Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Other Things Being Equal

For Jewish Ideas Daily, a new aggregator of Jewish things from around the web, I will be surveying the history of American Jewish fiction, one book at a time, from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the present.

The series gets going this morning with my review of Other Things Being Equal, a romance of intermarriage by Emma Wolf. Published in 1892 not by a Jewish house but by a mainstream trade publisher—A. C. McClurg of Chicago—Wolf’s was the the first novel written by an American Jew on a Jewish subject that was intended for an interreligious audience.

Wolf’s theme is that, since Jews and Christians “all dance and talk alike,” since they receive “the same schooling, speak the same language, read the same books, are surrounded by the same elements of home refinement,” there is no meaningful difference between them that prevents love and intermarriage.

What will probably strike contemporary readers the hardest is Wolf’s hostility toward traditional Jewish views on intermarriage. The editor of American Jewess, a magazine which described itself as the only one in the world “devoted to the interests of Jewish women,” clearly understood this as her novel’s claim to originality:

It is perhaps for the first time that an American writer ventures in a romance to attack the racial and religious prejudice of the Jews, trying to establish a closer social relationship between Jews and Gentiles. This is done by pure and simple motives, without violating existing faiths. Matrimony is freed from religious environments and placed plainly on social grounds. . . . Orthodoxy finally yields to the power of humanity. Without sensationalism or sentimentality the climax of the story is reached. Jewish religious scruples crumble into dust when attacked by the strong impulses of the human heart.In short, Emma Wolf’s novel offers the alibi of love for cutting Jewish ties and loyalties. And in that sense, Other Things Being Equal was not merely ahead of its time, but also spelled out the ideology for an age in which nearly half of American Jews would abandon their people through marriage.

Other titles to be reviewed in the series will be selected from this complete-as-I-can-make-it list of American Jewish fiction from 1892 to 1948.


R/T said...

I look forward to your series. Will you also be writing about Singer and Malamud?

Anonymous said...

What about Delmore Schwartz:

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1938)

World Is a Wedding (1948)

D. G. Myers said...

I admire Schwartz, but with very few exceptions, the list above contains no collections of short stories, a form that I dislike.

Anonymous said...

Pity. Jews write great short fiction.

D. G. Myers said...

That gives you yourself something to write about, Anonymous.

Jonathan said...

I suppose it's a law of the internet that when such a list is posted, comments inevitably arrive questioning the omission of, what seems to the commentator at least, a noteworthy author.

Allow me then to ask a question. What of Asch and Singer? I can, off the top of my head, supply possible explanations: for Asch - either literary merit or sometimes non-Jewish subject matter; for Singer - perhaps he's not considered "American" enough because he didn't write in English and his subject matter seemed too foreign.

These explanations are, of course, off the top of my head. Another, and perhaps more probable explanation lies in the fact that lists must have an end to be meaningful. Maybe Singer and Asch, while good authors, simply aren't as noteworthy as those included. I don't know. I've only read the Bellow and the Roth.


D. G. Myers said...

American Jewish fiction in the “jumpy beat” of English.

Jonathan said...

I must have missed that. Sorry.