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This chapter sketches two ways of narrating Jewish American literary history, namely first-person singular narration and third-person narration. Immigrant narratives represent the process of migration and assimilation and help to give shape to an individual's transformation. Gold's Jews without Money, more an unstructured memoir than a novel, is a first-person-singular narrative of twenty-two chronologically arranged vignettes. The year 1934 witnessed an aesthetic revolution in Jewish American fiction with the publication of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep. Roth's new third-person narration takes small David's point of view with strikingly beautiful images. Though the end point in both narrating ways is alienation, the readers have to decide whether the story of increasing assimilation that begins with Antin and Cahan or an alternative story that, inspired by Daniel Deronda, would start with Nyburg's Jewish idealism and Lewisohn's dissimilation might have more resonance today.
For Jewish authors in America who did not write in English, their encounter with English words has tended to emphasize the untranslatability of certain American concepts into their language and culture. This chapter offers diverse illustrations of language encounters that often intersect. In Call It Sleep, Henry Roth celebrates English as a medium for modernist experimentation as it intersects with Yiddish and Hebrew. The nature of the encounter with English in Jewish American writing depends on which language coexists alongside it, even if that other language is only a trace, an echo, an accent, or, a cipher. The chapter focuses on Hebrew and Yiddish, as they have tended to play a major role in the linguistic awareness of authors and characters. English engagement with other languages enriches Jewish American literature as well. Always more than just a language, English has served as promise, challenge, obstacle, riddle, and inspiration for Jewish American writers.
The mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe carried some Hebraists to the United States, adding New York City to the major centers of Hebrew literary production. By the end of the nineteenth century, Hebrew writers in America included Naphtali Hertz Imber, whose poem Hatikvah later became the Israeli national anthem. In the introduction to his 1938 anthology of Hebrew poetry in America, Menachem Ribalow described the rise of modernism as a storm swept through all literatures and rocked the foundations of poetry. In the early 1920s, Hillel Bavli published a series of five articles on contemporary American poetry that shows how difficult it was for the Hebrew poet in America to see Anglo-American modernism as a resource and a model. To the extent that a new flowering of Hebrew culture in America such as the Hebraists accomplished is at all conceivable, it would be an extension of Israeli literature and not a center in its own right.
This History offers an unparalleled examination of all aspects of Jewish American literature. Jewish writing has played a central role in the formation of the national literature of the United States, from the Hebraic sources of the Puritan imagination to narratives of immigration and acculturation. This body of writing has also enriched global Jewish literature in its engagement with Jewish history and Jewish multilingual culture. Written by a host of leading scholars, The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature offers an array of approaches that contribute to current debates about ethnic writing, minority discourse, transnational literature, gender studies, and multilingualism. This History takes a fresh look at celebrated authors, introduces new voices, locates Jewish American literature on the map of American ethnicity as well as the spaces of exile and diaspora, and stretches the boundaries of American literature beyond the Americas and the West.