Tales from the goldene medina

A fresh and thoughtful look at the contribution Jewish writers have made to American culture.

exiles book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
exiles book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Exiles on Main Street: Jewish American Writers and American Literary Culture By Julian Levinson Indiana University Press 239 pages; $24.95 There are several elements that make Julian Levinson's new book, Exiles on Main Street, a standout work in the field of American Jewish literature. In particular, Levinson is well-attuned to the critical trends and thinking that are prevalent in the world of literary scholarship and applies them to the book's selected authors and texts in a way that is fresh and thoughtful. Secondly, the book is a bold attempt to build upon previous efforts by such critics as Sylvia Barak Fishman, Andrew Furman and Alan Berger, to widen the critical arena by including authors who are not always included de rigueur in any discussion of American Jewish writing. Exiles on Main Street begins with an examination of the American-born poet Emma Lazarus and the immigrant writer Mary Antin. The comparison might not be readily obvious. The two women were not peers. Lazarus was from an affluent family with weak ties to Judaism and organized Jewish life. She died when Antin was an unpublished teenager recently arrived in New York from Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, Levinson adroitly shows how both women adhered to a tradition among Jewish women writers to celebrate the evolution of American Jewish identity, finding enough flexibility within American and Jewish culture to create a harmonious synthesis. Moreover, Levinson presents a convincing argument, demonstrating how both Lazarus and Antin, despite their incongruous backgrounds, borrowed from American Romanticism and the prevailing Emersonian intellectual spirit to fashion this confluence of identities. Today, in a world where American Jewish culture seems entirely natural, the amalgamation may not appear noteworthy. However, Lazarus had to aggressively reclaim her Jewish roots before she could begin to conceptualize the integration of her divided identity. At a time when many American-born Jews were distancing themselves from Judaism, and often abiding by Judah Leib Gordon's notorious dictum to be "a Jew in your home, and a man outside it," her fierce embrace of Judaism was exceptional. In contrast, Antin came under sharp fire from social critics, such as Horace Kallen, for adopting an ultra-assimilationist stance. She was attacked for diminishing the importance of one's background and denying the challenges of Americanization. Thus, it is clear that Lazarus and Antin were in many ways trailblazers in understanding the cultural space in American society for identities that were predicated upon diverse religious, social, cultural, linguistic and economic backgrounds. The middle of the book includes two very different chapters. One groups together Ludwig Lewisohn, Waldo Frank and Anzia Yezierska, a seemingly disparate group of writers with little common ground. The other is the book's most scholastic section, focusing on Yiddish poets. The former chapter offers a very well-deserved close analysis of the career of Lewisohn, who has been overlooked by critics despite his important writings and immeasurable contribution to Jewish scholarship. For bringing attention to Lewisohn's career - a career similarly recognized for its importance by Ruth Wisse - Levinson is to be congratulated. His inclusion of Frank may be the book's weak point. Levinson's discussion of Frank, who is not often cited as one of the great American Jewish writers of the 20th century, as an influential writer is not truly convincing. In contrast, the section on Anzia Yezierska, the immigrant writer dubbed "the princess of the ghetto," is excellent. Yezierska's novels and short stories lack the polish of her American Jewish successors, but they resonate with emotion and experience that are exquisitely human. Levinson not only evokes the power of Yezierska's texts, but situates them in an American context that illuminates the complexities of cobbling together a multilayered identity - a task that in practice is not nearly as facile as Lazarus and Antin suggest. To appreciate Levinson's treatment of Yiddish poets in America, one needs to be quite well-schooled on the topic. In showing how the American poetic tradition, represented predominantly by Walt Whitman, pervaded the works of Yiddish poets, Levinson offers a very close reading of a good number of poems and poets. His intimate knowledge of this subject suggests that it is one close to his heart. Unfortunately, for those with only a cursory familiarity with Yiddish poetry, it is a bit too much of a niche expertise and not as readily accessible as other parts of the book. The final writers discussed are Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe. The approach to Kazin may be too reductive. In assessing his career, critics have placed Kazin firmly within the sphere of American Jewish writing. His memoirs, especially A Walker in the City, are without parallel in evoking Jewish life among the first generation of Jews born after the mass arrival of Eastern European immigrants. Nonetheless, Kazin was not always interested in his Jewish identity. His focus on his Jewishness did not truly coalesce until later in his life. Likewise, Howe's interest in his Jewish background also occurred late in his career. Levinson is right to note the two writers' turn to their Jewish identities. But, he may have gone too far in emphasizing the heft of their Jewish considerations over the span of their entire careers. Exiles on Main Street is a welcome addition. Levinson has, to a great extent, focused on writers and texts that are deserving of serious attention. At the same time, he has wisely avoided critique of works that have been nearly overtaxed. There is a temptation among critics to unearth the significance of unsung writers, discover the importance of little known texts. On occasion, such efforts prove fruitful. More often, they are unable to stand the test of time. Levinson has sidestepped such pitfalls. He has addressed worthy authors, texts and concerns in American Jewish literary scholarship even though some of them do not necessarily dominate the field. For the most part, they are unquestionably important. They are not simply fashionable or quaintly obscure. They are, with few exceptions, great writers and texts that continue to be read and studied. They still stimulate debate and contribute to the foundation of American Jewish literature.