Amer­i­can Nat­u­ral­ism and the Jews: Gar­land, Nor­ris, Dreis­er, Whar­ton, and Cather

Don­ald Pizer
  • Review
By – December 5, 2011
Although Amer­i­can Nat­u­ral­ism and the Jews is indeed an aca­d­e­m­ic book, it should not be over­looked by those out­side the acad­e­my. Piz­er has writ­ten a tru­ly fas­ci­nat­ing work that exam­ines how five Amer­i­can writ­ers, Ham­lin Gar­land, Frank Nor­ris, Theodore Dreis­er, Edith Whar­ton, and Willa Cather, har­bored deeply anti-Semit­ic atti­tudes, which often sur­faced in their nov­els, essays, mem­oirs, and per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence. Pizer’s study not only unearths these writ­ers’ anti-Jew­ish sen­ti­ments, but clear­ly shows how they were both a prod­uct of their envi­ron­ments and con­duits for per­pet­u­at­ing and strength­en­ing Amer­i­can anti-Semi­tism in the ear­ly part of the 20th cen­tu­ry.

Under­ly­ing the book’s research is the para­dox­i­cal fact that all of these writ­ers were cham­pi­ons of social caus­es and spokes­men for the under­priv­i­leged. Gar­land, Nor­ris, and Dreis­er all advo­cat­ed social reforms to ben­e­fit the poor and dis­ad­van­taged. Whar­ton and Cather decried the plight of women in Amer­i­can soci­ety and cam­paigned for women’s rights. Nev­er­the­less, in terms of their posi­tion on Jews (as well as oth­er immi­grant and minor­i­ty groups) all five were unsym­pa­thet­ic, inclined to per­ceive Jews as wily bankers, crafty enter­tain­ment indus­try swindlers, impos­si­ble to domes­ti­cate and genet­i­cal­ly savage.

Not all of these writ­ers exposed their dis­like of Jews in their fic­tion. Wharton’s nov­els, as a prime exam­ple, did not adver­tise their author’s elit­ist out­look or anti-Semit­ic feel­ings. Piz­er, how­ev­er, does an excel­lent job of uncov­er­ing these atti­tudes and demon­strat­ing how they were not rene­gade or mar­gin­al posi­tions, but solid­ly embed­ded notions that were part of Whar­ton and the oth­er writ­ers’ for­ma­tive years — an ugly intel­lec­tu­al blem­ish that marred their often enlight­ened and gen­er­ous social thinking.

Shana Rosen­blatt Mauer is pur­su­ing doc­tor­al research in the field of Amer­i­can Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. She lec­tures at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, the Open Uni­ver­si­ty in Jerusalem, and teach­es Eng­lish at Har­man High School.

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