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 lives in Amherst, MA.