Mainstream American Jewish Literature

At mid-century, Jewish writers connected with American readers by writing about alienation.

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The Jewish American writers of the 1920s and 1930s had mostly been telling a story of immigration and poverty, the romance of the New World, and urban despair.  There had been variations on these themes, from Anzia Yezierska’s dirt-encrusted realism to Mike Gold’s Socialist-inflected visions of dystopia.  Some writers, like Henry Roth, shared a profoundly personal view of the life of the Jewish immigrant, while others had seen it as symbolic of the social disorder that would one day, inevitably, lead to political change. 

Writers like Yezierska and Gold were essential to the story of social upheaval that was affecting the Jews of the United States and their literature, but this story was at the margins of American literary culture. Jewish writers were, for the most part, standing outside the mainstream of American letters.  After all, what did the garment workers on the Lower East Side have to do with Ernest Hemingway’s silent killers and burned-out soldiers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s strivers and WASP aristocrats?

Out of the Ashes

The Second World War, and the postwar spread of Jewish prosperity, accelerated Jewish writers’ immersion into the American literary conversation.  The melting-pot ideal, in which immigrants–and writers–had transformed themselves into deracinated Americans, was replaced by the salad bowl, in which immigrants maintained their identity while simultaneously forming part of the rich tapestry of American life.  The changing ideal was reflected in American 

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literature, which embraced a diversity of approach and subject matter as never before.  From the poor whites of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County to the urban African-Americans of James Baldwin and Richard Wright’s work, American literature was opening its doors to those it had previously excluded.  And Jewish writers were the largest beneficiaries of this sea change.

The 1950s saw Jews surging into the middle class, leaving the squalid tenements of the urban ghettos behind and fleeing, with so many other Americans, for the suburbs.  Jews were now comfortably ensconced in American life, and the emerging writers of the postwar era–Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Allen Ginsberg, and others–were devoted to simultaneously embracing, and rebelling against, that newfound prosperity.  In so doing, they made Jewish characters, Jewish themes, and Jewish history part and parcel of the American story.

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Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.

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