American Naturalism and the Jews: Garland, Norris, Dreiser, Wharton, and Cather.
Donald Pizer has been an authority on American literary naturalism for over fifty years. His new book, American Naturalism and the Jews, however, marks the first time in his prolific career that he directly addresses the subject of antisemitism among authors about whom he has written for decades. Although Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Edith Wharton are considered naturalists, Hamlin Garland typically a regionalist, and Willa Cather a modernist, Pizer's useful, if terse, study brings them together for their shared participation in antisemitic culture, despite their erstwhile commitments to progressive reform and enlightened values in other social areas. Pizer sees this contradiction as a distinctly historical "American issue," reflecting two main currents of late nineteenth-century antisemitism (x). While western populist agrarians adopted an antisemitic rhetoric of the Jewish land speculator as "a parasitical manipulator of money," eastern patricians expressed revulsion toward new Jewish immigrants (xiii). These views, Pizer argues, dovetail with the ideology of racial biological determinism: a belief in the degenerate "Asiatic" or "Oriental" character of the Jewish race and the superiority and primacy of Anglo-Saxons (xiii). While this book thus reveals a range of individual authorial responses to an entrenched culture of widespread late nineteenth-century antisemitism--from rabid hatred to tolerant disdain--it perhaps also reveals Pizer's own discovery of the limits antisemitism poses for the humanism he has long claimed for American naturalism.
As one would expect, Pizer is an expert on his period sources. Drawing on key histories of antisemitism in late nineteenth-century American culture, he offers a wealth of examples--from popular novels to obscure short fiction, letters, essays, and diaries--to illustrate a culture of antisemitism in which these authors lived and wrote. Hamlin Garland, for example, displayed an unconventional "nonactivist antisemitism" (14). He never portrayed Jews negatively; instead he offered idealized literary portraits of antisemitic historical personages. More overt, Frank Norris routinely relied upon a simplistic racial ideology and popular stereotypes--hotblooded Latinos, treacherous Chinese, and egregious versions of Shylock as a modern, racially degenerate, predatory figure of avarice, embodying "in a single figure centuries of antisemitic representation" (25).
In the longest and most compelling chapter, Pizer combines literary and biographical material to portray Theodore Dreiser's shifting views about Jews over a career spanning more than fifty years. Here we read of Dreiser's overlooked, tragic play The Hand of the Potter (1916), set among Lower East Side Jews. Interestingly, Jewish immigrant author Abraham Cahan reviewed it positively in the Yiddish daily Forward, describing the Shylockian character as "human," a point to which Dreiser returned in the 1930s to prove he was no antisemite (34). Although the Shylock stereotype recurred in Dreiser's novels The Titan (1914) and An American Tragedy (1925), and anti-Jewish sentiment surfaced in his financial dispute with Paramount Studios over the adaptation of the latter novel, it wasn't until 1933 that he faced pronounced accusations of antisemitism after publishing two letters in The American Spectator. There Dreiser claimed the "Jewish Problem" resulted from Jews gathering in professions and commerce, and from their being suspect, money-minded middle men. Because the Jew "remains principally a Jew" wherever he lives, Dreiser argued, Jews should resettle and establish a nation of their own (44).
In his last two chapters, Pizer turns toward Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, representing the "patrician distaste for Jews" (51). Wharton's views, Pizer seems to suggest, are socially determined, "bred in her bones by birth and upbringing" (51). But her fiction nonetheless needs careful analysis, and here the depth and detail of the chapter fall short. Drawing on his own previous work, Pizer asserts Darwin's influence on Wharton's race-thinking and, as in recent studies of antisemitism in Wharton, emphasizes the ambivalence inherent in the character Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth (1905). Rosedale, on one hand, marks the essence of "what being Jewish means" to Wharton--"above all, to possess an instinctive tendency toward commercial modes of belief and behavior" (56). On the other, he is the outsider who helps satirize the small-mindedness of the gentile insiders; he is, after all, the one likable character in the novel. Cather, too, is concerned with the "corrupting power of money" (54). But more "elegiac" than Wharton, she views "the Jew" as representing "those new elements in American life that fail to honor the richness of our past" (58).
A plethora of recent studies in literary realism, in Wharton, and in Henry James studies, have shown fin-de-siecle literary antisemitism, in all its ambivalence, to be part and parcel of modernity. Pizer's book offers a clear, cohesive case for antisemitism in naturalism yet its weakness is that it seems scandalized by the coincidence of progressive reform and an antipathy toward Jews. Though largely unapologetic, even when trying to rescue authors like Garland from the most severe charges, Pizer confesses to having long ignored a literary antisemitism of which he had "always been aware" (ix).
Pizer's convincing study also raises a pressing question. If, in fact, we come to charge these writers as antisemitic, how do we now read their literature? In the field coined by Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin as the "new Jewish cultural studies," Bryan Cheyette and others have shifted our attention from unearthing literary anti- and philosemitisms to exploring the textual and interpretive ramifications of what Cheyette calls "semitic discourse." The figure of the Jew, he insists, needs to be read as "both the embodiment of liberal progress and as the vestiges of an outdated medievalism." (1) It remains, then, for scholars to take up the subject of naturalist antisemitism in formalist terms, to articulate how the aesthetics of antisemitism reshape the formal texture of literary naturalism. American Naturalism and the Jews opens exciting avenues for such work. It renders late nineteenth-century antisemitism at once a ubiquitous sensibility and a recognizable system of flexible literary tropes that provide contour and shape to a world believed determined by social, economic, and biological forces, thereby reshaping the familiar terrain of American naturalism.
Sharon B. Oster
University of Redlands
(1.) Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin, eds. Jews and Other Differences: The New Jewish Cultural Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Bryan Cheyette, Constructions of 'the Jew' in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 3, 9 (emphasis in original). See also Cheyette, Between 'Race' and Culture: Representations of 'the Jew" in English and American Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).
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|Author:||Oster, Sharon B.|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2008|
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