Page 33 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 46

Basic HTML Version

book of poems
The Rocking Chair
(1948) and his novel, Klein
began to give evidence of the mental illness that forced his with­
drawal from society and silenced him as a writer. Thus, at the
very height of his powers and for nearly twenty years before
his death he ceased publication and gradually but irrevocably
severed his ties with the world he had known and had helped
What did it mean for a modern poet writing in English to
create an imaginative world that was everywhere rooted to the
traditional system of Judaic sources and beliefs? For a first gen­
eration immigrant, an artistic act of that nature could not but
be verbally and psychically complicated, involving deep ambiv­
alences. Objectively, such a cross-cultural enactment necessi­
tated a continual process of transvaluation, of mediating be­
tween the remembered world of hallowed origins and the
readers’ plane of secular modernity. Subjectively, the putative
writer was forced to scrutinize his own place within that trans­
action since he was, inevitably, both subject and object of his
own contemplations. This intense self-reflection was unavoid­
able, for the Jewish writer of the first generation, in common
with all writers of immigrant background, is endowed with a
complex consciousness born of the experience of uprootedness
and resettlement, of estrangement and acculturation. In con­
sequence, the sense of identity, of a selfhood formed in the
crucible of a traditional past, must confront its own often pain­
ful transformation, usually in flight from the very traditions
that have been imprinted on his mind through language, cus­
tom, family ties. Naturally, these departures from old world
patterns of conduct found ample sanction in the bountiful eco­
nomic, social and political possibilities offered by the new world,
but even these advantages never expunged the feelings of in­
criminating abandonment or compromising guilt. No modern
Jewish writer since the Enlightenment has been unaffected by
the psychic strain of having to live simultaneously in two worlds.
In the writing of A. M. Klein we have a dramatic example of
how enriching and costly that process could be.
Klein’s desire was to become the national poet of English-
speaking Jewry, to assume the bardic role his hero, Bialik, was
playing in the Hebrew renaissance. His public life, the years
of service in communal affairs, enact a deep loyalty to his peo­
ple, a lifelong commitment, even when such service fell short