In the fall, the University of Louisville’s Jewish Studies program will offer a new course, HUM 561.01/635.01: Jewish Outsider Consciousness in American Poetry and Fiction: Readings in Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and Grace Paley (Mondays, 4-6:45 p.m.).
In this course, the complex nexus of ethnicity, assimilation, group allegiance, and the transformation of the individual in four of the most influential American writers (two women, two men) of the last century will be considered. Most of the semester will be devoted to exploring the most important developments in each writer’s body of work (including short stories and novels) alongside innovative theorists of gender and ethnic identities as well as important salient critical voices selected among the scholarship addressing their works that span over half a century.
Interestingly, each writer created the most intriguing recurring characters in American literature and through the travails of these memorable protagonists (Malamud’s Arthur Fidelman, Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, Ozick’s Ruth Puttermesser and Paley’s Faith Darwin), it is possible to learn a great deal about what it means to be both an iconoclast in relation to one’s people and a minority in America.
Bernard Malamud, the first of the writers, was born in Brooklyn in 1914 to Russian-Jewish immigrants who ran a mom-and-pop grocery store during the Depression. In many of his early stories and novels he fictionalizes that Brooklyn culture.
He wrote six novels, and three of them have been made into films. His first book, The Natural, not at all about Jewish themes, transformed American baseball players into Arthurian knights and became a famous movie starring Robert Redford. A more serious novel, about the Russian persecution of the Jews, called The Fixer (winter of the National Book Award) also became a film.
His short stories often constitute oblique allegories set in a dreamlike urban ghetto of immigrant Jews. His prose, like his settings, is an artful pastiche of Yiddish-English locutions, punctuated by sudden lyricism.
Special heed will be paid to several of his stories focusing on interracial relations between blacks and Jews as well as stories that grapple with the Yiddish concepts of menshlechkeit (humanity) and rachmones (love and compassion).
As will be seen, Malamud’s work argues the necessity for moral involvement over the seductions of freedom or disengagement. Accordingly, he once remarked in an interview that “the purpose of the writer … is to keep civilization from destroying itself.
“My premise,” he said, “is that we will not destroy each other. My premise is that we will live on. We will seek a better life. We may not become better, but at least we will seek betterment. My premise is for humanism – and against nihilism.” In this regard, Malamud often portrayed the Jew as “universal man” which led to controversies that will be examined.
Philip Roth (who portrays a Malamud-like writer in one novel) has long claimed to be profoundly influenced by his early reading of Franz Kafka, and, like his European inspiration, he creates worlds in which self-invention can appear as an exuberant triumph of individualism or as a monstrous failure of will and identity.
His earliest stories (Goodbye Columbus, 1959) and first novel (Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969), which created tremendous controversy in Jewish American life, are variations on Kafka’s anxious tales of failed transformations and grotesque metamorphosis in which the yearning of “strangers” to become “citizens” often seems to carry a heavy cost.
As will be seen, this anxiety has been a strikingly consistent preoccupation for Roth, surfacing with a sense of even greater urgency in critically acclaimed novels such as American Pastoral (1997), a troubled paean to fading values in American life during the Vietnam War, or The Human Stain (2000), a radical re-envisioning of the early 20th-century novel of racial “passing” that interrogates the erasure/repression of ethnic/racial origins, the gains and losses incurred by suppressing/embracing difference.
Unjustly, Roth’s protagonists are apparently destroyed, not so much in spite of, but precisely because of the trust they place in the safeguards of a conventional and respectable life, in a seemingly civilized society. As his recurring character Zuckerman remarks, “The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy … that is every man’s tragedy.”
Among these writers, Cynthia Ozick has probably wrestled the most with the burden of being a self-identified “Jewish writer,” having studied much of the traditional Jewish textual heritage. At the same time, she has unabashed Anglo affinities and is a serious Henry James enthusiast, the prose stylist and intellectual who has probably had the biggest impact on both her essays and fiction.
In interviews she often explains how she was influenced by James to become a worshiper of literature, one who, having to choose between ordinary human entanglement-real life-and exclusive devotion to art, chooses art. She chose art over life, she asserts, to her eternal regret.
Ozick vividly recalls having stones thrown at her and being called a Christ-killer as she ran past the two churches in her neighborhood. She was acutely uncomfortable at school because she would not, on principle, sing the Christmas carols, and was made “a humiliated public example for that.”
Grace Paley’s enduring short stories offer the most richly multicultural perspective of the four writers, always historically aware of the great waves of immigration that peopled the vibrant New York neighborhoods she evokes so well.
Woven into the texture of her fiction are the problems of grass-roots working-class mothers who as urban, leftist Jews link playground politics with global conflict. Moreover, Paley is always aware that female sexuality is a source of literary creativity never separating the craft of literature from the personal and political contexts in which gender conflicts arise.
Overarching is Paley’s womanism, maternal, instinctively collective and comradely rather than self-reflexive as is characteristic of the three other writers. Her heroines understand patriarchy, history and the need to fight for a future to endure their loss of lovers, husbands and beloved children.
Paley employs a distinctively stylistic collage – fragments and ellipses, a merging of past and present tense – that conveys a sense of wholeness in which setting, character and point of view coalesce and render with absolute fidelity a small urban world.
At times, Paley’s stories resemble women’s diary writing – fragmented, fact-focused, immersed in the transitory, seemingly disconnected aspects of daily life that define women’s lives. Her indelible gift for tonal irony as well as a near-perfect ear for dialogue make Paley a writer’s writer who has wielded enormous influence on the development of the American short story.