Page 19 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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ROSENFELD / AMERICAN JEWISH LITERATURE
11
o th e r hand , the absence o f any significant fo llow -through by
Roth remains a bew ildering and painfu l phenom enon in the
lite ra tu re , and pe rhaps an indication th a t th e re was to be no ind e ­
p en d e n t o r au tonom ous Jew ish lite ra tu re in this coun try ; Roth
could no t have written ano th e r book in the
language
o f
Call It
Sleep
w ithout falling into pastiche, and appa ren tly it has been be­
yond his powers o r ambition to invent the successor idiom to his
ea rlier language.)
Ludwig Lewisohn’s
The Island Within
(1928) re ta ins very little
echo today, although as an early fiction abou t the assimilationist
trap the book deserves more recognition than it has received.
Alfred Kazin’s
A Walker in the City
(1951), an intellectual’s celebra­
tion o f the dilemmas tha t Lewisohn found so painful, has su r­
passed the fo rm e r book and won a p rom inen t and pe rhaps even
a p e rm an en t place fo r itself, a lthough it has done so, it would
seem, largely because readers are en th ra lled by its lyricism and
do no t seem to realize the cost in Jewish terms o f so exube ran t a
release into American Possibilities. (Kazin’s la ter volumes o f au to ­
biography reapp ra ise his early distancing from origins in more
sober terms.
New YorkJew
is in some ways a despe ra te cry to re ­
tu rn .)
OLD AND NEW WORLDS
All o f these books, and dozens o f o thers like them , derive from
the traum a o f the imm igran t experience and reflect upon a lim­
ited num be r o f unsettling and still unresolved questions: How
d id I get here? What is a Jew to do, and to be, in a land like
America? What language am I to speak, what m anners am I to
take on, what people am I to belong to o r avoid, whose god am I
to serve? Most o f all, can I b ring into any kind o f workable align­
m en t the memories and claims o f my Old World Jewish past and
the possibilites and counter-claims o f this strange bu t welcoming
New World, with its still un fo rm ed p resen t and its unknown and
indecipherab le fu ture?
As these questions imply, this is largely a lite ra tu re o f cu ltura l
an x ie t ie s — o f th e p rom ise s a n d p a in s , tem p ta t io n s an d
en trapm en ts , o f American experience itself. O th e r imm igran t
groups were to be similarly con fron ted , bu t none so acutely as the
Jews, and in no o th e r body o f writings does one h ea r so heavy an
accent o f personal b rood ing and cu ltura l distress. T o be sure , this