Jewish-American Lit 101

I’ve been killing fair bit of time clicking around the online companion to Josh Lambert‘s book American Jewish Fiction: The JPS Guide—the database includes publication information on a raft of books dating back to 1867. (That would be the year that Nathan Meyer‘s Differences was published. I haven’t heard of it, but Lambert points out that it’s available online.) Though the site has little in the way of commentary, it’s still interesting to see some of the connections between authors and publication dates; Saul Bellow‘s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, for instance, appeared the same year as John Updike‘s Bech: A Book, in temperament flipsides of the same coin and reflecting a surge of interest in Jewish themes. Or, as Lambert put it regarding Bech: “By the late 1960s, Jewish writers so dominated the field of American literature that non-Jews began to get jealous.”

The book itself, which I haven’t seen, includes comments by Lambert on 125 books. A few months back he explained his process of arriving at that number. Much of his time was spent talking with Jewish literature scholars, but he also cast a wider net:

Alan Wald, a leading scholar of writers on the American Left brought obscure and wonderful novels to my attention, including Vera Caspary’s epic of a Sephardic family in Chicago, Thicker than Water (1932). Scholars of Hebrew and Yiddish literature directed me to the critical books about America written in those languages.

Some of the best suggestions came from Eileen Pollack, an extraordinary novelist and short story writer. She pointed me to, among other things, Steven Millhauser’s first novel, Edwin Mullhouse (1972), which has not generally been appreciated, as it should be, for the very subtle and powerful story it tells about what it means to be a Jewish writer in America. If Roth, Bellow, Bashevis, and Ozick can be considered the Taillevent and La Tour d’Argent of American Jewish fiction–that is, the deservedly famous Parisian gastronomic temples–books like Millhauser’s and Caspary’s are the hidden gems, the unsung fromageries of the Rue Mouffetard or the tiny café on the Ile St.-Louis that serves incomparable hot chocolate.

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