The Origin of Jewish American Literary Studies

Benjamin Schreier

The Rise and Fall of Jewish American Literature
Benjamin Schreier, The Rise and Fall of Jewish American Literature. University of Pennsylvania Press. $49.95, cloth.

Resentful and tacit hostility persists as an enduring, though not particularly productive, academic affect. But I wonder if expressed antagonism—having principled arguments—is a lost art in the academy. To be clear, I mean publicly having it out, an aim that lead me to write, The Rise and Fall of Jewish American Literature: Ethnic Studies and the Challenge of Identity.

The book is about the history of the scholarly field of Jewish American literary study, which is actually not that old. We can easily discuss 19th, 18th, and even 17th century Jewish American literature. But there was no such thing as “Jewish American literature” in the sense in which that term now reads as self-evident, which is to say a canon of literature defined by the intersection of authorial identity and legible subject-matter. There was certainly nothing like what we now call academic Jewish American literary studies before the much ballyhooed Jewish American literary “breakthrough” of the late 1950s, when writers including Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Grace Paley became a phenomenon, carrying Jewish writing out of the immigrant literature genre and into the mainstream of US literary and popular culture. Indeed, it wasn’t really until the late 1960s and early ’70s that scholars could recognize that they were in fact doing anything that anyone might call “Jewish American literature.”

But why should anyone care how old Jewish American literary study is? Fair question. I started asking questions about why no one challenges the assumption that Jewish American literature is primarily (and often exclusively) something that tells us about Jews—that is, the assumption that Jewish American literary study is really just Jewish American history by another name and by someone who doesn’t have a history PhD—and this led me to study the origins of this field I work in, and then that led me in turn to critical revelations about Jewish studies as an epistemological endeavor. The institutional history I pursued makes it very difficult to take Jewish studies for granted as the historiographic study of Jews, which is precisely how Jewish studies—by which I mean the majority of scholars who get to imagine themselves as practitioners of Jewish studies, and therefore also the people who get to decide what is published and what is said at conferences—now currently takes itself for granted.

Jewish studies has mostly embraced Salo Baron’s famous exhortation against a “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” Appointed to the first chair in Jewish history and literature at Columbia in 1929, Baron is a significant bridge-figure between the old German Wissenschaft des Judentums tradition—the Haskalah’s answer to the consolidation of the European nation-state and corresponding rise of European nationalist scholarship, a kind of thought-laundering operation to render Jewish nationalism (even before the rise of political Zionism) socially and institutionally legitimate—and what we now think of as Anglo-American academic Jewish studies. Baron was worried that Jewish historiography was too much in thrall to the cliché of Jewish suffering, rendering it blind to, or at least conditioning its appreciation of, Jewish joy and achievement; and indeed, one of the ways Jewish studies these days likes to pat itself on the back is to ritually retell the story of its overcoming its erstwhile lachrymose bent, a kind of fort-da of celebratory self-legitimation. But I’d like to draw attention to another narrative, far more pervasive and insidious, that contaminates Jewish studies-authorized intellectual discourse: what I call the “JCC conception of Jewish studies.”

Like most academic studies formations, Jewish studies comprises many traditional academic disciplines and brings together handfuls of not-necessarily-compatible methodologies; accordingly, the field obviously relies on a structuring concept of Jewish identity to unite its discontinuous, manifold disciplinary endeavors. I say “obviously,” but it’s in fact questionable how much this is actually acknowledged. Indeed, Jewish studies has spent remarkably little time, devoted remarkably little energy, to analyzing how it operates and thinking about the theory underlying that operation (with due respect to its self-congratulatory emancipation from the lachrymose), and instead more or less assumes, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, at least when it comes to keyword searches. Which is to say an unexamined assumption about the recognizability of Jews and their Jewishness becomes foundational to an implicit but hegemonic historicism.

More troubling, despite lip-service paid with varying infrequency since the 1969 founding of the Association for Jewish Studies, the field’s premier professional organization, there has been no sustained critical effort to disambiguate, much less forcibly separate, the concept of identity organizing the diverse object matter of Jewish studies—the Jewish “stuff” Jewish studies scholars talk and write about—and the concept of identity organizing the subjects of Jewish studies—those scholars who practice in the field and affirm themselves as such, the majority of whom can claim by currently accepted metrics to be Jews. This elision amounts in fact to a critical abnegation, as it effectively suppresses intellectual dispute, whether methodological or theoretical, in favor of a kind of professional sholom bayis—the principle dictating that Jews maintain peace in the home. Leaving arguments at the door might sound good in the abstract, but because of the field’s bad-faith identity problems, scholars interpellated in Jewish studies too easily understand the antagonistic negative labor of disciplinary criticism as bad manners, or worse, sinas chinam, baseless hatred.

The problem is not simply that Jewish studies too often manifests as a club (most fields likely do that, to an extent). The problem is that its habit of spectrally recognizing itself in the objects of its scholarship has in effect made this insiderist-affect a necessary criterion of scholarly legitimacy; this elevates defensive self-referentiality and disinterest in self-criticism into intellectual virtues. There’s something of the native informant to much Jewish studies scholarship—but instead of primping for the outsider, Jewish studies scholars often practice a field-specific pleasure in performing their bona fides to their fellow insiders. And this validating clubbiness takes metastasized form in a kind of taboo against imagining Jewish studies scholarship as anything other than producing, refining, and circulating historicist knowledge about Jews—a representational term that, if liberally imagined in the most expansive terms, is in fact rarely theorized. I have nothing against ethnological historicism considered on its own terms—perish the thought—but as someone who went through the trouble of getting a PhD in literary studies, honor demands I insist that there are other possibilities, other forms that scholarship and thinking can take.

What does this polemic have to do with my book? The short answer is that an institutional history of professional Jewish American literary study—which emerges at the intersection of the Wissenschaft tradition, the largely successful assimilation of Ashkenazi Jews in the US, and the Viet Nam-era ethnic identity movements—exposes the disciplinary and intellectual modes through which Jewish studies’ exceptionalist insiderism became normalized as scholarly SOP.

The scholarly “we” often considers the “breakthrough” of writers like Malamud, Bellow, Roth, Paley, Mailer, Singer and others to be the single most important event of Jewish American literary history. In fact, this dominant “fact” of breakthrough is the primal scene of the Jewish American literary field. The professional study of Jewish American literature grew up around the consolidating self-evidence of the breakthrough narrative, and the field’s visibility has from the start been articulated with it. The narrative has operated as a proxy for the only real theory, however insufficiently acknowledged, that Jewish American literature has ever been able to rely on: namely, immigration and acculturation. We continue to think of Jewish literature in the United States in the gravitational field of this central event: Jewish American literary study persists in imagining itself as part of the enduring historical reality of breakthrough, continually repeating its ordeal of civility and finding itself in a position to prove its bona fides.

According to the breakthrough narrative, before World War II writing by Jews in America is mostly characterized by a parochial or provincial angst and fits into lower-prestige U.S. literary historical compartments such as “immigrant writing” or “regionalism” or “urban fiction,” but then within a couple of decades of the war’s end it rapidly sheds these marginalizing limitations and comes to represent American literature at its most innovative and ascendant, the Jewish American standing as the representative modern figure and the Jewish American writer the spokesperson for the modern condition in toto. Significantly, in this narrative of sociocultural movement from margin to center, Jewish American literature dependably tracks the career of Jewish America: the breakthrough narrative normalizes itself as a politically neutral reflection of Jews, an instrument of representational access that suppresses critical theorization in the name of self-evident history, betting its relevance on the assumption that literary history is itself neither theoretical nor historical. Perversely, as Jewish American literary study has tended in some of its recent formations to become more diverse in focus and more sophisticated in scope, it often draws its warrant for these critical investments from—and it reproduces an image of its own intellectual responsibility in the name of—the increasing diversity, sophistication, and independence of Jews in America. Secured by Jewish studies’ unexamined ethnological historicism, Jewish American literary study normalized itself as a mere representation of Jewish American history.

I certainly don’t pretend that there was no academic or institutionally housed study of writing by Jews in America before the 1950s, or that the literary intellectuals who formulated breakthrough invented the idea of thinking about what we can now easily call Jewish American writing. To be sure, before World War II there was fiction and belles lettres being written by Jews in the United States, there were scholarly works written that took as their object the representation of Jews in English and American literature, and there was of course the tradition of nineteenth-century German-Jewish Wissenschaft des Judentums premised on the cultural-nationalist logic of a transhistorical unity of Jewish cultural expression.

But before the discursive innovation of breakthrough, scholarship could not yet take for granted the field unity of a canon of literature organized, defined, and essentially interpretable by the Jewish American identity of its authors; this was a postwar development and it has a history that itself cannot be extracted from the gravitational pull of the breakthrough narrative. The innovation of breakthrough was not simply to genetically link the Jewish authors and Jewish texts of Jewish American literature but to reorient disciplinary thinking about literary texts written by Jews in America around authors as representatives of Jewish American people, experience, and culture; Jewish American literary study would professionalize over the following decades as scholarly focus shifted from the object of literary representation to its subject, from Jews as a people written about to Jews as a population writing.

The elaboration of breakthrough was often framed in triumphalist terms by critics for whom the narrative was fundamentally bound up with a labor of self-recognition. As Leslie Fiedler, one of the leading breakthrough intellectuals, put it in a late-career reflection on his writing about Jewish American literature, “It was not, I realize now, a disinterested venture, since I thought of myself at the beginning of my writing career as part of the movement that had carried such children of immigrant Jews from eastern Europe from the periphery to the center of American literary culture.” And he admits that over his professional life, whatever the topic, he “continued to write, willy-nilly, from a Jewish point of view, as a Jew.” And they weren’t always as self-aware as Fiedler; even so eminent a scholar as Robert Alter, insisting in the mid-1970s that Jewish studies is supposed to train scholars rigorously in the study of Judaism rather than offer, as he memorably put it, “confirmation class amateurism dignified with university credits,” could speak of the “ongoing claims” of the Jewish tradition “on our most finely attentive faculties” without missing a beat. The frequency with which first person pronouns like “us” and “our” appear in the Jewish studies writings of breakthrough literary scholars is notable, and the repeated investment in constructions like “our language” and “our culture” as pervasive shibboleths is impossible (and foolish) to miss. For the vast majority of these intellectuals, the critical study of Jewish American representativity was fundamentally autocritique.

Jewish studies ignores this history at its peril. Jewish studies reproduces the grounds of its own irrelevance to the extent that it continues to constitute itself (if not imagine itself) as an autocritical technology for interpreting the history of what Jews do, say, and write on the assumption that Jews are always recognizable and always somehow continuous with all other Jews wherever or whenever they might be found. If thought is to be something other than an ethnologically descriptive instrument in the toolbox of demographic accountancy—and if Jewish American literary study is to approach prestige parity with its sibling academic formations within the literary and ethnic studies complexes—then Jewish studies scholars cannot take for granted the representational capacities of the word “Jewish.” We need to reimagine “Jewishness” as centering a community of critique rather than a community of interest.

My polemical goal in the book is to make legible the possibility of a non-ethnological concept of Jewish identity, one that can liberate a critically minded literary practice from vassalage to a restrictively conceived and defensively nationalistic insular practice that takes history for granted as the fundamental scholarly discipline.

The self-satisfied clannishness of Jewish studies is the affective repetition on the subjective level of the fundamental institutional conservatism of Jewish studies on the objective level. Not taking Jewish studies for granted means having fights. How else are we supposed to imagine our scholarly labor in terms of anything approaching dignity?

Benjamin Schreier  is the Mitrani Family Professor of Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He specializes in Jewish American literature and culture. His most recent book is The Rise and Fall of Jewish American Literature: Ethnic Studies and the Challenge of Identity(Penn Press, 2020). He is also the author of The Impossible Jew: Identity and the Reconstruction of Jewish American Literature (NYU Press, 2015) and The Power of Negative Thinking: Cynicism and the History of Modern American Literature (UVA Press, 2009)