My Favorite Anti-Semite: Frank Norris and the Most Horrifying Jew in American Literature
The progressive-era novelist’s greedy, red-haired, Polish Jew, Zerkow, is the 20th century’s greatest golem
My Favorite Anti-Semite: An occasional series of tributes to writers, artists, philosophers, and others who hate us, and why we still find value in their work.
Search the American canon, early and late, for the most apparently anti-Semitic character in American literature and chances are your quest will lead you to a squalid San Francisco address not far from the Polk Street Dental Parlors where Zerkow—the junk dealer in Austrian director Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 film adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague—is engaged in his favorite activity: pleading, wheedling, and plying with alcohol the deranged charwoman, Maria Macapa. The crazy (i.e., Mexican) Maria pays regular calls to Zerkow’s stinking cellar for two reasons: to sell him the stolen filings of gold she has lifted from the competent if uncredentialed dentist John (Mac) McTeague; and to tell, again and again, the tale of a gold dinner service, one hundred lustrous pieces, that her family once owned. Zerkow, a “dry, shriveled old man of sixty odd” with the “thin eager catlike lips of the covetous” and “the fingers of a man who accumulates but never disburses,” relishes the sight of the gold scraps, but he loves even more to hear, again and again, and yet again, the tales of the gold dinnerware service, which he will eventually make his own.
This was one of two main sub-plots in the film version, titled Greed, that were later cut by David Selznick, but both were preserved complete in von Stroheim’s 300-page screenplay, which is meticulously faithful to Norris’ novel. Greed’s protagonist is the wife-abusing, eventually wife-murdering alcoholic blond behemoth McTeague. A product of Darwinian evolution, McTeague is a great Scots-Irish animal uneasily installed in the modern world. Once a gold miner, McTeague has refined the large muscle skills he used digging and extracting ore from the earth into the small motor ones he needs to practice dentistry. Self-taught, McTeague nevertheless has gained a foothold in urban life, and he even shows evidence of abstract thinking—as when he purchases a gargantuan gilded incisor to hang outside his Dental Parlors. (Stills from von Stroheim’s original cut show a tooth as large as a Mini Cooper.)
McTeague’s wife, Trina—for a time, the love of big Mac’s life—is a thrifty little Swiss who spends her time wiping the oilcloth, hanging housewifely curtains, and supplementing the dentist’s income by decorating toy Noah’s Ark animals with nonpoisonous (translate: VERY poisonous) paint. But Trina has a taste for speculative ventures and (being Swiss!) also a taste for squirreling away her gains. After Trina wins a thousand dollars in the lottery she becomes greedy and secretive. She is then often to be found of a night lolling naked in beds full of gold coins, eyes rolling back in her head. Trina keeps money from Mac, and after he loses his dental practice, she refuses him money for the simplest needs; when drunk, he starts to bare his own incisors, using them to crunch on his wife’s knuckles. We know Trina is a goner when McTeague’s chomping releases the nonpoisonous residue into her bloodstream, necessitating amputation and auguring her eventual death. The film ends in Death Valley, where von Stroheim shot the final scene showing McTeague and his nemesis chained together in the alkaline waste with a useless bag of money between them: Greed!
As this summary suggests, Greed is so operatic and over the top that it sets the bar over which the Quentin Tarantinos of American film history are still vaulting. Lurid enough for the multiplex, the original uncut Greed would also have provided a complete exhibit of global anti-Semitism circa 1899, the nativists and the cosmopolitans, the genteel gentiles and the self-hating Semites, the Christian eugenicists and Zionists, the socialists and populists, and anarcho-communists, all making their contributions to one character—the red-haired Polish Jew, Zerkow.
To this day, students of the cinema still cherish hopes that the complete, uncut version will show up somewhere. While Selznick’s edit well may have consigned much in the way of cinematic genius to the ash can, it also eliminated an anti-Semitic subplot of such wide-ranging origins and such elite pedigree (American and European, conservative and radical, non-Jewish and Jewish Hollywood and Harvard) as to make the much more notorious racism of The Birth of a Nation seem provincial.
Scholars of American naturalism are right to emphasize that Norris’ depiction of the greedy Jew reflects a particularly American anti-Semitism that was very much of the 1890s and was shared by other naturalist writers. The so-called closing of the frontier, marked in Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1899 thesis, spelled to some an end to the classic era of national innocence and virtue. This literally golden era was being mourned at the time in various forms, some positive (the establishment of national parks!), some of more ambiguous value (the emergent national taste for ethnic humor), and some clearly negative, among which one would have to count the Free Silver campaign advanced most famously by three-term presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Free Silver’s aim was to free the Christian heartland from Eastern bloodsuckers who sought to “Crucify the working man on a cross of Gold.” Bryan’s Free Silver campaign derived much of its popularity from xenophobic grafting of robber baron excesses onto immigrant (Jay Gould sounds Jewish, doesn’t he?) monsters. To wit: Zerkow, “the man with the Rake, groping hourly in the muck heap of the city for gold, for gold, it was his dream, his passion; at every instant he seemed to feel the generous solid weight of the crude fat metal in his palms; the glint of it was constantly in his eyes; the jangle of it sang forever in his ears as the jangling of cymbals.”
Like the targets of Bryan’s ire, Zerkow has an immoderate, salacious love of real, genuine gold. But, as the story of Maria’s dinner service suggests, he also traffics in the ersatz and enlarges himself by manipulating fictive financial instruments. If the ka-ching of gold is Zerkow’s eternal and singular obsession, Norris’ imagery of “instruments” (developed across the novel) contrasts legitimate and illegitimate instruments of value. Workman’s hand-tools—including Mac’s dental tools and miners tools—lose their utility, as more symbolic instruments of manipulation (political, sexual, linguistic, and especially economic) disempower honest workers. The once-powerful American Bunyan, who crossed the prairies and mountains and harvested their natural riches, is now stranded on the edge of the continent, vulnerable to the coastal elites—(feminized) Jewish conspirators and their foreign (Swiss) co-conspirators. What use is the frontiersman’s manly brawn in a world where value is stockpiled in vaults, where success is controlled by those who traffic in arcane paper—in lottery tickets and installment instruments, in rents and leases and contracts bonds, I.O.Us and licenses?
The expatriate British writer’s unfinished potboiler marks a milestone in depictions of Jewish characters