The Making and Re-Making of Jewish-American Literary History

By Zierler, Wendy | Shofar, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Making and Re-Making of Jewish-American Literary History


Zierler, Wendy, Shofar


Until ten to fifteen years ago, Jewish American literary history was construed and described in overwhelmingly mid-twentieth-century masculine terms. As a corrective to this longstanding trend, this essay undertakes to "remake" Jewish American literary history in feminist terms. First, in an act of feminist "readerly resistance," it surveys recent efforts to remake the canon to include women writers and to reflect the experiences of women readers. Then it applies a variety of second-and third-wave feminist interpretive methodologies to readings of both classic and lesser-known works of Jewish American literature, including Henry Roth's Call it Sleep, Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer, Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus," Anzia Yezierska's "The Lost Beautifulness," Cynthia Ozick's "Puttermesser and Xanthippe," Jo Sinclair's, The Changelings, and Dara Horn's In The Image.

I. Resistant Readings: Tradition and Male Talent

"To read the canon of what is currently considered American literature is perforce to identify as male," writes Judith Fetterley in The Resisting Reader, one of the now-classic feminist studies of American literature. Writing at a time when literary critics had only begun to question the composition of the American literary canon, Fetterley argued that the female reader of American literature, from Washington Irving to Norman Mailer, was "co-opted into participation in an experience from which she is explicitly excluded."1 Despite the frequent appearance in the works of such mainstream American writers as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and MaiUr of the "castrating bitch" stereotype, "the cultural reality" in American literature was "not the emasculation of men by women but the immasculation of women by men. As readers and teachers and scholars, women have been taught to think as men, to identify with a male point of view, and accept as normal and legitimate a male system of values."2

Until ten or fifteen years ago, the same might have been said about Jewish-American literature. American Jewish literary history begins well before the twentieth century and includes a number of important women poets and prose writers. And yet, until relatively recently, Jewish American literature was construed and described in overwhelmingly mid-twentieth century male terms, referring to a select group of post-World War II male writers who managed to "break through" (a term taken from the title of Irving Malin and Irwin Statics' 1964 anthology3) into the larger American literary scene: Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth.4 Others, with a broader historical perspective, looked further back to the Eastern European immigrant generation, to the work of journalist and novelist Abraham Cahan or to the stunning modernist achievement of Henry Roth's Call it Sleep (1934), but often omitted any discussion of their Jewish female predecessors or contemporaries. This is not to say that critics specializing in American Jewish literature omitted all mention of women writers. Like Judith Fetterley, however, who refers to certain exceptions to the generalization of American literary maleness - "a Dickinson poem, a Wharton novel"5 - female readers of Jewish American literature most often saw confirmation of the rule rather than its exception.

Jewish American literary male-centeredness assumed several forms. In the most well-known cases - Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint or Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar - it found form in misogynist stereotypes of the Jewish Mother and the Jewish American Princess. In other cases, such as in Saul Bellow's Dangling Man and Herzog, male-centet edness assumed the guise of a male protagonist whose intellectual explorations were carried out in opposition to and in isolation from a host of mindless female characters, there for little else but to satisfy the protagonist's sexual appetite, or, as in the case of Moses Herzogs intellectually accomplished adulterous ex-wife Madeleine, to serve as catalyst for Moses' heroic journey of thought. …

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