restricted access Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905-1914 (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 888-890

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Mikhail Krutikov. Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905-1914. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001. viii + 248 pp.

Few analyses of modern Yiddish literature can avoid the sense of crisis—impending, encountered, rarely averted or overcome—that anchors Mikhail Krutikov's title. At the same time, few can avoid the surprising sense of hope that he finds in the literature of the decade leading up to World War I. Yiddish culture thrived in this age of revolution marked by an energizing range of political, economic, and social [End Page 888] possibilities. Krutikov's study offers the most detailed, nuanced view to date of both the crises and optimism that defined Jewish history and Yiddish literature in this volatile period. The book's major strength lies in its exploration of what its author calls the "ideological polyphony" of the many texts he examines. Thus informed by Bakhtin, but equally by Lukacs, and even more profoundly by the Russian literary historian Yurii Lotman and by Marxist Yiddish critics silenced by Stalin, Krutikov locates his literary subjects within the discourses that first produced them: the Eastern European, primarily Russian milieu from which most American scholars have wrested them.

The book is organized thematically, with close readings of dozens of texts and more than a passing reference to dozens more. Given how little of this material is available in English, Krutikov's critical urge to categorize by offering taxonomies of characters, genres, and periods serves to locate his readers in this array of largely unfamiliar texts and issues. Primary among these categories is one that he derives from Lotman. There are, he argues, two types of textual organization at work in these texts: in one the plot tends to be cyclical, closed, monologic, yielding a "unifying classification of reality"; in the other, the plot is linear, open, polyphonic, focused on transformation and change. In the tension and symbiosis between these categories, Krutikov traces the development of the Yiddish novel.

His first chapter considers the cultural effects of the period's economic changes, as Jews moved from a broker economy to capitalism to a more differentiated modern economic and social structure. The impact of the 1905 revolution and the enormous range of political choices and commitments in which Jews engaged are the subjects of his second chapter. The massive emigration from Russia to the US that he considers in the next chapter produced several new patterns of Yiddish fiction: the conservative, past-oriented, traditionalist approach and the folksy Yiddish language associated with it; the realistic approach, using Yiddish with a clear European tenor and with American-Yiddishisms that reflected the emerging spoken language; and the modernists who moved away from mimesis, experimenting linguistically and including characters whose personalities and language were often highly idiosyncratic.

The fourth chapter moves away from considerations of historical changes in economics, politics, and emigration to represent the "inner life." It turns to the emergence of what Krutikov calls the "new woman" in the newly emerging Yiddish novel. In the shift from the Enlightenment novel of Eastern Europe to the modern Yiddish novel in America, the female character becomes the embodiment of change. We also find a shift from the male hero who shares the values and ambitions of the author to the woman who does not. In [End Page 889] the American context, the male is more lost, less capable of returning to the tradition that had once nurtured him. This analysis is intriguing, but it is based, as Krutikov makes clear, on writings by male authors. In other words, it is the figure of the Jewish woman in the fantasy of male authors that is represented here. We do not encounter a "new woman," but rather a different symbolic use of women. Krutikov is quite right to underscore the inability of earlier classical writers to create independent female characters, but the same statement might well be made of later writers who sought to create ostensibly more modern and autonomous female characters.

Krutikov elucidates the processes leading to the...