Accidents of Influence
Writing as a Woman and a Jew in America
Publication Year: 1992
Published by: State University of New York Press
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Though I began to publish fiction in 1959, it was not until 1973 that I risked my first foray into direct statement, unprotected by masks of fictional characters and voices. I have left these essays and short pieces as they originally appeared except for changes to omit duplications of reference or to clarify the intention of the writing, but without bringing them up to date with books or opinions that...
1. A Holocaust Mentality
The Holocaust and the American-Jewish Novelist
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I was surprised to find myself asked to be a speaker at a conference on Holocaust writing. The reason I was asked, I was told, was because I was one of the very few American fiction writers to have treated the subject. I began to wonder why. Why so few had written, and why this conference, for which a lone writer had to be searched out and tapped. From there it was a short step to wondering about who had...
Simone Weil-A Dissenting View
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Simone Weil had the kind of genius that marshals all fact, all history, all literature, all culture to one consuming interest. With her great learning, she strove to connect fragments of Pythagorean geometry, Jesus, Krishna, Plato, American Indian tales (the marriage of Dirty-Boy and the daughter of the chief becomes the Incarnation and the Redemption), Gilgamesh and Sanskrit, the Cather...
The Bird Has No Wings: Letters of Peter Schwiefert
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In 1938, Peter Schwiefert, a half-Jew, fled Nazi Germany to live as a self-declared Jewish refugee-first in Portugal, where he was imprisoned, then in Athens, where he was penniless. Peter's father, a playwright, and his stepfather, a member of an influential Prussian family, were gentiles. Peter's Jewish mother passed for German. All were furious at him for leaving. Under their protection,...
Bernard Malamud and the Accidents of Influence
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"As a writer," Bernard Malamud said in an interview in the seventies, "I've been influenced by Hawthorne, James, Mark Twain, Hemingway, more than I have been by Sholom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz." More recently, Malamud mentioned Michael Seide as an influence. I eagerly tracked down Seide's short-story collection The Common Thread, published in 1945, and found a sensibility and...
The Literature of Contempt
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More than ten years ago, when I was teaching a fiction writing seminar at the University of Pennsylvania, I learned that my office was the one Philip Roth used when he taught there. My desk, I became acutely aware, was his desk-and in a drawer was a newspaper clipping with a photograph of Roth, though I myself may have put it there. It was a stern portrait, Roth's dark brows drawn...
The Second Life of Holocaust Imagery
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Recently an eminent Jewish historian claimed that what readers of Holocaust literature want is not more documentation, but someone to infuse meaning into the terrible facts. What readers want, the historian said, is novelists. Jewish tradition has always been more than text; it has also been the experience of text. Not only what occurred or was said, but how it is interpreted-commentary. When the tradition was...
On T. S. Eliot: Geniuses and Anti-Semites
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How are we to think about them, our literary geniuses and intellectuals who are anti-Semites-casual or rabid, now-and-then, or through and through? The poet W. H. Auden proposed one point of view: Time ... Worships language and forgives Everyone by whom it lives; Pardons cowardice, conceits Lays its honours at their feet. Time that with this strange excuse Pardoned Kipling and his views, And will pardon Paul...
Hunting Metaphors and Nazis
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Frederick Busch's fictions, widely praised for their clarity and dignity, celebrate rural life in New England and the Midwest. In Invisible Mending,* Mr. Busch gives us something else-Zimmer, New York Jew and first-person narrator, whose voice is nervous, sentimental, wisecracking, garrulous. "Can I come home?" is the plea Zimmer recalls from his panicked childhood; the phrase applies as...
"I Had the Distinct Impression Death Was Jewish": E. L. Doctorow
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I am not among those reviewers of E. L. Doctorow's World's Fair* who want to take the author to task (the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books) for passing off as novel a book that seems essentially memoir. The opposite view holds for me: Doctorow's skill at securing readers by evocation alone, without aids of plot or suspense, inspires my admiration. And yet I find...
Norman Mailer's Holocaust-Poisoned Jews
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In the matter of anti-Semitic portraits, Shakespeare's Shylock is probably as sympathetic and enlightened as we can hope to have. Shakespeare's Jew is not demonic: he is governed by cause and effect. His poisoned soul has its reasons. Shylock suffers at the hands of gentiles, and when he finds his own hand strengthened he becomes the horror we know-demander of his pound of flesh.
The Fate of Anne Frank's Diary
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Why is Anne Frank's diary so treasured throughout the world, translated into fifty different languages, presented in stage dramatizations to wide acclaim, and nowhere more so than in Germany? In an important way, Anne Frank's diary, just as much as it is a Holocaust book, is also a charming story of The Little Family in the Secret Annex, hidden cozily together there-mother, father,...
Justice for Jonah, or, a Bible Bartleby
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Show me a text that speaks of God's unbounded mercy, and images of the Holocaust appear before my eyes. It's not anything I can help. Theology doesn't help. This is visceral. I don't imagine I'm alone in this. Perhaps my generation will have to die out in the desert before God can appear again on an untarnished mercy seat. Such a return is essential for the healthy nurture of the human...
Minority Writers and the Mainstream: Telling Stories in the Houses We Create
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During a New England stay I visited writers' houses-Emerson's and Hawthorne's Old Manse at Concord, the site of Thoreau's shack at Walden Pond-and from the street beyond the garden (having arrived on the wrong day) sent a longing eye through what I hoped was the window of Emily Dickinson's room in her father's house at Amherst. Stripped of the messy heat of living, such houses...
Notes Toward a Holocaust Fiction
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1. THE BOY IN THE PHOTOGRAPH Having completed a story,'~ I feel puzzled. The story is a fiction based on truth (though with altered characters and point of view), an almost-memoir about the way something happened: a trip to Vienna with my husband, who was born there. With or without these fictional changes, the story asks the one question I believe worth asking: How, after the Holocaust, can we live now?
2. Life Notes
On Living in Two Cultures
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When the question is asked: "As a Jew in America, how do you feel living in two cultures?" my answer is that I'm relieved to know that it is only two cultures with which 1 am struggling. I thought it was more. Two cultures, after all, is only the usual difficulty. We can all cite examples apart from Jewish life. I'll give only two that have recently impressed themselves on me. The first is a friend of...
Writing as a Woman and a Jew in America
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I am a third generation Jewish woman in America, and in the two generations of women who preceded me I have known two violently opposed extremes. Writing, woman, Jew. I name them in the order of discovery. From an early age I knew that a writer was what I wanted to be. Love of words gave me the patience, and acute shyness the desperate need to figure out a way of communicating other than face-to-face.
Friday Night Fever
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Here we are a writer's group composed of Jewish women and someone suggests we have an all-women's shabbos meal together on Friday night and I ask does anybody feel uncomfortable about leaving the family, after all it's a family night? There's a bad silence and then one woman says if we think that way we might as well be back in the Ark. I wonder for a second what that means-the Ark.
A Women's Service
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One Sabbath morning a Learned Woman, along with a little band of equally Learned Women, called for me at my home in a Boston suburb. From Brookline, we began our walk in the direction of Cambridge. Into the town of Alston, past the clutter of buildings and stores and nothing to refresh the spirit except a wedge of pizza from "The Leaning Tower of ... ," which of course we don't avail...
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An invention: Let us suppose a woman who wants to enter the new territory of feminist thinking through books. She is thirtyish, a homemaker and mother of small children. Let's call her Fredericka, because it is a derivative of a man's name; and let's say that before now she received her image of herself from men. In college, male teachers teaching ideas held by men about "man"; in novels, male...
On the Dearth of Female Intellectuals
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"The search for writers who are intellectuals and women is a tough one," Norman Mailer said at the PEN Congress. Writer-intellectuals were what was wanted for the panels, but few women could be found to fill the bill. As if to underscore female indifference to matters of mind, a number of women who merited invitations did not even bother to show up.
Her Price above Rubies
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My friend B has a tighter schedule than most but has always enjoyed it. She is up at 5 A.M., runs to a jogging track on the grounds of a neighborhood school, runs there from 5 :30 to 6:00 A.M., then runs home and breakfasts with her school-age children, drives to her full-time job at a school in Queens, is home in time to swim a half hour's worth of laps in a Y pool, then to supper and...
Low Thoughts Among the High-Minded
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What is the point of a stubbornly recurring memory? Does it prod us to recoup the past in a recuperative way? "So that's what that meant," we say at last when consciousness lays a disentangling finger on a hardened knot of memory. Such recognition is not always pleasing. Still, there's the relief, the release, the knot untied. Emotions about the family in which one grew up take a lifetime to unravel, and even then .... The...
Sons and Mothers
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From the moment 1 noticed her, the woman em the platform of the suburban station looked familiar. 1 felt 1 knew her. More than that, she was someone 1 liked. As the train pulled in we moved together and found facing seats. With our knees companionably locked, we smiled encouragement at each other. "I know you from somewhere." The woman opened the collar of her coat and told her names. The last had an unpleasant association...
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Word having gotten around that I was at work on a novel about abortion, I was continually surprised by women who volunteered information about themselves. They, too, they felt I should know, had had abortions. It was never lightly said-always gravely, as if imparting a trust, yet always surprisingly, spontaneously, the pent-up information sought its own way toward release.
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We were going to move to another state with our two small children after what was for me a lifetime in New York City. Yet I hadn't the sense to be scared. I knew no more about what I was leaving than our landlord, who would have been shocked to learn that his old apartment house represented an Eden of harmony to his tenants. Families lived there whose lives gripped other lives so...
The World's First Crop
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When we moved our small family to a suburb of Boston, we were lucky enough to meet another family lonelier than we were. Neither the man nor the woman had any kin closer than the West Coast; ours were in New York. They had three small children. Except for them and us, they knew no one. My heart went out to the J-'s. Through allergies, accidents, birthdays, holidays, sorrows, joys, husband-wife fights, they had...
Sometimes I Feel Like a Siblingless-Child
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Now that both my children have left for college I marvel at how such an inappropriate metaphor as the empty nest has taken hold. "Empty nest" is all wrong. No one has ever seen a bird mope about a nest after the departure of its young. The parent birds are off like a shot. How can a few weeks out of a spring and summer be compared with eighteen years of proximity to a child? During...
An Immoral Tale
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My aunt tells the story of a woman of her generation who, in the Depression thirties, perpetrated an extraordinary hoax, even for those desperate times. She was clever and young and energetic, also poor and with few prospects. Her fiance having abandoned her in early pregnancy, she set out to locate, among the obituary listings, details about some freshly widowed childless gentleman who was...
William Faulkner and the Art of Ruthlessness
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I remember how she looked on the TV screen-a perfectly groomed, calm-voiced woman. Her softly Southern tones were controlled and even, betraying no tremor of the internal shock her father's words must have produced in her. She was William Faulkner's daughter, and, she was saying, one day she made a request that meant a great deal to her. She had seen in her father certain signs that meant one of his periodic drinking...
The Luck of the Trip
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Even in these days of easy access, foreign travel can still hold something of the mysterious and the magical: the unaccustomed can release soundings from the deep. "For the world ... ," in Matthew Arnold's words, is "so various, so beautiful, so new .... " Yet it is the same world that is "Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight." Various kinds of luck go with us when we travel, little seeming...
"Wadja Geffa Christmas, Li'l Boy?"
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Once upon a time, at that darkest season of the year that strikes so dismally on the soul that humankind since its beginning has been impelled to light lights, tell stories, come together in reverence as well as revelry, and in general do everything it can to dispel gloom and encourage optimistic attitudes, I found myself in a Woolworth's with my six-year-old son a few days after Christmas.
Reclaiming [Includes Back Cover]
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The way they tell it in my family, at first there was no Hanukkah. My immigrant grandparents, once pious, felt overwhelmed, it seemed, by six children clamoring for melting-pot America. In December, presents were exchanged. It wasn't Christmas, but it wasn't Hanukkah either. The calendar obliged: it juxtaposed, or even overlapped, the holidays. Assimilation? Hardly. The family dinner was likely to be pot...
Page Count: 210
Publication Year: 1992
Series Title: SUNY series in Modern Jewish Literature and Culture
Series Editor Byline: Sarah Blacher Cohen