The Un-Amer­i­cans: Jews, the Black­list, and Stoolpi­geon Culture

Joseph Lit­vak
  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
Accord­ing to Joseph Lit­vak, a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty, the role that Jews played in the gov­ern­ment inves­ti­ga­tion of Hol­ly­wood dur­ing the 1940’s and 1950’s is best exam­ined through the prism of a stoolpi­geon cul­ture.” His nar­ra­tive focus­es on those Jew­ish writ­ers and actors who tes­ti­fied before the House Com­mit­tee on Un– Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties. For Lit­vak, this tes­ti­mo­ny resem­bles a moral­i­ty play in which valiant and cos­mopoli­tan rad­i­cals such as Lil­lian Hell­man, Zero Mos­tel, and Abra­ham Polon­sky were paired off against craven infor­mants such as Abe Bur­rows, Jerome Rob­bins, and Budd Schul­berg, who des­per­ate­ly sought to save their own careers. The pos­si­bil­i­ty that those who named names might pos­si­bly have had more lofty motives is reject­ed out of hand.

Litvak’s nar­ra­tive is wide-rang­ing, cov­er­ing movies (The Jazz Singer, The Front, On the Water­front, Body and Soul, Cross­fire, and Gentlemen’s Agree­ment), Broad­way musi­cals (West Side Sto­ry, Bells Are Ring­ing, and Fid­dler on the Roof ), and well-known Jew­ish enter­tain­ment per­son­al­i­ties such as Bar­bra Streisand. While these are famil­iar top­ics, this book will be heavy going for those unfa­mil­iar with the recon­dite and con­vo­lut­ed jar­gon of con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al stud­ies.” This book was writ­ten for fel­low aca­d­e­mi­cians and to pro­vide a usable past for rad­i­cals adrift in con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­ca. Oth­er read­ers, how­ev­er, will ques­tion whether cul­ture” is the prop­er term to describe what involved a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of peo­ple with dif­fer­ing respons­es to the Hol­ly­wood inqui­si­tion, and they will also object to Litvak’s often strained inter­pre­ta­tion of texts designed to rein­force his ide­o­log­i­cal predilections.
Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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