Jewish American Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Jewish American Novel

Benjamin Schreier

There is little consensus about the definition of the Jewish American novel. Should we mean novels both by and about American Jews, or is one of these criteria sufficient? For that matter, how is “American Jew” defined? As with any identity-based canon, the problem is that barring racialist logic, the categories are incoherent (see RACE). To argue narrowly, that a Jewish novel reflects the tenets of Judaism, is to miss the bulk of Jewish American writers, whose secularism defies religious dogmas (see RELIGION). Similarly, language cannot demarcate the Jewish American novel; indeed, European-born Jews writing in yiddish in the U.S., like Scholem Asch and I. B. Singer, only complicate our job. To more broadly insist that Jewish novels thematically explore specifically Jewish ideals, sensibilities, or leitmotifs—novelist Cynthia Ozick, for one famous example, claims that Jewish literature is necessarily “liturgical”—or that the Jewish American novel presents Jews experiencing problems historically experienced by Jews—such as religious doubt, generational conflict, anti-Semitism, assimilation, marginality, etc.—is to plunge into a metonymical morass from which only race provides coherent escape.

Finally, to what extent do we assume that the Jewish American novel should be good for the Jews? Philip Roth, for example, spent the first half of his career contending with nationalist censors within the Jewish establishment (like Marie Syrkin, 1899—1989) who labeled him a self-hater for his unflattering portraits of postwar suburban allrightniks (see CENSORSHIP). This reactionary campaign was joined even by prominent scholars like Irving Howe (1920—93), whose charge that Roth suffered from a “thin personal culture” ultimately implied that Jewish literature should make Jews look good to a Gentile public. Such conservative presumption recurs to this day, as in the case of writer Nathan Englander. But if discussing the history of the Jewish American novel is impossible without engaging powerful assumptions—including, notably, that it is also a history of the Jews—then by highlighting the tradition's leading figures and major themes, it is possible to tackle this problem head-on, examining the Jewish American novel as a machine for the production of Jewish Americans.

The Jewish American Novel through WWII

Perhaps the easiest way to analyze the Jewish American novel is historically, identifying the characteristic themes of successive phases. In the first stage of this history, lasting through the 1920s, the Jewish American novel responds to the problem of immigration. The setting is often the impoverished urban American ghetto (chiefly New York's Lower East Side); the cast includes immigrants and their American-born children; and the dramas center on struggles with acculturation and secularization. Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) is widely cited as the first literarily significant Jewish American novel. Cahan establishes a keynote by consistently showcasing Jewish ambivalence toward America's modern secular demands, and his earlier short comedic novels, Yekl (1896) and The Imported Bridegroom (1898), are also important in this regard. Almost as canonized by this point is Anzia Yezierska, who immigrated as a young girl. Salome of the Tenements (1923) depicts the fraught marriage between an immigrant woman and an American millionaire. Bread Givers (1925), her most widely read novel, centers on a woman who replaces constricting filial bonds with worldly filial attachments. Arrogant Beggar (1927) satirizes the settlement movement and those drawn into its orbit. She also published the autobiographical novel Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950) at age 70 (see LIFE WRITING). Other major novelists include Samuel Ornitz, whose Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl (1923) parodies the materialism of new “allrightniks”; Mary Antin, whose autobiographical The Promised Land (1912) focuses on the disruptive transformation from shtetl (small-town) Jew to modern American citizen; and the father-and-son duo Hyman and Lester Cohen, whose Aaron Traum (1930) describes a sweatshop laborer's discovery of intellectual culture and radical politics. Common themes in these early realist novels—mostly by Eastern European immigrants—are a redemptive socialism, whose messianism has been labeled “Judaism secularized” (Rischin); tyrannical old-world religious dogmatism; unjust capitalism typified by the sweatshop; generational conflicts between immigrants and their American children; and ambivalence toward New-World Jewishness (see REALISM). German Jewish novelist Ludwig Lewisohn inhabits a variant tradition; his The Island Within (1928), chronicling three generations of a Jewish family, is more comfortable with Anglo-American milieus and focuses less on cultural disruption. Edna Ferber's Fanny Herself (1917) represents another variation; in the novel, Ferber (who was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and raised after age 12 in Appleton, Wisconsin), depicts Midwestern women—far from a readily marked urban Jewish ghetto—struggling to carve out a legible identity in a male- and Gentile-dominated context.

A second stage of the Jewish American novel began in the 1930s and lasted through WWII. Many consider the Depression-era Jewish American novel as a subspecies of the proletarian novel, though this categorization can be reductive (see CLASS). Authors like Henry Roth, in Call It Sleep (1934); Daniel Fuchs, in his Williamsburg Trilogy (1934, Summer in Williamsburg; 1936, Homage to Blenholt and 1937, Low Company); Michael Gold, in Jews Without Money (1930, 1935); Nathanael West, in Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and Day of the Locust (1939); Isidor Schneider, in his semi-autobiographical From the Kingdom of Necessity (1835); and Tillie Olsen, in Yonnondio (pub. 1974), plumbed the Depression's far-reaching economic, cultural, and social transformations. Tess Slesinger's The Unpossessed (1934) presents a farcical satire of this radical intellectual milieu's preoccupation with itself. Judaism, preserved by earlier writers even if they acknowledged its American transformation, is now outmatched by America at best, an authoritarian delusion at worst. This second generation—many born in America, many professional writers—combined modernist experiments in literary form and radical social critique to create flamboyant and polemical fictions that questioned erstwhile pieties such as the gospel of progress, patriotism, nationality, and cultural tradition. surrealism and symbolism emerge as new tools to expose industrial capitalism's domination of human relationships (see MARXIST).

The 1940s mark another turn for the Jewish American novel, though many of these new writers differ from the 1930s novelists in focus more than age, sharing the same generational crucible of radical politics and modernist poetics. Figures like Isaac Rosenfeld, in The Passage From Home (1946); Saul Bellow, in Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947); Paul Goodman, in the Empire City novels (1942, The Grand Piano; 1946, The State of Nature; and 1950, The Dead of Spring); Delmore Schwartz, in his failed novel The World is a Wedding (published as a long short story in 1948); and Lionel Trilling, in The Middle of the Journey (1947), all of whom were writing also for newly ascendant journals like Partisan Review and Commentary, steer clear of the prevailing leitmotifs of their predecessors and adopt a new metaphysics. Outrage is replaced by a lyrical alienation; indeed, Goodman called The Grand Piano an “almanac of alienation.” The ex-Communist, second-generation Jewish American, devoted to a literature of turmoil indebted to European modernism (and perhaps preoccupied with a masculine self-image), replaces the socialist immigrant as the new figure of the Jewish writer.

The Postwar Jewish American Novel

The period from WWII to the early 1970s marks another phase of the Jewish American novel. Showcasing humor, (male) libido, and the major literary awards, this is often called the Golden Age of Jewish American literature. Mark Shechner labels the novels of this period allegories of loss that, by a strange logic, grant their writers a ticket to the American heartland. The keynotes in the 1940s and 1950s are crisis and conversion: the American Jew can no longer be the person s/he was (Shechner 1990). Not only does the Dostoyevskian alienation of Rosenfeld and early Bellow show the economic and political concerns of the 1930s in decline, but in the writing of Norman Mailer, for example, as in Bellow's novels of the 1950s, including The Adventures of Augie March (1953)—which, opening with “I am an American, Chicago born,” is often cited as a key turning point when the Jewish American novel enters the mainstream of U.S. literature—Seize the Day (1956), and Henderson the Rain King (1959), the ideologies of the fathers are traded in for the therapeutic replacements of antic rage and psychosexual liberation. But there's still another way this literature suggests change, in many ways more significant, and problematic, for the history of the Jewish American novel. In the early novels of Bernard Malamud, like The Assistant (1957) and A New Life (1961), characters born into Jewish milieus no longer inhabit a determinably Jewish orbit; his first novel, The Natural (1952), lacks any explicit Jewish content. A major theme of Philip Roth's early novels, like Goodbye, Columbus (1959), Letting Go (1962), My Life as a Man (1964), and Portnoy's Complaint (1969), is a decreasingly persuasive Jewish tradition. If Malamud was later to say (famously) that “Every man is a Jew though he may not know it” (Lasher, 30), the price of universality may be the disappearance of self-evident Jewish experience. Jewish novelists after the war are not only ex-immigrants and ex-Trotskyists: increasingly, as they enter the American middle class, leaving the city for the suburbs, Jews are becoming ex-Jews, too. In the avant-naturalism of Mailer, Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, Jewish tradition seems to be decomposing. In fact, this literature of loss is really a literature of “departure” (Schwartz's word): the postwar Jewish American novel of crisis chronicles an alienation that is catalytically productive: of a new kind of Jewish American as much as of a newly national literature.

But while the persuasive power of Jewish tradition decayed between WWII and the Vietnam War (1954—75), the Jewish American novel of the period also highlights a Jewish self that does not fully accede to the terms of a dominant Americanism. After 1948 and especially 1967, Israel, like the Holocaust, proves that Jews, whatever else one might say, exist, and in the 1960s and 1970s, we see a kind of return of the repressed as assimilated Jews rediscover an incompletely suppressed Jewishness. Race becomes a major theme, as black power, civil rights, and ethnic identity movements offer new ways of focusing the problematic of Jewish American identity. Yiddish survives only in piecemeal form, in punchlines or menus, and the dynamic contradictions of the ghetto so central to the early Jewish American novel recede beneath suburban American continuities, but vestigial habits fostered elsewhere, among others, and in forgotten religious practices stubbornly resurface. Though these remainders survive most often as clichés or, in Shechner's phrase, a habit of self-irony, they nonetheless offer testimony to something that, though irrecoverable, actually was real. Bellow's Herzog (1964) depicts a man adrift in modern America encountering his Jewish past, but it is yet another fragment, lacking coherence in itself, and incapable on its own of offering refuge, and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) portrays a Holocaust survivor, submerged in late-1960s degenerate New York, rediscovering—albeit too late—a salvific force in the potential of Jewish community he has always ignored. Malamud's mid-career novels, The Fixer (1967) and The Tenants (1971), like Edward Lewis Wallant's The Pawnbroker (1961), feature a Jewishness that has become a kind of social liability even as it cannot be abandoned.

If the pre-Vietnam Jewish American novel reacted to integration by revealing an American self who is only residually Jewish, then the mid-1970s signal another shift. We now note a fear that mid-century assimilation, though beneficial in many respects, has endangered American Judaism and fractured the Jewish community. On the one hand, the Jewish American novel stages a return: a religious return to faith and orthodoxy, a linguistic return to Yiddish and Hebrew, and a cultural and nationalistic return to Europe and Israel (however dubious this might be for American Jews born after WWII). On the other hand, the post-Vietnam Jewish American novel nurtures revolutionary energies, including an interest in broadening religious roles for women; new, heretofore incoherent secular forms of Jewish practice; crossbred paradigms of religious and national identity; and often ingenious attempts at what I will inelegantly call historical hybridity, attempts at reconciling Jewish realities from across the geographical, national, linguistic, religious, literary, and temporal sweep of Jewish history.

Since the 1970s the Jewish American novel depicts in a hybrid style a picture of many contradictory forces at work. Notably, it reasserts a vital, multivalent Jewishness. Cynthia Ozick's novels, including The Cannibal Galaxy (1983), The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), and The Puttermesser Papers (1999), explore how Jews have faith in themselves as Jews in the face of both Holocaust, secularization and just history itself. And Philip Roth's important autobiographically charged chronicle of Nathan Zuckerman (itself a piercing commentary on Jewish American literary history)—The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), and The Prague Orgy (1985), continuing in The Counterlife (1986) and Exit Ghost (2007), with a few stops in between—renders a second-generation Jewish writer searching for a post-religious identity that, though irrepressible, refuses to be self-evident, even as it complicates the sexual, social, cultural, and economic practices of daily American life. This is Roth's great theme in his post-Cold War novels, like Operation Shylock (1993), Sabbath's Theater (1995), American Pastoral (1997), The Plot Against America (2004), and Everyman (2006). E. L. Doctorow, in novels like Ragtime (1975) and Billy Bathgate (1989), relocates a desentimentalized Jewish America within a complex American history.

More recently, younger writers have tried to express a dynamic twenty-first-century Jewish American identity, frequently despite yawning historical, religious, and cultural divides separating them from traditional Jewish communities and practices. Writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, in Everything is Illuminated (2002); Nicole Kraus, in The History of Love (2005); Gary Shteyngart, in The Russian Debutante's Handbook (2003) and Absurdistan (2006); Michael Chabon, in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) and The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007); Jonathan Rosen, in Eve's Apple (1997) and Joy Comes in the Morning (2004); Dara Horn, in The World to Come (2006); and Tova Mirvis, in The Ladies Auxiliary (1999) and The Outside World (2004) explore the often contradictory demands of being Jewish and American, especially given the nonparallel terms of Jewish and American histories.

The Jewishness of the Jewish American Novel

As even this short history demonstrates, the Jewish American novel can just as easily be described by its major themes as chronologically. Thus we could categorize it by its representation of poverty, assimilation, sex, anti-Semitism, African Americans, Israel, religious ambivalence, or even its recasting of European, American, and Jewish histories. Alternatively, some find the “education novel,” which functions both as a bildungsroman exploring youth's initiation into adulthood and as a rhetorical device examining social conditions, to be a pervasive form across the history of the Jewish American novel (Sherman). The one thing we surely should not do is assume, under the racialist sign of identity, that the Jewish American novel is representationally self-evident. Fortunately, the Jewish American novel has in fact mostly not taken itself for granted, and, by making the representation of American Jewishness its principle problematic, it persuasively resists the reactionary assumption of Jewish literary history'sself-evidence.

SEE ALSO: African American Novel, Asian American Novel, Latina/o American Novel, Psychological Novel, Regional Novel.


1. Chametzky, J. (1986), Our Decentralized Literature.

2. Howe, I. (1972), “ Philip Roth Revisited,” Commentary 54: 69—77.

3. Lasher, L., ed. (1991), Conversations with Bernard Malamud.

4. Rischin, M. (1962), Promised City.

5. Rosenberg, W. (2001), Legacy of Rage.

6. Shatzky, J. and M. Taub, eds. (1997), Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists.

7. Shechner, M. (1987), After the Revolution.

8. Shechner, M. (1990), Conversion of the Jews and Other Essays.

9. Sherman, B. (1969), Invention of the Jew.