- The New Jewish American Literary Studies ed. by Victoria Aarons
In the title of this edited collection, The New Jewish American Literary Studies, only the meaning of the word “studies” does not invite scrutiny. Beyond that, each of these words invites discussion, explanation, and debate. Even the order of the words in the title is arguable. Soon after opening the cover, in reading the comprehensive introductory essay by Victoria Aarons, the reader learns that she wanted to call the collection The New American Jewish Literary Studies, but her editor at Cambridge insisted on “Jewish American,” claiming that it was “the accepted term.” Has anyone notified the editors of this journal? Harrumph. More on this later. For now, back to the words themselves, rather than their ordering.
The adjective “new” calls attention to itself. It echoes branding strategies in product development, as in, “buy our new and improved dishwasher soap,” and implicitly dodges the question, what was wrong with the old soap—or indeed the old Jewish American literary studies? In this case, however, nothing was wrong with the old product; on the contrary, the product was too good. The problem lies not in the past, but in the future: we’re out of the old stuff and we’re not sure that we can make anything as good again. In this case, the insertion of the word “new” seems to promise the reader a fresh start, a product so beguiling in itself that memories of the past will pale in comparison. And that’s a tall order.
That golden age of Jewish-American literature (when it was Jewish-American, in that order with no objections, and included a hyphen, also with no objections) so dazzled that nothing since has seemed as bright. The period following The [End Page 214] Great Wave of Eastern European immigration to this country gave birth to a generation of writers who wrestled with rich and easily recognizable subject matter: the lingering imprint of the first generation on their descendants, the problems of immigration and assimilation, the tentative but compelling confrontation with the Holocaust. These topics attracted a wide swath of readers beginning in the postwar period and continuing through the last decades of the twentieth century. The big three, Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, generously garnished by Singer’s Nobel Prize, staked the ground, though dozens of other names were prominent too. Yet these writers enjoyed crossover success. Winning diverse readers and wide critical acclaim, they earned what seemed to be a permanent place in the Jewish American, American, and, arguably, the international canons, as suggested by two Nobel Prizes.
This level of achievement was astonishing, and it was repeated in many academic and non-academic areas. That Jews could, if desired, melt into the American mainstream was perceived as victory, and yet “belonging” provoked an identity crisis that many believe has worsened over the years. In literary studies, the Jewish-American’s insider status coincided with the ascendancy of poststructuralist thought. Along with the tendentious re-evaluation of the “literary” and the subsequent canon wars in all sub-specialties, the explosion of identity politics emerged as the most portentous for Jewish American literary studies. Such realignments prompted a re-evaluation of the big three: Bellow’s reactionary politics, Roth’s alleged misogyny, and Malamud’s parochialism threatened to topple them from what from had once seemed an impregnable high ground. Yet more problematic than any few writers’ shortcomings, the viability of the field itself came under fire. In the wake of multiculturalism or what some cynics called “the oppression Olympics,” Jewish Americans could not compete. In fact, they hardly seemed to matter. Finally, the eternal preoccupation with what people talk about when they talk about being Jewish became an outright crisis as scholars from across the discipline began to correctly view such labelling with the skepticism it deserved. Having barely survived such negotiations in my own career as a literary anthologist—so trained was I in poststructuralism and so influenced by my reconstructionist rabbi’s reassurance that “other religions try to provide answers; Judaism just tries...