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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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The Place of Jewish American Literature

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Jewish American literature may be considered the first ethnic literature (if one doesn't count Southern writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O'Conner as ethnic) to have achieved great influence in the U.S. Indeed, it might have been the notable American literature for a period. Also, it likely opened the door for, and was quickly followed by, a flowering of interest in African American literature, in multicultural literature, in post-colonial literature, and in an array of international literature written in English. Literature has thus changed from a European centered field, with a strong American branch, to an international and polyglot array in which hyphenated and multiple identities proliferate.

Yet the place of Jewish American literature in this new order is strangely marginal. True, an array of new authors-Art Spiegelman, Allegra Goodman, Rebecca Goldstein, Nathan Englander, and Michael Chabon among others-continues to appear. These newcomers refute a thesis advanced by Irving Howe in 1977 that Jewish American literature was past its prime, that as the travails of Jewish immigration and identity formation in a new land subsided so would this literature. Adam Meyer argues that the new wave of Jewish American authors is symptomatic of a common trend among immigrants, in which a third generation overcomes the second generation's assimilationist shame and returns to a strong identification with an ethnic group's history.

However, the newcomers to Jewish American literature seem more scattershot than the Bellow/Malamud/Roth generation, are not part of some greater literary movement. Perhaps this is due to Jews having been in many ways reframed as "white," as mainstream Americans, perhaps also to the questionable place of Israel in the domain of international literary tastemakers. Andrew Furman describes the perception that Jews in America "have simply not suffered enough to be considered a minority or multicultural group." In any case, what we have today is a collection of individual, often extremely talented, writers dealing with Jewish themes in various ways and to various degrees, but which can no longer be seen as a movement. Of the writers of the "golden age" only Roth, and occassionally Ozick, continue scribbling away; yet their collective achievement remains a monument to literary and cultural history. America will never be the same.

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References

  1. Baumgarten, Murray. "Intersections and modern urban identities: Isaac Bashevis Singer, American Jewish Writers and the Jewish Street." Judaism (Summer 2000) 49:3

  2. Benedict, Helen. Bernard Malamud: Morals and Surprises." The Antioch Review (Winter, 1983) 41:1

  3. Furman, Andrew. Contemporary Jewish American Writers and the Multicultural Dilemma: The Return of the Exiled. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

  4. Goodheart, Eugene. "The Jewish Writer in America." Sewanee Review (Winter 2008) 116:1

  5. Gubar, Susan. "Jewish American Women Writers and the Race Question." The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature. Michael Kramer & Hana Wirth-Nesher, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

  6. Guzlowski, John. "Isaac Singer and the Threat of America." Shofar, (Fall 2001) 20:1

  7. Howe, Irving. "Introduction," Jewish American Stories, ed. Irving Howe (New York: Mentor, 1977).

  8. Kerry Powers, Peter. Melus (Fall 1995) 20:3

  9. Kim-Brown, Caroline. "Isaac Bashevis Singer: Master Storyteller." Humanities (July/August 2004) 25:4

  10. Klingenstein, Susanne. "'In Life I Am Not Free': The Writer Cynthia Ozick and Her Jewish Obligations." Daughters of Valor: Contemporary Jewish American Women Writers, eds. Jay Halio and Ben Siegel. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

  11. Meyer, Adam. "Putting the 'Jewish' Back in 'Jewish American Fiction': A Look at Jewish American Fiction from 1977 to 2002 and an Allegorical Reading of Nathan Englander's 'The Gilgul of Park Avenue.'" Shofar (Spring 2004) 22:3

  12. Miller, Cheryl. "Why Malamud Faded." Commentary (June 2008) 125:6

  13. Ozick, Cynthia. Art and Ardor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

  14. Pinsker, Sanford. "The Tortoise and the Hare: Or, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and the Vagaries of Fiction Writing." The Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 2005) 81:3

  15. Shechner, Mark. "Cynthia Ozick." The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story. Blanche Gelfant, ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001

  16. Wisse, Ruth. "Jewish American Renaissance." The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature. Michael Kramer & Hana Wirth-Nesher, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.