Non­fic­tion

Race, Rights, & Recog­ni­tion: Jew­ish Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture since 1969

Dean J. Franco
  • Review
By – October 25, 2012

Among the more vex­ing issues for schol­ars of Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ing is the rela­tion between mul­ti­cul­tur­al” lit­er­a­ture (African Amer­i­can, Asian Amer­i­can, Chi­cano Amer­i­can writ­ers, etc.) and the emer­gence of a rich tra­di­tion of Jew­ish Amer­i­can let­ters, espe­cial­ly in the last half cen­tu­ry. For the most part Jew­ish writ­ers have been deemed white” (as opposed to, say, eth­nic”); as a result, canon­i­cal fig­ures like Bernard Mala­mud and Philip Roth, along with a host of won­der­ful­ly orig­i­nal and provoca­tive younger writ­ers, have tend­ed to be left out of the Eng­lish or Eth­nic Stud­ies cur­ricu­lum, rel­e­gat­ed to the mar­gins, rarely taught, except in those courses/​surveys devot­ed to Jew­ish writ­ing on its own terms. Younger schol­ars of eth­nic­i­ty and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism like Dean J. Fran­co have sought to place Jew­ish writ­ers through a widen­ing dia­logue with oth­er eth­nic” writ­ers. In Race, Rights & Recog­ni­tion Fran­co deep­ens this emer­gent, nec­es­sary dia­logue by reveal­ing how a range of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ers — above all the play­wright Tony Kush­n­er — can be under­stood to be com­pli­cat­ing, indeed provoca­tive­ly cri­tiquing the very philo­soph­i­cal-social-racial ideas that shaped the com­mu­nal vision asso­ci­at­ed with the project of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism itself. In this respect, Fran­co offers a deeply felt — and deeply Jew­ish” — eth­i­cal read­ing of a range of Jew­ish writ­ers whose social vision pro­vides an alter­nate way of imag­in­ing how we might relate to each oth­er in our glob­al­ized twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry.

What is strik­ing about Franco’s deep read­ings of authors as var­i­ous as Philip Roth, Cyn­thia Ozick, Alle­gra Good­man, Kush­n­er, and Gary Shteyn­gart are the sur­pris­ing jux­ta­po­si­tions and deeply per­son­al per­spec­tives on the texts under his scruti­ny. For exam­ple, Fran­co sum­mons Roth’s late-’60s con­tem­po­rary Eldridge Cleaver to high­light each figure’s chal­lenge to the era’s unex­am­ined lib­er­al­ism. And for all her resis­tance to fash­ion­able mul­ti­cul­tur­al dis­course,” Ozick’s great ear­ly sto­ries (“Blood­shed” and The Pagan Rab­bi”), in their engage­ment with issues around iden­ti­ty” and com­mu­ni­ty,” implic­it­ly look for­ward to the key debates in the 1970s that inau­gu­rat­ed the mul­ti­cul­tur­al debates them­selves. Goodman’s Kaater­skill Falls, set in the same era as those debates, about a young Hasidic woman’s desire to enlarge her free­dom with­in a strict­ly con­trol­ling reli­gious sect, enrich­es our under­stand­ing of the lim­i­ta­tions and pos­si­bil­i­ties of 1970s-era plu­ral­ism.” Above all, Kushner’s deeply humane Jew­ish ethics in Homebody/​Kabul offers a mode of recog­ni­tion” — a vision of eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty” — that inspires Franco’s hopes for the future.

Race, Rights & Recog­ni­tion seeks to change the con­ver­sa­tion about Jew­ish Amer­i­can literature’s rela­tion to the canon­i­cal ideals (polit­i­cal and lit­er­ary) of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. Designed for schol­ars and spe­cial­ists famil­iar with the dis­cours­es of aca­d­e­m­ic lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, cul­tur­al the­o­ry, and Jew­ish Stud­ies, Franco’s often pro­found read­ings will prove enrich­ing for those read­ers already immersed, and com­mit­ted, to his vision of a Jew­ish ethics of relationality.

Don­ald Weber is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Mount Holyoke Col­lege, and the author of Haunt­ed in the New World: Jew­ish Amer­i­can Cul­ture from Cahan to The Gold­bergs (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005).

Discussion Questions