Isaac Singer and the Threat of America

By Guzlowski, John | Shofar, October 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

Isaac Singer and the Threat of America


Guzlowski, John, Shofar


Isaac Singer and the Threat of America

Isaac Bashevis Singer is a writer who seems tied to the past and the distant, mythic regions of Eastern Europe. But he is also a writer who has written extensively about America in Enemies: A Love Story, The Penitent, and the posthumously published Meshugah and Shadows on the Hudson. This essay discusses his depiction of America and its effect on Jews. He sees Jews being transformed by their experiences here in America and fears what will happen if Jewishness disappears under the pressure of a materialistic culture of the kind America and the modern world seem to offer.

In his 1943 essay "Problems of Yiddish Prose in America," Isaac Singer discusses the difficulty -- if not the impossibility -- Yiddish writers face in writing about life here. One of the major problems has to do with the words they use. Yiddish words have "too much tradition"; they resonate with the flavor and timbre of the Old World. American words, conversely, "reek of foreignness, of cheap glitter, of impermanence." The result is that the "better" Yiddish writers here "avoid treating American life, and they are subjectively (aesthetically) right to do so." To make his point absolutely clear, Singer declares: "Through his language, the Yiddish writer is bound to the past. His boundaries are, spatially, the borders of Poland, Russia and Rumania, and, temporally, the date of his departure for America. Here he must, in a literary sense, dine on leftovers; only food prepared in the old world can nourish him in the new."(1)

That Singer is such a writer, at least in the popular imagination, seems unarguable. He is best known for fiction set in the past and in the distant, often mythic regions of Eastern Europe. Writing about his involvement with Poland and its past, Agata Tuszynska states in her book on Singer and Poland, "He lived longer in New York, than he lived in Poland, but...[h]is permanent address remained in Poland. He wore the past like an overcoat, whatever the season."(2) Likewise, Clive Sinclair in his book on Isaac and Israel Singer says, "America never dominated the imagination of the Singer Brothers, as it had the generation of immigrants that preceded them."(3)

As Janet Hadda remarks in her biography of him,(4) however, this popular image of Singer as living in a "timeless Shtetl" is far from the truth. America is a significant element in a number of his novels, a point Leslie Fiedler speaks to in his 1981 essay "Isaac Bashevis Singer: or, The American-ness of the American-Jewish Writer." At the time Fiedler wrote his essay, however, only one of Singer's novels about America had been published in English: Enemies, A Love Story.(5) Since then, it has been joined by The Penitent (1983)(6) and the posthumously published Meshugah (1994)(7) and Shadows on the Hudson (1998).(8) It seems time, therefore, to examine Singer's American novels.

In his essay, Fiedler speculates about the "Americanness" of Singer: Is he Jewish-American, American Jewish, and how is he to be regarded: as an immigrant, a refugee, or an émigré? When he finally begins addressing the question, Fiedler's answer is not tentative: Singer's Americanness is "[m]inimal, I am tempted to say...almost nonexistent: an American-ness degree zero."(9) But he does not stop there. He finds that Singer's America is centered in Manhattan and bordered by Coney Island and the resorts of the Catskills. And the figures Singer populates this landscape with are his doubles: Yiddish writers lost in this "claustrophobic enclave" with very little if any contact with "white American goyim."(10) His lost souls inhabit an America, Fiedler feels, that is a "Limbo: a twilight landscape in which they can haunt only each other, being imperceptible to the wide-awake inhabitants of daylight America."(11) Although Fiedler's interpretation is in some ways applicable to parts of Enemies, with its lost and scarred Holocaust survivors, and to such stories as "The Séance" and "Wedding in Brownsville," it does not entirely address the fullness of all that Singer has to say about America. …

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