Page 21 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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BAUMGARTEN/URBAN FAILURES
15
It is clear tha t the city — once central to Jews, writers, and
American experience — seems to have failed us. Critics respond
to the theme by claiming tha t con temporary writers offer a sharp
reduc tion o f hum an experience compared with earlier classic
writers. Bellow himself proposes the issue and claims tha t the cul­
tu re ’s failures focus in its urban miseries. In such a situation, what
w riter can be expected to focus his talents and produce an urban
version o f the grea t American novel? O ther themes and situations
will attract the writer, Bellow suggests, and only those like him
who are inextricably linked to the city will find it necessary to keep
on trying to accomplish this thankless task. It may be tha t this is
not a time for the epic realism o f the classic u rban American Jew ­
ish novel. The imperial city does not provide the appropriate con­
ditions. What after all can an American writer com prehend about
an ancient city like Bucharest, even if his wife does come from
there? Yet ou r comprehension o f the fate o f cities and ou r cul­
tural crisis is sharpened by what he sees the re on a visit with h er to
h e r dying mother.
Implicit in this formulation as it affects American Jewish writ­
ers is a question about the fu tu re o f a kind o f writing that has held
cen ter stage in American literary history for almost a generation.
I f the city is finished as a viable American force, does tha t mean
the American Jewish w riter’s hegemony is also over? Given Philip
Roth’s capacity to amuse us about the suburbs, will that ex tend to
o the r writers? or will we recognize his achievement as intimately
connected with the urban situation by contrast with the suburban
world o f New Jersey tha t fills so many o f his books? Are the Jews
o f the suburbs interesting enough to be written about? and can
the ir lives provide the cultural richness needed for the em er­
gence o f writers able and willing to chronicle the ir experience?11
And what values are available to the writer committed to a world
o f mostly private experience? Will the failure o f the city mean the
failure o f fiction? or are there fictional possibilities to be garnered
even in the city’s decay?
ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM
These questions focus the formal issue as well. T here are o ther
ewish American writers responding to the crisis o f the western
11 See Sol Gittleman,
From Shtetl to Suburbia, The Family in Jewish Literary
Imagination,
Boston: Beacon Press, 1978, especially chapter VII.