U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Speaking Yiddish in the English Department

The following is a bare-bones working out of an idea—intended more as suggestive than anything else. But I thought I’d throw it out to see if it strikes a chord anywhere.

“One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan — or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan.” That’s the first line of Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 memoir, Making It, and it remarkably encapsulates a certain characteristic mixture of fear and desire that one finds in much of the literature of twentieth-century Jewish assimilation: a desire that the struggle for assimilation be (seen as) heroic, as heroic as the European version; a fear that penetrating the inner sanctums of country clubs or Ivy League colleges neither promised an equal triumph nor threatened an equal tragedy as the travails of the upwardly mobile European Jewish bourgeoisie.

Gaining entrance to the temples of WASPdom was nice—an achievement—but was it maybe as petty an accomplishment as the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan? How could it compare to the characters of Proust’s Swann or the (equivocally Jewish) Melmotte of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now? How could the slight of being blackballed measure up to the Dreyfus affair? What was a young man from CUNY to think about his misfortunes when he read Isaac Babel or Franz Kafka? For those of a self-dramatizing bent (such as Podhoretz), these were real questions, searing in their irritation.

I have been reading the first volume of a new biography of Saul Bellow—the second volume we’ll probably see in a couple years—and it is remarkable how ambivalent Bellow is about the prospect of winning himself entry into WASP culture. Often hired into or visiting Anglo-Saxon-dominated English departments, Bellow would seek out the other Jew–Bernard Malamud in Oregon, Leo Marx in Minnesota–to speak Yiddish in the hallways, yet would fret about whether his pose as an “aristocratic pariah,” in Weber’s phrase, was connecting. Owning a house in the Hudson River Valley, Bellow was conscious of being a source of strained amusement among the grandees; he played up to it, and resented it.

So far so typical—ambivalence generally suffuses processes of assimilation or social climbing. But what is often missed, I believe, in narratives of Jewish-American assimilation is not so much the fact or tone of ambivalence as the root of that ambivalence in the quietly heroic example and model of the European bourgeoisie—especially but not exclusively the European Jewish bourgeoisie—in their epic struggle to liquidate the gross prerogatives and privileges of aristocracy.

Bellow, a man who worshiped the European novel, could only have judged himself and his WASP antagonists by a Balzacian or a Stendhalian measure. When the great avatars of a tradition you are seeking to join are men of the mettle of John Cheever or James Gould Cozzens or John P. Marquand, there may be a certain disappointment inherent in the effort. After the death of FDR, to whom could aspirant Jews look as a symbol of true patrician splendor? What was the point, anyway, of joining a country club if one’s company would be tedious men? Where was the risk, the plunge, the epic quality of European Judaism’s fight for a place in the sun?

But let us take things one step further. The ambivalence of assimilating Jews in America, rooted in an impossibly one-sided comparison with the bourgeois revolutions and especially with the struggle for the legal and civil emancipation of the Jews, must be explained in some way: there must be a reason why there was only lukewarm satisfaction in being a quota kid at Harvard. And the most satisfying answer was: American exceptionalism, the emphasis on the unique absence of a feudal past in North America. With this explanation in place, the banality of the struggle to crack open the caste of WASP supremacy was partially redeemed as a historical insight of profound power. Although many historians did re-ask Sombart’s classic question, why is there no socialism in the United States?, underlying it was perhaps a more intimate question for the abruptly successful class of Jewish intellectuals: why is there no bourgeois heroism in the United States?

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I wonder, if by way of opening up discussion on your wonderful essay here, we might look at the opening lines of E. Digby Baltzell’s “The Protestant Establishment Revisited” The American Scholar, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Autumn 1976), pp. 499-518

    On July 4, 1963, I completed a book entitled The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America, and sent it off to the publisher for what I hoped would be the last time.
    Some four months later, after the Kennedy assassination, I revised the book’s preface and changed the tenses when referring to the late president and sent it off again on Thanksgiving Day. The book had a modest success, especially among members of the Eastern Seaboard establishment, as well as among elite Jews who had been more or less excluded from the establishment.

    Many people, of course, liked it for the wrong reasons. For instance, it detailed rather exhaustively the history and sociology of upper-class anti-Semitism and ethnic prejudice in AmericaI. It was highly critical of the WASP establishment,
    and quite naturally many of the excluded approved. On the
    other hand, it emphasized, time and again, the need for some sort of establishment, led by men and women from a secure group of upper class families…

    (quotes from book):
    “… this book, of course, has not argued for the abolition of upper-class institutions in the interest of creating a more egalitarian and homogenized society. Quite the contrary.
    These institutions are vital prerequisites of a secure and organic leadership structure. In an age, moreover, when so many talented Americans are absorbed in success-striving and status-seeking, the institutionalization of a
    minority community which relieves distinguished men and women and their families from further status struggles is more important than ever–but only when its membership requirements are based on talent and moral instinct rather than ethnic or racial ancestry…”

  2. Thank you, Kurt! What is most interesting to me about the passage drawn from Baltzell’s original work is its frank functionalism. The particular word “relieves” is a very interesting one: upper-class institutions are useful because they forestall counterproductive jockeying for position–they take the burden of competition off of those who are nestled inside them. Yet there is still that ambiguous “moral instinct” propping up these institutions, a residue, I suppose, of older arguments for the importance of “breeding” or class. Maybe they’re born with it, maybe it’s moral instinct!

  3. “After the death of FDR, to whom could aspirant Jews look as a symbol of true patrician splendor?” I don’t know about their background, but some people of the right age (e.g., Schlesinger, Jr) found a new symbol in JFK, perhaps as an embodiment of a more open patriarchy. FWIW

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