Page 29 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 37

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WALDEN / AMERICAN JEWISH NOVEL
21
people, anti-Semitism, the War, middlebrow America, and the
a ttem p t to unders tand himself and the society he inhabited.
T h a t some o f the works fall short o f excellence may be true;
tha t they are the re fo re irre levan t to the main lines o f develop­
ment o f American fiction is absurd . T he fact o f the ir quest for
identity, the effo rt to create a literature in a non-WASP context,
the excellent and near-excellent quality o f the work seem to me
significant because they created a new gen re in litera tu re and
dem onstrated tha t the American Jew was beginning to feel at
home. Because o f the writings o f the “Jewish Th irties ,” fertile,
talented minds, conversant with the subject, created the images o f
the American Jew; the gross, distorted portra its o f the past, as a
result, have been dissolved in the subtler and more artful, and
thus true r , images o f the American Jewish moderns.
NEW PROBLEMS
By the 1920s, America’s Jews, now American Jews, with one
foot in the Old Country and one in the New, were struggling with
problems no longer tied to the ghetto. As Jews, the ir adherence to
traditional values and ethics was honored . As American Jews,
shown in Samuel O rn itz’s anonymously published novel
Haunch,
Paunch and Jowl
(1923), the compulsion to succeed and to wield
power, no ma tter how correctly, surfaced for the first time.
Though it was an isolated case, su rrounded by pathos and humor,
it went beyond David Levinsky’s acceptable en trep ren eu rsh ip in
its earthiness — so much in the Yiddish trad ition — and g ro ­
tesqueness. Myron Brinig’s
Singermann
saw some o f the same
forces and emotions. In a country in which an allegedly “lost
generation” flourished, emulation was common. As the dram a o f
the generations was played out, Jews as Jews and as American
Jews rebelled against the ir parents, struggled fo r the ir own iden­
tities, succeeded and failed, cried and laughed , as did others.
In the 1930s, in the grip o f the Great Depression, Jews moved
into prom inence in movies, in the theater, and in literature.
L u the r and Stella Adler, Jo h n Garfield, and the playwright Clif­
ford Odets made the ir marks in legitimate theater; Paul Muni,
Edward G. Robinson, Irving Thalberg , and many producers in
Hollywood enriched the screen. In literature, whether through
p ro letarian novels o r novels with social impact, writers fought the
system tha t bound and fough t the ir families as well. Nathaniel