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SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN Mark Twain and the Jews TURN-OF'THE-CENTURY AMERICAN LITERATURE IS rife with unapologetic anti-Semitism, often voiced during trips by American writers to Europe. On a 1901 visit to Russia, for example, as Louis Harap reminds us in The Image of the Jew in American Literature, Henry Adams writes that the first sight he saw as he looked out of his sleeping car window one morning was "a Polish Jew ... in all his weird horror"; writing home from Warsaw on that trip, Adams noted that the Jew "makes me creep" (338). In an 1896 description of vacationers at a fashionable English resort, Henry James writes, "There were thousands of little chairs and almost as many little Jews, and there was music in an open rotunda, over which the little Jews wagged their big noses" (Embarrassments 93).1 Sometimes comments like these emerged about Jews in the United States, as well. Frank Norris penned an unflattering portrait of "the little Jew" in his novel Vandover and the Brute, and reified Jewish stereotypes in other works, as well {Vandover 136-40; Pit 56-57, 9, 96-97, 102, 103; McTeague 37, 40, 50, 92, 93, 168, 169, 22223 ). Meanwhile Henry James was as repulsed by Jews in New York as Henry Adams had been by Jews in Poland and Russia. In The American Scene in 1907, for example, James reports being disgusted by what he called the "swarming" Jews ofNew York. They reminded him of"snakes or worms" (28). Even a William Dean Howells, known for embracing a robust vision of American democracy and championing the talents of Abraham Cahan, was not immune to voicing anti-Semitic slurs in his writing (Harap 383). (To his credit, when a Jewish reader wrote him objecting to one such stereotype that appeared in a portion of The Rise ofSilas Lapham serialized in Century Magazine, Howells' response was to strike that passage from the novel before it was published.) In popular Arizona Quarterly Volume 61, Number 1, Spring 2005 Copyright © 2005 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 610 138 Shelley Fisher Fishkin fiction and dime novels of the last decades of the nineteenth century, even more than in the work of canonical authors, virulent anti-Semitism was ubiquitous, as Harap has ably shown (303-33, 334-41 ). Against this backdrop, Mark Twain's efforts to challenge anti-Semitism stand out in sharp relief. Twain's most famous attempt to discredit anti-Semitism is, of course, his 1899 essay "Concerning the Jews," a work which has eclipsed other texts by Twain related to this topic. But despite his good intentions, some of his arguments in "Concerning the Jews" have led Jewish readers to ask, "with friends like this, who needs enemies?"2 The conventional wisdom deems Twain a well-meaning, earnest friend of the Jews whose efforts to challenge anti-Semitism were somewhat clumsy, ill-informed, and ultimately harmful, however well-intentioned . When it comes to "Concerning the Jews," I will not unseat that view here. What I will do, however, is attempt to place some of Twain's relatively neglected writings on anti-Semitism in a larger context. To what extent did Twain see resonances between the dynamics ofturn-ofthe -century anti-Semitism in Europe and the dynamics of turn-of-thecentury racism in the U.S.? And how did his efforts to challenge both phenomena relate to each other?3 These are the questions I will explore in some preliminary ways. Twain was prompted to reject the illogic and absurdity of turn-ofthe -century anti-Semitism in Europe for much the same reason he was prompted, from his thirties on, to reject the illogic and absurdity of the racism he had been exposed to in the States all his life. At home and abroad, some of the most admirable and gifted individuals he knew belonged to the race or ethnic group that the mainstream deemed morally base or inferior, to a race or ethnic group which was routinely subjected not just to slurs and disrespect, but to brutal violence with impunity. The 1890s saw the rise of anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe and the rise of lynchings...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 137-166
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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