- Contemporary Jewish American Writers and the Multicultural Dilemma: Return of the Exiled
The book’s title and subtitle suggest one of the most useful and interesting aspects: the exploration of a significant body of literary work within the context of recent developments in the profession as a whole. In the introduction Furman argues that recent developments in the field of American literature have placed current Jewish American writers in a double bind. On the one hand the love affair with the Jewish American novel (the popularity of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth) ended in the 1970s, and on the other hand, beginning about 1990 the study of American literature has been dominated by multiculturalism from which Jewish American literature is sometimes omitted.
The two developments relate to the most central issues the profession faces: questions about whether such a thing as literature exists, whether calling some novels literature is simply an elitist political gesture. On what basis should works be called literature? On what basis should works be chosen for inclusion in an anthology? Since universities provide whatever literary education most Americans experience, these questions are critical.
Furman argues that current multiculturalist approaches fall into two categories. The first, the pluralist approach, celebrates the diversity of American cultural backgrounds; the second, oppositional multiculturalism, focuses on the victimhood of minorities and assumes a stance of resistance to oppression. And for oppositional multiculturalists, Jewish Americans, unlike people of color, have not suffered enough of late in America to be included. For example, the editors of Redefining American Literary History attempt to establish a new American literary history “based on multiethnic and multiracial, rather than a European, theory of culture,” the implication being that all European immigrants were the same, that there are no distinct European American literatures. Furman’s argument for including Jewish American literature in minority literature courses is part of a larger political argument which stresses political rather than aesthetic criteria. Perhaps following the Holocaust it is not surprising that Americans read Jewish American writers with particular sympathy and interest, and that as Jewish Americans have become more economically and socially assimilated, interest shifted to other more [End Page 182] exotic victims. American culture is notoriously faddish, and it seems likely to me that multiculturalism is only the latest approach and that a reaction against this political, sociological approach to literature in favor of the aesthetic will occur, in which case, every novel will be judged by its success in literary terms as a novel, not as a depiction of a group.
In addition to raising important questions about multiculturalism and Jewish American literature, Furman also once again grapples with the vexing question of what Jewish American literature is. Actually like most critics he is concerned with the Jewish American novel; Jewish American playwrights like Tony Kushner and Wendy Wasserstein and Jewish American poets like Maxine Kumin and Stanley Kunitz have received little attention for the Jewishness of their writing. After briefly toying with the idea that any novel written by a Jewish American is perforce a Jewish American novel and then rejecting that idea as “a descent into a shabby multiculuralism of bloodlines” Furman argues that Jewish American novels must manifest “concern with Judaism, Jewish culture or other issues relevant to Jewish identity.”
In his chapter on Philip Roth, the oldest and most established writer he considers, Furman argues that despite popular opinion which often focuses on Roth’s exploration of sex and sexuality, Roth has engaged in a decades-long effort to keep his finger on the pulse of Jewish America and explored “the plethora of alternate, often tragic, Jewish identities and fates” in both the Diaspora and Israel. In the following chapters devoted to younger, less established Jewish American writers: Melvin Jules Bukiet, Thane Rosenbaum, Rebecca Goldstein, Robert Cohen, Allegra Goodman, Steve Stern, and Gerald Shapiro, Furman focuses on the Jewish content of the work in question. In Bukiet’s work Furman stresses the theme of the viability of meaningful Jewish identity in a post-Holocaust world...