Exiles on Main Street: Jewish American Writers and American Literary Cultureby Julian Levinson
How have Jews reshaped their identities as Jews in the face of the radical newness called America? Julian Levinson explores the ways in which exposure to American literary culturein particular the visionary tradition identified with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitmanled American Jewish writers to a new understanding of themselves as Jews. Discussing
How have Jews reshaped their identities as Jews in the face of the radical newness called America? Julian Levinson explores the ways in which exposure to American literary culturein particular the visionary tradition identified with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitmanled American Jewish writers to a new understanding of themselves as Jews. Discussing the lives and work of writers such as Emma Lazarus, Mary Antin, Ludwig Lewisohn, Waldo Frank, Anzia Yezierska, I. J. Schwartz, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe, Levinson concludes that their interaction with American culture led them to improvise new and meaningful ways of being Jewish. In contrast to the often expressed view that the diaspora experience leads to assimilation, Exiles on Main Street traces an arc of return to Jewish identification and describes a vital and creative Jewish American literary culture.
Shana Rosenblatt Mauer
"... Exiles on Main Street is an original contribution to the continuing story of the creative encounter between Jewish writers and America." —Jewish Book World, Summer 2009
"An entirely original and absorbing piece of scholarship and historical reconstruction [that] engages the Jewish—American literary canon and redefines it.... An excellent, pioneering book." —Mark Shechner, author of After the Revolution
"Levinson's well-researched book makes a significant contribution to studies of Jewish American Literature and Jewish Cultural continuity." —S.L. Kremer, Choice Reviews Online, 2007
"... a standout work in the field of American Jewish Literature... Levinson is well-attuned to the critical trends and thinking that are prevalent in the world of literary scholarship and applies them to the book's selected authors and texts in a way that is fresh and thoughtful..." —Shana Rosenblatt Mauer, Jerusalem Post, December 12, 2008
"Levinson's well-researched book makes a significant contribution to studies of Jewish American Literature and Jewish Cultural continuity." S.L. Kremer, Choice Reviews Online, 2007
"An entirely original and absorbing piece of scholarship and historical reconstruction [that] engages the JewishAmerican literary canon and redefines it.... An excellent, pioneering book." Mark Shechner, author of After the Revolution
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Exiles on Main Street
Jewish American Writers and American Literary Culture
By Julian Levinson
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2008 Julian Levinson
All rights reserved.
SONGS OF A SEMITE
Emma Lazarus and the Muse of History
The Jewish Question which I plunged into so wrecklessly & impulsively last Spring has gradually absorbed more & more of my mind & heart — it opens up such enormous vistas in the Past & Future, & is so palpitatingly alive at the moment — being treated with more or less ability and eloquence in almost every newspaper and periodical you pick up — that it has about driven out of my thought all other subjects — I have reached the point now where I mustknow Hebrew. — Emma Lazarus, Letter to Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, 1882
When Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" (1883), her famous homage to the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," nobody thought of calling her a "Jewish American writer." That Lazarus herself might be called a Jew — or some other declension of the term that circulated at the time, such as "Israelite," "Hebrew," or "Semite" — was hardly in question. But the idea that American literature might contain a specifically Jewish subtradition, with a particular mode of address and a distinct set of concerns, had hardly been conceived in the America of 1883. While many of Lazarus's lyrics and narrative poems dealt explicitly with episodes from Jewish history, and even though the "wretched refuse" described in "The New Colossus" was clearly meant to include East European Jewish immigrants, the broader culture she inhabited did not possess a clear notion of what it could mean to be an American writer and a Jew at the same time.
According to the nomenclature of her day, Lazarus would have been conceived primarily as a "poetess," a term that in late Victorian culture stood for refinement and sensitivity, as well as sentimentality. It would not have been inconsistent with this role if the writer in question occasionally treated exotic themes — she might even be felt to possess some secret intimacy with darker, foreign peoples — but such themes would have been read as largely symbolic performances, the work of fancy rather than the expression of some deep, abiding loyalty. When in 1850 Elizabeth Barrett Browning gave her collection of love sonnets the title of Sonnets from the Portuguese, she was appealing to the notion of the poetess as conduit for the exotic, though nobody doubted that these were Browning's own creations or that their real connection to "the Portuguese" was tenuous at best. Though Lazarus was known to come from a Jewish family, her Jewish poems might have been read in a roughly similar way when they were first published. At times, indeed, Lazarus herself appeared to want to minimize the seriousness of her Jewish allegiances. When her volume of poems, including a verse drama on the martyrdom of a medieval Jewish community and assorted lyrics on Jewish themes, was published in 1881, she struck an apologetic tone in a letter to her friend Rose Hawthorne Lathrop (daughter of Nathaniel): "My little book of 'Semitic' poetry is at last out. ... It is sombre & tragic, but I hope you will care for it a little for my sake." The volume was entitled Songs of a Semite, a bold statement perhaps, but also one that suggests some ambiguity about Lazarus's self-positioning as author, especially in the context of late Victorian poetry, with its predilection for the dramatic monologue form. Were these to be read as dramatic monologues written by a refined poetess from the hypothetical perspective of "the Jew," or was Lazarus herself truly to be seen as the Semite in question and these poems as her true confession?
It seems clear at any rate, that Lazarus's poems on Jewish themes placed considerable pressure on prevailing ideas of authorship in nineteenth-century America. For even if the phrase Songs of a Semite may evoke Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, and even if Lazarus's self-effacing note to Lathrop suggests an impulse to distance herself from these works, the fact remains that in many of Lazarus's works the distinction between writer and Jew begins to collapse. In works such as the poetic cycle By the Waters of Babylon, as we will see, she explicitly thematizes the encounter between the modern American Jew and her ancient Jewish legacy. In retrospect, Lazarus heralds the beginning of what we can properly call Jewish American literature — especially if we mean by this a tradition of writers in America of Jewish descent who have grappled explicitly with the meaning of Jewishness. A few generations later, when Karl Shapiro called his 1958 collection Poems of a Jew, he may not have been consciously echoing Lazarus's Songs of a Semite, but the similarity in title reveals the continuity of its theme — the continuity, more specifically, of the sense of Jewish self-assertion as a bold and possibly subversive act in and of itself. How did Lazarus come to write these poems? How did her "Semitic Songs" rearrange the terms of late nineteenth-century American literary discourse? And how did she position herself as an American Jew in relation to the "Semite" in her works?
An Emersonian Beginning
Lazarus was born in 1849 into a prosperous family with deep roots in America. Her father's family were long-standing members of America's Sephardic elite; her mother's, the Nathans, were Ashkenazic in origin and similarly well-established in New York society (intermarriage between these groups was common throughout the nineteenth century). Both the Lazaruses and the Nathans had been in America since before the revolution; and both were members of the oldest congregation in New York, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue Shearith Israel. Her paternal grandfather served as synagogue president from 1846 to 1849 and had even co-edited the country's first English–Hebrew Sephardic prayer book. By the time of Lazarus's birth, however, her father had substantially distanced the family from organized Jewish life, devoting his energies to rising in an expanding antebellum economy. He achieved great prosperity as a sugar refiner — the summer house he built in Newport, Rhode Island, was only the most conspicuous sign of his success. As might befit such a family, Moses Lazarus had his daughters educated by private tutors who taught them foreign languages and introduced them to classical and European literature. It was only natural, given this background, that when Emma Lazarus began writing poems in her early adolescence, she emulated the great European tradition stretching from Petrarch through Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Brownings. Impressed with his daughter's talents (and eager, perhaps, to bolster his claims to social legitimacy), Moses Lazarus had a collection of his daughter's juvenilia printed for private circulation in 1867.
In an encounter that would set the course of her early career, the nineteen-year-old Lazarus met Ralph Waldo Emerson, who by the 1860s was the undisputed reigning dean of American letters. During the period just after the Civil War, Emerson was wont to offer his services as literary mentor to aspiring young writers, including a number of women such as Helen Hunt Jackson and Louisa May Alcott. As Anne Boyd shows in Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America (2002), Emerson played a key role in enabling many women writers to imagine themselves as artists. His personal mentorship and support of iconoclastic self-expression were instrumental in the development of a new model of female authorship that emerged in the 1860s and 1870s. So it was that when Lazarus followed up the meeting by sending him her poems, he responded with encouragement: "I observe that my poet gains in skill as the poems multiply," he wrote. "I should like to be appointed your professor, you being required to attend the whole term." The avuncular tone here belies the seriousness with which he later read her work. Emerson became Lazarus's mentor, and, inspired by his example, she eagerly enlisted in his program for creating an indigenous and daringly original American literature.
In his letters to Lazarus, Emerson encourages her in terms that recall his signature essays and lectures. Echoing "The Poet," he calls her attention to a greater reality accessible to those who eschew ingrained habits of mind and conventional ways of seeing: "It is sufficient happiness to have the eye opened to the miracle of nature, & the ear to that music which reports it, & which we call poetry" (Rusk 6). The key Emersonian idea here is that of the sufficiency of individual consciousness: one's inherent resources require no outside supplement. To goad Lazarus onward in this heroic adventure of consciousness, Emerson lays out a reading curriculum, ranging from Thoreau to the Bhagavad Gita, along with the warning that undue obeisance to past achievements can weigh down the spirit. In response to Lazarus's long poem Admetus, Emerson urges her to leave behind motifs from classical literature altogether: "[T]hough you can throw yourself so heartily into the old world of Memory, the high success must ever be to penetrate unto & show the celestial element in the despised Present, & detect the deity that still challenges you under all the gross and vulgar masks" (Rusk 10). Such directives resonate with basic Emersonian doctrine, going back to "Nature" (1837), in which he abjures the building of the "sepulchres of the fathers" and calls for "a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition." History, tradition, and memory all posed a threat to the fundamental task facing all Americans and writers in particular. As he wrote in "Self-Reliance," "The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the Soul" (Whicher 157). The individual soul was capacious enough to supply the writer with all he or she needed, and nature, not history, was the proper source and target for one's meditations.
Whether Emerson had any awareness that Lazarus was a Jew or what he would have made of this fact are hardly clear. From Emerson's perspective in Concord in the 1860s, the reality of living Jews could hardly have been a matter of any great import. In any case, his prospectus for American culture looked to the creation of a new community of self-reliant individuals; questions of race or creed were irrelevant, at least in theory. It is clear, nevertheless, that insofar as Judaism has any explicit role in Emerson's writing, it is as a foil. When Emerson evokes "Hebraism" in his essays, it is as a limiting principle, as in Representative Men (1850), where he writes of the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg that "[h]is perception of nature is not human and universal, but is mystical and Hebraic. ... The Hebraic muse, which taught the law of right and wrong to men, had an excess of influence for him" (Whicher 212). Anticipating Matthew Arnold's wariness of the moral rigors of Hebraism, Emerson links the "Hebraic" with a binding legalism; "mystical" stands here for dogmatism, an otherworldly focus that blinds one to the immanent splendor of nature. In Emerson's paradigmatic essay "Self Reliance," the figure of the "Israelite" is evoked explicitly as a type of spiritual failure:
[Followers of creeds] say with those foolish Israelites, "Let not God speak to us, lest we die. Speak thou, speak any man with us, and we will obey." Everywhere I am bereaved of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors, and recites fables merely of his brother's, or his brother's brother's God. (Whicher 163)
Unwilling to activate their own powers of perception, the "foolish Israelites" embody the antithesis of the self-reliant individuality Emerson hopes to foster. Emerson's Israelites recite the fables of others, as if to admit defeat before the challenge of heeding the genius within. The goal Emerson sets for the American of his day, then, is to reclaim precisely the kind of spiritual autonomy surrendered by the Israelites in the wilderness. The temple that once stood in Jerusalem must become a symbol for the temple within.
Emerson's effect on Lazarus at the time was evidently to buoy her up. She eagerly followed his directives and became his acolyte: "I have only been reading Thoreau's Concord River & Letters, & a poem or two of Walt Whitman," she wrote him in June of 1868. "But these writers are so in harmony with Nature that they do not take me away from the scene. I no longer wonder at your admiration of Thoreau ... for he is now more alive to me than many who are living near me" (SP 312). She too will turn away from the past, from memory, and track her own responses to the world outside. An example of Lazarus's early poetry at its most Emersonian is Epochs, a long work that builds upon an epigraph drawn from Emerson's essay "Spiritual Laws": "The epochs of our life are not in the visible facts, but in the silent thought by the wayside as we walk." Lazarus fleshes out Emerson's appeal to interiority in a cycle of sixteen poems, each one devoted to a different internal state. She moves through moments of negativity (e.g., "Regret," "Longing," and "Grief ") before arriving at "Patience" and ultimately "Peace." The final four lines of "Peace" envision a soul that has been released from all burdens:
The mystic-winged and flickering butterfly,
A human soul, that drifts at liberty,
Ah! who can tell to what strange paradise,
To what undreamed-of fields and lofty skies! (SP 49)
The bouncing iambic rhythm recalls the long tradition of English poetry, but the sentiment is Emersonian. Lazarus's cycle underscores the teleological vision of Emerson's "Spiritual Laws," referenced in her epigraph. She too imagines the soul as a vector driven by "spiritual laws" toward a future of boundless promise.
Here in her early works, then, Lazarus writes as a Transcendentalist — a singer of American heroism and a researcher of the unencumbered soul. Nor did she ever lose this early enthusiasm for Emerson and his prospectus for American culture. More than a decade later, after her turn toward Jewishness, she wrote in her essay "American Literature" (1881) that Emerson's essays were the seed-bed from which a distinctly American school had flowered. His influence had penetrated to "the very fiber of our best intellectual life," which she traced through Thoreau, Whitman, Bret Harte, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (SP 164). When Emerson died in 1882, Lazarus published a sonnet in his honor along with a long appreciation for The Century Magazine, citing his example as proof that a democratic society can foster moral and aesthetic refinement. But even as Lazarus sustained her enthusiasm for Emerson, her subsequent engagements with Jewish history led her to complicate and transform the poetics of Transcendentalists. As she emended the Emersonian principles that she had absorbed as a young writer to make room for expressions of Jewish loyalty, Lazarus revealed the power of American Romanticism to unleash ambitious creative energies while also demonstrating that Jewishness might very well stand for a different set of priorities — and for a different vision of the past and present — than that which Emerson had proposed for all Americans.
The Theory of the "Two Jews"
Sometime around the mid-1870s, Lazarus began to shift her focus away from the adventures of her own soul, and, as if to countermand Emerson's instructions, borrowed increasingly from European culture. Among her numerous experiments, which included a novel based on an episode from Goethe's life and a cycle of poems inspired by the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann, she increasingly took themes from Jewish history and tradition — a direction she would sustain to the end of her life. Among these "Jewish" works were a parable adapted from the Talmud and transcribed into blank verse ("The Birth of Man"); a long narrative poem based on a fifteenth-century epistle from a loyal Jew to his former master, the latter of whom became a bishop after conversion ("An Epistle from Joshua ibn Vives of Allorqui"); a verse tragedy about the martyrdom of a group of Jews in the medieval town of Nordhausen (The Dance to Death); and a host of shorter poems about biblical themes or about the "Jewish soul" as it had sustained itself across the centuries. Beginning in the early 1880s, Lazarus also became deeply involved in philanthropic activity on behalf of the persecuted Jews of Russia, writing strident essays in the popular press decrying antisemitism and joining forces with a group of wealthy Jews in New York to form the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jewry. They hoped to resolve the crisis facing Russian Jews by purchasing land in Palestine for the purpose of their resettlement.
Excerpted from Exiles on Main Street by Julian Levinson. Copyright © 2008 Julian Levinson. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Julian Levinson is the Samuel Shetzer Professor of American Jewish Studies and Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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