- A Hundred Acres of America: The Geography of Jewish American Literary History by Michael Hoberman
BY MICHAEL HOBERMAN
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ: RUTGERS UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2018. 198 PAGES. $28.95.
In A Hundred Acres of America, Michael Hoberman repositions the American landscape within the field of American Jewish literature. Hoberman argues that through their engagement with American topography, American Jewish writers "engage, challenge, and revise the evolving motifs and themes that have shaped American literature at large" (ix). In so doing, Hoberman identifies American geography as a crucible for the formation of American Jewish identity. A Hundred Acres of America analyzes the ways in which Jewish Americans grappled with their lack of territorial agency as diasporic people through their engagement with the American environment.
A Hundred Acres of America not only investigates the changing relationship between American Jews and the American environment, but the transformation of the American environment as a cultural symbol. Hoberman divides the book into prewar geographies: the frontier, the city, and the small town, and postwar geographies: the exurb, the imagined shtetl, and Israel. Through their encounters with prewar American geographies, Jewish American writers both understood and responded to dominant tendencies in American literature and culture. In the postwar period, American Jews struggled to make sense of their newfound privilege and upward mobility. Hoberman contends that Jewish anxiety about white skin privilege inspired a body of literature that was "profoundly American in its idioms but sometimes darkly alienated from America itself" (6–7). [End Page 245]
Each of the six chapters addresses two novels, which are afforded relatively equal attention therein. The first chapter, focused on the frontier, explores Solomon Nunes Carvalho's Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West and I. J. Benjamin's Three Years in America. In both these works, the frontier is closely connected to the city. In seeing modernity on the frontier, Carvalho and Benjamin wrote against the grain of Turner's frontier thesis and dominant American conceptualizations of space. As America approached its centennial, the nation increasingly romanticized the colonial period. By focusing on the contributions of urban colonial Jewry to the Revolutionary cause, early American Jewish historians like Henry Samuel Morais made a case for Jewish rootedness. Moving into the early twentieth century, American Jewish writers challenged the myth of America's agrarian heritage through their depictions of Jews in small-town America. Joseph Leiser's Canaway and the Lustigs and Edna Ferber's Fanny Herself and A Peculiar Treasure emphasize the connections between the rural and the urban by highlighting the role of small-town Jews as agents of economic transformation. In these accounts, fictional and autobiographical, Leiser and Ferber both "challenged dominant mythologies about the nation's pristinely agrarian and culturally homogenous heritage" (59) while at the same time emphasizing the process of change in small-town life. Thus, as Hoberman demonstrates, through the frontier, the city, and the town, American Jewish writers repeatedly challenged the centrality of rural spaces in American culture by centering urban contributions.
Although the topography of America remained the same in the postwar period, the imagined geography of postwar Jewry was vastly reconfigured. No longer staunch urbanites, American Jewry experienced upward mobility through geographic relocation into the suburbs. While dominant narratives of suburbanization decry conformity, Hoberman argues that for Jewish Americans the fear was not conformity, but rather the privileging of the individual over humanity. In both Philip Roth's American Pastoral and Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls, the characters' pastoral fixations prevent them from partaking in either the American or the Jewish community, instead leaving them to act out their individual fantasies against the pastoralized exurban landscape. The fifth chapter returns to the landscape of the Jewish past through Rebecca Goldstein's Mazel and Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated. Hoberman places these works on the margin of a broader topological turn in ethnic narration. Yet unlike African American and indigenous American writers, Jewish American writers struggled to recuperate ancient Jewish heritage within or upon the American landscape. Turning to ancestral lands to construct the idea of Jewish community, these writers wrote...