Page 18 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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10
JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
th e re a f te r is ou rs — the pu ffe rs and den ig ra to rs , in te rp re te rs
and expositors, explicaters and expounde rs , fame-m akers and
fame-breakers — in a word, the reviewers, critics, and teachers:
us.
Exactly what is it we do? No th ing m ore and no th ing less than
decide the shape and the con ten ts o f the canon. Who gave us this
power? We did. How is it exercised? By o u r influence and effo rts
in the reviews, the jou rna ls , the pub lishing houses, the lecture
circuit, the college classroom — the places where books are
screened and sorted , picked up o r pu t down, discussed and d e ­
bated o r sent to the rem a ind e r houses o r the sh redd e r .
In the long run , it is the classroom th a t is most im p o r tan t and
most interesting . It is most im po r tan t because it is in the college
classroom and , given the ways o f American literary cu ltu re , al­
most only th e re tha t most books a re going to have wha tever a f te r ­
life they may enjoy. And it is most in teresting because, while
th e re is no centralized process o f selection, and while consensus
am ong Jews is notoriously h a rd to come by, the same books, o r
very nearly the same, nevertheless ap p e a r and re a p p e a r am ong
o u r colleagues and students. A lthough American Jew ish litera­
tu re is, to repea t, an up s ta r t lite ra tu re , and a lthough the canon is
still in its infancy, one can already po in t to individual titles tha t
have em erged as basic o r founda tiona l texts and th a t will no t eas­
ily be dislodged from centrality.
From the lite ra tu re o f the earliest years, th e re are Mary A n tin ’s
The Promised Land
(1912) and Abraham C ahan ’s
The Rise of David
Levinsky
(1917), au tobiographical narratives th a t already dec­
ades ago def ined and almost dep le ted the major lines o f the Jew ­
ish imm ig ran t novel. Whatever one may th ink o f the literary
qualities o f these books, the ir value as early cu ltu ra l docum en ts is
indisputable , and one o r an o th e r is bound to ap p e a r on most
course syllabi and in virtually every serious discussion o f the his­
tory o f American Jewish lite ra tu re . T o lose them would be to lose
som eth ing o f the crisis o f origins, the reco rd o f what it was like to
em erge , and fo r this reason they will no t be lost.
T h e ch ildhood dimensions o f being caugh t between the g en e r­
ations o f Old World and New World expe rience received the ir
classic s ta tem en t in H en ry Ro th ’s
Call It Sleep
(1934), as accom­
plished a novel as any w ritten by an American Jew ish w riter and
one whose revival some twenty years ago, a f te r many years o f
neglect, illustrates ju s t how open and elastic the canon is. (On the