By the Waters of Manhattan

Charles Reznikoff; Phillip Lopate, intro.
  • Review
By – November 10, 2011
By 1930, when Charles Reznikoff (1894 – 1976) pub­lished By the Waters of Man­hat­tan, Amer­i­ca had already closed its doors to most immi­grants, and the lit­er­ary estab­lish­ment was decid­ed­ly luke­warm toward the immi­grant nov­el. That Reznikoff s style was decep­tive­ly sim­ple, and occa­sion­al­ly Yid­dish- inflect­ed, only made him eas­i­er to mar­gin­al­ize. Hap­pi­ly, Black Spar­row has reprint­ed this remark­able nov­el, which could be read as a one­sit­ting page-turn­er, or as the text for a semes­ter­long course on the immi­grant expe­ri­ence. The first half tells Reznikoff s mother’s sto­ry of grow­ing up in Rus­sia; the sec­ond half is a fic­tion­al ver­sion of his own strug­gles to make his place in the New York lit­er­ary world. Moth­er and son are both com­plex, each in their own way. His moth­er recounts the hunger, dis­ease, pover­ty, anti-Semi­tism, and pogroms they lived through in Rus­sia as facts of life, hid­ing truth in plain sight; her son walks the streets of Man­hat­tan elab­o­rat­ing his thoughts until he can return home with clar­i­ty. Read­ers famil­iar with Reznikoff s poet­ry will rec­og­nize his alter ego’s strug­gles with the world of pub­lish­ing; read­ers curi­ous about the immi­grant expe­ri­ence will add this clas­sic to their shelves along­side Yezierska’s nov­els and oth­er great chron­i­cles of the mak­ing of America.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions