Exiles on Main Street: Jew­ish Amer­i­can Writ­ers and Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Culture

Julian Levin­son
  • Review
By – November 10, 2011
In Exiles on Main Street, a 2008 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award Win­ner, Julian Levin­son explores how Amer­i­can cul­ture indeli­bly shaped the lit­er­ary and polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tions of an eclec­tic range of mod­ern Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ers, Yid­dish poets, and lit­er­ary crit­ics, often in unex­pect­ed ways. In this respect, Levinson’s sub­ject is both quite famil­iar (“the ongo­ing vital­i­ty of the Jew­ish encounter with Amer­i­ca”) and utter­ly orig­i­nal. Rather than offer a vari­a­tion on the theme of how Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ers became Amer­i­can,” Levin­son argues that authors as var­i­ous as Emma Lazarus, Mary Antin, Lud­wig Lewisohn, Wal­do Frank, and Anzia Yezier­s­ka should be read as fig­ures who strug­gled with and against the claims of the dom­i­nant” new world ide­ol­o­gy of roman­ti­cism (Emerson’s phi­los­o­phy of Tran­scen­den­tal­ism and its lega­cy) they inher­it­ed. In response, they fash­ioned new forms of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty (per­son­al, lit­er­ary, polit­i­cal) as a way to keep faith with the past, despite their uproot­ed con­di­tion in the new world.

Writ­ten in a live­ly style but addressed main­ly to fel­low schol­ars in Jew­ish lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al stud­ies, Exiles on Main Street is most provoca­tive in its reha­bil­i­ta­tion of rel­a­tive­ly minor fig­ures (Lewisohn and Frank) and above all in its analy­sis of mod­ern Yid­dish poets. The Yid­dish Whit­ma­ni­ans,” Levin­son argues, dis­cov­ered in their master’s voice a tru­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic space, a poten­tial­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary lin­guis­tic zone ful­fill­ing both the Amer­i­can and Yid­dish dream of indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive renew­al. 

Equal­ly impres­sive are Levinson’s chap­ters on the cul­tur­al crit­ics Alfred Kazin and Irv­ing Howe. Each encoun­tered Amer­i­ca” through the fig­ure of Emer­son; and each dis­cov­ered a dif­fer­ent form of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in their new world jour­ney (Kazin through lyri­cal mem­oir, Howe via the project of Yid­dish trans­la­tion), even as they helped shape the mod­ern Jew­ish lit­er­ary canon that we read today. In short, Exiles on Main Street is an orig­i­nal con­tri­bu­tion to the con­tin­u­ing sto­ry of the cre­ative encounter between Jew­ish writ­ers and America.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

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