‘Blessed With This Sense of the Exotic’
Since the American language was available to everyone, Bellow and his Jewish peers were determined to “use it with a certain spirit.”
The American Jews, the Jewish writers, are descendants of immigrants of the first part of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they fell in love with English and American poetry and life. It was a love affair, there was nothing contrived about it. You went to school, you read these great books and poems, and you were just shot down by them.
The question whether they had a right to this language and to this literature was a lively question. In their own eyes they sometimes felt that they didn’t have the right because they weren’t born to the manner, and American society—at least its elite Anglo-Saxon elements—told them that they didn’t come by it naturally and that it didn’t really belong to them. But the evidence of the streets was different, because a new life was forming in American society which belonged to nobody, and therefore there was no reason why an American writer should accept the words of Henry James in his book The American Scene, for instance, in which he was so distressed by the Jewish East Side of New York and by what was happening to the English language on the East Side.
But taking one thing with another and feeling that everybody in America was a visitor, a tourist, a stranger, a foreigner, and that the language was there as everybody’s resource, one didn’t know what else to do except use it with a certain spirit, and in defiance of the so-called owners of the culture and of the language. And remembering, after all, that the Jews were just as able to use Greek, or Italian, or Spanish, or any number of other languages as well as Hebrew, and that they had made a not bad record in those languages, they simply decided to override local provincial prejudices of the dominant American cultural class and to go ahead. That is what I did and this is what many others like me did.
At first there was a considerable amount of curiosity about this on the part of the Anglo-Saxon elite in the universities and in the press. When I first made my appearance, the reception I got was a little bit like Dr. Johnson’s description of dogs who walked on their hind legs, or lady preachers. What was remarkable, he said, was not that they did it badly but that they could do it at all. I felt that I fitted into this Johnsonian category and that it was not a bad thing, but I foretold that this triumph would not last very long and that there would soon be a turn against it.
And, indeed, there has been a turn against it, only the turn was in a direction I hadn’t predicted, exactly. The turn is on behalf of the blacks, of black writing, and one minority driving out another. Nothing lasts very long; the public attention has a very short span. It’s of rather fragile substance and you expect a certain amount of turnover. I didn’t expect that Jewish writers would have a very long reign in the U.S. and I was quite right about that. The only thing is, first of all, that the Jewish writers are not so often—in their own minds—primarily Jewish writers; they are writers who happen to have this particular kind of experience, that is to say, the power of American society to absorb people, so enormous that you don’t have time really to think of yourself in that way.
I will say one further thing about the Jewish writer in America, and that is that the Jewish community in America was delighted when the Jewish writers appeared on the scene because they felt it would be good for the Jews in America. This put us in a rather awkward position of doing public relations, unwillingly, for the American Jews, and we were also expected to refrain from any sharp criticism of persons who were Jews.
This was extremely disagreeable, because it seemed to me to be an imposition on truth to have to make things come out nicely, as Israel Zangwill did, and give the people a pleasing impression. Other Jewish writers bent over backwards just because there was this pressure on them and decided that they would be, out of contrariness, quite nasty in their realistic portrayals of Jews. This is an accusation that has been brought against Philip Roth, who has gone much farther in this direction than I ever dreamed of going. But he went farther in that direction because he felt the provocation or the challenge, I think, whereas I always refuse to be provoked or challenged and simply went my stubborn, mulish, narrow way, without accepting either the task of making good public relations for the Jews or reacting strongly against the demand.
The question is: What part has the Jewish reading and book-buying public played in the success of American writers? Well, I should guess that it was an enormous part. I suppose that Jewish readers represent a very large part of the Jewish public—in some cities a majority. The question would end there if I didn’t add the further question: What do we owe them for this, as artists or writers? I mean, what kind of gratitude are they entitled to for being literate? It’s their blessing! And if they’re not cheated by fraudulent writers and if they don’t read too many bad books—and I’m afraid I must enter a caveat on this subject—then they’re doing very well. But the fact is that a great many frauds are practiced upon them.
The question is whether the Jewish characters in the books of American Jewish authors really represent characteristic American experience. Well, I suppose that some do.
Are the Jews somehow characteristically American? Well, they have a certain kind of feeling for the poetry of American life quite apart from Jewish life, I think. They have the eye of the foreigner for it, that is to say, everybody in the U.S. is something of a foreigner; but it’s very good to have a kind of exotic perspective on your immediate surroundings. That is to say, it’s very good for artists to have an exotic perspective on their immediate surroundings. And Americans, or Jews born in America, were really blessed with this sense of the exotic.
I don’t see how this could have been avoided. Say in my case: I was born in a French-Canadian village of Russian-Jewish parents in 1915. We had Indians, French-Canadians, Scottish and Irish, Ukrainians, Jews, Russians and so on. Every language was spoken in the streets—from Iroquois to Hebrew. How could you avoid the feeling that you were in an enchanted place?
Is being Jewish really “the least defining thing” about Dylan Ebdus? Or is it the underlying central thread in The Fortress of Solitude?