In A Hundred Acres of America Michael Hoberman seeks to enlarge the traditional narratives of Jewish American literary history, just as he seeks to challenge them. Familiar canonical texts tend to focus on themes of old world migration to an imagined promised land and the subsequent ordeal of new world assimilation — as in the novels and stories of Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska, and Henry Roth. Instead, Hoberman introduces us to a group of Jewish American authors who were inspired, he argues, by the “shaping influence” of the American landscape. He posits that encounters with and responses to American geography, in a variety of constructions and forms — the frontier, the city, the small town, the suburb, the imagined old world shtetl, the contemporary ironies of Israel as “homeland” — have “enabled” Jewish American writers “to test assumptions, challenge hegemonies, and assert agency” in a search for an American identity. Hoberman’s examples of geographically-inspired authors invites us to reconsider a long-standing literary history based on “the immigrant model.”
Hoberman’s major contribution in A Hundred Acres of America is the recovery of a cohort of relatively obscure mid and late-nineteenth century Jewish writers who wrote about the migration experience in the West or, later in the century, the defining Jewish presence in the early formation of cities in the Northeast. I doubt that even the most well-read scholars of Jewish American literature have heard of Solomon Carvalho’s Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West (1857) or Israel Joseph Benjamin’s Three Years in America, 1859 – 62 (1862). For Hoberman, their frontier narratives challenged canonical American literary traditions, as in the examples of Emerson and Thoreau, of individualist-romantic sensibility and the critique of constraining social norms (think “Self-Reliance”). By contrast, in Hoberman’s view, writers like Carvalho and Benjamin “decentered” the American wilderness mythos of individualism via a “Jewish” voice, conjuring a vision of America that went “against the grain”. It is ironic that the major Jewish critics a century later — such as Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe, both immigrant sons — celebrated, indeed identified with the radical-individualists of the Transcendentalist era.
Perhaps even more interesting is Hoberman’s recuperation of figures like Henry Samuel Morais who, in The Jews of Philadelphia (1894) sought to locate the “Jewish immigrant origins of the American city”, especially the Jewish influence on the earlier American Revolution. Hoberman draws on historian Beth Wenger’s shrewd insight, that figures like Morais sought “to place Jews at the center of an emerging public memory of the American Revolution.” As a result, Hoberman deepens our understanding of the boundaries of Jewish American literary history.
In later chapters Hoberman extends his claims about the shaping influence of geography to figures like Edna Ferber, who wrote on small town America, challenging the “dominant mythologies” about the homogeneity and presumed provincial temper of these regional enclaves, imagined as inhospitable to Jews. Ferber’s “Jewishness was primarily a reactive force,” Hoberman claims; rather than viewing themselves as “strangers in the land,” Ferber’s Jewish characters (in a novel like A Peculiar Treasure ) “occupied center-stage in the national drama”, feeling at home in America, “natural-born inheritors of the rural tradition”. Thus Hoberman invites us to reconsider, indeed re-read a relatively minor figure like Ferber.
In his last three chapters Hoberman discusses an array of major and emerging contemporary authors, including Philip Roth, Allegra Goodman, Rebecca Goldstein, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jon Papernick, and Risa Miller. He shows how the imagination of place provides an explanatory structure for understanding some of their key works. Roth’s American Pastoral and Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls both respectively put pressure on the pastoral myth; each novel warns against what Hoberman terms, in a striking phrase, as “geographical escapism”. Foer and Goldstein explore the “reconstituted shtetl” in Everything is Illuminated and Mazel in order “to reclaim stolen lands and stolen lives”. Papernick’s story collection The Ascent of Eli Israel and Miller’s novel Welcome to Heavenly Heights conjure a contemporary Israeli landscape demythologized, “blighted”, the would-be promised land “emptied” of redemptive potential, offering only a false promise of homecoming for dislocated American Jews.
In the end, Hoberman’s study, although designed primarily for students and scholars of Jewish American literature, challenges us to reconsider what the canon of our literature ought to be in a series of original readings of both obscure and major figures whose vision of landscape — above all sites of memory and myth — shaped their vision of America in rich and striking ways.
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He divides his time between Brooklyn and Mohegan Lake, NY.