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Imagining Each Other:
Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature
Ethan Goffman, Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature. Albany: State U of New York P, 2000. xiii + 262 pp.
With Imagining Each Other, Ethan Goffman makes a solid contribution to the burgeoning field of Black-Jewish Studies. Academic interest in Black-Jewish relations (however one construes all the ground that phrase is meant to cover) took a decided upturn in the 1990s. Collections of essays edited by Jack Salzman, Paul Berman, Salzman and Cornel West, Maurianne Adams and John Bracey; literary studies by Emily Miller Budick and others; and works on Hollywood and visual arts by Michael Rogin and Millie Heyd--just to name the most obvious handful--helped establish a new research agenda for studies of the "real world" and "representational" events, rhetorics, and images, connecting the two groups. Taken together, these newer works have advanced our understanding of "Black-Jewish relations" most of all by reminding us that there is no concrete set of historical activity that constitutes this cultural formation; instead, it is now generally accepted that "Black-Jewish relations" signifies a complex web of articulations, some rooted in historical reality, some not.
But where do literary scholars fit into this relatively new academic domain? Herein lies the confusion. At bottom, Ethan Goffman's book is a [End Page 1027] reasonably straightforward attempt to come to grips with how Jewish authors have thematized African Americans and how African-American authors have thematized Jews. Taking a chronological approach, Goffman charts Black-Jewish literary relations over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. He offers good close readings of some very familiar texts, particularly for those with even a passing interest in the subject, such as Bernard Malamud's The Tenants and Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet, and also recovers some largely forgotten work (Jay Neugeboren's Sam's Legacy, for instance).
The problem with Goffman's approach, however, is that he wants to use these works of literary fiction as a scaffolding to build a larger analysis of "Black-Jewish relations." Goffman announces that a "chronological analysis of key literary works is [. . .] simultaneously a reading of historical and social events." But nowhere does he satisfactorily explain the slippage (or "imaginative leap," to be more generous) from literature to history and sociology. For this usage to be convincing, Goffman would have to apply either some good old historicism (rooting his literary readings in a context derived from other sources, be they census data, newspaper articles, speeches, or social histories) or some good new historicism (evocative juxtapositions of texts and emblematic historical moments)--or both.
There is to my mind, a political problem--or at least an issue of sensitivity--that develops when Goffman slips from literature to sociological generalization. For instance, after a reading of Amiri Baraka's nationalist-phase poetry (whose anti-Semitic imagery was long ago repudiated by Baraka), Goffman worries that some people "who read Baraka may take him literally." This kind of crude reader-response criticism seems ill placed in a book that hardly ever concerns itself with the social effects of imaginative literature. Too often, Goffman makes glib historical pronouncements (as when he writes that "in this country, the two groups share powerful memories, religious identifications, and historical traumas" or when he confuses anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism) just where he should be emphasizing the contributions of his thematic criticism.
Every chapter in the book demonstrates convincingly that Jews and African Americans have frequently reflected on their status in the United States through literary constructions of the other. Imagining Each Other works best when it focuses on what shape these reflections have [End Page 1028] taken. With interesting readings of Black hypermasculinity and Black emasculation in works by Jewish authors, for instance, Goffman uncovers a fascinating strand of Black-Jewish imaginative relations that is drenched in concerns about and shape larger debates on manhood and sexuality. Goffman has a good...