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Likeness of a Jew

A dispute between novelist Alan Hollinghurst and author Daniel Mendelsohn revives a history of sensitivity to British stereotypes about Jews

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Daniel Mendelsohn (left) and Alan Hollinghurst. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; Mendelsohn photo Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images; Hollinghurst photo Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images; Samuel L. Wackson/Flickr)
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In our age of promiscuous communication, an old-fashioned war of words in the New York Review of Books reminds us that even language at its most civilized can bear a sting. In November, author Daniel Mendelsohn, a classics scholar and, increasingly, a public intellectual, published a 5,000-word essay on the oeuvre of English novelist Alan Hollinghurst, winner of the prestigious Man Booker prize for The Line of Beauty (2004), a portrayal of Thatcher-era England. Hollinghurst’s current book, The Stranger’s Child, was the occasion for Mendelsohn’s assessment of the novelist’s career. It did not go down well.

The Mendelsohn-Hollinghurst dispute will not make Page Six (as Gore Vidal v. Norman Mailer might have), but it retains a potential for damage in the world of Anglo-American letters. At the center of the dispute is the imputation by Mendelsohn that Hollinghurst has the “unconscious inclination” to “lapse into an old British literary habit”—using Jewish characters as markers of un-Englishness and social decline. Let’s be clear: Nowhere does Mendelsohn overtly accuse Hollinghurst of anti-Semitism or intentional anti-Jewish bias. Instead, he asks, “What, exactly, are we being asked to conclude about the crass ‘new’ England [in Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty] when we learn, of one member of [protagonist] Nick Guest’s new circle, that the grand Duchess of Flintshire was once ‘plain Sharon Feingold’?”  Mendelsohn raises a question and lets the reader ruminate on its implications.

That said, Mendelsohn’s overall assessment of Hollinghurst’s career is often generous and complimentary, as when he discusses the author’s debut success from 1988, The Swimming-Pool Library, “in which a plush style, a formidable culture, and a self-confident avoidance of then-fashionable formal tricks were put in the service of a startling direct and unembarrassed treatment of gay desire.” But that Mendelsohn saw fit to raise this Jewish issue at all—late in the review and in no more than a few hundred words—has proven small comfort to Hollinghurst. In the subsequent Dec. 8 issue, Princeton’s Galen Strawson, the British philosopher and literary critic, lodged a vigorous defense, in which he chastised “a usually intelligent critic like Daniel Mendelsohn” for using as evidence against Hollinghurst a series of minor characters with Jewish surnames “to indicate any trace of anti-Semitism” and for “a failure of ear, a narrowness of mind, an ignorance of the world, a capacity for unwarranted insult.” Strawson ended his missive with the stirring prescription that “Mendelsohn should apologize unconditionally for a slur that is as serious as he himself takes it to be.”

In fact, there was no stated slur, yet in Mendelsohn’s original critique there is reference to several Jewish personae in Hollinghurst’s fiction—used, he believes, to symbolize a decline in the halcyon British brand. Thus, Mendelsohn writes “not without dismay” that in The Stranger’s Child “the irritating photographer who plagues the Valances—he represents the distressingly crass ‘modern’ world of publicity and celebrity—is called Jerry Goldblatt.” This, in a footnote. It would wait for the Jan. 12 issue of the New York Review for Hollinghurst himself to weigh in on what he calls Mendelsohn’s “poisonous atmosphere of suggestion.”


Certainly, to understand this fracas, we need to understand what “old British literary habit” Mendelsohn is talking about—a habit I expand to include American examples, since English traditions served ours. We are tempted to reach as far back as Shakespeare’s Shylock, the original avaricious Jew, but while the embittered Venetian money-lender makes an indelible impression seeking his “pound of flesh,” at least the Bard allows the old man to voice his grievance against the abusive Christian world in which he is fated to play his part. Still, abusive Shylock became red meat for English actors and audiences over centuries. In Charles Dickens’ early success, Oliver Twist, Fagin the Jew is introduced from the start as a version of the Devil, with his “matted red hair,” a “toasting fork in his hand,” and a “villainous-looking and repulsive face.” He leads adolescent boys down a dirty primrose path toward the rankest thievery. Cunning mixed with a measure of seduction infuses Fagin with a vaguely pedophilic quality—a twist on medieval notions of Jews drinking the blood of Christian children.

After Oliver Twist was published serially from 1837 to 1839, it would take 25 years for Dickens to be called out by a woman of his acquaintance, Mrs. Eliza Davies, for the “great wrong” he had done to a “scattered nation.” Fagin, she fears, “admits of only one interpretation.” Dickens, she proposes, has the opportunity to atone for this great wrong.

Although a Victorian of social sympathies, Dickens could not immediately see her objection; he was portraying a particular criminal type who was “invariably … a Jew.” Yet Dickens made amends in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) with the character of Riah, described by critic John Gross as a “wholly innocent scapegoat … an involuntary front man for his non-Jewish employer, the odious Fledgeby.” More significantly, when Dickens revised Oliver Twist in 1867, he eliminated many references to “the Jew” Fagin, instead using the character’s name or a simple pronoun. Alas, Dickens felt forced to make a non-literary point: Not all Jews were Fagins.

Then there is the opposite case: George Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), admired now as a failed masterpiece. Eliot sees Jews not as a “type,” but as people with a complex interior and spiritual life, distinct customs, and, at least in the character of Mordecai, aspirations for nationhood. The novel is divided between Deronda’s attraction to Gwendolen Harleth, the society beauty who ultimately gets trapped into marriage with a loathsome upper-class sadist, Henleigh Grandcourt, and Deronda’s affiliation with a group of London Jews, one of whom, Mirah Lapidoth, he has saved from suicide. The common complaint is that the novel’s Jewish sections are too didactic by half, while the Jewish characters—Mirah and Mordecai especially—are too good by at least as much. Indeed, Mirah is so sentimentally good she is nearly a Christian martyr, an ideal of Victorian feminine virtue. Bad-girl Gwendolen has vastly more energy and psychological depth. From a literary standpoint, Eliot’s Jews haven’t the vitality that could ever replace the fascinating evil energy of the all-too-vivid Fagin. Philo-Semitic in sensibility, Deronda remains the exception to the rule.

But from the high Victorian era onward, the literary Jewish presence is carved from a similar mold by even the most trenchant writers. Anthony Trollope’s Ferdinand Lopez, in The Prime Minister of 1876—the penultimate volume of Trollope’s Palliser series—is a financial adventurer who wins the heart of a proper English girl whose conservative family refers to him as a “foreign cad” and a “greasy Jew adventurer out of the gutter.” In his favor, he is handsome (although swarthy), well-educated, multilingual, and has the external manners of a gentleman. But the narrator refers to Lopez as a “man without a father, a foreigner, a black Portuguese nameless Jew,” which may or may not express Trollope’s own view—especially since the narration begins with the claim: “It is certainly of service to a man to know who were his grandfathers … and grandmothers if he entertain an ambition to move in the upper circles of society.” Trollope introduces social climbing as a major theme, yet perhaps doing so with critical irony—an irony that could well escape Jewish readers already sensitive but not inured to continuous insult.

The Jew as scheming social parvenu is a feature in Trollope’s fiction. Another fascinating financial speculator, Augustus Melmotte in the earlier The Way We Live Now (1875)—Is he Jewish? His wife is—only re-inscribes a core problem of the assimilating Other by his uncertain foreign background. The Jew of qualities who hopes to pose as the real thing—an Englishman of good breeding—disturbs the social order. As James Shapiro proposes in Shakespeare and the Jews, “The Jew as irredeemable alien and the Jew as bogeyman into whom the Englishman could be mysteriously ‘turned’ coexisted at deep linguistic and psychological levels.” If the Jew can disappear through assimilation and upward mobility, what security is there for the Englishman who has his privileges inherited as if by divine right?

By America’s Gilded Age, the grasping arriviste Jew is an unremarkable figure. In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), a brilliant dissection of New York society, the secondary character, Simon Rosedale, smitten by protagonist Lily Bart, is, as the writer Lev Raphael sums him up, “pure anti-Semitic stereotype: unctuous, vulgar, shifty-eyed, and worthy of everyone’s contempt, even though they would love to be as rich as he is, and some society folk cultivate him for stock tips.” Raphael diagnoses Wharton’s problem perfectly: “Her portrayal … not only seems shallow, but a real break in her artistry. In relying on received wisdom about Jews, she fell beneath her own high standards.” Raphael has had his revenge, publishing a novel from the eponymous character’s point of view: Rosedale in Love.

Can anyone today misunderstand that Wharton was writing from the vantage of a woman born into an elevated New York social order that almost required the breeding of anti-Semitism in the bone? William Dean Howells, midwestern son of a politically liberal publisher, labored under no such assumptions, yet in a passing attempt to portray unreasonable prejudices against Jews in The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885)—by having the socially uncertain Laphams frankly discuss how property values fell when wealthy Jews moved into their neighborhood—the judicious Howells found himself called to account by several Jewish readers. He would cut the passage when the serialized version was printed as a book and wrote to Cyrus L. Sulzberger, editor of the American Hebrew, that “you are not the first Hebrew to accuse me of ‘pandering’ to the stupid and cruel feeling against your race and religion. … I merely recognized to rebuke it, the existence of a feeling which civilized men should be ashamed of.”

Wharton would have been incapable of such an assertion. Although rankled by the restrictions on her sex and caste, she never adopted a feminist outlook and continued to see Jews as beyond the civilized pale. In 1925, she praised as “masterly” the anti-Semitic portrait of Meyer Wolfsheim in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Indeed, she gushed to young Fitzgerald that Wolfsheim was the “perfect Jew”—odd adjectives to apply to a shifty, physically unappealing character rumored to have arranged the World Series Black Sox Scandal of 1919.


A Jewish littérateur like Daniel Mendelsohn would be aware of these and lesser examples. For Galen Strawson, this awareness produces in Mendelsohn a particular prejudice, a heightened sensitivity resulting in “a capacity for unwarranted insult.” One must wonder if Strawson imagines Mendelsohn, who wrote a masterful account of family tragedy in The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, has no just claim to his sensitivity about Jewish representation. In his reply, Mendelsohn stands by his reading of Hollinghurst’s use of “age-old clichés of the Jew in British literature.” This was not an “ad hominem attack on Alan Hollinghurst,” he assures us, but a footnote—an “unhappy parenthesis”—in an “otherwise admiring and, I think, nuanced assessment of this worthy writer.”

When Hollinghurst finally came forward last month, he defended himself with suitable restraint, noting that where he has portrayed Jews as major characters in his earlier The Line of Beauty, “I certainly saw them as individuals just as varied, complex, and interesting as the non-Jewish characters in my novel.” And then, as if quivering with barely suppressed outrage, he wrote: “Really, I want to protest that I am a good deal more ‘conscious’ of what I am doing … than Mendelsohn … has repeatedly alleged.” At the end, he makes his most damning charge—that Mendelsohn, a literary critic, has misread the use of the press photographer Jerry Goldblatt in a “section of the book set in 1926” that was “deployed precisely to illustrate the prejudicial attitudes of Dudley Valance. … To mistake this … historical prejudice for the unconscious habit of the author is so primitive an error [my italics] as to cause some concern for Daniel Mendelsohn’s judgment.”

If this is so, then we are back to poor William Dean Howells pleading to an influential Jewish publisher that in the conversation about Jews he had put in the mouths of Mr. & Mrs. Silas Lapham, “My irony seems to have fallen short of the mark.” Strawson argues that Mendelsohn is overly sensitive; Hollinghurst asserts that Mendelsohn as critic proves incapable of distinguishing an author’s depiction of social prejudice for the author’s own views. This should be an essential skill in a literary critic but, of course, each oppressed group—women, blacks, gays, Jews—is automatically assumed to lose its objectivity when judging how outsiders portray them in fiction and film. In his attempt at a gentlemanly coda to this affair, Mendelsohn writes in reply that if “Alan Hollinghurst insists on believing that I acted out of a poisonous intent to malign him, there is little I can do to change his mind.” His “great regret” is that “this small point” will distract from his “larger critique of an author whose work … I continue to find very worthy indeed.”

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an interesting piece that has a few points for disagreement – most critically: if the slight is there, it is not Mendelsohn’s personal history that allows him special access to it: the slight is plain for anyone to see. ‘special sensitivity’ doesn’t come into it.

second point, if Hollighurst is, as he claims, ‘conscious’ of the aspect of the work under discussion, then the best case scenario is he thinks he is cleverer than his readers. note he does not say Mendelsohn’s observation is wrong, only, in effect, that he (Hollinghurst) ‘knows what he’s doing’ – even if what he’s doing is exactly what Mendelshon says he’s doing.

i would assert that whatever Mendelsohn’s talents as a writer, he is a great critic, and i doubt he’s misconstrued the evidence on which he makes his point. for Hollinghurst to fail to address the substance of Mendelsohn’s – fail to address the possibility that it is a valid observation – shows that while Hollinghurst may be a very good writer, but he’s not much of a thinker, and definitely note much of a person.

alas, fiction writers, great thinkers and decent people are three types who rarely converge.

Harriet J. Brown says:

Don’t forget Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Look at The Prioress’ Tale”; the most anti-semitic work I have ever read.

All of those references to historic anti-Semitic authors are important, but more disturbing are the current “stars” who get away with slurring Jews. Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout comes to mind. All of her books contain either Jewish characters with offensive qualities or non-Jewish characters who spew anti-Semitic thoughts and dialogue. At first I thought she was simply painting bigots with her words, but I searched each of her books and found negative Jewish stereotypes in all of them. Yet she’s lauded. Congratulations to Mendelsohn for calling Hollinghurst out. We should all do more of the same.

Talk about ‘footnotes’ as Daniel Mendelsohn did to Alan Hollinghurst. What a complex situation. It’s hard to be that fair-minded not to feel the sting of the just ‘plain Sharon Feingold’ remark from Hollinghurst’s pen. You want to ask, did it have to be that, did it have to be said with the familiar smugness of Edith Wharton and T S Eliot and the numerous others who used such easy targets?
I digress: Here is another footnote – for many years the standard Norton Anthology of Western LIt had one at the end of “Candide” where Voltaire unloaded himself of yet another of his vicious jabs at Jews he loathed as enemies of modernity. A group of esteemed Norton scholars saw fit to say at the bottom of the page, “This anti-Semitism, derived from unhappy experiences with Jewish financiers, was not the most attractive aspect of his personality.” Oh really, said I…
Mostly, I smoldered every time i taught the novelle. Finally i wrote to Norton to protest this nonsense about his ‘personality’ (reduced to the level of a quirk, rather like being afraid of dogs). No reply for a long time. When a new printing appeared a few years ago i noted NO FOOTNOTE AT ALL. Rather than addressing the issue in terms of Enlightenment thought or any number of other serious issues re. Voltaire and his times, those in charge just let the nasty remarks and incidents stand on their own with not a word anywhere. Blatant hatred of Jews thus expressed in a world literary classic gets a total green light from the Norton Anthology, and many learning opportunities are unaddressed. What others teaching the work do is up to them – i myself emphasize the cowardice of Norton Press each time i still include it on the syllabus.

Footnotes can be quite the steel-traps. I for one would like Mr. Hollinghurst, gifted author that he is, to address the issue much more thoroughly rather than just protect himself from Mr Mendelsohn’s presumed over-sensitivity. That would be most valuable…

“To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf has a character that the other characters just detest for no reason discernable to the 21st century American reader. Reading on, he comes from Golders Green, the Jewish neighborhood of London, and marries well and does well in his career because of his intelligence and ambition – also detestable. English writers only have to say someone is Jewish and the whole despicable package is inferred.

Linda craven says:

I just finished ( forced myself) to read yet again a well written dull story by a booker prize author.
I did not notice the slighted photographer since I forgot he was even in the book.
The constant representing the Oxford grads as offious prigs ( and not even in a funny manner) and the women as intellectual lightweights, daphne,the main woman went from beautiful naive child that seemingly was only attracted to, and/ or married gay men with no idea they were indeed of any homosexual leanings, or if she later did took that oh so boring fact to her grave, her mother in law ( the first one) was loud, brassy,and not an agreeable side did we ever see, oh no, I take that back, she did believe in ghosts which made me mildly like her.
The women seemed to be drunk a good deal of the time, while the men, though drunk also were able , were able to put out some bad lititure.
And the title, very misleading , as it tended to make it seem as the book would be interesting because by the end I hardly cared whose child was whose and …… ” the strangers child” was never really of interest.

The stalking English journalist was not only dislikable, dishonorable but way too much in the book.
The anti Semitic observation about the photographer was so hidden by the details of the half mad, greedy , hateful Dudley , who as a father had hired the photographer to illustrate the lie of the rich and famous lovely family, that the other mean spirited observations made me miss the mean spirited nugut about the photographer.
Frankly, this book should be made into a movie, a comedy

Here’s a letter by Galen Strawson printed in The New York Times:

“To the Editor:

Harold Bloom says that Anthony Julius is “authentic enough to stand against the English literary and academic establishment, which essentially opposes the right of the state of Israel to exist, while indulging in the humbuggery that its anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.” I’m puzzled, because in spite of a life spent in British academic and literary circles, I don’t know anyone who refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. And I wonder how authentic one has to be to take a stand against anti-Semitism. My sense is that the amount of authenticity needed is zero, if authenticity is anything more than ordinary common sense (which includes basic decency). Ditto for courage.

“Sadomasochism,” according to Professor Bloom, “is something of an English vice, and is so much a school-experience of the upper social class.” One might add, in the same spirit, that all Frenchman have pointy waxed moustaches and play the accordion, and that they frequently cry “Ooh la la!”

We should perhaps be grateful that Bloom is Jewish, given that he displays so many of the characteristics that make a virulent anti-Semite — his violent, smarmy partiality, aggrieved bullying manner and hysterical generalizations. The real problem, perhaps, is that the British are peculiarly unimpressed by Bloom’s literary criticism.

Cambridge, Mass.”

Funny, I’ve spent comparatively little time among the British literati, but the names Tom Paulin and Caryl Churchill come readily to mind. It’s extraordinary how some British like having it both ways, an ostentatious leftism in lieu of an Imperial Navy as well as well a kind of hereditary snobbishness.

Samuel Cooper says:

The Brits have a long history of anti-Semitism and racism. Choosing to portray characters in writing with these flaws just helps to perpetuate this racist behavior. If they have truly changed they are going to have to prove it to the rest of the world with deeds as well as words.

Hershl says:

Alan Hollinghurst is a brilliant writer.

I couldn’t care less about his personal opinions.

I find no evidence, btw, that he is an anti-Semite.

Stephan Pickering/Chofetz Chay says:

Shalom & Erev tov…of course, Mr Hollinghurst is an antisemite, one among several Jew-baiters…which is no surprise, if one goes back to the late 1800s in London. There was one novelist who was not an antisemite: his first novel, A study in scarlet, is an energetic attack against the Klan…and he teamed with E.D. Morel and Mark Twain and Roger Casement in exposing the crucifictionist genocide in the Congo…and his closest intimate friends were all Jews. I am speaking of Arthur Conan Doyle, who, unlike Mr Hollinghurst, actually knows how to write a story with depth.
STEPHAN PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham

On a related note, this is why I could never finish reading “Oliver Twist” but I love the movie “Oliver!” because Fagin is the coolest, most nuanced character in the whole work.

Lindsay says:

Ellenszweig presents a really unfair reading of Daniel Deronda.

Lindsay says:

Specifically the character Mirah. Maybe the male Jews–Mordecai and Daniel–are somewhat flat, but one can’t fairly say that Mirah is less interesting than the two of them or Gwendolen. How offensive to womanhood that we must be “bad” to be interesting. Nice religious girls can display depth as “bad” girls can. Mirah shows depth–and consistency. Gwendolen’s claim to depth is that after Daniel marries Mirah, she chooses to lead a “better” life because she knew him. Her “development” as a character exists because Daniel won’t marry her. Mirah, on the other hand, is strong, faithful, sensitive, smart, self-reliant, and interesting from beginning to end. Gwendolen is annoying, selfish, and completely unable to be self-sufficient and can only exist with a husband or romantic attachment. Mirah knows what she wants and won’t let a man tell her what to do. She runs away from her abusive father and refuses to marry that super Aryan Hans. and above all, she never lets Hans or anyone else downplay her Jewishness.

greeneyeshade says:

Elizabeth Strout an anti-Semite? I’ve read all 3 of her novels … on the strong recommendation of a pair of secular British Jews … and I remember no such thing. Are we talking about the same person?

to jay: all your points on point.

Lindsay, thank you so much for your comments about Mirah in the novel Daniel Deronda. I couldn’t agree more, though I also admired Daniel. Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch are my two favorite novels.

Yes, the Elizabeth Strout. Consider this line from Olive Kitteridge: “She was, according to whoever had told the story, a Jew from New York, and so there was that. Even now, there were people who’d have preferred a Muslim family to move in rather than be insulted by a Jew from New York.”

There are more examples in each of her books. I tried to contact her for an explanation, but never heard back. I also believe a 92nd St. Y audience member asked about her views on Jews and she refused to answer. So there was that.

Adam S. says:

I happen to agree with Mendelsohn’s points about Hollinghurst, and I still think Hollinghurst is a great writer. Thanks to Roy for copying Lawson’s letter to the NYT. When Lawson writes,” I’m puzzled, because in spite of a life spent in British academic and literary circles, I don’t know anyone who refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist,” he reveals the depth of denial among the British intellensia of English anti-semitism.

But, look, dragging Elizabeth Stroudt into this is really vulgar. I’ve read every word Stroud has written and to call her anti-Semtic is ludicrous. The passage Susan Resnick cites is the view of a blighted character, not a sentiment endorsed by the author.

edward engelberg says:

As far as I can see from the comments there is no mention of Robert Cohn (based on a real peson) in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” (1926). Cohn is described repeatedly in the most absuive language as a Jew. He is, throughout the novel, the most unpleasant outsider, and I can find not a single redemptive quality in Hemingway’s portrayal of him.

Literary expression is a reflection of society. The author goes as far back as Shakespeare, but should have cited the first case of Blood Libel in world history: 12th Century England.

M. Burgh says:

Just a note: Marlowe invented the Shylockian character first. His play “The Jew of Malta,” features Barabbas, a character who cares more for his ducats than his daughter.

A little late but just got my library ebook of Hollinghurst’s very good novel, ordered after reading the NYRB article and letter exchange.  My pedestrian sense of the situation is, the only thing an Englishman has against the Jew is he hasn’t met the Jew  yet who will cane him into sniveling and whining helplessness on the sidewalk outside his club.  After that little ceremony, the Englishman becomes respectful and genuinely amiable.   It’s a racial thing.


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Likeness of a Jew

A dispute between novelist Alan Hollinghurst and author Daniel Mendelsohn revives a history of sensitivity to British stereotypes about Jews