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Martin Japtok’s Growing Up Ethnic: Nationalism and the Bildungsroman in African American and Jewish American Fiction enters a crowded library of books comparing black and Jewish literature: from Emily Miller Budick’s Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation (1998), to Adam Zachary Newton’s Facing Black and Jew (1999), to the recent Strangers in the Land by Eric Sundquist (2005), just to name a few. All of these books cover common terrain, but each is unique in its approach and methodology. Newton’s Facing Black and Jew, for example, is a bracing and deeply intellectual work of comparison using the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas as an ethics of intertextuality. Budick’s book organizes readings around specific [End Page 889] social and historical phenomenon, understanding the literature as documentation and commentary. Sundquist’s Strangers in the Land, the most recent, is encyclopedic in its comprehensive detail and authoritative judgments. Japtok insists that comparing literary responses to slavery and the Holocaust—as Sundquist does—is near impossible and not to be attempted. (Woe to the one who publishes on the same topic in the same year as Sundquist!) I mention this at the outset because Japtok introduces his book by distinguishing it from these and others. In contrast to previous work, Japtok states flatly that he is not concerned with how the two groups, blacks and Jews, viewed or wrote about each other. Rather, he is interested in how writers from each view themselves. He concedes politics, historiography, sociology, and theory to other critics, reserving for his work the realm of literary similarities and differences. That should be enough to build a book on, though it must be said, this one is rather slim.
What really sets this book apart from others like it is its early twentieth-century focus, before the famous and (famously fractured) black-Jewish political alliance. Japtok draws together authors rarely compared across cultures, including James Weldon Johnson, Samuel Ornitz, Edna Ferber, Jessie Fauset, Anzia Yezierska, and Paule Marshall. Japtok examines these writers’ innovations on autobiographical and bildungsroman fiction. The bildungsroman is a fit genre for exploration because its conventions evince the tension between an individual and his or her wider environment, and with those conventions ethnic writers can explore the perils of assimilation or the price of nationalism. Of course, these themes have been amply explored by modernist critics, but rarely in cross-cultural comparison. “Crosscultural” is in question, actually. Insistently focused on literature, Japtok clarifies that while he will draw on the cultural criticism of others, he will remain focused on literary encounters. This strikes at the heart of the criticism of comparative work. Sidestepping the difficulty of deep expertise in two cultural traditions, Japtok uses the literary framework as the common terrain for the comparison. Readers should approach the book expecting to learn about the function of the bildungsroman and not necessarily to learn about either literary tradition.
The book devotes chapters to passing, community solidarity, and then individualism, with a fourth and concluding chapter that theorizes the preceding chapters. Students of ethnic American literature will notice the familiar dilemmas of the immigrant or upwardly mobile ethnic American: the experience of double consciousness, of representing your group affirmatively yet with insight, and of striking out as an individual while still sustaining the nurturing ties to your community. Japtok precisely observes a steady stream of similarities [End Page 890] and some differences, but the implications of each are often limited to dry observations without a sustained analysis. We are frequently told novels are linked without an exploration of what the very nature of that linkage is. If texts are linked because they are formally or structurally similar, then Japtok is right to say that the authors’ experiences “growing up ethnic,” are somewhat similar as well. This approach seems narrow, however, and fairly uninvolved in the lateral context wherein these authors actually grow up. A related problem is that Japtok mostly hands off expert commentary on social, cultural, and theoretical matters to others. Consequently...