HANNA WIRTH-NESHER, ed., The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature (New York: Cambridge UP, 2016), 732 pp.
Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1
This much-needed volume brings Jewish American literature as an ethnic literature back on the critical agenda. That the very concept should have almost vanished from the landscape of critical debates is noteworthy in and of itself, and its neglect is poignantly manifest, for instance, in the marginalization of Jewish American literature in the curricula of English and American Studies in the U.S. In 2009, a panel at the MLA convention with the title “Does the English Department Have a Jewish Problem?” acknowledged the situation and discussed the place of Jewish literature in twenty-first-century American literary studies. One of the central topics debated there—whether recent theoretical and critical developments such as whiteness studies, transnational studies, comparative ethnic studies, etc. have opened new ways of conceptualizing Jewish literature—is also reflected in the particular organization of this volume. Without simply turning back to traditional paradigms of categorization, the anthology argues against the view that Jewish American literature has lost its character as identifiably ethnic writing, as it is argued in some of the many redefinitions of ethnicity and minority culture that have taken place over the last decades in theoretical debates. Concomitantly, Jewish Americans who have made it into the mainstream no longer qualify as ethnic Americans, and, as Hana Wirth-Nesher sums up in her introduction to the volume, “their literature is not included in a canon whose primary criterion is the production of fissures and tensions rather than the appreciation of diversity” (6). In contrast, The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature aims at a reexamination of constructs and categories of minority writing and ethnicity, taking into account the transnational character of Jewishness.
The volume explores distinguishing characteristics of Jewish American culture, such as religion, peoplehood, race, and language, in light of the recent debates, and further aims to bestow Jewish American literature the hybrid status of being both American and part of a transnational, diasporic literary tradition. The general organization of the volume reflects this intention with five parts representing five different approaches that reoccur in each of the following sections: discovery, genre and period, place, creating fields, and innovation/new perspectives. The first part, “New World Encounters,” addresses the immigration history of Jewish Americans and their initial encounter with U.S. culture, or rather, the encounter with the idea of America. Part two, “Genres: Adopting, Adapting, Reinventing,” is quite classical in its description of Jewish American literature according to genre. As fiction writing bears the brunt of Jewish American literary expression, it follows a chronological order and is divided into the traditional literary periods of 1900-1945, 1945-1970, and 1970-2000 and traces the rise of Jewish American literature from the margins into the mainstream of American literary production. That the chronology ends at the turn of the millennium is one of the disappointments of this volume, as it misses out on exciting developments that have since taken place in Jewish American fiction writing. New forms of expression such as the important and provocative “camp comedy” genre and its representatives (Melvin Jules Bukiet, Shalom Auslander, Tova Reich) are not mentioned at all—a deplorable omission that even the very last contribution to the volume, which addresses Jewish American literature since 2000, does not amend.
The parts on poetry and drama consider the significance of religious reflections and the use of Yiddish as a medium of expression and also feature an informative contribution on “Jews and Film.” Contrary to most anthologies, there are no single author chapters, yet prominent authors are discussed in different contributions from a variety of perspectives. Section three, “Place and Peoplehood: Redefining ‘Here’ and ‘There,’” is certainly one of the key parts of the volume as it reflects the transnational character of Jewish American literature and explores important elements of Jewish American self-understanding, such as remembering the Middle Eastern past (and thereby drawing on the diasporic dimension of Jewish American existence), the role of Israel and the Holocaust in the construction of Jewish American literature, and Hebrew and Ladino as non-English vehicles of expressing Jewish American identity. This part also considers geographical questions, including the importance of New York as a space of Yidishkayt, and investigates the hemispheric dimension of Jewish American literature in contributions on Canada and Latin America. The assumption that underlies this section and informs the entire approach of this anthology is a conceptualization of Jewish American literature as cosmopolitan and global, as expanding the scope of nation. The fourth part, “Creating Fields,” asks about the construction, demarcation and definition of the field of Jewish American literature and the roles played here by public intellectuals, by literary anthologies, and by processes of translation. The contributions to the fifth and final section, “New Perspectives,” intersect with concerns that dominate contemporary debates in the larger fields of literary and cultural theory. They consider questions of race and gender, explore important visual genres such as comic books and graphic novels, deal with issues of popular culture, and, not least, raise the famous question of Jewish humor.
The contributions, all written by acknowledged experts in the field, are informative, and they grant an up-to-date and highly differentiated survey of the field. This volume is as useful as it is usable, and due to its intricate organization, allows easy access to pertinent perspectives on the topic that expand the customary format of the subject. As such, this book sets the standard for a contemporary anthology and will certainly support research by students and teachers alike.
Susanne Rohr (Hamburg)