the exclusion of Jews and Jewishness from considerations within the university curriculum, and specifically from the then still-emerging fields of ethnic American literature and ethnic studies. "In multicultural studies," wrote Beck, "'Jew' remains the unspoken" (171). Beck attributed this deliberate silencing to the myth of the powerful Jew, which conflates all Jews with whiteness, financial success, and European hegemony (a stereotype not far removed from Capote's invocation of a "Jewish literary mafia") rather than accounting for diversity within the population. For Beck, the invisibility of Jewishness in the multicultural curriculum--an elision for which she partially blames Jewish academicians, whose status in the university she suggests depended upon their not being "too visible as Jews"--impresses upon students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, that "Jewish identity is neither speakable nor important enough to be taken seriously" (173-74). …

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