Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Witte Arrives

Elias Tobenkin was the first Jew in America to write a novel celebrating radical politics, but if Witte Arrives is any example, radicalism did not bring the Jews much happiness. Published in 1916 by Frederick A. Stokes, Tobenkin’s lively episodic book chronicles the experiences of a first-generation Russian immigrant who “arrives” in two senses of the word—on American shores, at the door of professional success—without ever managing to overcome his anxiety about either one.

As the novel opens, Emil Witte arrives with his mother and two siblings in Spring Water (a fictional Madison, Wisconsin) to join his father Aaron, who had made the same journey four years earlier. Unlike the other immigrants in town, Aaron has not abandoned his religion. “To stick to orthodoxy here meant to step out of the race for prosperity,” he knows perfectly well, but Aaron refuses to work on the Sabbath, even though it is the most profitable day of the week. He is a man of Jewish learning who gave up a chance at the rabbinate when he married for love instead of advantage. While the other immigrants advance in business, opening their own stores, moving into better homes, he remains a ped­dler.

His son does not commit the same mistakes—or at least not right away. Something of a Talmudic prodigy back in Russia, Emil impresses his American teachers as a student who “simply absorb[s] things.” Everyone predicts a great future for him—especially his uncle Simeon, who escapes the Czar’s prison in Siberia and makes his way to Wisconsin. He presents Emil with a copy of The Communist Manifesto, and urges him to become a writer so that he can record the “struggles between the masses and their masters.” Simeon explains:

In America you don’t hear much about Socialism yet, but you will before long. Yours is still a young country. Your resources are still ample and afford every one a comfortable living and a fairly secure old age, even under the iniquitous system of private property. But a time will come will the present opportunities will be limited, when the resources will be absorbed by a few. Your land will be grabbed by “cunning men,” who instead of becoming political kings will become economic masters. They will control your industries and clip the wings of your freedom with the sword of economic supremacy.If he is not much of a prophet, Simeon is a strong influence upon his nephew. In due course, Emil becomes a reporter, covering the “Labor World” and writing features about the human warmth and dire poverty of the Jewish ghetto. He moves up from a medium-sized newspaper in a medium-sized city not unlike Milwaukee, where Tobenkin got his own start as a reporter, to the biggest daily in Chicago. (Tobenkin made a name for himself on the Chicago Tribune. The novel contains an unflat­tering fictionalized portrait of Col. Robert R. McCormick, the Tribune’s famous editor.)

Uncomfortable with a reporter’s question why Jews do not drink very much, Emil becomes a drinking man. Embarrassed by the realization that the derelicts in a flophouse are “men like himself, like his father, like his friends,” he becomes a combination of muckraker and sob sister, banging out front-page stories full of “immense pathos” and “consuming tragedy” about the “drowning world” of Chicago slum life. His articles gain such a following that “richly gowned ladies” are soon driving their limousines through “tenement lanes” in search of the families he writes about. Needless to say, his journalistic triumph does not succor him.

Emil seeks an escape from his inner sense of failure by marrying. Naturally, he chooses a fellow socialist to be his bride. Helen is a Jewish girl who had been arrested for revolutionary activities in Lithuania. Better yet, she owns a well-thumbed copy of the revolutionary pamphlet written by his uncle Simeon. “I want you to treat me as a comrade,” she tells him—“I will not be a millstone about your neck.” He has no idea how serious she is. When she finds that she is pregnant, she undergoes an abortion rather than interfere with his important work. In anger, Emil confronts the physician, who informs him that Helen would have committed suicide if he had not yielded to her plea. “Many self-respecting physicians, like myself, perform such operations not because we relish war on the unborn,” he says, “but in order to save those already living.”

When Helen dies of Bright’s disease a few years later, after delivering a stillborn child, Emil is convinced that the “violent and unnatural operation” which had ended in the “wanton destruction of what should have been their first-born” is really to blame. He fantasizes of suicide, but the thought of his aged father, now widowed in Spring Water, stops his hand. Instead, he returns home to write a book—a book not unlike Witte Arrives, from the sound of it. His publisher, a Boston brahmin, describes it as a “book of life.” “You must have gone through a lot,” he says—“you must have suffered a lot to be able to write such a book.”

In gratitude, Emil marries the publisher’s daughter. She is a Christian, of course—or at least a Unitarian. (When American Jewish novelists have their protagonists marry a Christian, they choose a Unitarian to soften the blow.) “Yes,” she says, “there is a way out. . . . If men would only see it”—a way out of inner emptiness. “Love—that is the way out,” she croons. “We must all follow the voice of love. . . .” And Emil follows the voice, straight into a different way of life altogether. The sequel finds him writing articles with such an “Emersonian flavor” that none of his readers “would have suspected that they were written by any one not of American birth.”

When it was first published, Tobenkin’s novel was compared favorably to The Promised Land, Mary Antin’s famous autobiography of immigration, published four years earlier. But Witte Arrives is neither so fervent in its affirmation of the American dream nor, finally, about immigration all that much. The Los Angeles Times came much closer in calling it a newspaper novel.

“Many of the news­papermen in town are Socialists,” Emil’s first editor observes. And then as now, socialists just could not believe that the American dream had anything whatever to do with professional success, especially if they were Jewish socialists, especially if they were Jewish socialist writers. They preferred failure and a gnawing dissatisfaction, which at least enabled them, like Emil, to identify with the “poor and disinherited . . . the misunderstood, submerged people of the slums.” In that respect, Witte Arrives is the first testament in American literature to the roots of Jewish radicalism—not in social consciousness, but in social self-consciousness.