Second Arrivals: Landscape and Belonging in Contemporary Writing of the Americas

By Banecker, Andrew H. | Philip Roth Studies, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Second Arrivals: Landscape and Belonging in Contemporary Writing of the Americas


Banecker, Andrew H., Philip Roth Studies


Sarah Phillips Casteel. Second ArrivaU: Landscape and Behnging in Contemporary Writing of the Americas. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2007. ? + 256 pp. $59.00/$22.50.

In Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997), when Seymour "The Swede" Levov moves from the Weequahic section of Newark to Old Rimrock (a town as close to the countryside as is possible in Northern New Jersey), he is met immediately with resolute resistance from his father: "I come from the city [...] You know what? You're dreaming. I wonder if you even know where this is. Let's be candid with each other about this - this is a narrow, bigoted area" (309). In the mind of the Swede's father, the city is privileged as the place of Jewish American belonging, identity, and, not to be glossed over, cultural tolerance. Therefore, the city and the countryside can only exist in binary opposition. Here, the Swede's drive to assimilate is thrown in direct opposition to his Jewish identity. There is a void here: that of the Jewish American tradition of the city in conflict with the American tradition of a desire for space.

Similarly, in Second Arrivals, Sarah Philips Casteel finds a void in the field of diaspora studies: "The two poles of contemporary diasporic discourse - movement and sedentarism, or the global and the local - find their special counterparts in the customary opposition between the city and the country" (4). Further, much like the sentiment of the Swede's father, Casteel argues that "[t]he city has been widely perceived as the space of diversity and movement, while the country is negatively associated with homogeneity and containment [...] repressive nationalisms and fascist movements, as well as racisms such as that of the U.S. rural South" (4). Such city-centric bias, she claims, have permeated studies of the diaspora, so that "the city becomes the focus of intense scrutiny, while landscape depictions of nature seldom figure into such discussions" (4).

Accordingly, Second Arrivals is designed not to fill diat void, but to open up the conversation about diasporic ideas (e.g., ideas of belonging, displacement, emplacement, and space) with regard to writing and visual art concerning landscape and the pastoral, and perhaps to introduce a sub-field of diaspora studies - pastoral and landscape diasporism. In doing so, Casteel examines everything from the contemporary Jewish American writer's idea of displacement when thrust into the pastoral (with special attention paid to Philip Roth's American Pastoral and The Counterlife [1987], and Bernard Malamud's A New Life [1961]) to the diasporic tensions evident in the landscape photography of Jin-me Yoon. Thus, Second Arrivals might be viewed as an attempt to reconcile the accepted norms of pastoral and diasporic art - two concepts she sees in binary opposition in the current critical conversation.

Despite the critical bias towards the city, Jewish American writers have not shied away from the pastoral while dealing with diasporic narratives of identity and belonging. Rather, Casteel argues, "The pastoral mode has considerable appeal for diasporic writers in the Americas because of its unique capacity to register simultaneously the attachment to place and the anguish of dispossession" (109). In chapter two, "The Myth of the West in Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth," Casteel focuses largely on the understudied "second arrival" of immigrant groups, specifically Jewish American protagonists moving from the city (the first arrival) to the country, where a new settlement occurs, and the pastoral myth of the American West is examined.

Casteel's main claim in this chapter deals with a drive toward assimilation, both for the Jewish American protagonists and the authors themselves: "This attraction to the pastoral works on two levels: on the one hand it bespeaks a desire to gain access to the 'true' America, which is envisioned as pastoral in keeping with leading national myths, and on the other it signals the Jewish American author's ambition to claim a space in the U. …

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