May 09, 2021
Benjamin Schreier, The Rise and Fall of Jewish American Literature: Ethnic Studies and the Challenge of Identity. (U Penn Press, 2020). 224 pp. $49.95, cloth.
When was the last time your colleagues in literary studies fields outside of Jewish literature asked you about the latest critical trends? Do they pepper you for the Jewish literary studies take on the method wars? Do they misappropriate your field’s critical key-terms à la “the Borderlands” or “Double Consciousness,” causing you to call hasty meetings at the MLA to assess the situation and reassert their meaning? If, like me, your answers are “no,” “never,” and “we have key terms?” have I got a book for you. Benjamin Schreier’s The Rise and Fall of Jewish American Literature is a historiographical critique of the well-established but highly marginal field of Jewish American literary studies, including its contingent relation to other Jewish literatures, its attenuated relation to American literature more broadly, and its awkward relation to the wider field of Ethnic Studies. Given the field’s apparent capacity for self-substantiation, but also given its tenuousness, should we care about its putative rise and fall? Curiously, if we’re to take Schreier’s analysis seriously, scholars of Jewish American literature have little cause for concern, insofar as, according to Schreier, the field is sustained by a circular identitarian logic, and there are no signs that this circle will crack any time soon, especially in an age when Jewish nationalism has become a fixation for anti-Semites and their ostensibly philo-Semitic counterparts. Still, there are, in fact, scholars working in Jewish American literary studies outside of identitarian frameworks—comparativists and theorists, mainly—and for them, this book’s history of the field’s rise and anticipated fall may be a welcome forecast for better work to come.
Schreier argues that the field of Jewish American literary studies is founded on the trope of “emergence”: Jewish writers emerged with a burst of creativity onto the scene in the 1950s and 1960s (think Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Paley, and later Ozick), and much of the subsequent critical history of the field has been about charting the antecedents to that emergence on the one hand, and sifting through the ashes or fanning the embers of that original conflagration ever since, on the other hand. For Schreier, the emergence trope tracks sociologically with the (facile) history of Jewish American assimilation; or, if we’re being a little more sophisticated, “emergence” is coeval with the transition of Jewishness into a form of whiteness. That form of whiteness is “ethnicity,” which, by the late 1960’s, was understood to be cultural rather than material, voluntary more than biological, and largely without any specific cultural content. As Werner Sollors would argue in the 1980s, it is the boundaries—their production and maintenance—of ethnicity that matter, not the stuff within them. 1 1 Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986). If you don’t reproduce the boundaries, you cease to have ethnicity. But if you do reproduce the boundaries—the semiotic codes which would define insiders and outsiders—what is the basis for saying who belongs in the designated ethnic category, especially given the extraordinary variegation of descent origins, traditions, languages, religious affiliation, and indeed boundary-making customs that pertain to the aggregated phrase “the Jews”? This is, of course, a well-worn question in Jewish Studies, but Schreier finds it hiding in plain sight, ironically in a field whose objects regularly satirize any attempt to answer it. The circularity of the critical reliance on “ethnicity,” wherein critics presume a stable Jewish identity across generations and despite variegation, is wittingly or unwittingly anchored by biology: “the Jews,” including Jewish writers, must be a distinct people with some indelible common trait, and their writing will therefore always trade in that commonality.
The field-critique endeavored in The Rise and Fall, while wholly original in Jewish American literary studies, will appear familiar to some working in other fields — especially African American literary studies, where the historicity and legibility of an anchoring identity is regularly debated. Or, in the case of Native American and Asian American literature study—two very different fields, it must be said—the very problematic of identifying a historically constructed group can be said to define the field itself. In the case of Native American literature, questions of who is and who isn’t authenticated to tell indigenous stories, along with the historical question of how to read for, through, and past coloniality, fundamentally enriches the field, as critical debates sharpen theoretical and methodological tools for analysis. Meanwhile, “Asian American” immediately betrays its aggregate contingency: The category “Asian” gathers up literature by writers of a wide range of national descent-cultures, with an equally wide variety of experiences of racialization in the US, and the category only makes sense—to the extent that it does—when yoked to its companion, “American.” Scholars of Asian American and Native American literary studies regularly examine and refuse to naturalize the links between a demographic population and a literary field. Perhaps obviating the sort of intervention Schreier makes on behalf of Jewish American literary studies, both fields are aware that their respective identities already circulate as objects in the American racial imaginary: Long before the fields existed, US cultural production invented and promulgated racist, destructive stereotypes of Indigenous Americans and Americans of Asian descent, and writers from both groups, and the scholars who study them, necessarily work against the grain of that received tradition.
The figure of the Jew, though circulating as a recognizable and destructive stereotype in twentieth and twenty-first century US cultural production, took up nowhere near the same bandwidth of the American racial imaginary, so that by the time Jewish writers became popular in the US as Jews it was within a comparatively more open space for self-representation and critical legitimation. It would be perverse to say, “and that is where our trouble begins,” but we can at least observe, as Schreier extensively documents, that Jewish American literary criticism’s impulse to read Jewish American literature as representative of “the Jews” marks the original error of the field. From there, the field has been rehearsing that original move repeatedly, albeit in various guises, for some generations now. The recurring field questions are: when does Jewish American literature emerge? What constitutes its themes? How have Jewish writers responded to Jewish history (Israel and the Holocaust)? And last but not least, who counts as a Jewish writer? Present in these questions is the supposition that Jewish American literature is representative of and tracks historically with the Jewish people in the US. Here is how Schreier puts it:
Jewish studies insiderism reproduces itself as a culturalism, as it highlights, first, the intellectual habits and ideological relays that conceptually normalize culture as a more or less legible, disciplinarily operable historical object that carries with it a certain expectation of historical knowledge production; second, the powerful attraction exerted by this naturalizing process on the scholar (both in Jewish studies and elsewhere) incentivized to speak the ‘truth’ of culture; and third, more generally, that what as Jewish studies functionaries we mean to indicate or describe by employing the term culture we are often in fact discursively constituting as an analytical object by doing so. (29)
I’ll note that this one hundred-and-three word fragment belongs to an even longer sentence that begins with reference to Edward Said’s critique of the Western canon. This is Schreier’s writing style, and while it is always rewarding to saw into the knotty hard-wood of his thinking to sort out its imbricated layers and whorled grain, be prepared for the work. The payoff is a deeply researched and intricate argument, posited as a polemic in the introduction, but methodologically more expansive than that. The deep dive into the archive of the field’s foundation indicates how much Schreier cares, and how much he wants his readers to care, even if the aggressive (and aggressively funny) tone suggests his frustration with what the field has become.
Schreier is not the first to observe the seeming paradox of how Jewish American literature wraps itself around one version of “ethnicity” at nearly the same moment that Ethnic Studies is founded in the US—without the two scholarly fields having much intellectual cross-over. Certainly, very few scholars in Academic Ethnic Studies pay any attention to Jewish American literature. Schreier does not exactly account for this paradox so much as historicize it. A longer review essay would explore the extent to which “Ethnic Studies” existed as a political compromise for the foundation of research programs and curriculum among African American, Latinx, and Asian American scholars in the 1960s and 70s, an argument Roderick Ferguson makes in his The Re-order of Things. 2 2 Roderick Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2012). An even longer essay still would elaborate all the ways the various groups operating under the banner of ethnic and race studies theorized race and ethnicity, as well as their specific respective identity terms at the outset, rather than naturalizing them as Schreier says Jewish Studies does. Michelle Wright’s recent critique of the NY Times’ 1619 Project, and Hazel Carby’s critical review of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste both find fault with African American historiographies that are too invested in linear continuity and geographical narrowness. 3 3 Michelle M. Wright, “1619: The Danger of a Single Origin Story,” American Literary History 32, no. 4 (Winter 2020): e1–e12, https://doi.org/10.1093/alh/ajaa027. Hazel V. Carby, “The Limits of Caste,” London Review of Books43, no. 2, 21 January 2021. Wright in particular has launched an argument against what she calls “the Middle Passage epistemology” that subtends the field of African American Studies, and on this point she is in league with Stephen Best, who argues that the field needs to come to terms with the irresolvable discontinuity of the archive of Black life from the seventeenth century into the twentieth. 4 4 Michelle M. Wright, Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2015). Stephen Best, None Like US: Blackness, Belonging, and Aesthetic Life (Durham: Duke UP, 2018). This is to say nothing of the arguments about the foundations of the field, which either begins in Marxist activism at San Francisco State University in 1969 or as projects of cultural recovery and continuity at Yale and Harvard at roughly the same time. The point is that the field of African American Studies (or Black Studies—the different names constitute different projects) regularly argues over its objects, archives, and methods, and consistently expands, elaborates, and deepens its scholarship. For all its anxiety about identity, Jewish American literary study has rarely actually theorized its key terms, and the field barely pays attention to the critical developments regularly occurring across Ethnic Studies at large.
The whole of the polemic of The Rise and Fall can be found in the Introduction, which makes strikingly clear claims about all that is wrong with the field, from its insiderism to its uncritical reliance on “culture” and “ethnicity.” Here, Schreier makes such a strong Foucaultian critique of disciplinary practice in general that the introduction itself could be anthologized and deployed in any collection that aims to critique and reconstruct the academic humanities (even if you disagree with him). The Introduction relentlessly posits that the proper object of the academic humanities is the condition under which knowledge is produced, with disciplinarity attentive to the procedures by which we study knowledge production (perhaps unsurprisingly, this very line of thought is the topic of the recent book by Schreier’s colleague at Penn State, Eric Hayot). 5 5 Eric Hayot, Humanist Reason: a History, an Argument, a Plan (New York: Columbia UP, 2021). How we know what we know ought to always be at the forefront of our project, but fields organized around “culture” may struggle with this imperative precisely because “culture” signals both a naturalized and irreducible fact and the material artifact of a whole set of ideological processes. This is all well known, of course, but when you add in the complication that many Jewish American literature scholars themselves often express affiliative attachment to their objects of study, it becomes apparent how the field revolves around an affective account of culture, with culture doing proxy-work for population or peoplehood.
But the book is much more than a polemic, even if the tone of polemic is ubiquitously conspicuous, to use one of Schreier’s favorite words (appearing over thirty times!). Following the Introduction, the book mounts a deeply researched set of analyses of how we got here and why. The body of the book includes three long chapters on the history of the field’s formation, including its cross-talk with other fields of Ethnic Studies; a chapter on how the field posited Yiddish as the antecedent of Jewish American literature, thereby shipping attention to history and demography rather than critical cultural studies; and a chapter on . . . well, it wasn’t entirely clear to me what the third chapter was about. The ostensible target is “ethnicity,” which for Schreier is like the fading shock wave of a fictive “emergence”; or as he puts it, “it’s an imaginary identity even if it’s affectively real, and it operates precisely by naturalizing its imaginative administrative power as genetic” (122). I’m not sure who is still holding on to the explanatory power of “ethnicity” these days, but rather than round up some contemporary examples—save for a quick critique of Jonathan Freedman’s Klezmer America and some easy dismissal of Andrew Furman’s criticism—Schreier spends most of his time on Cynthia Ozick’s several decades-old pronouncements. It’s a thorough indictment of Ozick’s own investment in the nationalist concept of Jewish peoplehood on the one hand, and her rejection of identity categories on the other hand. Because there’s always a third hand in these sorts of arguments, Schreier also finds Ozick doubling back on herself, professing resentment at the exclusion of Jews from consideration by the Ethnic Studies crowd, even as she dismisses Ethnic Studies altogether.
Among its cogent insights, strenuous rhetorical wrestling matches, and verbal zingers, my favorite line from the book is the opening sentence: “Nothing testifies to the etiolation of Jewish American literary study—my field—so much as the fact that so few people ever fight about anything” (1). When the starting presumption is that there are Jews in America, and Jewish writers represent them in Jewish American literature, there’s no subject to fight about, only better and worse critical accounts of those representations. This line captures both my experience as a frequent participant at conferences in the field, and my engagement with Chicana/o and African American Studies, two fields of which I am also professionally attentive. In the latter two, methodological debates and historical arguments set the agenda, as scholars reflect on nomenclature, scales of geography, historical continuity, Marxism as an analytic, and, crucially, the salience of gender and sexuality for revamping all of the above. Those fields have risen, but they do not collapse into themselves because they are chiefly driven by critical practice. While it’s undoubtedly the case that scholars in their fields have affective ties to their respective archives, the project is not primarily about representation but about epistemic formation. Schreier closes The Rise and Fall by preparing for “Jewish studies to critically imagine its own end,” a goal that can only be accomplished by abandoning “the Jews” as the presumptive object of study. Only then will the field be able to shift to a study of how the category “the Jews” is constructed and ideologically deployed, how it discursively circulates and is made rhetorically—primarily metonymically—legible.