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American Naturalism and the Jews: Garland, Norris, Dreiser, Wharton, and Cather.

American Naturalism and the Jews: Garland, Norris, Dreiser, Wharton, and Cather, by Donald Pizer. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008. 112 pp. $30.00.

Donald Pizer's lively and succinct American Naturalism and the Jews: Garland, Norris, Dreiser, Wharton, and Cather explores a riddle that has long dogged scholars of American literary naturalism: how could writers whose reformist politics were otherwise so liberal indulge in the crude semantics of antisemitism? What are we to do with repugnant characters like Zerkow, the pathologically greedy Jewish junk dealer in Frank Norris's McTeague (1899) or Simon Rosedale, the oily, assimilated Wall Street financier in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905)? How are we to square the sneering antisemitic asides that stained Theodore Dreiser's later career with the iconic strivers (Carrie Meeber, Clyde Griffiths) who had made him famous? For Pizer, an emeritus professor at Tulane, and the author of The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism (1993) along with numerous essays on Dreiser, Dos Passos, Wharton, and Norris, such examples are not merely symptoms of the author's "psychological misalignment," but also evidence of a more pervasive "state of mind" that bound midwestern Populists and northeastern nativists at the turn of the twentieth century in common cause against their shared phantasm: the dangerously un-American Jew.

Drawing on his deep familiarity with the letters, essays, stories, and novels of his subjects, Pizer maps a literary terrain whose borders were both marked and menaced by a uniform group of Shylocks and Svengalis. Pizer suggests that two key events in the 1890s catalyzed Naturalist antisemitism: the Populist farmer's revolt in the agrarian midwest and the wave of impoverished eastern-European Jews that transformed urban centers like New York. Populists promulgated conspiracy theories in which an "international gold ring" of British banks and Jewish bankers were determined to suck the honest American farmer dry (p. 4). By the 1920s, Henry Ford had revived the agrarian antisemitism that, in the 1890s, had been promulgated by midwestern personalities like Ignatius Donnelly and Mary Elizabeth Lease. Ford's dissemination of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a spurious nineteenth-century publication that disclosed an international Jewish plot to control the world's finances, influenced writers like Garland and Dreiser, who shared Ford's paranoid provincialism. At the same time, Norris and Wharton were responding to new urban immigration patterns by relying on a toxic combination of social Darwinism and prurient Orientalism.

For the majority of America's Naturalists, however, antisemitism seemed less a coherent ideology than a crude expedient that could explain any perceived injustice, large or small. Convinced, for example, that he had been cheated by a cabal of Jewish publishers, filmmakers, and lawyers, Dreiser made no secret of his contempt for his Jewish associates: "The Jew an eternal defender of Justice? Bunk!" he insouciantly told San Francisco's Jewish Journal hi 1930. "Jews have always cry babied about Justice, but what they want is justice for themselves--a special and particularly pro-Jewish Justice. That's not Justice!" Likewise, Willa Cather frequently depicted Jews as unproductive if inevitable parasites on the American heartland (witness both Ivy Peters in A Lost Lady [1924] and Louie Marcellus in The Professor's House [1926]). Cather's prejudices were rooted in her prairie upbringing and supported by personal grievance (Pizer speculates that she may have resented the Jewish musician Jan Hambourg who married her long-time companion Isabelle McClung.) in each of these cases, Pizer reveals an otherwise insightful American author for whom the Jew was either a gross blind spot or a dangerously convenient whipping boy in an era of economic and social change.

Although Pizer's historical approach is a welcome one (he acknowledges that past critics, more often than not, have either looked the other way or dismissed. America's homegrown literary antisemitism as a matter of personal idiosyncrasy or genteel norms), his account leaves a few key questions unanswered. The Populist moment and the immigration wave may unearth the context in which antisemitism nourished, but it does not explain why the Shylock and Svengali archetypes came so readily to authors otherwise so keenly attuned to the plight of disempowered peoples. Is Pizer suggesting a kind of unwavering algebraic equation in which the variable of human dignity depends on the constancy of antisemitism? Or is there something more fundamental at work--a more rooted connection between antisemitism and the logic of U.S. liberalism? Does the plot of American capital require a straw man to take the blame for exploitation and greed so that the garden of self-interest can thrive unperturbed? Or, is the question one of transcendence? Do Jews represent a commitment to the here and now that unsettles American millennialism?

If Pizer's book does not answer these questions, it does stimulate them--and with energy and candor. Though readers may share Pizer's concern that the tardy acknowledgment of Naturalist antisemitism will "preclude a continuing interest" in a group of "richly talented ... American writer[s]," his current book reveals the critical results of turning over a few rocks. What appears may not be palatable, but it does complicate our understanding of United States liberalism, even in its most illiberal forms.

Jennie A. Kassanoff

Department of English Barnard College
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Author:Kassanoff, Jennie A.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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