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The Golden Age of Jewish American Literature
(Released March 2010)

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  by Ethan Goffman  


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Literary Works




The 1950s may be said to mark the start of a "golden age" of Jewish American literature, when it evolved from an esoteric ethnic sideshow to a mainstream, indeed defining, part of American culture. With the 1953 publication of The Adventures of Augie March, and its opening lines "I am an American, Chicago born," Saul Bellow announced that Jews were now as much a part of American society as anyone else. That same year the translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Gimpel the Fool" into English (by Saul Bellow, no less!) marked the ascendance of a very different strand of Jewish literature in America, that which remembered, celebrated, and romanticized old world Judaism, that of Eastern Europe, the shtetl, which had been wiped out forever by the Nazis.
Rosh Hashanah greeting card from the early 1900s: Russian Jews gaze at American relatives beckoning them to the United States
The creative tension between these two strands, Jews as quintessential Americans and Jews as old world cultural icons-often, though not always, connected to religious Judaism-persists to this day (and indeed was present long before the 1950s). The two authors would go on to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Bellow in 1976 and Singer in 1978, the only Jewish Americans ever to achieve this. This Discovery Guide discusses their achievement, along with four others who wrote alongside or slightly after them: Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and Grace Paley. Collectively, these authors exemplify the tension between tradition and assimilationism in a context of increasing acceptance and material comfort that exemplifies the trajectory of Jewish American literature in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Magazine Cover
The Partisan Review began a period of Jewish American intellectual and literary ascendance
The mainstream recognition of Jewish American writers may have owed as much to the historical moment, which combined guilt about the Nazi attrocities with a huge opening of opportunity for Jewish Americans, as to the presence of major talents. As Ruth Wisse describes it, "American Jews were not only spared the Holocaust, they unwittingly drew from the moral credit that accrued to its victims."Quotas in major American universities that had previously limited the number of Jewish professors were lifted, and Jews filled departments of science, mathematics, and economics, among other fields. Even English departments, which had considered Jews an element foreign to the culture they were preserving, swelled with Jewish academics, the new keepers of the grand Anglo literary tradition. Although the special circumstances of World War II, followed by an unprecedented economic boom, help explain the rapidity of this change, it also fits within a larger American theme of widening the circle of dominant culture, from those of English descent, to Germans, to Irish, Italians, and Jews. Along with this widening circle has come a broadening of what is considered literature worthy of study in universities. At the start of the 20th century American literature had been considered inferior, unworthy of study alongside the great European classics. By the 1950s American literature was considered its own, serious field of study (though perhaps not as serious as the great works of English literature). The ascent of Jewish American literature may be considered to have marked a threshhold, the first of a range of ethnic literatures that the academy would crown as worthwhile.

Even by the 1950s a large number of Jewish American authors had written about Jewish American themes, notably the tension between assimilation and maintaining historical and religious traditions. Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska, and Henry Roth are a few of the major names. Whether they received less attention than later writers due to the quality of their work or the cultural mood cannot be answered here. What is clear is that Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer were, and are, major authors who, over the course of their careers, produced an enormous output of important works with a stunning range of themes that forever altered the status of Jews in literature.

Go To Singer of the Jewish Past

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