Vera Caspary is almost completely forgotten today, but in her day she was something of a literary pioneer. The White Girl (1929), her first book, was one of the earliest American novels about “passing.” Her play One Beautiful Evening, rewritten as Blind Mice with Winifred Lenihan in 1930, was described by the press as “manless”: its cast was composed exclusively by women. Her story “Suburbs,” filmed in 1932 as The Night of June 13th, unmasked the quiet desperation of suburban lives thirty years before Richard Yates got around to it. An unapologetic Leftist, she was one of the few American writers to speak out publicly on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys. In Laura, her best-known book, a 1942 mystery in which the detective falls for a crime victim, filmed by Otto Preminger two years later, she may have invented the genre of the psycho thriller.
Caspary’s most ambitious and unusual project was Thicker than Water (1932), a 425-page chronicle of a Sephardic Jewish family living in Chicago. Although I have been unable to confirm my hunch, chances are that Caspary based the novel on her own family. The daughter of a buyer for a Chicago department store, she was born in November 1899 into a “mixed marriage.” Her father’s father was a German Jew, but her mother’s father was a Sephardi whose family had settled in Amsterdam after being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. In the novel, a suitor is dismissed with a single scornful phrase: “But he’s a German.” And when a Sephardic child marries “a Jew of humbler stock,” he is “disowned by his parents, mourned as if he were dead.” The family jealously guards “the Portugese purity” of their blood:
Rosalia Piera is the main character. Well-aware that the family traits have prevented her from being a beauty, she brags about being plain and compensates with a hypercritical biting mind. The first female Jewish intellectual in American literature, Rosalia detests the local Canaan Literary Society—its chatty Oprah Book Club-like atmosphere has nothing to do with the mental life—and yet she attends its meetings, hoping secretly to meet “the tall, fine suitor of Spanish and Portugese blood, with whom she had carried on so many phantom conversations.” Instead, her heart is captured when, intending to embarrass a dandy from a rich German Jewish family who had read a sentimental poem in praise of her large-breasted cousin at an earlier meeting, she is lacerated by pity for him. She “emerge[s] from a dark place where she had been hidden for years.” Within a year she and Adolph Reisinger are married. Thus begins the family whose history Caspary chronicles through three generations.
Caspary has been enrolled among the radical novelists, but in Thicker than Water she raises no placards. Perhaps anti-capitalist pluck emboldens her portraits of the Jewish businessmen who log long hours, earning money and talking about it endlessly and coming home too exhausted to attend to their wives, but far more noticeable is her knowledge of the millinery and department-store trades, which she might well have acquired from her father. The novel spans the rise and fall of the family’s silk-jobbing business—and its eventual sale—while Rosalia’s brother Saul leaves the firm to become a partner in a West Side department store and a relative by marriage leaves to join a brokerage. The third generation abandons business altogether for art, romance, or philanthropy.
Throughout it all, Caspary’s focus remains on the branching and leafing family—its marriages, homes, children—and the changing notions of status. Book One, “Prejudices,” comes to a head when a cousin marries a sharp-eyed salesman named Smith, who turns out to be a Polish Jew originally named Slivowski. “He’s a kike,” says Rosalia’s husband Adolph. “You can always depend upon them to take advantage of a situation.” Caspary elaborates:
Book Two, “Possessions,” details the family’s prosperity. Through marriage, the Pieras ally themselves to an even more prominent Chicago Jewish family—the descendants of a peddler. Caspary’s moral seems to be that, in America, money creates caste. “Descendant of a family who could trace its adventures from the fifteenth century,” Rosalia is amused that the “sons of meat packers, wheat farmers and steel puddlers had become the nobility of the Western world.” But it might just as easily be said that business knocks down the barriers of prejudice in its ruthless demand for the best talent and the most customers. Caspary does not show that the pursuit of financial success leads to cruelty and unhappiness, if that is what she is trying to do. The lives of the third generation are largely empty, and they are also strangers to Jewish tradition, badly educated, and concerned with little beyond pleasure. If capitalism is to blame, you couldn’t prove it by Thicker than Water.
The family chronicle is a native form of Jewish narrative. In the book of Genesis, the first family chronicle in Jewish literature, Abraham receives three promises from God, but they are not fulfilled in his lifetime. Since then the Jews have understood that several generations may be required for a promise to work its way through the system. Early on, Rosalia reflects that “no one living could remember the day when there had been anything but intelligence and good blood in the dark Piera family,” but by the conclusion of the novel, the family has intermarried, acquired land and valuable possessions, and given birth to many grandchildren. The blood may have thinned, but it is still Thicker than Water.