Likeness of a Jew
A dispute between novelist Alan Hollinghurst and author Daniel Mendelsohn revives a history of sensitivity to British stereotypes about Jews
The Jew as scheming social parvenu is a feature in Trollope’s fiction. Another fascinating financial speculator, Augustus Melmotte in the earlier The Way We Live Now (1875)—Is he Jewish? His wife is—only re-inscribes a core problem of the assimilating Other by his uncertain foreign background. The Jew of qualities who hopes to pose as the real thing—an Englishman of good breeding—disturbs the social order. As James Shapiro proposes in Shakespeare and the Jews, “The Jew as irredeemable alien and the Jew as bogeyman into whom the Englishman could be mysteriously ‘turned’ coexisted at deep linguistic and psychological levels.” If the Jew can disappear through assimilation and upward mobility, what security is there for the Englishman who has his privileges inherited as if by divine right?
By America’s Gilded Age, the grasping arriviste Jew is an unremarkable figure. In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), a brilliant dissection of New York society, the secondary character, Simon Rosedale, smitten by protagonist Lily Bart, is, as the writer Lev Raphael sums him up, “pure anti-Semitic stereotype: unctuous, vulgar, shifty-eyed, and worthy of everyone’s contempt, even though they would love to be as rich as he is, and some society folk cultivate him for stock tips.” Raphael diagnoses Wharton’s problem perfectly: “Her portrayal … not only seems shallow, but a real break in her artistry. In relying on received wisdom about Jews, she fell beneath her own high standards.” Raphael has had his revenge, publishing a novel from the eponymous character’s point of view: Rosedale in Love.
Can anyone today misunderstand that Wharton was writing from the vantage of a woman born into an elevated New York social order that almost required the breeding of anti-Semitism in the bone? William Dean Howells, midwestern son of a politically liberal publisher, labored under no such assumptions, yet in a passing attempt to portray unreasonable prejudices against Jews in The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885)—by having the socially uncertain Laphams frankly discuss how property values fell when wealthy Jews moved into their neighborhood—the judicious Howells found himself called to account by several Jewish readers. He would cut the passage when the serialized version was printed as a book and wrote to Cyrus L. Sulzberger, editor of the American Hebrew, that “you are not the first Hebrew to accuse me of ‘pandering’ to the stupid and cruel feeling against your race and religion. … I merely recognized to rebuke it, the existence of a feeling which civilized men should be ashamed of.”
Wharton would have been incapable of such an assertion. Although rankled by the restrictions on her sex and caste, she never adopted a feminist outlook and continued to see Jews as beyond the civilized pale. In 1925, she praised as “masterly” the anti-Semitic portrait of Meyer Wolfsheim in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Indeed, she gushed to young Fitzgerald that Wolfsheim was the “perfect Jew”—odd adjectives to apply to a shifty, physically unappealing character rumored to have arranged the World Series Black Sox Scandal of 1919.
A Jewish littérateur like Daniel Mendelsohn would be aware of these and lesser examples. For Galen Strawson, this awareness produces in Mendelsohn a particular prejudice, a heightened sensitivity resulting in “a capacity for unwarranted insult.” One must wonder if Strawson imagines Mendelsohn, who wrote a masterful account of family tragedy in The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, has no just claim to his sensitivity about Jewish representation. In his reply, Mendelsohn stands by his reading of Hollinghurst’s use of “age-old clichés of the Jew in British literature.” This was not an “ad hominem attack on Alan Hollinghurst,” he assures us, but a footnote—an “unhappy parenthesis”—in an “otherwise admiring and, I think, nuanced assessment of this worthy writer.”
When Hollinghurst finally came forward last month, he defended himself with suitable restraint, noting that where he has portrayed Jews as major characters in his earlier The Line of Beauty, “I certainly saw them as individuals just as varied, complex, and interesting as the non-Jewish characters in my novel.” And then, as if quivering with barely suppressed outrage, he wrote: “Really, I want to protest that I am a good deal more ‘conscious’ of what I am doing … than Mendelsohn … has repeatedly alleged.” At the end, he makes his most damning charge—that Mendelsohn, a literary critic, has misread the use of the press photographer Jerry Goldblatt in a “section of the book set in 1926” that was “deployed precisely to illustrate the prejudicial attitudes of Dudley Valance. … To mistake this … historical prejudice for the unconscious habit of the author is so primitive an error [my italics] as to cause some concern for Daniel Mendelsohn’s judgment.”
If this is so, then we are back to poor William Dean Howells pleading to an influential Jewish publisher that in the conversation about Jews he had put in the mouths of Mr. & Mrs. Silas Lapham, “My irony seems to have fallen short of the mark.” Strawson argues that Mendelsohn is overly sensitive; Hollinghurst asserts that Mendelsohn as critic proves incapable of distinguishing an author’s depiction of social prejudice for the author’s own views. This should be an essential skill in a literary critic but, of course, each oppressed group—women, blacks, gays, Jews—is automatically assumed to lose its objectivity when judging how outsiders portray them in fiction and film. In his attempt at a gentlemanly coda to this affair, Mendelsohn writes in reply that if “Alan Hollinghurst insists on believing that I acted out of a poisonous intent to malign him, there is little I can do to change his mind.” His “great regret” is that “this small point” will distract from his “larger critique of an author whose work … I continue to find very worthy indeed.”
Herman Wouk wrote a foundational text for American postwar Modern Orthodoxy, and for the emancipated Jewish literature in its wake