The Music That Jewish-American Writing Makes


An Anthology of Jewish American Writing
Edited by Jerome Charyn
352 pages. Thunder’s Mouth Press. $17.95.

Like sampler CD albums, literary anthologies place a number of selections between hard covers and let an audience decide which pieces make them cheer or boo. But the deeper truth about anthologies is that, at their high-minded best, they give their maker-editors a chance to sculpt the cultural landscape while, at their low-minded worst, they become a way to toss bouquets to old friends and to snip at longtime enemies with literary pruning shears. Anthologies, in short, come with all sorts of agendas.

Anthologies of Jewish-American writing are hardly an exception. It would seem that every possible avenue along the literary highway has already been mapped—from the overstuffed Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature (which begins with Abraham De Lucena’s l656 letter to Peter Stuyvesant and ends with contemporary writers such as Melvin Jules Bukiet, Allegra Goodman, Steve Stern, and C.K. Williams) to a generous handful of books that focus on Jewish women writers, Jewish gay and lesbian writers, writing by the children of Holocaust survivors, as well as collections that introduce us to the under-40 crowd.

Part of me rejoices in the fact that so much attention is being paid to Jewish-American writing (“Let a thousand flowers bloom!” I say); however, another part of me remembers the plight of a scholarly rebbe who kept getting pestered to write a blurb for a perfectly wretched book. The rebbe happened to be a shy, retiring sort. What could he say to the ambitious but lousy scholar who kept bugging him? Finally, he put it to the young man this way: “I’m afraid I can’t recommend your book because it goes against nature.” “How so?” the disappointed would-be scholar asked. “It’s like this,” the rebbe answered. “Normally, paper is made from rags but in your case, it is just the reverse.”

The organizing principles of far too many anthologies end up turning paper into rags, despite the fact that lots of very respectable writers get an added bit of exposure. I am reminded of what the late Stanley Elkin said when one of his stories was included in an anthology of black humor. After rattling on about how he didn’t know what “black humor” was and how he didn’t consider himself to be a “black humorist,” he also admitted, playfully and with his tongue lodged firmly in his teeth, that he would have, nonetheless, been disappointed if he had been excluded.

Jerome Charyn is the author of more than 30 books, the latest being a quirky, often brilliant short book about Isaac Babel. No doubt some casual readers will wonder why Charyn didn’t march a chronological line through Babel’s tragically short life, and no doubt even more will wonder why not a single one of the 19 writers in his anthology has been picked from the under-60 bin. No Rebecca Goldstein, no Thane Rosenbaum, no Jonathan Safran Foer, no Nichole Krauss, no Pearl Abraham; I could go on and on about the ranks of the excluded.

What, then, is the principle, the perspective, that prompted Charyn to round up the usual suspects (Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Singer, Ozick) and leave everybody else out in the cold? Charyn explains it this way: “Other anthologies never talk about voice, about the 'music' of the writing.” Instead, most Jewish-American anthologies prefer to talk about what Charyn dismisses as “subject, theme, etc.”

For Charyn, it seemed time to move beyond all this—and, here, he just may be right. And while I don’t want to bite the hand that has fed me, I do think a case can be made that academics are generally more comfortable talking about context than about what Charyn calls the “terror and madness” of Jewish-American writing. The result is Charyn’s attempt to “rediscover” Jewish-American writing in a different way, “almost like an archeological dig.” The clear advantage of such an anthology, besides placing the best Jewish-American writing between hard covers, is that we begin to feel the “danger in their prose, a crazy concertina with its own variety of registers that could play on and on without the need to end.”

Granted, Charyn’s ear for the music that Jewish-American fiction is—indeed, cannot help but be—subjective. For him, the late Saul Bellow, particularly in The Adventures of Augie March, is the oversized overcoat that warms other writers—those who followed him (Philip Roth, Jay Neugeboren, and Charyn himself) as well those who came before (Samuel Ornitz, Henry Roth). If Charyn’s sense of how literary history works is something of a stretch, I think he’s right on the money when he explains how it is that Augie March made serious literature by urban American Jews possible: to submerge oneself into its thickly textured pages is, in Charyn’s eloquent prose, “to live inside a hornet’s head—to hear and feel an endless chatter… whose sting is a source of terror and delight.”

I would simply add that Charyn’s yardstick about living inside the hornet’s head could also be applied to many in the current generation of Jewish-American writers. Several magazine editors told me that their policy is not to review anthologies, no matter what they’re about or who edited them. That’s a shame, because Inside the Hornet’s Head will generate as much interest as it will provoke controversy.