Page 118 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 35

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Jewish Characters in
Early American Fiction
c o n s i d e r a b l e n u m b e r
of fictional works was published in the
United States in the first half of the 19th century. Of these
works, 1,141—undoubtedly the vast majority of those prin ted—
are in the library of the American Antiquarian Society in Wor­
cester, Massachusetts. In an effort to learn the attitudes toward
Jews and Judaism reflected by these early American works of
fiction, it was found tha t on this subject most of the books were
silent. In 282 of them there are bu t passing reference to the
Jewish people or the Jewish religion. Only 22 portray Jewish
characters. In some instances the Jewish characters are central
to the story; in other instances they play m inor roles.
Most of the short references to Jews or Judaism in the 282
books are uncomplimentary and reflect antagonistic feelings by
the authors. In the 22 books tha t portray Jewish characters
The Algernine Captive, New Orleans As I Found I t
The Western Merchant,
describe Jews as despicable persons.
A number of the stories present a stereotype of the Jew as a
clever or crafty money lender. In some instances the Jew is
portrayed as one who outwardly makes the pretense of being
a poor man, while in the privacy of his home he indulges himself
and his family with every luxury. The rich Jew also has a very
beautiful daughter who falls in love with a Christian, while,
in general, the Jewish merchant or money lender is depicted
as having unfavorable attributes, some of the authors make an
attempt to justify his behavior on the ground tha t Christian
prejudice and persecution have forced him into his objectionable
way of life.
In those books which manifest the au thor’s Christian mis­
sionary zeal, the Jewish characters are portrayed in a most
favorable light. They have dignity, intelligence and loyalty.
W ithou t doubt, the author is hopeful of finding Jewish readers
who will be influenced by the story and undergo conversion