Page 63 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 1

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JEWISH CHARACTERS IN GENTILE FICTION
By
Mortimer J. Cohen
Recent fiction, reflecting current influences, often deals with
Jewish characters or contains references to Jews. Even the
detective story writer does not neglect the Jewish problem. From
a brief survey of novels written by gentile authors, it is possible
to draw a picture of the Jew as some well-known writers con-
ceive him. I t is impossible to encompass the entire field of non-
Jewish fiction; it is too vast. The task becomes more manageable
when it is realized that, out of the confused welter of our times,
well-defined Jewish types have already emerged. I t is by these
Jewish types that a gentile novelist may be known.
I t is no new thing to stereotype the Jew. Modder, in his
excellent study
The Jew in the Li terature of England
, points out
that up to the nineteenth century the dominant Jewish types in
English literature were Shylock, the Wandering Jew, the old-
clothes peddler, and the unbelieving, worldly Jew or Jewess.
Occasionally there appeared the more heroic type, such as
George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Sir Walter Scott’s Rebecca
in
Ivanhoe.
But on the whole English writers caricatured or
attacked Jews mainly because they were not members of the
Church, because they were foreigners whose patriotism was ques-
tioned, or because they were “usurers.”
Out of our stormy and revolutionary world, saturated with
the poison of virulent anti-Semitism, gentile writers have added
to already existent types other Jewish characters, some adapta-
tions of the old, some newly formed out of the agonies of our
times. Whether these Jewish stereotypes portray real Jews is
highly questionable. Wi th rare and precious exceptions, Jewish
characters in current gentile fiction appear grotesque, distorted,
at best bu t partially realized human beings. “Begin with an
individual,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, with fine insight, in his
n o v e l s / /
the Sad Young Men ,
“and before you know it you have
created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have
created—nothing.” Gentile novelists who begin with Jewish types
today, so far as their Jewish characters are concerned, have
created exactly—nothing.
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