• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Jewish Writer in America

This seemed to me not only a Jewish but also a European Jewish literary vision. In Europe Jews might be welcomed in almost every field of knowledge but as artists they would inevitably come up against a national or racial barrier. Wagnerism in one form or another would reject them. Goethe was infinitely more reasonable and balanced than Wagner, but even he wrote in Wilhelm Meister (third book), “…We do not tolerate any Jew among us; for how could we grant him a share in the highest culture, the origin and tradition of which he denies?” And Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “I have not yet met a German who was favorably disposed toward the Jews.” He did not mean this to be a compliment to the Germans. And then in 1953 Heidegger, described by many as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, was still speaking of “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism.”

A share in the highest culture, the origin of which the Jew himself denies? But it is rather the traditional culture which does the denying.

In twentieth-century Europe the métèque writers appear in considerable numbers. Métèque is defined in French dictionaries as “outsider” or “resident alien,” and the term is pejorative. The word appears in the OED as “metic,” although it is not in general use here. The novelist Anthony Burgess refers to métèques and makes a strong defense of the métèque writer—the nonnative who, being on the fringe of a language and the culture that begot it, is alleged to lack respect (so say the pundits) for the finer rules of English idiom and grammar, for “the genius of the language.” For, says Burgess, the genius of the English language, being plastic, is as ready to yield to the métèque as to the racially pure and grammatically orthodox:

If we are to regard Poles and Irishmen as métèques there are grounds for supposing that the métèques have done more for English in the twentieth century (meaning that they have shown what the language is really capable of, or demonstrated what English is really like) than any of the pure-blooded men of letters who stick to the finer rules.

Burgess’s Irishman is Joyce, his Pole Joseph Conrad, and we can easily add to his list Apollinaire in French, Isaac Babel, Mandelstam, and Pasternak in Russian, Kafka in German, Svevo in Italian (or Triestine), and for good measure V.S. Naipaul or Vladimir Nabokov. Indeed it is not easy in this cosmopolitan age to remove the métèques from modern literature without leaving it very thin.

I might have asked Agnon how well the Arabic of Maimonides had been translated into Hebrew. I lacked the presence of mind then, and even here my remark is slightly out of place.

In the US, a land of foreigners who may or may not be in the process of forming a national type (who can predict how it will all turn out?), a term like métèque or metic is inapplicable. To renew the purity of the tribe was a French project, and a man whose French is acceptable to the French is, at least in the act of speaking, a claimant to aristocratic status. But gentile New York and Brahmin Boston never dominated American speech, and the aristocratic pretensions of easterners were good for a laugh in the rest of the country. Yet when our own metics, the Jewish, Italian, and Armenian descendants of immigrants, began after World War I to write novels, they caused great discomfort, and in some quarters, alarm and anger.

Irving Howe has noted in a reminiscence of the Partisan Review days that

portions of the native intellectual elite…found the modest fame of the New York writers insufferable. Soon they were mumbling that American purities of speech and spirit were being contaminated by the streets of New York…. Anti-Semitism had become publicly disreputable in the years after the Holocaust, a thin coating of shame having settled on civilized consciousness; but this hardly meant that some native writers…would lack a vocabulary for private use about those New York usurpers, those Bronx and Brooklyn wise guys who proposed to reshape American literary life. When Truman Capote later attacked the Jewish writers on television, he had the dissolute courage to say what more careful gentlemen said quietly among themselves.

Capote said that a Jewish mafia was taking over American literature and New York publishing as well. He was to write in a later book that Jews should be stuffed and put in a natural history museum.2

I owe too much to writers like R.P. Warren, who was so generous to me when I was starting out, and to John Berryman, John Cheever, and other poets, novelists, and critics of American descent to complain of neglect, discrimination, or abuse. Most Americans judged you according to your merit, and to the majority of readers it couldn’t have mattered less where your parents were born.

Nevertheless, a Jewish writer could not afford to be unaware of his detractors. He had to thicken his skin without coarsening himself when he heard from a poet he much admired that America had become the land of the wop and the kike; or from an even more famous literary figure that his fellow Jews were the master criminals who had imposed their usura on long-suffering gentiles, that they had plunged the world into war, and that the goyim were cattle driven to the slaughterhouse by Yids. It was the opinion of the leading poet of my own generation that in a Christian society the number of unbelieving Jews must be restricted.

For a Jew, the proper attitude to adopt was the Nietzschean spernere se sperni, to despise being despised.

However disagreeable the phenomenon may seem at moments of sensitivity it is seldom more than trivial. The dislike of Jews was a ready way for WASP literati to identify themselves with the great tradition. Besides, it is something like a hereditary option for non-Jews to exercise at a certain moment when they discover that they have a born right to decide whether they are for the Jews or against them. (Jews have no such right.) At the beginning of the century it offered an opportunity to stand with distinguished intellectual groups of the right. How nice if you came from Idaho or Missouri to identify yourself with Maurras or the anti-Dreyfusards.

Henry Adams was particularly fond of Drumont, the anti-Dreyfusard journalist. Even the most enlightened minds if you investigate them closely have their kinky corners. As an example of kinkiness I offer the remark W.H. Auden made to Karl Shapiro after the Bollingen Prize was awarded to Ezra Pound: “Everybody is anti-Semitic sometimes.” True enough. We all know it and we are apt to give our favorites a pass, especially favorites on the whole so free from common prejudices as Auden, the most liberating of the modern English poets. He was in every important respect an exception—just as Capote was, in everything trivial, predictably nasty.

We wanted to shake off the fears and constraints of the world in which we had been born,” Irving Howe said, speaking of the Jewish writers published by the Partisan Review in the Thirties and Forties, “but when up against the impenetrable walls of gentile politeness we would aggressively proclaim our ‘difference,’ as if to raise Jewishness to a higher cosmopolitan power.” As we have seen, the gentiles were not always polite. About the rest, Howe is quite right. He errs only in viewing the Jewish contributors to Partisan Review as a fully united group, identifying them as the “New York writers.” At least two of us thought of ourselves as Chicagoans who had grown up in a mixed district of Poles, Scandinavians, Germans, Irishmen, Italians, and Jews. The New York writers came from predominantly Jewish communities. I did not wish to become part of the Partisan Review gang. Like many of its members I was, however, “an emancipated Jew who refused to deny his Jewishness,” and I suppose I should have considered myself a “cosmopolitan” if I had been capable of thinking clearly in those days.

Delmore Schwartz, whom I looked up to, had written an essay calling T.S. Eliot the “international hero,” the poet who had most aptly defined the modern condition: shrinkage, decay, estrangement, disappointment, decline—civilization seen from the vantage point of classicism and aristocracy, all of it framed by a distinguished historical consciousness. I did not fit into any of this. In fact I would have been, in Eliot’s judgment, part of the decay and part of the reason for his disappointment. It wasn’t that I had any relatives who in the slightest resembled Rachel née Rabinovitch, who tore at the grapes with murderous paws, but I did feel that I would be consigned to a very low place in Eliot’s historical consciousness. Of course I resisted yielding a monopoly to this prestigious consciousness. I suspected that it was untrustworthy, and despite its attractive and glamorous wrappings I believed it to be more sinister than the simple nihilism of the streets. History? Certainly, but in whose version—whom shall we trust to summarize it for us?

I saw, in T.S. Eliot and in Joyce and the other eminent figures of their generation, history as artists since the end of the eighteenth century had understood it—romantic history. Artists, even the most radical, had orthodoxies of their own, and held orthodox views of the history of the West. I saw in art itself, when art was what it could be, a source of new evidence that did not necessarily confirm the judgment on modern civilization as formulated by its most prestigious writers. Art could not be limited by their final judgments. Closed opinions precluding further discoveries resembled, to my mind, a rigged auction.

But I think I may be spending too much time on the culture bosses who dominated writers and ruled over English departments and literary journalism. A genteel dictatorship inspired by T.S. Eliot (with a roughneck faction headed by Ezra Pound) and describing itself as traditionalist was in fact profoundly racist. But such things are ultimately without importance, merely distracting. What is imposed upon us by birth and environment is what we are called upon to overcome. The business of the Jewish writer, as Karl Shapiro rightly says in his indispensable book In Defense of Ignorance, is not to complain about society but to go beyond complaint.

These merely social matters (unpleasant, uncomfortable) are reduced to triviality by the crushing weight of the Jewish experience of our own time.

—This is the first of two parts.

  1. 2

    Capote’s text was as follows (“A Day’s Work,” Interview (June 1979), reprinted in Music for Chameleons (Random House, 1980), p. 158):

    Mary: …Mr. and Mrs. Berkowitz. If they’d been home, I couldn’t have took you over there. On account of they’re these real stuffy Jewish people. And you know how stuffy they are!
    Truman Capote: Jewish people? Gosh, yes. Very stuffy. They all ought to be in the Museum of Natural History. All of them.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print