Miller, Michael John (1975) The Jew as myth in recent Jewish-American fiction, with specific reference to the novels of Saul Bellow. Doctoral thesis, Keele University.

Full text not available from this repository.

Abstract

The premise of this thesis is that the European Holocaust, the systematic genocide practised upon the Jews by the Nazis in World War II, gave a new moral authority to the Jew in American literature; and that the onset of philo-Semitism combined with existing character types in Jewish-American fiction to form what we have called the myth. The myth was a mode of characterisation, based on the freshly-acquired representative status of the Jew, that provided the writer who adopted it with the opportunity to address himself to the major issues of human existence on the kind of scale and with the kind of intensity associated with pre-Modernist, usually Hussian, writing, but which was itself, subsequently, subject to depreciation through historical change and through sentimental and stereotyped treatment. By means of the myth what had previously been a trickle of writing by a minority group became, for a time at least, the mainstream of American letters.
Accordingly, this thesis sets out to identify and evaluate the nature of the myth as it is manifested in recent Jewish-American fiction, to observe how it has fared since its inception, and, through the analysis of the novels of Saul Bellow, to trace how it has been exploited, transposed or even transcended by the creative imagination of a Jewish-American writer who has gained both national recognition and an international reputation.
Chapter One defines the myth and relates its emergence to the types of character to be found in Jewish-American fiction before the European Holocaust. Taking The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan as a model, it suggests that Jewish writers, in response to the particular stresses and strains of immigrant life and to the precedents established by both the Jewish and the Gentile literary traditions, produced, by the end of the thirties, a number of variants of the Jewish protagonist. Of these categories, two, the nay-sayer and the shlemiel, were still to be found in the post-war climate that favoured the growth of the myth. The remainder were transmuted by the myth into the dominant figure of the Jew as sufferer, while the notion of the Jew as representative marginal man enjoyed a brief popularity as an embodiment of the immediate post-war concept of alienation.
Later, the shlemiel was employed to counteract the danger of sentimentality engulfing the myth, and attempts were made to bolster the waning myth by re-asserting its connections with the original catastrophe at a further cost to its long-term credibility. In the process there evolved a fifth type of character - the Jew as liberal academic - that sought to use the intellectual's unease about mythic Jewishness to add poignancy to his own suffering and so, effectively, to reconstitute the myth.
This pattern of character types provides the structure for our next five chapters, each of which is given over to discussing a Bellow novel in terms of one of these categories. The strain of radicalism emanating from an immigrant past is shown in Chapter Two to be central to Dangling Man, where Jewishness, not yet influenced by the myth, is only obliquely referred to and confined to allusion or irony; and where the principal interest lies in the glimmerings of Bellow's talent and in the signs of the forthcoming myth rather than in the predictably circular quest of his cerebral, dispirited young nay-sayer.
In contrast, Chapter Three deals with Bellow's most direct treatment of the myth - The Victim. His protagonist's sensitivity to anti-Semitism is skilfully used by Bellow to comment on the mythic dimensions of the Jew as sufferer and by his playing off the actual against the ideal we are given a multiple perspective on Leventhal's Jewishness as he struggles to make sense of a perplexing world.
Chapter Four looks at Bellow's portrayal of a singularly marginal Jew, Augie March, for whom Jewishness is no more than an accident of birth. However, if, in this perennially youthful celebrant of American experience, Bellow has created a character antithetical to the Jew as myth, it is Augie's unconventional but profoundly Jewish upbringing in Chicago that is most compellingly rendered in a novel that generally sacrifices depth and cohesion to vitality and variety.
Bellow's choice of the shlemiel to offset the myth's decreasing effectiveness is the theme of Chapter Five, which examines the 'holy fool' of Seize The Day, Tommy Wilhelm. Having so successfully evoked this pathetic and forlorn Jew who wallows in suffering, Bellow is ultimately prevented from transforming him into an Everyman because the foolishness of the shlemiel militates inevitably against the saintliness of the myth.
In Chapter Six, the mind of Bellow's Jewish liberal academic, Herzog, is shown to be beset by contradictory sentiments about mythic Jewishness. Distrustful of the claims laid to such significance, he is, nevertheless, immensely concerned about what it is predicated upon, the European Holocaust. Consequently, his pessimism about humanity proceeds, not from his objectivity as an historian, but from his feelings as a Jew. Which makes Herzog, despite its brilliance, less a novel of ideas than a novel against ideas.
Chapter Seven summarises, tentatively, the contemporary state of the myth, demonstrating that Bellow's efforts to refurbish it continued in Mr. Sammler's Planet. Herzog's pessimism has given way to the eschatology of Sammler, an actual victim of the Holocaust. His acid pronouncements on the prevailing American scene are finally, but not conclusively, negated by his conversion to an unusual ideal. Although the last-minute manipulation seriously flaws the novel, it indicates the moribundity of the myth. For what Sammler upholds in preference to the myth he himself embodies is the virtue of immigrant life, itself now no more than a relic of a Jewish American past.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Additional Information: For access to the hard copy thesis, check the University Library catalogue.
Subjects: E History America > E11 America (General)
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > School of Humanities
Depositing User: Lisa Bailey
Date Deposited: 02 May 2019 16:19
Last Modified: 02 May 2019 16:19
URI: http://eprints.keele.ac.uk/id/eprint/6266

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item