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.