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Jewish Gangsters of Modern Literature
Rachel Rubin. Jewish Gangsters of Modern Literature. U of Illinois P, 2000. xi + 189 pp.
In Jewish Gangsters of Modern Literature, a smart, fresh look at several previously neglected modernists, Rachel Rubin challenges pieties about modernism's self-contained nature by building upon the insights of a [End Page 494] previous generation of critics such as Cary Nelson, Barbara Foley, Paula Rabinowitz, and others whose sophisticated criticism was sympathetic to both the art and politics of radical writers from the 1930s. Treating gangster stories written by activists with the kind of attention to language, structure, and allusiveness that was once reserved for The Waste Land and Ulysses, Rubin uncovers the literary interest as well as the political legitimacy of radical literature of the 1930s while twisting the new paradigm into the areas of ethnic studies, popular culture, and the construction of gender. Although she makes nods to discussions of "gangster" films ranging from Little Caesar (1930) to Woody Allen's Bullets over Broadway (1994), Rubin's focus is squarely on the written word. She deciphers the literary and cultural meanings of the Jewish gangster as found in the stories and novels of four specific Jewish authors (three American, one Russian) who wrote most of their work from the 1910s to the 1930s—Isaac Babel, Mike Gold, Samuel Ornitz, and Daniel Fuchs. The range of gangster imagery is quite striking as it appears in fiction by different authors over several decades, but in general Rubin's narrative is one of decline. She begins her study with Babel's romanticized portrait of the Odessan Benya Krik (Benny the Yell) from the early 1920s. A passionate figure and "ur" gangster for the Jewish-American novelists who followed in Babel's wake, Krik's polyglot linguistic facility (he conveys the speech patterns of Cossacks, peasants, Jews, and street criminals, among others) and his underworld power made him a rogue hero even as his persona may have played into antisemitic caricatures of Jews as criminals. For Rubin, Benny is a figure of the modern artist in that he transgresses the established social and literary borders while defying the image of the Jew as underdog and victim. Meyer Hirsch, the main character of the American writer Samuel Ornitz's fictional autobiography, Haunch, Paunch and Jowl (1923), is far less attractive as a gangster character than was Benya Krik. Hirsch's rise to political influence—he ends up as a physically bloated (hence the novel's title) and comfortably tenured member of the New York judiciary—was based on electioneering, child prostitution, and, in the realm of artistic production, upon profiteering on African-American music. A figure of the ethnic outsider and American artist in a capitalistic system, he may be lauded for transgressing social borders in his interest in jazz. As Rubin argues, however, Hirsch may be criticized for his exploitation of African-American music because he profits from it. [End Page 495]
Perhaps Rubin's most important revisionary work is recovering the novelist, essayist, and activist Mike Gold as a self-consciously literary author. In a brilliant intertextual reading, she compares the style of the much maligned ending of Jews Without Money, in which Mikey discovers revolutionary politics as his salvation, to the rhapsodic closing pages of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, suggesting that Gold "has more in common with the modernist project than is generally allowed." Gold's Mikey is an example of what Paul Brienes referred to as a "tough Jew," or one whose violent bravado is designed to repudiate the image of the Jew as a victim or weakling. Gold's gangster is Rubin's example of the Jewish urban artist as ethnic outlaw who bootlegs his way into the canon. Like other male modernists such as Hemingway, Gold links authorship not to intellectual pursuits, but to martial experience, manliness, and being part of an all-male gang known as the Avengers, and brings a strong whiff of homophobia and antifeminism to...