The Tenants

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Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,865 words

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[(essay date 1993) In the following essay, Abramson addresses Malamud's treatment of the tension between Jews and African Americans in The Tenants.]

Blacks and Whites

When Malamud was asked why he wrote The Tenants, he answered, "Jews and blacks, the period of the troubles in New York City, the teachers strike, the rise of black activism, the mix-up of cause and effect. I thought I'd say a word" (Stern, 61). As A New Life discussed aspects of McCarthyism and The Fixer focused on a particular period in the history of Tsarist Russia, so The Tenants treats issue of black anti-Jewish sentiment in the 1960s, despite the long and vigorous Jewish support given to black groups and causes.

Before the novel's appearance, Malamud had published two short stories treating relationships between blacks and Jews: "Angel Levine" (1955) and "Black Is My Favorite Color" (1963). The earlier tale focuses on the Job-like suffering of the protagonist, Manishevitz, and the question of whether his faith can extend to belief in a black, Jewish angel who claims to be a messenger from God. Relief from suffering for Manishevitz and full angelhood for Levine depends on the protagonist's ability to extend his idea of Jewishness to all human beings, and Levine's color makes the task much more difficult. Manishevitz's success leads to spiritual redemption for both, a much more optimistic ending than the more likely one of The Tenants.

"Black Is My Favorite Color" relies on realism rather than fantasy in its first-person, pessimistic rendition of the futility of offering love in a poisoned racial climate. The subtlety of prejudice is such that even a blind black man can detect a white person. Ultimately, Nat Lime cannot overcome the superior position that he, as a white man, holds in society; the black world is closed to him, and each race is going in a different direction.

In The Tenants, Harry Lesser and Willie Spearment reflect each other's prejudices. Even before Willie arrives on the scene, Harry's nightmares contain a black thug that he meets on the stairs. He wonders what it would be like to sleep with a black girl, and Willie's nervousness before asking him to read his manuscript causes Harry to muse: "Has he been seeing old Stepin Fetchit films ... ?"1 Malamud presents Willie at times as a stereotypical black man, one who responds easily to music and actually says: "Don't nobody have to tell me about rhythm" (TT [The Tenants], 87). Harry's reaction to the white, Jewish Irene being Willie's "sweet bitch" is laden with jealousy, not least because a black man is sleeping with her. When Harry and Irene sleep together, he denies it but Irene is aware of the racial implications: "... I have this awful feeling as though you and I are a couple of Charlies giving a nigger a boot in the ass" (TT, 148).

Perhaps even more than Harry, who tries early on to compensate for his prejudice by helping Willie with his writing, Willie...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420047451