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In the Mainstream is the second book of a three-volume survey of the Jewish presence in American literature. Louis Harap's first volume, Creative Awakening, dealt with the earlier decades of the century. Here he focuses on the 1950s to the 1980s. The last volume of the trilogy—Dramatic Encounters—concentrates on drama, poetry, humor, and the black-Jewish literary relationship. These volumes follow and owe much to his 1974 comprehensive The Image of the Jew in American Literature: From Early Republic to Mass Immigration. [End Page 260]
As a highly selective survey, In the Mainstream works fairly well. But readers will be disappointed if they expect to be rewarded with depth and breadth in this book. Harap mostly skims the surface of the many complex problems he broaches. Early on, for example, he notes the influence on Jewish thought and literature in three important journals: The Menorah Journal, Partisan Review, and Commentary. In this context he supplies brief portraits of key critics and their contributions: Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, Leslie Fiedler, and Irving Howe. For Harap, a crucial word describing these critics is "acculturation." That is, they were second-generation American-Jewish intellectuals who in their thoughts and writing became immersed in American intellectual and literary life, but they had not become assimilated, had not renounced all ties to their Jewish backgrounds. Thus in their writings they often bridged the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. Moreover, Harap emphasizes, for these journals Jewishness was often peripheral, and therefore "the essential work of Partisan, later assisted by Commentary, was to contribute to the consolidation of the modernist trend in fiction, criticism, and literature in general and to its acceptance in American literary life." Unfortunately, a number of recent in-depth studies such as Alexander Bloom's Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World receive no mention by Harap.
He labels the 1950s "The Jewish Decade" in American letters and singles out major novelists Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer as his exemplars. To each, and to Delmore Schwartz and Isaac Rosenfeld, he devotes a chapter and does spend more time with these writers in analysis rather than quick survey.
He highlights Bellow as the most Jewish writer of the major Jewish-American novelists of mid-century because Bellow, more than his contemporaries, "clung to the basic Jewish affirmation of the value of life" in his fiction. Moreover, he claims that Bellow "had deeper insight into, knowledge of, Jewish cultural values than any other major Jewish writer of the time."
Harap sees Malamud's centrality as a Jewish writer in his depiction of the Jew in fiction as "symbol of existential man," whereas Philip Roth, he believes, accepts his Jewishness as a fact of life and thus brings Jews and the Jewish milieu into his fiction as a matter of course. Mailer, Harap notes, is even further removed from his Jewish background than is Roth. More and more, he says, Mailer has distanced himself from his Jewish roots as he imposed a Hemingwayesque and later Reichian mode on his writing.
Toward the end of Harap's survey he touches on Chaim Potok, Arthur Cohen, and Cynthia Ozick, who, he believes, have introduced the religious trend in Jewish-American literature. Although he argues that Ozick may be one of the most powerful of the new Jewish writers in America, her narrow vision limits her work.
One cannot fault Harap's major thesis that early on the ignorance, anti-Semitism, or sentimentality of non-Jewish writers gave a distorted view of Jews in American literature and that when serious Jewish critics and novelists surfaced and acquired an audience, one saw reflected in general American and Jewish-American literature a more realistic Jew in literature. However, in a day when serious journals such as Prooftexts, Modern Judaism, and Studies in American Jewish Literature meticulously probe the nuances of Jewish-American literature, when whole issues of standard journals such as Modern Fiction Studies are given over to Saul Bellow...