December 4, 1997
American Books and Jewish Identity
Tucked away in a collection of J.D. Salinger's"Nine Short Stories" is a work of fiction I've always liked: "Down atthe Dinghy." When I read the story for the first time, maybe fiveyears after it was first published (perhaps sometime in the early1950s), the thought occurred to me that some mysterious sea changehad taken place in our literary culture when I wasn't looking. At thevery least, I mused at the time, American perceptions had begun tochange.
Don't misunderstand. This was nothingrevolutionary, such as James Joyce's "Ulysses," or even dazzling,like, say, William Faulkner's "Sound and the Fury" or those earlyshort stories by Ernest Hemingway. It was not even an exceptional bitof fiction, not Salinger at his best.
Rather, the story was relatively straightforward,complete with Salinger's typically sly and affectionate portrait of awoman and her son. The heroine he offered us was one Boo BooTannenbaum, who "was a small almost hipless girl of twenty-five, withstyleless, colorless, brittle hair pushed back behind her ears, whichwere very large. She was dressed in knee-length jeans, a blackturtleneck pullover, and socks and loafers. Her joke of a name aside,her general unprettiness aside, she was -- in terms of permanentlymemorable, immoderately perceptive small-area faces -- a stunning andfinal girl."
What struck me instantly about Boo Boo was -- tomy surprise -- that she resembled so many of the appealing women Iseemed to encounter in films and television, and even in 20th-centuryfiction, but with one difference. She was Jewish.
And that fact was central to the story.
This being a Salinger story, Boo Boo was, ofcourse, from New York, though in actual residence, somewhere in NewEngland (probably Connecticut) at the beginning of what Easternerscall Indian summer. Even though a mere 25, she employed Mrs. Snell, alocal housekeeper, as well as a live-in maid-cum-baby sitter namedSandra, who had accompanied the family from the city. There was alsoa husband who commuted to work, and a 4-year-old boy, Lionel, whomBoo Boo adored in a deeply felt, albeit whimsically expressedway.
Mostly, what I came to know about the Tannenbaumsin the story, without being told so directly, was that they had moneyin an easy, upper-middle-class way; that their style of dress, speechand behavior was modern and appealing; and that they perhaps wereperfectly cast as the attractive and prototypical American family,circa 1950.
But in the story, there is trouble afoot. Lionelhas run away from home. Or, to be more precise, has run to thedinghy, which is tied to the lakeside dock some 200 yards from thehouse. He is sitting in the boat's stern -- sad, unhappy, a childunwilling and unable to look at his mother or speak to her. Shecoaxes, plays imaginary games and finally teases out of him thereason behind his 4-year-old tears.
"'Sailors don't cry, baby Sailors never cry. Onlywhen their ships go down. Or when they're shipwrecked, on rafts andall -- '
"'Sandra -- told Mrs. Snell -- that Daddy's a big-- sloppy -- kike.'
"Just perceptibly, Boo Boo flinched, but shelifted the boy off her lap and stood him in front of her and pushedback his hair from his forehead. 'She did, huh?' she said....
"'Well, that isn't too terrible,' Boo Boo said,holding him between the two vices of her arms and legs. 'That isn'tthe worst that could happen.' She gently bit the rim of the boy'sear. 'Do you know what a kike is, baby?'
"His answer was delivered, muffled butintelligible into the warmth of Boo Boo's neck. 'It's one of thosethings that go in the air,' he said. 'With string you hold.'
"The better to look at him, Boo Boo pushed her sonslightly away from her. Then she put a wild hand inside the seat ofhis trousers, startling the boy considerably, but almost immediatelywithdrew it and decorously tucked in his shirt for him. 'Tell youwhat we'll do,' she said. 'We'll drive to town and get some picklesand some bread, and we'll eat the pickles in the car, and then we'llgo to the station and get Daddy, and then we'll bring Daddy home andmake him take us for a ride in the boat. You'll have to help himcarry the sails down. Okay?'
"'Okay,' said Lionel.
"They didn't walk back to the house; they raced.Lionel won."
I don't know what your life was like as anadolescent and a young adult, but mine seemed to overflow with books,particularly with novels -- from England and France, Russia andItaly, and, above all, from America.
Gulping down books this way, it was difficult notto miss a central fact: namely, that in 19th-century America, judgingfrom our great writers -- Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville,Mark Twain and Henry James -- this appeared to be a land withoutJews.
After the turn of the century, to be sure, thefiction began to change. It became more concerned with social realismand naturalism, and Jewish characters started to make an appearance,especially in works by Jewish authors. But most of these writers weremarginal to what might be called the National Culture. It would besafe to say that Jews figured in novels about the immigrantexperience, with Henry Roth's "Call It Sleep" the great work of thatgenre. When first published, in 1934, the book sold fewer than athousand copies.
But the great modern American authors, writerssuch as Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, rarely populated theirfiction with Jewish characters; and when they did, the Jew usuallyserved only as scapegoat, someone who received the back of thewriter's hand. He was perceived to be outside the culture.
A different point could be made about theperceptions of those American writers who dominated my youth, thoseincredible Southerners: Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Weltyand Flannery O'Connor and Peter Taylor. They may have lost the Warbetween the States, but they surely had taken command of ourliterature. Avidly devouring their stories and novels, I thought itremarkable that they apparently never had come across anyone who wasJewish.
Even the New Yorker writers, who gave form to mysense of what constituted urban Eastern manners and mores -- thethree Johns, Cheever, O'Hara and (a young) Updike -- were concernedprimarily with the dilemmas and conflicts that beset mid-centuryAmerican WASPs. When I looked around -- I was living in New York atthe time -- everyone was Jewish. Just not the characters in Americanfiction.
There were exceptions on the horizon, however.Like a great gust of wind, Bernard Malamud had suddenly appeared withhis novel "The Assistant" (and the American as apple pie "TheNatural"), along with his antic and outlandish short stories. Ithought the stories and novels stood apart from anything else thatwas being written at the time. Not better or worse, just magical andseparate.
And, of course, there was Saul Bellow. His was anew voice in fiction, most authoritative, and it seemed to herald anew direction as well. But the Jewish characters in his novels --"The Victim" and even in "The Adventures of Augie March" -- wereoutsiders and, alas, from my vantage point, self-defining victims.With Bellow, though, I could sense a turning, a new page as it were,that would soon be flipped by Harvey Swados and Philip Roth andCynthia Ozick and Grace Paley and, of course, by Salinger, amongothers.
Do I make too much of this? These were only books-- and novels and short stories at that. I believe not, and for tworeasons. First, because I think literature tends to legitimate uswithin our society. It confers on us a national identity --immigrant, outsider, exotic, parvenu, victim, intellectual, add tothe list if you will -- that we carry as baggage throughout ourever-changing life. And, second, books, as part of our NationalCulture, imprint themselves on the imagination of all readers, Jewsand non-Jews alike. In this way, they help shape an Americansensibility.
So, as we launch our first Jewish book festival inLos Angeles, I want to shout hosannahs to all the Jewish authors andtheir books, and also to the absent J.D. Salinger, whose Boo BooTannenbaum, for me, is as much a part of the American scene as isFitzgerald's Gatsby and Mark Twain's Huck Finn.
Books,Books, and More Books
The Five Valley Area Jewish BookFestival Runs Dec. 4-14
Whether you are a child,a cook, a kabbalist or none of the above, you are bound to findsomething to enjoy at this 10-day festival that celebrates localauthors and Jewish culture.
For information on these events, or for abrochure, call (818) 587-3619. -- Staff Report