MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 62.3 (2001) 303-307
[Access article in PDF]
The Temple of Culture:
Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America
The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America. By Jonathan Freedman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. vi + 264 pp.
Jonathan Freedman's new book examines the following curious paradox: the figure of the Jew held an importance for nineteenth- and twentieth-century cultural critics and novelists that far exceeded the population or influence of actual Jews. Freedman analyzes this paradox in the work of four major writers: Matthew Arnold, Anthony Trollope, George du Maurier, and Henry James. His larger goal is to show that the figure of the Jew played a critical role in the way that these writers defined "culture." In the final chapters about the recent "culture wars" Freedman tries to demonstrate that the definitions of culture generated in major nineteenth-century texts continue to fascinate and provoke us, Jew and Gentile alike. The book fits well into the recent surge of critical books interested in the role of Jews in British and American culture. It is enormously illuminating in its careful readings. However, a few reservations about its generalizations and uses of history are required.
Freedman's explanation of the paradox is that Jewish figures were attractive for their "lability," their ability "simultaneously to exemplify or symbolize utterly antithetical positions in a cultural debate" (111-12). On the one hand, British and American writers like Arnold, Trollope, du Maurier, and James could see Jews as figures of the artistic sensibility: associated with urbanity, cosmopolitanism, alienation, and nomadism, Jews seemed perfect figures for the alienated artist and intellectual cultivating the highest taste. These writers frequently associated Jews with the development of the arts, particularly with music. On the other hand, the same writers--sometimes in the same texts--saw Jews as vestiges of an ancient world, whose formalistic rituals were dead letters that signified the Jews' lack of a vibrant cultural existence. Jews could appear as the vanguard of European progress or as syphilitic and parasitic aliens whose difference, once admitted, threatened Europe with the onset of racial and cultural degeneration. Because Jewishness could incorporate the ambiguities in the writers' attitude toward the developing notion of culture, the Jew was an immensely useful figure. [End Page 303]
In careful readings Freedman definitively demonstrates that, when purporting to write about Jews and Jewishness, these writers in fact articulated the fears and hopes that they and their readers held about modern life and about their place in its culture. So he argues that Arnold's description of the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine as a failure "chimes with Arnold's vision of his own poetic failures" (47), and in The Function of Criticism at the Present Time Arnold "defines himself in the language of alienness familiar from anti-Jewish propaganda" (48). In Trollope's novel The Way We Live Now, the sinister Melmotte "becomes the embodiment of and a scapegoat for the new kinds of attitudes, understandings, and experiences that a capitalist culture creates" (87). At the same time, Freedman associates Melmotte's habit of fictionalizing his past with "the emotional, pleasure-centered, consumerist, imaginative side of [Trollope's] authorial being" (79). Du Maurier uses the Jewish musical genius and mesmerist Svengali to link "the question of the nature and powers of art, imagination, and artistry" with "the racial politics of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries" (111). Finally, "the Jew became the vehicle through which James staged an encounter with his deepest anxieties about himself, his art, and the relation of both to his culture" (118). Specifically, Freedman argues that James, like Arnold, projects his alienation as a writer onto the Jew but, going further than Arnold, sees this alienation as a result of a "Jewish" social disease: degeneration. In this way Freedman links James's use of Jews and Jewishness with late- nineteenth-century preoccupations with eugenics, capitalist accumulation, and cultural decline.
Given that Freedman is a James scholar, one might expect his readings of the Master...