Page 26 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 37

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The American Jewish Novel
t h e
t h a n
two million Eastern Eu ropean Jews who came
to the United States between 1880 and 1920, the transadan tic
crossing from the Old World to the New was “a kind o f hell tha t
cleanses a man o f his sins before coming to the Land o f Colum­
bus.” From poverty, pogroms and degradation , from hund red s
o f years o f powerlessness, despair and deferen tia l adjustment,
from a world o f ghettoes in which they knew who they were and
what the ir values were, the Eastern Eu ropean Jews came to a land
where opportun ity , success and the American Dream ruled . No
longer was the study o f the T o rah a sign o f achievement; as
Abraham C ahan’s David Levinsky was told, it was the American
Dream tha t one had to achieve in the New World. T ru e , the re was
a good chance o f some upw ard mobility. But, sprinkled in with
the possibilities o f success — fo r one’s ch ildren if no t fo r oneself
— was the bitterness o f disillusion, the unsureness o f identity, the
world o f values in process. To David Levinsky’s “peculiar state o f
m ind tha t the experience [of seeing the Statue o f Liberty] created
in me,” was contrasted Michael Gold’s condemna tory words, tha t
this “is a land where the lice make fortunes, and the good men
starve.” T o Mary An tin’s confidence in the fu tu re was contrasted
Genya’s disappointment, in Hen ry Roth’s
Call It Sleep,
on seeing
he r husband for the first time in months: “Ach! T h en here in the
new land is the same old poverty.” In the conflict o f cultures tha t
was the life o f the new imm igrants, it was the New World with its
new values tha t triumphed .
A lthough the Jews who arrived at the end o f the 19th and at the
beginning o f the 20th cen tury had few pretensions, the gene ra­
tion tha t was inspired by the courage and suffering o f the first
generation , by the avantgardism o f the 1920s and 1930s, was the
generation tha t spawned the American Jewish literary explosion
o f the 1940s and 1950s and since. In the twenties and thirties we
read Meyer Levin, Ludwig Lewisohn, Samuel Ornitz, Myron
Brinig, Michael Gold, H enry Roth, Albert H a lpe r , Daniel Fuchs,