- Zangwill: From Mattress Grave to Sunrise of Wonder
“To be Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in one,—what a tragedy!” Heinrich Heine half-seriously laments, as he sums up his controversial life in Israel Zangwill’s “From a Mattress Grave.” “When they have written three tons about me,” Heine further insists from his deathbed, “they shall as little understand me as the cosmos I reflect” (Atlantic [End Page 485] Monthly, 80 [December 1897], 743). In this neglected short story included later in Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898), Zangwill, who was well versed on Heine’s life and work at least as early as 1894, was possibly also fantasizing about his own posthumous literary reputation.
There is no doubt that Zangwill, who published his first story at the age of seventeen, craved fame throughout his life. As Meri-Jane Rochelson writes in A Jew in the Public Arena, “the extent to which Zangwill cared about such publicity may be measured by the quantity of newspaper cuttings he collected.” Extant today, she continues, are “sixty files of cuttings (clippings) collected throughout his career, at least eighteen of these in the form of bound albums or scrapbooks.” At least one contemporary reported that Zangwill kept a trunk full of press notices.
Nevertheless, as Rochelson’s well-written and well-researched biography also reports, Zangwill’s posthumous reputation suffered despite his career-long efforts to manage his public image. While the press coverage of Zangwill’s death in 1926 was extensive, as befitted the 1923 Time cover celebrity, interest in his voluminous writings nonetheless dwindled. There were many factors contributing to this decline, including “changing tastes at the dawn of modernism.” However, the conflicting ideational elements found in Zangwill’s writings also had a long-term impact on his posthumous status.
Late in his life, Rochelson explains, Zangwill “recognized the difficulties that arose from his attempts to treat complexities in complex terms, to treat each issue on its own merits without regard for consistency in his statements. Clearly, too, he was not about to change his ways so that the public and the press would give him an easier ride.” It is not surprising, then, that after his death Edith Zangwill seems to have “recognized the dangers for both biographers and posterity in her husband’s self-contradictions, whether these occurred through changes of heart or because of changes in pragmatic realities.”
But it could be argued that Zangwill possibly saw himself as a perplexing figure as early as “From a Mattress Grave.” Curiously, in this story Heine’s prophecy about being little understood after his death anticipates the fate of Zangwill’s own public perception.
Zangwill’s attraction to the underappreciated German expatriate derives in part from his fascination with Romantic notions about misunderstood artists. But something much deeper is registered in “From a Mattress Grave,” something akin to a secret shared between authors both misunderstood precisely because they mutually tapped into life’s deepest wells. At least as early as this short story, it seems, Zangwill [End Page 486] was shaping his literary aesthetic somewhat around the frayed late-Romantic notion that lasting literary fame emerged out of art’s provocative resistance to reductive, bottom-line and status-quo expectations.
In “From a Mattress Grave,” in fact, Heine compares himself to Prometheus, the prototype of the rebel punished for revealing forbidden knowledge. For Zangwill, as for his Heine, great art is confounding because it reflects life in all of its confusing welter of tragic pain and comic joy perplexingly coursing together in inexplicable mystery. As Zangwill’s Heine succinctly puts it: life resists rational explication because it seems “the dream of an intoxicated divinity”—a quotation, incidentally, translated from Heine’s Reisebilder [Pictures of Travel] (1826–1831).
This Romantic self-perception may be another layer to what Rochelson aptly sees as Zangwill’s identification with Heine in this short story as a “displaced European, defiantly not French although living in Paris, and not truly German; yet he is lauded by Europe as one of...