- Against the Unspeakable: Complicity, the Holocaust, and Slavery in America, and: Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature
The past decade has seen the publication of a number of well-regarded literary studies that have considered African American and Jewish American literature side by side. Scholars such as Emily Miller Budick, Ethan Goffman, Adam Zachary Newton, and Eric Sundquist have largely focused on the ways that writers from these two vastly different literary traditions represent each other. At the same time, their studies remain cognizant of how such an investigation of inter-minority relations can inform more broadly American literary scholarship, especially in the areas of race and ethnicity. Two recent scholarly books, Catherine Rottenberg's Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature and Naomi Mandel's Against the Unspeakable: Complicity, the Holocaust, and Slavery in America, are also centered on comparative analyses of texts from the canons of Jewish and African American literary and cultural studies. Both of these books, however, establish new paradigms for comparative ethnic [End Page 219] studies. Rather than constructing a dialogue between Jewish and African American texts that illuminates historical relations between blacks and Jews, these books treat the two bodies of work alongside each other in order to intervene in critical theory, building upon existing theoretical accounts of the performativity of identity in Rottenberg's case and radically challenging notions of the limits of representation that have dominated scholarship in the field of trauma studies in Mandel's.
Rottenberg's Performing Americanness focuses on early-twentieth-century Jewish American writers Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska, whose works follow immigrant protagonists in the process of becoming American, and contemporaneous African American writers James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen, whose novels feature mixed-race characters in the process of negotiating the color line, usually by passing for white. As her title suggests, Rottenberg is interested in what the recurring trope of performance in modern Jewish and African American literature has to tell us about American identity. She demonstrates that these texts cannot only be read through the lens of performativity (the idea, deriving from Judith Butler's work in gender theory, that identity is constituted through a series of reiterated speech acts), but that close readings of the literature also offer opportunities to develop further notions of performative identity. In particular, Rottenberg views these texts as an occasion to explore the dangers of simply transposing Butler's theory of gender performativity on to other categories of identity such as race and class.
In chapter 1 Rottenberg analyzes Cahan's classic immigrant novel The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) to make a case for what she calls "performativity in context." By comparing David Levinsky's attempts to replicate differing masculine norms through performances in the Old World and the New, she shows that gender ideals are not monolithic and "demonstrates the impossibility of any subject ever fully" achieving hegemonic ideals (17). Chapter 2 turns to Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), a text often dissected through the lens of performativity, including by Butler herself. Rottenberg uses Passing to map out differences between race and gender performativity. She locates a crucial distinction in regulatory norms to explain why performances of race and gender operate differently: while heteronormativity relies upon a binary in which there are two ideal genders (masculine and feminine), racist systems of identification depend upon a binary logic in which only one position, whiteness, is held up as ideal. Chapter 3 shifts its focus to class, looking at Yezierska's Salome of the Tenements (1923) to show that class operates differently from race and gender because of its construction as non-essential, a construction that underlies the ideology of the American dream. This, in turn for Rottenberg, explains why class passing is less threatening than race and gender passing.
In chapter 4 Rottenberg directly compares a...