Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Sidney Luska didn’t exist, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the first Jewish novelist to hit it big in America. The apparent author of stories of Jewish life, including Mrs. Peixada (1886) and The Yoke of the Thorah (1887), Luska was created in the 1880s by Henry Harland, a young non-Jewish writer with large ambitions.
The pseudonym was basically a marketing tactic: if he put “a Jewish name on the title page,” Harland remarked in a letter to his godfather, “the sale of the book would be vastly increased. I believe lots of Jews would buy it for that reason, if for no other.”
The Best-Selling Non-Jewish Jewish Writer
The first of Luska’s novels, As It Was Written, proved this strategy successful; it sold a respectable 50,000 copies even before it was reissued in 1900 (with Harland’s name now printed alongside Luska’s). The book tells the tragic tale of Ernest Neuman, an uncannily talented violinist, and the woman he loves, Veronika Pathzuol, who is quite the musician herself.
That these young Jews should discover each other through music, Luska intimates, is fateful and appropriate, for “music is the art in which the Jews excel.” (Note that this was written before the rise to international fame of such violinists as Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman.) Some of Luska’s characters have even more complimentary things to say about “the ancient and honorable race”; one enlightened philo-Semite gushes to the effect that “the whole future of America depends upon the Jews.”
Not All Fun and Games
As suggested by the complexity of his authorial identity, though, Harland’s/Luska’s ideas and plots weren’t all quite so sunny; As It Was Written describes Veronika’s sensational murder, a crime for which her fiancé is arrested and tried. In the typical fashion of the 19th-century potboiler, the plot progresses through mysteries and coincidences, revealed legacies, mesmeric trances, and improbable curses, all spiced with Harland’s sometimes loopy attempts to include “authentic” details of Jewish language and rituals.
The final implication about the narrator, Ernest, is that while his heritage has given him remarkable gifts, it has also burdened him in ways that are frankly disturbing in what they suggest about Judaism and its legacies. There’s no sense reading As It Was Written (or any of Luska’s novels) for the truth about Jews in late-19th century America, but the book reflects what bohemians and denizens of high culture were thinking about them then. And while the final twist of the plot may prove a little predictable for contemporary audiences, Harland doesn’t mince words and manages to provide some fast-paced, creepy thrills.
Karl Beckson’s Henry Harland (1978) is the only biography available of this eccentric author; Luska’s novels are discussed in Leslie Fiedler’s essay The Jew in the American Novel (1959).Jewish musicians occupy central roles in George Du Maurier’s smash Trilby (l894)–in which the nefarious Jew Svengali mesmerizes an innocent girl into success as a singer–as well as Sholem Aleichem’s Stempenyu (published in Yiddish in 1888 and first translated into English in 1913).