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  • Jews among the Indians:The Fantasy of Indigenization in Mordecai Richler's and Michael Chabon's Northern Narratives
  • Sarah Phillips Casteel (bio)

It seems to make no difference at all, descendants of East European Jews or Dublin Irish, at home and abroad, everyone who thinks of himself as being in some sense an American feels the stirrings in him of a second soul, the soul of the Red Man.

Leslie A. Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American

In the self-reflexive and rather controversial conclusion to his study The Turn to the Native, the literary critic Arnold Krupat offers an extended meditation on the relationship between his scholarly interest in Native American literature and his working-class, immigrant Jewish origins.1 In a chapter entitled "A Nice Jewish Boy among the Indians," Krupat proposes and then finally dismisses the possibility that his "turn to the Native" was attributable to his ethnic background: "My grandfather was killed for being a Jew just as Native Americans were killed for being what they [End Page 775] were; my grandmother … was a person of oral culture; I grew up in a bounded enclave, the Projects, which has some distant and minimal relation to reservation experience. Yet not even in retrospect, when the impulse to produce causes for effects is particularly acute, does this go very far in explaining why I do what I do" (127). While Krupat "comes out" as Jewish (in Jon Stratton's sense) in this chapter in order to consider parallels between Jewish and Native American experiences of dispossession, he ultimately identifies his underprivileged, working-class upbringing in 1940s and 1950s New York, rather than his Jewishness, as the key factor in determining the direction of his scholarship.2

A different reading of Krupat's "vocational autobiography," however, is suggested by the extent to which it is structured as the narrative of his Americanization. The chapter charts his path from a culturally and economically marginalized Jewish upbringing toward both American values and American literature. It was while spending a year in France that Krupat came to recognize that despite being "a Jewish boy from the New York projects," he was nonetheless "deeply American" (117), a realization that prompted him to shift his academic focus from European to American literature. After devoting his graduate studies and early career to "not quite … canonical" twentieth-century American writers, Krupat encountered in D. H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams the "sense that if you wanted to understand 'America,' you would have to take into account the original, indigenous, Indian presence on this continent" (119). "So, belatedly," he recalls, "it occured to me that for anyone who wanted to think of himself or herself as 'American,' the most important names to explore might not be names in English at all but rather names in the native languages of indigenous America" (120).

Krupat's twin revelations—that he was "deeply American" despite his immigrant Jewish origins, and that to be American is to confront the indigenous presence—correspond to a broader pattern [End Page 776] of indigenizing motifs in twentieth-century Jewish North American culture. The nexus of associations that emerges in Krupat's autobiographical chapter among Jewishness, Americanization, and an interest in Native peoples informs indigenizing gestures that have been made by a variety of historical and fictional "Jews among the Indians." These include social scientists such as Franz Boas (whom Krupat cites as a forefather of sorts), fellow literary critics such as Leslie Fiedler, "redface" stage performers of the early twentieth century such as Eddie Cantor, and a variety of authors who composed Yiddish, Hebrew, and English-language texts on indigenous themes.3 In particular, Krupat's account of his "indigenization" recalls encounters between Jews and Native peoples that feature in several major works of contemporary Jewish North American fiction. My concern in this essay will be with two novels by Mordecai Richler and Michael Chabon that stage the Jewish immigrant fantasy of indigenization against the backdrop of northern frontier landscapes.

I adopt this focus here as part of a larger attempt to situate Jewishness in the context of transcultural, interethnic contact rather than considering ethnic minorities in isolation or purely in terms of...


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