Isaac Bashevis Singer: Criticism

Not everyone admired Singer's fiction.

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A version of this article appeared on WBUR's online exhibit for the Isaac Bashevis Singer Centennial.

Why do Yiddish readers so often hate I.B. Singer's work, while non-Yiddish readers so often love it? The answer is revealing, and tells us more about what it means to be an American writer than most readers could ever imagine. 

Jealousy and Nostalgia

The too-easy answer, of course, is jealousy. Singer was the only Yiddish writer in the thousand-plus years of Yiddish literary history ever to support himself through writing, and his fame couldn't help but irk Yiddish readers whose favorite writers were ignored while Singer graced the world stage as the "representative" of the Yiddish-speaking world. The almost-too-easy answer is nostalgia.

For Yiddish readers, the world of Jewish life in Eastern Europe was something they knew intimately and whose loss they had suffered wrenchingly, and to many of them, Singer's work managed to both romanticize and trivialize it at once. Meanwhile, non-Yiddish readers simply saw a writer who they unquestioningly accepted as the mouthpiece of an "authentic" Yiddish-speaking past. But there is a deeper reason why Singer has become uniquely appealing to an audience of readers who never read his work in the original, and it is this reason that makes his fiction both so inherently divisive and so inherently compelling: his artistic approach to the problem of evil.

Demons On the Loose

Singer is often cited--sometimes with contempt, more often now with admiration--for his "amorality." His characters are frequently demons, whether in personality or in name, sliding easily into acts of crime and passion. No one in his stories is immune to the ravages of pride and lust. Religious and social mores wither at the slightest challenge, and entire communities collapse under the banner of depravity. Goodness goes unrewarded, while the demons always endure.

For Singer's compromised characters, the only way to escape these forces of corruption is simply to run away--to hide oneself in a closet, like the hero in The Magician of Lublin, or to vanish into the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, like the heroes of Shadows on the Hudson or The Penitent, or to disappear, like the protagonists in "Gimpl the Fool" and Enemies, a Love Story, or, like the protagonist of Shosha, to become a Yiddish writer in New York. But even these endings are barely solutions. The demons still survive.

The Anti-Humanist

It's fair for readers to ask what this might mean. Singer himself liked to hide  behind claims of art-for-art's-sake whenever it proved convenient, proudly declaring that fiction writers have no business making statements while trying to tell a story. And the showmanship that made him famous--his eagerness to play to the crowd, no matter who that crowd might be--makes it hard to pin down what, if anything, the author really believed. But despite his coyness about questions of meaning in his work, one real idea does shine through in his fiction and memoirs over and over again. As he put it in one interview, "The thing I distrust most is humanism."
Let us consider for a moment the profundity of what that means. Humanism is a belief in the power of humanity to better itself and ultimately redeem itself from all of its flaws. In this view of the world--popular in modern times among those who lack religious faith but yearn for the solidity such faith provides--we the people have the capacity to cure any ills, physical or spiritual, that plague us in our world.

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Dara Horn

Dara Horn is the author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning In the Image and The World to Come.