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  • The Imaginary Jew and the American Poet
  • Hilene Flanzbaum

In 1945, John Berryman, a Catholic poet from rural Oklahoma, won the Kenyon Review’s annual contest for best short-fiction. His eight-page story, “The Imaginary Jew,” features a Southern boy in a New York City college who is brutally attacked after being mistaken for “a Jew.” In that same year, Karl Shapiro, a third-generation American Jew, won the Pulitzer Prize for a collection of poetry called V-Letter. In this volume of poems, written in the Pacific theater where he has been a soldier, Shapiro makes no mention of the Nazis, concentration camps or anything related to the genocide of the Jews. Shapiro, who wrestled with questions of Jewish identity throughout his career, had nothing to say about events in Europe. Berryman, on the other hand, has written a story in which he manifests a ready identification with Hitler’s victims. This essay argues that these two post-war literary events, taken together, provide an opportunity to explore a complex of issues involving the construction of Jewish-American identity immediately following the Holocaust, the politics of the American poet’s vocation in the forties and fifties, and the nature of ethnicity itself—how it has been imagined and enacted in America in the second half of the twentieth century.

In V-Letter, Shapiro steadfastly attaches himself to an idea of American unity, victory and cultural vitality; in contrast, Berryman, like many poets of his generation, declares himself an exile from American culture, and writes a story which features a Gentile character imagining himself the victim of anti-Semitism. At this level, their positions obviously diverge—and indeed, as I will demonstrate, their views of the poet’s social function and utility do differ greatly. Yet, although they disagree about the poet’s role, Berryman and Shapiro similarly deploy ethnicity, both relegating it to a world of invention and both understanding that it metaphorically signals opposition to a national identity. Thus, Shapiro’s repudiation of actual Jewish identity is a way of asserting his commitment to national identity, while Berryman’s embrace of an imaginary Jewish identity is a way of articulating his anti-Americanism.

Further, their discussion of ethnicity sheds light on the role of the American poet in the forties and fifties. In V-Letter when Shapiro [End Page 259] adopts various ethnic masks as a demonstration of the inclusive national spirit, his deferral of ethnicity corresponds to his insistence on maintaining the poet as a central figure to American culture. His subsequent critique of modern poetry aligns with this deferral. Berryman, stationed differently in the poetic debate, also deploys ethnicity as a metaphor for examining the poetic vocation. When he discovers Jewishness, however, he finds a handy trope for imagining the suffering and marginalization he feels in America. For both poets, then, the racial Jew no longer exists. For Shapiro, that Jew has been absorbed by America; for Berryman, the Jew has become a symbol for the alienated American poet—the symbol for himself.

Berryman is not the only imaginary Jew haunting the pages of modern American poetry. In fact, many appear at this time, but little critical attention or explication has followed them. In the years between 1945 and 1963, Randall Jarrell published at least seven poems about the death camps (“Protocols” which appeared in Poetry in 1945, is the first published poem in America about this topic); Berryman’s projected Jewish identity continues into his masterpiece, The Dream Songs (1959–1962); Robert Lowell finds his Jewish ancestor in Life Studies (1959); Charles Olson speaks from inside a concentration camp in The Distances (1951), and of course Sylvia Plath’s holocaust poems are widely-known. While Plath’s use of holocaust imagery in Ariel (1961) has engendered much debate, there has been only the most fleeting mention of these other imaginary Jews, and until now no examination has been made of what their presence might signify either to American literature and culture, or to holocaust studies. 1

Yet even this critical silence is instructive, for it suggests the many theoretical problems attending the artistic response to the Holocaust. If critics in the post-Holocaust world...

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