Literary Criticism as Anything But Literary Criticism

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Date: Fall 2002
Publisher: American Jewish Congress
Document Type: Book review
Length: 4,227 words

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Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature. By ETHAN GOFFMAN. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Facing Black and Jew: Literature as Public Space in Twentieth-Century America. By ADAM ZACHARY NEWTON. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Ever since Nat Hentoff edited an anthology of essays called Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism (1969), (1) the domain of Black-Jewish relations has established itself as a sub-specialty in the field of American studies. Of the many books and essays that have appeared on the subject, few have concentrated on the literature produced by Blacks writing about Jews and Jews writing about Blacks. The best-known of these is Cynthia Ozick's 1983 essay, "Literary Blacks and Jews." (2) This narrow shelf has suddenly gotten crowded by the recent appearance of two studies by young Jewish scholars. (Jews are much more interested in writing about Black-Jewish relations than are Blacks.) While both works might fall under the rubric of cultural studies, Ethan Goffman's Imagining Each Other treats literature as sociology while Adam Zachary Newton's Facing Black and Jew (3) wishes to go beyond "mere" literature and presents itself as its own primary text.

Stop me if you've heard this one before:

Jews came to the United States in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity. Blacks were brought here in slavery. The two groups came into significant contact toward the end of the nineteenth century when the Black peasants of the Great Migration settled in the same northern cities that hosted the masses of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Soon an alliance developed between the elites of both groups to fight nativist prejudice and to promote civil equality. This so-called Grand Alliance culminated in the victories of the Civil Rights movement of the late fifties and sixties. "Then," to quote Michael Walzer, "came Black power, the 1967 Mideast war, community school boards, affirmative action, the Nation of Islam ... and now there is only trouble and mutual recrimination." (4) This is the Official Liberal Version of Black-Jewish relations, and it provides the unacknowledged historical framework of Goffman's study.

As a framework it works well. Beginning with the period of waning Communist influence on intellectuals, the 1940s, Goffman traces the history of Black-Jewish relations through to the Crown Heights riots of 1991. He makes certain novels, plays, and poems representative of Black and Jewish perspectives at different historical junctures, prefacing his reading of these works with historical summary, commentary, and a brief presentation of relevant essays and works of non-fiction. In the first of these historical chapters, "Black (E)Masculinity and Anti-Semitism," Goffman analyzes Richard Wright's Native Son (5) as a foreshadowing of the Black anger that would propel African Americans away from the Grand Alliance. Even more interesting is his discussion of Chester Himes's Lonely Crusade, (6) in which he contends that America's emasculation of the Black male as breadwinner and protector of his family makes traditional antisemitism "tantalizingly relevant" because the scholarly ideal of the Jewish male reverses...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A106730960