Several years ago, I moderated a discussion between two novelists at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. The setting seemed appropriate, since these were Jewish writers who wrote about Jewish characters and themes. But when I asked them if they considered themselves Jewish novelists, both answered emphatically in the negative. They were American writers who happened to be Jewish and who happened to write about Jews, some of the time—but “Jewish writer” was a label they had no interest in.
Who could blame them? After all, Philip Roth himself once told an interviewer: “The epithet ‘American Jewish writer’ has no meaning for me. If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.” If the author of Goodbye, Columbus; Portnoy’s Complaint; The Ghost Writer; and Operation Shylock—the most profound and obsessive books ever written about what it means to be an American Jew—does not want to be thought of as a Jewish writer, why should anyone else accept the description? And the truth is that some of the most accomplished American Jewish writers have not accepted it. Saul Bellow spoke in similar terms: “I am often described as a Jewish writer,” he once wrote. “In much the same way, one might be called a Samoan astronomer or an Eskimo cellist or a Zulu Gainsborough expert. There is some oddity about it. I am a Jew, and I have written some books. I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there.”
There is, of course, one very good reason why writers would want to avoid “the Jewish-writer category”: simple math. There are 320 million Americans, of whom about five million are Jewish; announcing oneself as a Jewish writer seems to cut out 98% of potential readers. But the math is not quite that conclusive, since it has never been true that only Jews read books by Jewish writers. Certainly, it was not true half a century ago, during what now looks like the golden age of American Jewish letters. This was a time when writers like Bellow and Bernard Malamud reached the best-seller list and won major literary prizes while writing unapologetically Jewish books such as Herzog and The Magic Barrel.
This literary moment, which lasted roughly from the 1950s to the 1970s, can be explained by a confluence of two factors. First was the decline of anti-Semitism that followed the Holocaust, which lowered the barriers of entry to the literary and academic professions and made Jews an object of sympathetic interest. Second, and probably more important, was the coming of age of the first native-born generation of American Jews—writers born in the 1910s and 1920s whose parents had come to the United States during the great wave of Eastern European immigration before World War I. For these Jews, the emphasis on textual mastery that had always defined Jewish intellectual life took on new literary forms.
That is because the Jewish immigration to America marked a profound break in the chain of transmission of Jewish texts, a chain that went back dozens of generations. In The Rise of David Levinsky, published in 1917 and often described as the first American Jewish novel, Abraham Cahan tells the story of a Jewish immigrant who finds his early Talmudic education slipping away from him in the new world. With an eye to the non-Jewish reader, Cahan has David Levinsky, his narrator, summarize the importance of Talmud study in Eastern European Jewish life:
A Talmudic education was until recent years practically the only kind of education a Jewish boy of old-fashioned parents received. I spent seven years at it, not counting the several years of Talmud which I had had at the various cheders. What is the Talmud? . . . It is at once a fountain of religious inspiration and a “brain-sharpener.” . . . We were sure that the highest mathematics taught in the Gentile universities were child’s play as compared to the Talmud.
But the Talmud has already begun to lose its power for David before he leaves the old country. The murder of his mother by gentile neighbors drives thoughts of study from his mind and encourages him to start thinking of emigration. When he is departing for America, a rich woman who has been his sponsor meets him at the train station: “‘Here,’ she said, handing me a ten-ruble bill and a package. ‘There is a boiled chicken in it, and some other things, provided you won’t neglect your Talmud in America.’” Yet neglect it he does, inevitably. The very “brain-sharpening” that Talmud study provided helps David to acquire other, secular kinds of knowledge that prove more useful in America, such as learning English. And while he never loses his love for the Talmud, over time his connection with it is broken, as the energies that once went into textual study are employed to make a fortune in the garment business.
Accordingly, in the generation after Abraham Cahan’s, the first American-born generation, it was a rare American Jewish writer who grew up with any knowledge of or fondness for Jewish study. A rare exception is Herman Wouk, who, in addition to novels like The Caine Mutiny, also wrote This Is My God, a popular introduction to Judaism. But more Jewish writers would have agreed with Lionel Trilling when he wrote: “I cannot discover anything in my professional intellectual life which I can specifically trace back to my Jewish birth and rearing. I do not think of myself as a ‘Jewish writer.’ I do not have it in mind to serve by my writing any Jewish purpose.” Trilling connected this lack of interest in Jewishness with what seemed to him the barrenness of Judaism itself: “Modern Jewish religion at its best may indeed be intelligent and soaked in university knowledge, but out of it there has not come a single voice with the note of authority—of philosophical, or poetic, or even of rhetorical, let alone of religious, authority.”
Ironically, Trilling himself would later be described, by the sociologist Philip Rieff, as the archetypal “Jew of culture”: a man whose wisdom, moral seriousness, and commitment to textual study marked him as a twentieth-century version of an ancient Jewish type. Yet this Jewishness remained a matter of resemblance and form, not of content or substance. For Trilling and other Jewish critics and scholars of his generation, the intellectual ambitions that their ancestors had directed toward mastery of Jewish texts were now redirected to English and American literature. In 1942, Alfred Kazin published his first book, On Native Grounds, a study of American fiction. The title itself made a clear point: Jews were now natives of the United States; they belonged to American literature, and American literature belonged to them. In the decades after World War II, many of the leading critics of English and American literature were Jews, from Kazin and Trilling to Leslie Fiedler, Harry Levin, and M. H. Abrams, the creator of the Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Adam Kirsch is a regular contributor to the Atlantic and the New Yorker, and the author of ten books, including The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature and Why Trilling Matters.