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(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
America's richest prize in the humanities, worth $1.5 million, has been awarded to the scholarly son of a Swedish-American carpenter for a three-year project on the impact of the Holocaust on American literature.
In a study far more than mere ivory-tower research, Eric J. Sundquist argues that English-language books - original, in translation or as film scripts - are largely responsible for "Americanizing" and universalizing the Holocaust in the world's consciousness.
Sundquist is professor of English and literature at UCLA and was recently named one of four recipients of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's distinguished achievement award.
Born in the small rural Kansas town of McPherson, Sundquist, 54, is described by colleagues at Columbia and Harvard universities as "the most productive American literature scholar of his generation," whose "combination of broad erudition, subtlety of reflection and deep conviction makes his work exceptional, if not unique."
First widely recognized for explaining the role of black writers and culture in American literature, Sundquist expanded his purview in his most recent work, Strangers in The Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America. Last month, the book received the Weinberg Judaic Studies Institute Award from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.
During a nearly two-hour interview at his UCLA office, Sundquist traced the three "generations" of Holocaust literature.
In the first generation, immediately following World War II, eyewitnesses, survivors and contemporaries laid the historical groundwork. In the 1960s and '70s, the second generation explored the philosophical and theological aspects of the Shoah. Since the end of the last century, a third generation of "post-modern and experimental" writers has added comedy, satire and even irreverence to the body of Holocaust literature.
One goal of Sundquist's three-year project is to draw a complete "map" of these generational changes.Another aim is to probe what impact the works of American writers, far removed from the crematoria, as well as translations into English, have had in shaping Holocaust literature.
Sundquist believes that the very act of translation has helped to transform the Holocaust from a specific Jewish tragedy into a more "Christianized," and therefore universal, experience.
"Take Elie Wiesel's book Night, which was first written in Yiddish, then translated into French, and from French into English. It has probably been read by more Americans than any other Holocaust memoir and thus has become part of American literature," Sundquist said. "But in the process of making the book more accessible to a wider audience, the original Sabbath became Sunday and Shavuot became Pentecost."
Similarly the film The Pawnbroker, about an embittered Holocaust survivor in New York, is "loaded with Christian iconography and symbolism," he said.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Sundquist's analysis is how the literary vocabulary of the Holocaust has been adapted and taken over by other victimized people.
Japanese-American writers have used the imagery of Nazis against Jews to describe their internment in US "concentration camps," as well as the "holocaust" of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Native American authors have drawn similar literary analogies in recording the slaughter of their people by white settlers, but the most striking impact has been on African-American writings.
In black literature, Sundquist said, "the organizing example was the biblical Exodus, but since World War II, this has been overshadowed by the Holocaust as the main paradigm." One striking example is Toni Morrison's Beloved, which implicitly likens the African slave trade to the Holocaust in her epigraph, "To the 60 million."
Turning to a current cultural phenomenon, the well-publicized visit of Oprah Winfrey and Wiesel to Auschwitz, Sundquist observed that "it was not only well done, but Oprah knew it would resonate with her audience, attuned to the language of suffering and survival."
One unedifying aspect of the literary cross-fertilization has been a kind of "my Holocaust was worse than your Holocaust" competition, or, as one writer put it, a "victimization Olympics." Given the pervasiveness of Jewish themes (and writers) in American literature, some see English as the "new Yiddish" and the prime language of the Jewish experience, including the Shoah.
However Sundquist, who does not read or speak the language, believes that "Yiddish should be returned to its rightful place in literature," and he plans to use some of his Mellon grant money to revive the Yiddish studies program at UCLA.
In general, Sundquist will use his award to involve other American and international scholars, students and creative writers, support publications and organize lectures, courses and conferences, jointly with the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.
Yet, with all the exhaustive research and writing on the Holocaust, its two central questions, "How could it have happened?" and "What does it mean?" still challenge historians and writers.
Sundquist quotes Isaac Rosenfeld, who as far back as 1948 wrote about the Holocaust, "By now we know all there is to know. But it hasn't helped; we still don't understand."
Given Sundquist's expertise in black and Holocaust literature, readers who meet him for the first time are frequently astonished that he is not African-American or Jewish. His ancestors arrived in the Midwest from Sweden in the 1870s as farmers and craftsmen, and he was the first in his family to attend college - first the University of Kansas and then Johns Hopkins University for his graduate work.
He was raised as a Methodist and recalled that in his high-school graduating class of 200, there were only two Jews and one African-American.
Perhaps as an augur of his future interests, the two books that affected him most as a teenager were The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Exodus by Leon Uris.
His interest in multiculturalism, before it became a catchphrase, developed in graduate school. His courses in American literature focused almost entirely on the white Anglo-Saxon perspective, and he felt that the contributions of blacks, Jews and other minorities were missing. This gap led him eventually to his landmark book, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, followed by studies on the civil rights movement.
"The deeper I got into this, the more intrigued I became how much African-Americans had borrowed from the American Jewish experience," he said.
Sundquist has visited Israel twice and hopes to come again as part of his Mellon project.
Sundquist is aware that in the field of Holocaust studies, almost all his peers are Jewish. "I realize there are some things I can't feel or know in the same way as my Jewish colleagues," he said. "But perhaps I can contribute something by standing outside the tradition."