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

Indiana University Press  2008

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.

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