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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51.2 (2005) 249-257

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Modernism's Jews/Jewish Modernisms

This special issue, as its title suggests, considers some of the processes by which Jewish writers shaped literary modernism and the intricate ways modernism was in turn shaped by its figurings of Jews and Jewishness. Although analysis of the political and aesthetic work Jewishness performs for modernist literature is beginning to make its way into studies of modernist negotiations with race, culture, and religion, it is still primarily seen as a side-topic within such inquiries, something to be explored only by those with a "special interest" in Jewish studies. This compartmentalization causes critics to miss the importance of Jewishness as a category through which American, British, and continental modernist writers engaged with racial and cultural difference. In fact, it has been persuasively argued that writers working in various modes of modernist literary production relied on Jewishness to help establish their artistic and political slants. In her discussion of modern American poetry, for example, Rachel Blau DuPlessis asserts that "[f]or both Jews and non-Jews, the imaginary Jew . . . played a rich ideological bogey-role and helped provoke and solidify the articulation of a Christianized high modernism" (141). I would add that alongside the high modernist use of Jews as foils, modernist interventions into prevailing antisemitic1 discourses (by, among non-Jewish writers, Joyce, Jean Rhys, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Auden, and others, and by various Jewish writers) helped form alternative, more inclusive, and often left-leaning conceptions of modernism as well. Indeed, as Bryan Cheyette boldly argues, Jews provide a "key touchstone for the racial [End Page 249] boundaries of European 'culture' and the 'Englishness' of modern English literature. Semitism lies at the indeterminate 'centre' of many of the texts which make up the received literary canon" (Constructions 12).

Given scholars' emphasis during the last few decades on issues of race, nation, sexuality, and gender, of marginality and diaspora, of "minor" literature and canon formation, it is vital to examine the ways in which Jewishness was instrumental to early-twentieth-century imaginings of these sociopolitical categories and processes. To this end, the articles collected here focus on the functions of Jewishness in the work of modernist writers from America, Britain, and continental Europe. Taken together, they make the case that Jewishness—the ways it was conceived, the responses it elicited, all of the conflicting and impossible metaphoric burdens it bore—played a pivotal role in the creation of modernist fiction.

In spite of the wealth of material for analysis, critical study of modernism's use of fictional Jews has been, until the last dozen years, inadequate and in some cases misleading. As Cheyette points out in the book that steered such study into new avenues, many prior critical treatments of Jews in literature offered unhistoricized and depoliticized descriptions of stereotyped Jewish characters, assuming that those stereotypes, "myths," or "images" remained fixed from Chaucer to Joyce. Cheyette, on the other hand, has demonstrated that what he calls "semitic discourse"—the dominant ways a culture understands and represents Jews at a given time—is inherently unstable and ambivalent, structured by contradictions (Constructions 3). Only recently, then, have critics begun to approach representations of Jews and Jewishness in more nuanced and historicized ways.

It is not surprising that this subject was underanalyzed in the decades following the Shoah. The forces of grief and of assimilationist silence made it difficult to approach the topic at all, while the high moral stakes prompted critics who did to fall into simplistic attacks on antisemitic authors or texts or celebrations of sympathetic ones. But in the last few decades, with the debates around identity politics, the rise of cultural pluralism, and the concomitant demise of the melting-pot mentality, why has more attention not been paid to modernist inscriptions of Jewishness? One aspect of this lacuna is curricular. Multicultural literature courses do not usually include Jewish literature, nor do courses on race in modern literature often incorporate analysis of Jewishness. Some ascribe this absence to a strand of left-wing academic antisemitism that...


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