A response to Vivian Gornick
(See her essay in the September Harper’s Magazine)
In the September Harper’s Vivian Gornick adds her voice to the choir that has pronounced the death of “Jewish-American writing.” Her diagnosis centers on the waning of Roth and Bellow as literary stars of the first rank and it is worth quoting at some length:
“As the social reality of Jewish otherness waned, the rage at the heart of Jewish American fiction writing began to lose its natural source of energy. . . . The work was intrinsically bound up not so much with being kept out as with the sickness of feeling kept out. Woman-hating had been the synthetic fuel needed to keep the sense of illness alive. Without that, the work had nowhere to go and nothing much to say.”
So I ask RRers—Is this a just accounting?
My take on the death of Jewish American writing—
First, Gornick’s declaration, is, as I suggested, nothing new. I remember attending a session at the MLA annual convention around 1999 in order to hear the great American Jewish intellectual Leslie Fiedler speak. In his essay collection, Fiedler on the Roof (1991) Fiedler had announced the end of the era of the Jew as the anointed conduit through which America wanted to understand itself. I had sat in the audience largely to confront him about that claim.
But first a reporter from the now defunct (but legendary) mag Lingua Franca asked Fieldler, “As the man who coined the term postmodern, how do you feel about how it is being used today?” “None of them get it,” Fieldler said.
Then I said to him, I understand your point about the moment of the Jewish writer having passed—“
“Yes, it’s the black woman now.” Fiedler interrupted.
“Right, and then my bet is it will shift to the queer Latino,” I said. Fiedler smiled to see I understood the kind of game he wanted to play. Then I pressed on, “All the same, don’t you feel remorse about not being supportive of a new generation of Jewish writers coming up who want to find an audience?”
“Hey,” he said to me, “What are you—one of those new Jewish turks?” I nodded my head. “Novelist?” I shrugged. “I write novels too. And I’m not dead yet either. I want to be read. But you got to know what the score is.”
Then he fielded another question.
A second take:
If Gornick is right, and Bellow and Roth mark the apex of Jewish American Writing, it is still only half the story. Absent entirely is the recognition that at some point, Bellow and Roth became Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish.
Perhaps the best way for me to chart the transformation is autobiographically.
When I was a ten or so, my older brother came home from college with two books: Gravity’s Rainbow (by Thomas Pynchon) and Humboldt’s Gift (by Bellow). He gave them to my father as a present. Even now I can see their covers, simple cheap paper backs, but they came from a different world.
There were books in my house, but they didn’t possess that kind of aura--not to me. Books were just the crap that accumulates in a working class home where neither parent had went to college: my father read motorcycle magazines and my mother sat with self-help books and read compulsively in the hopes that it would help her come to accept her miserable existence.
Soon the Bellow and Pynchon were lying around unread and so I scooped them up and carried them into my room where I kept them on display. Every so often I would try to read them and skim a bit and put them down. One day, I told myself, I would be ready. One of them had been written by a Jew—about Jews, even. (The other, might be the iconic goyish novel—all conceptual games.)
Those days finally came when I went away to college. I read Bellow and even today I can’t imagine how any ambitious writer in a workshop could not suck down Humboldt’s Gift in an orgy of reading. It remains the greatest novel ever written about what it means to be a poet in America. I can close my eyes and I am back sitting in that hall at Dartmouth in a sea of people and there up front is Bellow reading and when he says, Humboldt was proud to be the first American poet to be driving around in a car with power steering, a wave of laughter erupts.
And then a few years later, I am sitting in a hall just off Washington Square Park, and its jam packed with people. There are 30 people registered for the class-American Poetry with Harold Bloom and there are 200 people in the hall. My friend tugs my sleeve—there is Ashbery. And at the front, bedraggled and looking for all the world like the Jewish Falstaff he so rightly said he was—Bloom mumbled away, periodically twisting his body into odd contortions, his arm hung behind his head as if there was an itch just above his belt he could almost reach. Bloom: I am less surprised by Sin then I am surprised by Satan—he is Milton’s conduit to the Sublime.
And there it is: in the 20th Century the final debate on the worth of Milton, before he too, this most Christian of poets, sinks into oblivion. On one side there was Bloom (talking about the Sublime) and on the other Stanley Fish who rose to fame on the strength of his argument about Milton, a book he titled Surprised by Sin. How odd and fitting that Milton and the Jews go down together.
When Fish first walked into the classroom and began to talk, I was convinced he was a character out of a Bellow novel. Herzog to be specific. He even reminded me of Bellow. Both live in my mind as wiry and active elder Jews, country club Jews. With tans and gold watches. The kind of guy you sat with in the back of the Temple and traded stock tips with while the Cantor sang on and on.
But here is the thing: Bloom and Fish in their own way are just as on board with the death of the Jew thesis as Gornick. And I am too, I guess. And perhaps it’s time. But what to do now? And what is to come next?
1)John Berryman on Scwartz (from Dreamsong 147)
Henry’s mind grew blacker the more he thought.
He looked onto the world like the act of an aged whore.
He flung to pieces and they hit the floor.
2) Berryman’s great short story “the Imaginary Jew” is fascinating in how clearly he anticipates the Gornick thesis fifty years in advance of her.
3) See Douglas Brooks’ recent essay collection Milton and the Jews (Cambridge, 2008) which has an essay on mine that delves into these issues in a more peer review manner.
4) What of all the hype and ink spilt on the new Jewish immigrant writing?
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports