So my biography of Sholem Aleichem – the great Jewish writer, perhaps the greatest in modern Jewish history, the man who created Tevye, the person who can lay as good a claim as any to inventing modern Jewish humor – comes out today, and, as you can imagine, I’m pretty happy about the whole thing. Schocken, Nextbook Press, and Random House produced a beautiful volume; the reviews so far have been very kind; I got mentioned in a Huffington Post listicle; and thanks to the JBC Network, I get to go to a whole bunch of places and talk to people about how the man’s life was just as remarkable, in its own way, as his remarkable work. I leave for DC tomorrow; and Baltimore, Charleston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Miami, and others aren’t far behind.
So naturally my thoughts are turning to Sholem Aleichem’s experiences on tour: since he was, at different times in the course of his career, a prodigious traveler, heading from city to city to give readings to make money to support his family. (Why was such an enormously popular author, a massive seller, in such financial straits? It’s a long story; the answer’s in the book. But he was.) It was the age of the railroad, and Sholem Aleichem became deeply familiar with the train routes that criss-crossed Eastern Europe – although he had his share of mishaps, which included getting lost, oversleeping, and confusing himself for a high-ranking non-Jewish official with whom he had exchanged hats.
Okay, that last one didn’t happen to him; it was a fate that befell one of his characters, the protagonist of “On Account of a Hat,” one of Sholem Aleichem’s finest stories. It’s a brilliant tale, born of an old joke and transformed, through authorial artistry, into a meditation on the underlying uncertainties of modern Jewish life. For the purposes of this post, it’s enough to say that it’s not the only time, or place, where travel becomes an inspiration for Sholem Aleichem’s literary artistry. In his series of “Railroad Stories,” the most exciting thing about the train is that it’s a source of narrative inspiration. Travel is where you meet your next stories, where you find your inspirations.
And so I’m excited to get on the road; who knows what I’ll learn.
I just hope I don’t oversleep.
Now that my previous blog established to everyone’s complete satisfaction that Louis Marshall ought to be considered a paramount figure in the history of America’s Jewish community, and, in fact, that his personal archive contains papers of import comparable to Newton’s apple-stained original draft of the law of universal gravitation, it behooves me to wrestle with a question that arose a few times during the drafting of my biography of Marshall. Here it is: given that Louis Marshall was the man who successfully dictated the terms of Henry Ford‘s apology for the Dearborn Independent‘s scurrilous anti-Semitic campaign, who drafted the terms for Jewish minority rights in Eastern Europe after World War I, who argued before the Supreme Court more times than any attorney in his era, who was a founder of many of American Jewry’s premier organizations and institutions, and who became (in his final crusade) a progenitor of American Jewry’s special relationship with Israel, why did it take over eighty years for som eschlemozzle to publish a full-length biography of him?
Formulated in that way, this question is a bit misleading and self-serving. Two or three books about Marshall were published in years after his death. Morton Rosenstock’s Louis Marshall: Defender of Jewish Rights is the best known. Biographical in structure though not comprehensive in intent, they are very informative and useful volumes.
Also, Marshall’s preeminent position in early 20th century American Jewish organized affairs is at least implicitly recognized by the quality of scholars who wrote noticeably extensive articles about important facets of his life, such as his campaign with the American Jewish Committee to “abrogate” America’s commercial treaty with Russia, due to Tsarist discrimination, or his part in the dispute about the formation of the American Jewish Congress, or his relations with the Forward newspaper and its socialist editor,Abraham Cahan. All readers of seminal works in Modern Jewish History will recognize the names of these scholars (Naomi Cohen, Jonathan Frankel, Lucy Dawidowicz) whose intensive probing of key episodes in Marshall’s life is suggestive of its magnetic significance.
Just as surely, the lack of a systematic biography about Louis Marshall has long been regarded a curious anomaly; and from time to time, most recently in a special spring 2008 edition of the American Jewish History journal, scholars and students have publicly scratched their heads in puzzlement about this lacuna. Continue reading
Can biographers really know their subjects fully? Was Mark Twain right when he said that “a man’s real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself?” And what about Freud who went even further: “Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishment, and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had.”
Well, if biographical truth is not to be had, if a self is actually unknowable, can we at least analyze the work of the artist or the writer or the activist as a clue to the meaning of the life? Here a biographer is challenged by the postmodernists or deconstructionists who argue for “the death of the author,” and who see texts and even behavior as totally independent entities, neither of which tells us anything about their human creators. Not surprisingly, I take a somewhat different position. I acknowledge the existence of authors. Of course, the writing of any particular author may not be – and very often is not – autobiographical. Indeed, biographers, or general readers for that matter, who concentrate on ferreting out the self-referential, often miss the satisfaction of immersing themselves in the creative imagination of the writer. In any case, for me, authors are neither absent nor entirely inscrutable. Why otherwise would I have undertaken a biography of so prolific a writer as Fast, whose early writings seemed to have moved an entire generation of Jews in the direction of political liberalism, or of Irving Howe, who in his literary criticism and teaching fought fiercely against the “death of the author” school?
Of course, all of us remain partially hidden and variegated, and in cases like Howe or Fast, perhaps even more complexly so. In writing about these men then, I make no claim to definitiveness nor do I use a narrative strategy that projects a unified persona. Fast, for example, presents a case of extraordinary social mobility, a man who became wealthy writing more than 150 stories, 20 screenplays, and nearly 100 books, several selling in the tens of millions of copies; but he also forever carried within himself characteristics and memories of having been a poor street urchin. Moreover, Fast was not only a writer, but a brother, father, husband, son of immigrants, a Jew, a Communist, an “unfriendly witness,” a prisoner, and a Hollywood personality.
Many selves, many roles – several of which led Fast into inconsistency and even apparent contradiction. Still, the historian as biographer, at least this one, believes that human beings are not just a Babel of voices, and that there are such things as individuals who are knowable, at least in part. Even playwright Samuel Beckett, the prince of obscurity and ambiguity, eventually wrote, “In the place where I have always found myself… it is no longer wholly dark or wholly silent.”
For historians, writing biography presents a number of challenges. One of the more important comes from scholars who tend to classify biography as “an inferior type of history.” For example, three years ago the American Historical Society staged a roundtable on “biography as history,” invitations to which included the following: “For a long time historians have been ambivalent about the genre of biography…. Many are skeptical of the capacity of biography to convey the kind of analytically sophisticated interpretation of the past that academics have long expected.”
But we biographers, even those such as myself who want to write cross-over books accessible to the educated lay public, don’t simply chart the course of a life from womb to tomb; we examine our subjects in dialectical relationship to the multiple worlds they inhabit, social, political, and cultural. My two subjects, Howard Fast and Irving Howe, for example, rose from immigrant poverty to eminence and wealth, and in Fast’s case immense wealth. Both were also political activists, and literary figures. And both bore the privileges, burdens, and complexities of being Jewish. Both were also involved, directly and indirectly, with events important to shaping the world of the twentieth century. It would have been next to impossible to neglect social context in biographies of these men.
Biographers are also often accused of voyeurism and sensationalism. Indeed, perhaps as acts of self-defense, several women and men of note have written their own biographies or memoirs – Howe wrote at least one, depending how you count; Fast, two – conceivably as a way of making one’s own case before a prosecutorial or gossip-mongering historian/biographer might appear on the scene. Elsa Morante, the Italian writer and wife of novelist Alberto Moravia, left a warning for biographers: To expose “the private life of a writer is gossip,” she said, “and gossip no matter about whom offends me.” Janet Malcolm, the controversial American journalist goes further, characterizing biographers as burglars, parasites, and obsessive stalkers who trespass and injure. Continue reading
One of the strange things about having your first book come out is that you think you’ve written one thing, and then everyone decides you’ve written something else. I guess I don’t mean en masse, but I did think I had written kind of a sad, quiet novel, and now I’m getting pegged as the funny girl.
You know who was really the funny girl?
If you said Fanny Brice you’d be right.
I grew up on musical theater the way other people grow up on sports (some of my greatest triumphs were in competitive opera singing), and watched Barbra Streisand movies like an acolyte. Forget Julie Andrews (who I’m sure is very nice)—I loved Barbra: her voice, the twinkle in her eye, her nose. I’m not exaggerating when I say that watching her sing “I’m the Greatest Star” in Funny Girl changed my life.
Funny Girl is based on the life of Fanny Brice, who sang for the Ziegfeld Follies, acted on Broadway and in film, and played Baby Snooks on the radio for years. She made a life and career out of contradictions—a Yiddish “dialectician” who never knew more than a hundred words of the language, a skinny girl who couldn’t dance and yet sang for the glamorous Follies, an independent woman who married three times.
In his biography of the performer, Herbert G. Goldman quotes Fanny on her dual nature: “Self-aware and self-perceptive, Fanny once said she had always been aware of ‘two people within me. Almost like a mother and child. I have felt like I was my own mother, and when I would think about Fanny, I would always think about myself as a child.’”
What makes Fanny such a great talent is exactly this duality, between mother and child, serious and playful. Barbra has it too, on film. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. Although critics wrote mainly about Fanny as a comedienne, one of her greatest hits was “My Man,” which she always sang with her eyes closed, no doubt imagining her first husband, Nick Arnstein. It sounds soulful to me when I listen to it again now, and I think I know why Fanny sang torch songs—because those were the moments when she got to stop playing the funny girl.