Catherine Rottenberg, a professor of literature at Ben Gurion University and the author of Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature (2008), has brought together eight essays analyzing the literary narratives of black Harlem and the Jewish Lower East Side. Harlem has long been considered the cultural and intellectual center of black America, while the Lower East Side has been American Jewry’s iconic neighborhood. The assumption of the book is that the literary narratives of these two habitats are worth exploring in tandem. Rottenberg claims that “this is the first volume to take on the task of placing the two urban neighborhoods in conversation with one another.”
The conversation, however, is quite muted since the literary imagery of Harlem and the Lower East Side are examined in isolation from one another. Thus Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s essay, “Harlem on Our Minds,” does not mention the Lower East Side, and Hasia Diner’s essay on the Lower East Side, “Texts of Memory: Romancing the Past,” says nothing about Harlem. Both essays, as well as the others in the book, are informative and worth reading, but they do not explicate any supposed literary conversation between Harlem and the Lower East Side. The one possible exception is Cheryl Greenberg’s “Separated at Birth?: Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.” For the most part the black writers of Harlem ignored the Lower East Side, and the Jewish writers of the Lower East Side had little interest in Harlem. This is hardly surprising since each group had enough to be concerned about in their own surroundings.
Some of the essays in this volume focus on literary heavyweights such as Roth and Baldwin, while others discuss second-rate authors of romance fiction and children’s literature. The book will appeal to readers with both highbrow and lowbrow literary interests, but they will come away puzzled by the logic of yoking together in one volume the unrelated literary narratives of two neighborhoods with such distinct and separate histories. They will also wonder about the inclusion of Meredith Goldsmith’s “Strangers in the Village: Greenwich Village and the Search for Alternative Space in Ethnic Women’s Fiction of the 1920s and 1930s” since it deals only peripherally with Harlem and the Lower East Side. Those unfamiliar with the escalation of prices of academic books will be surprised by the price of such a thin volume.