Page 212 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

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The sixties ushered in the era sometimes referred to as the
Jewish Literary Renaissance — no doubt by analogy to the Black
Arts Harlem Renaissance of the twenties. This partially was
made possible by the general flowering of ethnic pride of the
period. Following the lead of the Black civil rights movement’s
assertion of pride of heritage, a large number of Jewish writers
and scholars unabashedly turned their focus inward. A number
of circumstances combined to encourage this shift in perspec­
tive. First, in the fifties, American feelings of guilt over the news
of the Holocaust, made the general reading public receptive
to Jewish subjects. Second, Jews themselves had by now assim­
ilated and felt more at ease in America. Moreover, they held
graduate degrees from American universities, and both writers
and critics had obtained positions in English departments in
the academy.
By the early sixties the American Jewish writer had indeed
become the most visible presence on the American literary land­
scape, writing mostly about his relationship to his immigrant
past, both in negative and positive terms. (
is the appropriate
pronoun here because there were few well-known women writ­
ers.) By 1970, however, that famous triad Bellow-Malamud-
Roth had done most of its best work. We might even say that
the age of Jewish American dominance in American literature
begins with Bellow’s
The Adventures of Augie March
(1952) and
comes to a close in 1969 with Roth’s
Portnoy’s Complaint.
In be­
tween, the itinerary is marked by such landmark works as
Magic Barrel
(1957) and
The Assistant
(1958), Roth’s
Goodbye Columbus
(1960), Bellow’s
(1964), and Malamud’s
The Fixer
in 1966. No wonder that in William Styron’s
(which takes place in the late forties, but which was writ­
ten in 1980) his fictional would-be Southern writer persona,
Stingo, reacts so strongly to a prediction about Jewish writers
in general and Saul Bellow in particular. Having been told by
his guru Nathan that Jewish writing is going to be the important
force in American literature in the coming years, Stingo com­
plains, “I saw myself running a pale tenth in a literary track
race, coughing on the dust of a pounding fast-footed horde
of Bellows and Schwartzes and Levys and Mandelbaums.”
But the eighteen years between Bellow’s Augie March and
Roth’s Portnoy can be summed up by their respective tones.
Augie March has “adventures” and Portnoy has a “complaint.”