- Unfinalized Moments in Jewish American Narrative
In contemporary Jewish American fiction studies, it has become common practice to reference Irving Howe’s pronouncement on what he saw as the waning influence of this literature. So much so, in fact, that the constant citation of it (present essay included) begins to take on the cadence of an ironic mantra, one chanted to invoke the spirit of literary authenticity. One is even tempted, given our sound bite-laden culture, to encapsulate his views with the pithy phrase, “the Howe Doctrine” (these introductory comments, however, will resist the temptation). It all began in the introduction to his 1977 collection of Jewish American stories, where Howe broods over his belief that “American Jewish fiction has probably moved past its high point. Insofar as this body of writing draws heavily from the immigrant experience, it must suffer a depletion of resources, a thinning-out of materials and memories. Other than in books and sentiment, there just isn’t enough left of that experience.”1 To a certain degree, such an outlook is understandable, coming from the author of World of Our Fathers, a text whose foundation is the Jewish immigrant experience. Yet what makes this literary forecast ironically poignant is that it introduces a first-of-its-kind manuscript, the collection of “contemporary” Jewish American narrative. In one fell—yet curious—swoop, Howe celebrates the centrality of Jewish American literature at the same time that he mourns its passing. It is as if a distinguished collector had displayed, for all his guests to see, a grand exhibition of significance. Yet in the process of doing so, he “kills off” the very subject of his admiration, much as a butterfly collector must place his specimens in ethyl acetate before they can be properly mounted and showcased. The very act of finalizing the literary moment secures its place in history, creating in the process an inert yet brilliant museum piece.
While such a simile may appear excessive on first reading, one should keep in mind that Howe was not alone in ringing the death knell, or perhaps reciting the Kaddish. In a 1976 article Ruth Wisse, a critic that Howe himself cited to confirm his suppositions, uses rhetoric that is strikingly similar to Howe’s. “The career of American Jewish [End Page 1] literature would seem to have reached a turning point,” she provocatively asserts, eventually concluding that “[f]or those who take Judaism seriously as a cultural alternative, and wish to weave new brilliant cloth from its ancient threads, the sociological reality of the present-day American Jewish community would seem to present an almost insurmountable obstacle.”2 Perhaps even more dour, although not nearly as referenced as Howe’s or Wisse’s, is Leslie Fiedler’s unequivocal assertion roughly ten years later that “the Jewish-American novel is over and done with, a part of history rather than a living literature.”3 These grim predictions serve as a backdrop, ironically enough, for what has become over the past few years an emergent body of scholarship on the most contemporary generation of Jewish American writers. The present special issue of Shofar is just the latest in this ongoing recognition. With a variety of forms and focusing on a diversely rich selection of writers, the contributors to this volume assert the ongoing vitality of Jewish American fiction. They find in authors such as Allegra Goodman, Michael Chabon, Rebecca Goldstein, Pearl Abraham, Jonathan Rosen, Nathan Englander, Melvin Jules Bukiet, Tova Reich, and Jonathan Safran Foer an argument against the kind of finality reported by Howe, Wisse, and Fiedler. Or, to paraphrase another famous literary dictum, each of the seven essays in this collection underscores the fact that reports of the death of Jewish American fiction are greatly exaggerated.
During the past ten years, and especially since the late 1990s, there has been a growing critical awareness of what many have seen as a Jewish American literary revival. In 1992 Ted Solotaroff and Nessa Rapoport published Writing Our Way Home, a collection of short stories that emphasizes the post-immigrant as well as the post-assimilation experience. This thematic focus, they argued, resulted in a...