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Imaginative Assault

An excerpt from a new history of Commentary shows how the fiction published in the magazine’s early years shook not just the world of Jewish literature but the very foundations of American letters

Benjamin Balint
May 28, 2010
Ted Solotaroff, Norman Podhoretz, and Marion Magid at the Commentary offices, early 1960s.(Gert Berliner)
Ted Solotaroff, Norman Podhoretz, and Marion Magid at the Commentary offices, early 1960s.(Gert Berliner)

If the best fiction, as Norman Mailer once wrote, attempts to “clarify a nation’s vision of itself,” fiction published in Commentary magazine acted not only as a record of the magazine’s evolution, but also as a midrash—an exegetical narrative—on the American Jewish experience itself. Before World War II, although the Jew-as-entertainer was a familiar figure on the American stage—Al Jolson, Fannie Brice, the Marx Brothers—the Jew-as-novelist hardly appeared. There were accomplished Jewish writers before the war: Abraham Cahan, Paul Rosenfeld, Anzia Yezierska, and Ludwig Lewisohn in the 1920s, and a crop of social realists in the 1930s, including Henry Roth, Michael Gold, Daniel Fuchs, Clifford Odets, and Meyer Levin. But these were isolated figures, and there seemed something contrived in the ways they strained to make Jewish experience relevant to America. Because fiction was in those days expected to concern itself with the general, the universal, some writers masked the Jewishness of their characters or wrote in what Norman Podhoretz would later call a “facsimile-WASP style.” “As a struggling young writer,” novelist Meyer Levin remembered in Commentary, “I told readers I had early discovered that the big-paying magazines were not interested in stories about Jews. . . . So I wrote a novel about ‘American’ youngsters by giving non-Jewish names to the characters I knew in my heart were Jewish kids.”

The Jew-as-character-of-fiction had fared not much better. American Jewish writing was a fiction of mawkish quaintness, what Irving Howe called Second Avenue tearjerkers, stuffed with sentimentalized stereotypes: the suffering schlemiel; the Lower East Side immigrant who peddles his way from rags to riches; the wise, pious patriarch struggling to accept the Americanized son; the son desperate to escape the old world who felt “too foreign in school and too American at home,” as Will Herberg put it. Even worse were Jewish characters written by non-Jews. The Jew appeared as the annoying stranger (Robert Cohn in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises); as rebellious young radical (Ben Compton in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.); or as unscrupulous businessman (Harry Bogen in Jerome Weidman’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale). Abe Jones, in Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, Irving Howe complained in Commentary, is “dreary, tortured, melancholy, dully intellectual, and joylessly poetic, his spirit gloomily engulfed in a great cloud of Yiddish murk.”

This state of affairs carried over into the 1940s. Writers in the extended Commentary circle—the ‘Family’ as future paterfamilias Norman Podhoretz would retrospectively call it—found nourishment in Herman Melville or Ralph Waldo Emerson, in English poets or Russian novelists—but not in Jewish texts. The motives of Jewish writers, managing editor Robert Warshow complained in 1946, “are almost never pure: they must dignify the Jews, or plead for them, or take revenge upon them, and the picture they create is correspondingly distorted by romanticism or sentimentality or vulgarity.” One Commentary writer, seeking in 1948 to find promising Jewish contributions to contemporary American literature, could point to only three minor talents: Harriet Lane Levy, William Manners, and Charles Angoff. American Jewish writing, Commentary reported the next year, lay fallow, “steeped in apologetics and in false provincial pride.”

Commentary founder Elliot Cohen grasped that the Family’s discoveries of America could have literary reverberations, could release among the Family a great literary efflorescence that had only yesterday seemed an impossibility. By taking Jewish writing seriously, by refusing to disdain it as a parochialism, Cohen’s magazine planted the seeds of a generous literary fertility. Cohen had always demanded that Jewish writing of any kind conform to the highest standards. The future American Jewish culture “cannot be purely imitative,” he insisted. “As to Jewish culture,” he said, “the first question we should ask is not whether it is Jewish, but whether it is good. And ‘good’ means on a par with the best in the culture of society in general.” In literature as in all else, Cohen recoiled from apologetics, defensiveness, sectarianism, sentimentality, and self-congratulation. What lay fallow would grow in the 1950s into a jungled abundance that surprised even the presiding genius.

Several seasons passed before the new literary fruit showed itself. The first Commentary fiction was perfectly parochial. But very soon new Jewish writers, to borrow a phrase Philip Roth used in Commentary, launched “an imaginative assault upon the American experience.” Writing became for them a priestly calling, an instrument of upward mobility, a gateway for fighting their way into the great American beyond. It seemed to Cohen as though he were watching before his very eyes the passing of dominance from the southern school of William Faulkner to the urban Jewish school of Saul Bellow. A new kind of fiction, not intended to flatter the Jewish ego, was coaxed forth from the novelist branch of the Family, language obsessed writers seeking, in Irving Howe’s phrase, to shower the country with words. And what words! These scribes brought with them to the great culture rush the tones of Jewish speech and verbal performance: a street brashness and detached irony, an ability to careen between different registers and inflections, from high to low, from wide-ranging erudition to urban idiom.

Among the first fruits Commentary reaped was Bernard Malamud’s “The Prison,” a 1950 story that beautifully dilated upon the theme of Jewishness as confinement. The magazine would run eight more of Malamud’s stories (at $30 a page), including “Idiot’s First,” and five of the thirteen stories in The Magic Barrel, the collection that would earn Malamud a National Book Award. “Commentary gave him the perfect audience,” his friend Philip Roth said. In fact, young critic Norman Podhoretz made his Commentary debut in 1953 with a review of Malamud’s first novel, The Natural. “Well, you seem to know something about novels,” Cohen had told Podhoretz; “you know something about symbolism, you know something about Jews, and you know something about baseball. Here’s a symbolic novel by a Jewish writer about a baseball player. I guess you’re qualified to review it.”

What begins in the flat cadences of Malamud becomes visionary in Saul Bellow’s exuberance. In a review of Bellow’s second novel, The Victim, Commentary recognized with more than a little prescience what Bellow had done. That novel, Martin Greenberg (then an editor at Schocken Books) announced in the January 1948 issue, was “the first attempt in American literature to consider Jewishness not in its singularity, not as constitutive of a special world of experience, but as a quality that informs all of modern life.” Bellow animated the book’s hero, Asa Leventhal, with a feeling of somehow not belonging, a loneliness Greenberg called “the malaise of the megalopolis.” In a similar vein, Alfred Kazin hailed The Adventures of Augie March as Bellow’s “attempt to break down all possible fences between the Jew and this larger country.” The book’s famous first line announced a turn from alienation to affirmation: “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” Forging a passage from marginality to American literature writ large, Bellow’s own pieces for Commentary reprised the theme. In the February 1951 issue (a month before Cohen ran Bellow’s story “Looking for Mr. Green”), Bellow condemned the self-doubt that cramped other Jewish writers, a timidity about writing in a language their immigrant parents did not speak. “As long as American Jewish writers continue to write in this way,” Bellow said, “we will have to go elsewhere for superior being and beauty, and will thus continue to be foreigners.”

Philip Roth, to complete the triumvirate, made his Commentary debut in 1957, at age twenty-four, with a charming piece that Norman Podhoretz, then assistant editor and only three years older than the writer from Newark, had rescued from the slush pile. “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” included two years later in Goodbye, Columbus, was Roth’s first published story. The magazine also ran “Eli, the Fanatic,” Roth’s brilliant story about the confrontation between assimilated Jews and ultra-Orthodox Holocaust refugees intent on setting up a yeshiva in their suburb. Roth had first come across Cohen’s magazine as an undergrad in the periodical room in the Bucknell University library in the early 1950s. “I was stunned,” he said. “So this is what it’s like to be Jewish.” By offering a sophisticated Jewishness, free of parochialism and apologetics, Commentary did for Roth what the Menorah Journal had done for Lionel Trilling three decades before. “Commentary furnished a whole education, a way of being Jewish and intelligent and American—all at once.”

By now Commentary fiction was consistently first rate. Cohen ran two parables by Henry Roth, his first publications since Call It Sleep in 1935, as well as stories by Delmore Schwartz, Nelson Algren, and Alison Lurie, who published her earliest story in Commentary when she was all of twenty. Cohen fertilized all of this with translations of Yiddish literature: stories by I. J. Singer, Zalman Shneour, Y.L. Peretz, and David Bergelson, and Chaim Grade’s first published story, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” a powerful meditation on faith after the Holocaust. Most spectacularly, Commentary published Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” (translated by Marion Magid and Delmore Schwartz’s ex-wife, Elizabeth Pollet), first appeared there in English in September 1962, as did some of the vignettes that would make up In My Father’s Court (1966). “Commentary is one of the rare magazines in America which takes seriously both the writer and the reader,” the future Nobel laureate said. “I also have a personal feeling about Commentary: it was the first magazine which published me in English.”

Jewish writers, ex-alienated men, were in vogue. Norman Podhoretz used to joke about the Jewish writer who took the name Nathanael West that had he arrived in the 1950s rather than the 1930s, he would have changed his name back to Nathan Weinstein. After the American Jewish literary profusion had peaked, Edward Hoagland, the essayist married to Marion Magid, was grumbling (in Commentary itself ) that the Family’s writers had all but forged a new establishment, making it difficult for a WASP like him, who “could field no ancestor who had hawked tin pots in a Polish shtetl.”

In later years, some of these plaints would turn uglier. Gore Vidal complained that Jewish writers like Bellow, Roth, and Malamud “comprise a new, not quite American class, more closely connected with ideological, argumentative Europe (and talmudic studies) than with those of us whose ancestors killed Indians.” Truman Capote bitched in a 1968 Playboy interview about a Jewish literary cabal: “a clique of New York-oriented writers and critics who control much of the literary scene through the influence of the quarterlies and intellectual magazines. All these publications are Jewish-dominated and this particular coterie employs them to make or break writers by advancing or withholding attention. . . . Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and Isaac Bashevis Singer and Norman Mailer are all fine writers, but they’re not the only writers in the country, as the Jewish mafia would have us believe.” (Perhaps Capote’s line would have been softer had the Commentary review of his bestselling In Cold Blood not dissented so vigorously from the notion that the “competently though too mechanically told” book represented some kind of literary breakthrough.) But as boosters and detractors could agree, America’s new Jewish writers had come into their own.

Even as Cohen’s magazine helped forge a new literary temper, Commentary acted as a greenhouse for a new style of literary criticism, too, incubatingthe first generation of critics to grow from America’s working class. BeforeWorld War II, the upper reaches of American life had excluded Jews asmuch from the study of literature as from the creation of it. No matter howassiduously the Family’s critics may have schooled themselves in WaltWhitman’s 1871 Democratic Vistas or Van Wyck Brooks’s 1915 America’s Coming of Age, they were disqualified by heredity from the Republic ofLetters. “Jews, it was often suggested, could not register the finer shadingsof the Anglo-Saxon spirit as it shone through the poetry of Chaucer, Shakespeare,and Milton,” Irving Howe recalled. “I wouldn’t recommend thatyou study English,” the head of Northwestern’s English Department hadtold Saul Bellow. “You weren’t born to it.” The Family could not help butnotice that currents of anti-Semitism ran deep within the Anglo-Americanliterary tradition itself—from William Shakespeare’s Shylock, to CharlesDickens’s Fagin, to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Meyer Wolfsheim. “We reexamineour literary heritage as Jewish writers and readers of English—and wewince!” Leslie Fiedler wrote in Commentary. “We enter into our supposedinheritance, only to find we are specifically excluded.”

The attraction to fascism exhibited by poets W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot didn’t help matters. The Library of Congress’s decision in 1948 to award the Bollingen Prize to Pound’s The Pisan Cantos vaulted Cohen into high indignation, and he dedicated Commentary’s first symposium to the question of literary anti-Semitism. The responses he received bespoke a newfound literary self-confidence. Some advocated a separation of wheat from chaff. Alfred Kazin replied, “If we were to read only those who love us, even among ourselves, our intellectual diet would be thin indeed.” Lionel Trilling commented, “Anti-Semitism is, as Nietzsche said, a vulgarity; it is indeed remarkable how often notable minds of our day can support their quanta of vulgarity; but it would be foolish not to take from them what they have to give.” Saul Bellow suggested that the direction of judgment had reversed: “Modern reality, with the gases of Auschwitz still circulating in the air of Europe, gives us an excellent opportunity to judge whether they [modern Jew-despising writers] are right or wrong.” So long to inferiority.

In the beginning, Commentary critics aimed at Jewish writers. Irving Howe, born and bred in the Bronx, would write for the magazine on, say, Daniel Fuchs, who had authored several novels about Jews in Williamsburg. Tellingly, the magazine’s first critical essay on a goyish writer was called “F. Scott Fitzgerald and Literary Anti-Semitism.” When the magazine examined Pearl Buck—as in a 1948 review of Peony—it was for her description of Judaism. But the more Family critics assimilated—and assimilated into—American literature, the more confidently did they put Jewish writers in the highest fraternity of Gentile company. Both outside the magazine and inside its pages, Jews began to write about American fiction under the assumption that it was their inheritance, too.34 And they wrote not just about fiction. The magazine’s poetry criticism included John Berryman on W. H. Auden and a consideration of Sylvia Plath, who had studied with Alfred Kazin at Smith.

Commentary critics, never afraid to contradict the prevailing estimate of a reputation, shared a contempt for middlebrow mushiness. James Gould Cozzens, Arthur Miller, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk—these were almost too gauche to bother with. The result was an urgent style that combined scholarly rigor with journalistic flair. The urgency came from the way the Family’s strenuous strivers took literature as a matter of high gravity, as a secular scripture, as if it should yield to moral, and not just aesthetic, judgments. Writing, as vocation and avocation both, became in their hands a kind of emancipation, a gesture of self-fashioning; it was everything. The Family’s rhapsodists of American literature met America through its writers, the highest manifestations of national feeling.

Alfred Kazin, who would write some twenty pieces for Commentary, was a case in point. Born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a son of immigrants, Kazin came to City College at age sixteen. In 1942, at twenty-seven, he published On Native Grounds, a tellingly titled history of American prose from the 1890s through the 1930s. Like Philip Roth, Kazin acknowledged that his view of the possibilities of Jewish writing was indebted to Commentary:

I remember that as the first issues began to appear at the end of that pivotal year of 1945, I was vaguely surprised that it dealt with so many general issues in so subtly critical and detached a fashion, regularly gave a forum to non-Jewish writers as well as to Jewish ones. Like many Jewish intellectuals of my time and place, brought up to revere the universalism of the socialist ideal and of modern culture, I had equated “Jewish” magazines with a certain insularity of tone, subject matter, writers’ names—with mediocrity. To be a “Jewish” writer . . . was somehow to regress, to strike attitudes, to thwart the natural complexities of truth. . . . “Jewish” magazines were not where literature could be found, and certainly not the great world. “Jewish” magazines worried over the writer’s “negative” attitude toward his “Jewishness,” nagged you like an old immigrant uncle who did not know how much resentment lay behind his “Jewishness.” But Commentary, to the grief of many intellectual guardians of the “Jewish” world, marked an end to that.

For Kazin, literary criticism was “the great American lay philosophy.” He and the other Family generalists who came to command the literary heights—Trilling, Rosenfeld, Howe—wrote not to advance an academic point, not to advise the author, guide the book buyer, or impress the professional specialist, but to assess the larger meaning of a work. (The adjective “academic” was for them always a pejorative, a synonym of “pedantic” and antonym of intellectual audacity.) They considered criticism a branch of literature itself, a rival form of imagination. Unlike the New Critics who treated literature as something hermetically self-contained, the Family critics believed that writing was a political act; they read a work with an eye for what it said about its cultural environment. They practiced literary criticism as social criticism. These inebriates of literature wrote in a way, Kazin said, “that pure logic would never approve and pure scholarship would never understand.”

Before too long, by pursuing things unattempted yet in the precincts of American Jewish writing, Elliot Cohen was beginning to feel that his magazine was changing the world. Before Commentary (to paraphrase Leon Trotsky on Russian writer Nikolay Gogol), American Jewish literature in English, stuck in imitation, merely tried to exist. After Commentary, it existed.

Benjamin Balint is a writer living in Jerusalem and fellow at the Hudson Institute. The preceding is excerpted from Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is the author ofRunning Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right.