Notes on the Relaunch of Studies in American Jewish Literature

Benjamin Schreier

More than thirty-six years ago, in the editorial note that opened the inaugural issue of Studies in American Jewish Literature, Dan Walden described the problem the journal was founded to address. Speaking for the editorial board—which in those early years included scholars like Sarah Blacher Cohen, Leslie Fiedler, Allen Guttmann, Irving Howe, Sanford Pinsker, and Moses Rischin—Walden wrote, "This is the first issue of a new journal devoted to the American Jewish writer and the American Jewish experience. In view of the way that some sectors of academia have ignored American Jewish materials . . . it seemed necessary to a number of people in the field to provide a medium of communication." Responding to this historiographic lapse, the journal would aim to publish "the best available" work "bearing on the American Jewish experience, particularly in literature and related areas."

One year earlier, in 1974, Walden had edited On Being Jewish, an important, field-defining anthology of Jewish American literature, and in it he previewed this argument for the historiographic significance of Jewish American literary study. Walden highlighted the immense cultural work performed by Jewish America—he sketched a historical typology from the Jews who immigrated to America, to the American Jews of their children's generation, to the Americans who were Jews of their grandchildren's generation—as it struggled at once to define and to hold on to an identity that was always in flux and never self-evident. As he laid it out in the anthology's introduction, the literature written by these Jews is so important because it constitutes the record of this cultural work: "That set of experiences, these problems, this people, are the source and reason for the American Jewish writers included here." More specifically, and more significantly, if Jews in America were and remain "uncertain . . . of their precise Jewish identity," Walden insisted on focusing on those "writers who have asked the questions about other Jews, because that is whom they know, and love, and hate, and because they care deeply and want to find out what it means to be a Jew or an American Jew or an American who is a Jew." Thus, as Walden defined the field, Jewish American literary study is important in the first instance because of the literature's sociological-historical reference, because it attests to a Jewish American experience that had rarely been made the focus of academic study, and in the second instance because it asks important questions about Jewish identity and identification.

The key to Walden's Jewish American literary criticism, as to his institutional advocacy, is simple and elegant: as he wrote in the anthology, "the American Jewish writers wrote of what they knew. American Jewish literature was invented by them." What's changed since the late 1960s and early 1970s, and since the founding of SAJL, of course, is that we no longer have to make the case for specifically American Jewish literary study; thanks in large part to Walden, we can now point to a growing canon of Jewish American literary criticism. But at the same time, this does not mean that we can take for granted the meaning—or really even the existence—of that canon. If we're going to say that we can derive a picture of American Jewry from this literature, then beyond asking questions about how Jews are represented in the literature that they have invented, we need to ask questions about how the literature deploys the Jewish identity that it has invented, and even more radically about how our criticism articulates this identity and this literature. And these latter questions are not so easy to answer, at least once we start facing the implications of asking them.

As a professor at Penn State University Walden was instrumental in the late- 1960s movement to introduce the study of minority and ethnic literature into the American academy as a way of addressing and administering the institutional crisis that was wracking universities across the country; he taught some of the first courses in ethnic and urban literature offered on U.S. campuses. The logic that energized this movement, that political representation and artistic representation are bound up with each other and mutually reinforcing, and that literary analysis should be understood as a species of historiography, has become so normalized, is so pervasive now, so much a part of our academic and cultural commonsense, that it sometimes can be hard to criticize what we're doing, or hard to envision alternative approaches. At the same time, explicitly Jewish literary study seems almost to suffer from the opposite problem, and is sometimes a bit hard to notice. Questions about specifically Jewish identity are often neglected in English departments' larger fascination with identity and ethnicity, few English departments seem all that interested in hiring specialists in Jewish literature, and Jewish Studies has only relatively recently concerned itself with asking properly literary critical or theoretical questions about Jewish literature. A few years ago I took part in a roundtable at the Modern Language Association conference which polemically asked "Does the English Department Have a Jewish Problem?" And while I don't think that blame for the uncertain status of Jewish literary studies lies completely with English departments, I think the panel usefully showcased the open question of Jewish literary studies— the fact is that it's not at all clear where the critical study of Jewish literature belongs. The future of Jewish literary study needs to situate itself precisely in this troubled space between often overly normalized questions about the representation of identity and often unauthorized questions about the Jewishness of literature.

At the risk of sounding petty for using this space to settle old scores, I'd like to seize the opportunity to quote from a rather haughty and dismissive reader's report I received a couple of years ago when a leading journal of academic literary criticism rejected an article that I had submitted: "Jewish American literature won't survive because of its Judaic sources, its Jewishness so-to-speak, but solely through its literature." Though as a modern, post-Enlightenment kind of guy I want, of course, to agree with such a sentiment, I'm not at all convinced that this distinction—that is, between the "Jewish" part and the "literature" part of a critical or scholarly entity called Jewish literature—is a legitimate one, at least if we've decided that we want to hold on to a specifically Jewish (or Jewish American) field of literary study. It's obvious (as I think this reviewer was trying to suggest) that we don't need to read a Jewish author for his or her texts' "Jewishness." But this means that if we are interested in a literary critical concept of Jewish identity, as I would imagine scholars who take a professional interest in Jewish literature likely are (here's where my score-settling comes into play, incidentally, as I think it's where this reviewer was being reductive—or actually reactionary), then we need to admit that the field of Jewish American literary study inheres at least partly, but undeniably, in the practice of treating literature as "Jewish"—I'm not sure why or how else we'd maintain the field. The Jewish unity or identity of a text is not a datum or textual attribute; it is a project, produced in the activity of reading, and deferred through a series of metonymic recognitions. It seems to me that a truly critical Jewish American literary study needs to approach texts obliquely, with its own interpretive desire to read texts as Jewish, with this overdetermination, in mind.

Studies in American Jewish Literature relaunches in 2012 with a new editor (me), a new editorial board, and a new press, but without, sadly, Dan Walden, who is stepping down after having done so much to establish the academic study of Jewish American literature. Thanks to Dan, we no longer have to prove the field's worth. Thanks also to him, we can dedicate our efforts to publishing the very best and most important scholarship in Jewish American literary and cultural criticism. What we mean by this is methodologically serious work that rejects the compensations of consigning Jewish literature and its criticism in a celebratory ghetto, but instead opens the literature, and itself, to their many constitutive outsides and others.

SAJL does not seek to be an all-purpose Jewish Studies journal (of which there are already several excellent examples); instead, we're trying to theorize how "Jewish" exists literarily and culturally—how it exists, above all, textually. Accordingly, SAJL refuses to reduce Jewish literary historical and literary critical work to a single methodological approach, and seeks to explore a wide variety of critical paths. SAJL seeks to enliven and enrich the universe of Jewish Studies work by paying serious critical attention to the aesthetics of identity. We're dedicated to publishing work analyzing the place, representation, and circulation of Jews and Jewishness in American literatures, and to serving as a venue for theorizing—as broadly and intensely as possible—the ways in which it makes sense to talk about identity in literature. We understand this commitment to aesthetic inquiry as uncontained by any particular methodological, ideological, categorical, or national project, and we remain open to new work that seeks to interrogate the relationships between writing, reading, genres, histories, technologies, and thinking. In other words: try us.