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?