Monday, April 21, 2014

Judging the World Library of America’s Bernard Malamud Collections

By Cynthia Ozick for New York Times Book Review

Bernard MalamudHart and Schaffner are dead; Marx, ringed round with laurels, has notoriously retired. But the firm itself was dissolved long ago, and it was Saul Bellow who, with a sartorial quip, snipped the stitches that had sewn three acclaimed and determinedly distinct American writers into the same suit of clothes, with its single label: Jewish Writer. In Bellow’s parody, Bellow, Malamud and Roth were the literary equivalent of the much advertised men’s wear company — but lighthearted as it was, the joke cut two ways: it was a declaration of imagination’s independence of collective tailoring, and it laughingly struck out at the disgruntlement of those who, having themselves applied the label in pique, felt displaced by it.

Who were these upstarts, these pushy intruders (as Gore Vidal had it), who were ravishing readers and seizing public space? Surveying American publishing, Truman Capote railed that “the Jewish mafia has systematically frozen” gentiles “out of the literary scene.” In a 1968 essay, “On Not Being a Jew,” Edward Hoagland complained that he was “being told in print and occasionally in person that I and my heritage lacked vitality . . . because I could field no ancestor who had hawked copper pots in a Polish shtetl.” Katherine Anne Porter, describing herself as “in the direct, legitimate line” of the English language, accused Jewish writers of “trying to destroy it and all other living things they touch.” More benignly, John Updike invented Bech, his own Jewish novelist, and joined what he appeared to regard as the dominant competition.

Yet it was not so much in response to these dubious preconceptions as it was to a rooted sense of their capacious American literary inheritance that all three unwillingly linked novelists were reluctant to be defined by the term “Jewish writer.” “I am not a Jewish writer, I am a writer who is a Jew,” Philip Roth announced in Jerusalem in 1963. And Bellow, pugnaciously in a 1988 lecture: “If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.” Earlier, he had asserted that he would allow no “environment” to circumscribe or confine him, and repudiated the phrase “Jewish writers in America” as “a repulsive category.”

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