Page 15 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 9 (1950-1951)

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LEW I SOHN ----AMER I CAN J EW I S H L I TERATURE
7
I come to Maurice Samuel, the one quite outstanding man of
letters whom American Jewry has produced in the twentieth
century. What are the marks of eminence in a man of letters?
Intellectual power and mastery of language. I wish to assert that,
except in the purely creative realm in which, of course, at least
Hemingway and perhaps one other outshine him, he is
qualitatively
the ablest American writer of our time. By the tests of intellectual
power and mastery of English his books, from
You Gentiles
(1924),
through
King Mob
(1930),
The Great Hatred
(1940) to those
recent, exquisitely poetic and creative resuscitations of a perished
culture in
The World of Sholem Aleichem
and
Prince of the Ghetto
,
are the American books most worthy of endurance. Nor is this
all. Even in his earlier fictions, even in
Beyond Woman
(1934),
there were, despite the warping of the total intention, pages that
few other Americans would have been capable of writing. His
massive historical novel
The Web of Lucifer
(1947), though again,
perhaps, the embodiment of the subject choice was not sufficiently
destined, is the finest example of continuously great and grave
English prose in this period of American writing. It remains to be
added quite objectively that the name of Maurice Samuel appears
in no account of American literature, in no anthology, in no critical
appraisal.
A still younger generation, at least equally gifted, serves to
illustrate the same situation. The early, brilliant, acridly partisan
plays of Clifford Odets, the firm and bitter tragi-comedies of
Lillian Heilman, all written from behind a non-Jewish mask, have
had perhaps more than their due upon the American scene. The
struggling, aspiring effort to devote himself to the subjects closest
to his heart* and befitting his character have left in darkness and
neglect the delicacy and sensitiveness of Meyer Levin. What one
can still do with impunity, as in the days of Montague Glass, is
to be amusing on Jewish subjects. Thus Leonard Q. Ross yester-
day and Arthur Kober today have worked this vein not without
talent. In the realm of humor this may be the place to record,
at least, the name of S. J. Perelman.
As I approach the immediate present, my unhappily improvised
task becomes more and more difficult. Omissions, too, throng upon
the mind: the wry, Heinesque verses of the late Samuel Hoffen-
stein, the ambitious imaginative structures of Manuel Komroff,
the tiny classic
A Cycle of Manhattan
by Thyra Sampter Winslow,
the single novel of Leonard Ehrlich,
God's Angry Man
, the steady
efforts of Mr. Myron T. Brinig. And perhaps I ought not to omit
the not at all despicable productions of the two unequivocally
Jewish writers who call themselves Ellery Queen.
Conspicuous on the immediate scene of American letters are