Race, Rights, and Recognition

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

Dean J. Franco
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Race, Rights, and Recognition
    Book Description:

    In Race, Rights, and Recognition, Dean J. Franco explores the work of recent Jewish American writers, many of whom have taken unpopular stances on social issues, distancing themselves from the politics and public practice of multiculturalism. While these writers explore the same themes of group-based rights and recognition that preoccupy Latino, African American, and Native American writers, they are generally suspicious of group identities and are more likely to adopt postmodern distancing techniques than to presume to speak for "their people." Ranging from Philip Roth's scandalous 1969 novel Portnoy's Complaint to Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan in 2006, the literature Franco examines in this book is at once critical of and deeply invested in the problems of race and the rise of multicultural philosophies and policies in America.

    Franco argues that from the formative years of multiculturalism (1965-1975), Jewish writers probed the ethics and not just the politics of civil rights and cultural recognition; this perspective arose from a stance of keen awareness of the limits and possibilities of consensus-based civil and human rights. Contemporary Jewish writers are now responding to global problems of cultural conflict and pluralism and thinking through the challenges and responsibilities of cosmopolitanism. Indeed, if the United States is now correctly-if cautiously-identifying itself as a post-ethnic nation, it may be said that Jewish writing has been well ahead of the curve in imagining what a post-ethnic future might look like and in critiquing the social conventions of race and ethnicity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6401-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: The Politics and Ethics of Jewish American Literature and Criticism
    (pp. 1-26)

    In an early scene in Saul Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Artur Sammler, the elderly Holocaust survivor transplanted to New York, is invited to speak at Columbia University about his youthful acquaintance with the Bloomsbury circle.¹ The invitation comes from Lionel Feffer, a young Jewish acquaintance whose Marxist, Humanist, or Avant Gardist professions have a whiff of scam about them. First published serially in The Atlantic in 1969, the novel is set in 1968 and casts its revolutionary youth as a group of play-acting adolescents, foils to Sammler’s role as a worldly, world-weary man of authentic experience.² During his lecture,...

  5. Part I: Pluralism, Race, and Religion

    • 1 Portnoy’s Complaint: It’s about Race, Not Sex (Even the Sex Is about Race)
      (pp. 29-55)

      Early in Philip Roth’s notorious novel Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969, the adolescent Alexander Portnoy tells his parents that he will no longer attend synagogue on the High Holidays, for he is, he declares, not Jewish but a human being: “Religion is the opiate of the people! And if believing that makes me a fourteen-year-old Communist, then that’s what I am, and I’m proud of it! . . . I happen to believe in the rights of man, rights such as are extended in the Soviet Union to all people, regardless of race, religion, or color” (75).¹ Portnoy then strikes...

    • 2 Re-Reading Cynthia Ozick: Pluralism, Postmodernism, and the Multicultural Encounter
      (pp. 56-79)

      The decades-long consistency of Cynthia Ozick’s commitment to Jewish moral concerns and her concomitant iconoclasm in defense of human over material and even aesthetic values has led to a critical consensus that Ozick’s great topic is the dichotomous values of Hebraism and Hellenism.¹ Ozick herself has often framed the competing cultural impulses inhabiting the Western mind in just these terms, in essays (“Preface,” “Metaphor and Memory”), stories (“The Pagan Rabbi,” “The Dock-Witch”) and novels (The Cannibal Galaxy, Heir to the Glimmering World).² In her early fiction, writer-protagonists self-flagellate over their covetousness for fame, and some of her best stories represent...

    • 3 The New, New Pluralism: Religion, Community, and Secularity in Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls
      (pp. 80-106)

      During a moment of crisis in Allegra Goodman’s novel Kaaterskill Falls, Elizabeth Shulman, a Hasidic Jew who has pushed against the boundaries of the kehilla, or religious covenant, a little too daringly, muses on the gathering shame and curiosity developing around her: “What a contortionist she must seem to her Kaaterskill neighbors, making a business in Hamilton’s back room. What a marvelous object she is to them. A ship in a bottle. How did she get in there? How could she get out?” (237).¹ Elizabeth’s metaphor instantly captures two aspects of her quandary, for she is at once subject to...

  6. Part II: Recognition, Rights, and Responsibility

    • 4 Recognition and Effacement in Lore Segal’s Her First American
      (pp. 109-138)

      Near the beginning of Lore Segal’s Her First American, Carter Bayoux, a middle-aged, depressive African American journalist and erstwhile diplomat sends the novel’s heroine, Ilka Weissnix, a telegram announcing his basic life philosophy: “PROTOCOL IS THE ART OF NOT REPEAT NOT LIVING BY NATURAL HUMAN FEELING” (41).¹ The telegram illustrates Carter’s sincere cynicism, the oxymoronic attitude attending political processes of give and take, whether local or national, in D.C. or the UN, during the novel’s present time of the 1950s or our own moment. Carter would know. Covering the United Nations for the fictional newspaper The Harlem Herald in the...

    • 5 Responsibility Unveiled: Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul
      (pp. 139-169)

      Written in the late 1990s, Tony Kushner’s play Homebody/Kabul has been called “uncanny” and “eerily prescient” for anticipating and addressing the violence between the United States and Afghanistan leading up to and sustained after 9/11.¹ Kushner explains that he had been thinking about Kabul and the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States since the 1980s.² As for the prescience of the play, Kushner remarked that if a playwright could anticipate terrorism and reprisal, the real question should be, why was Washington and the U.S. press looking the other way?³ What was the nation attending to when the 9/11 hijackers...

    • 6 Globalization’s Complaint: Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan and the Culture of Culture
      (pp. 170-192)

      What does it mean for the concept of “culture” that Tony Kushner’s Homebody/ Kabul gives its audience an ethics without a programmatic politics? Spirituality without religion? Religion without territory? Deterritorialization without postmodern anxiety? The resolution of the play occurs as its characters traverse, transcend, or utterly shatter all normative frameworks of being and belonging. Nation, ethnicity, linguistic community, culture, religion—none are left intact to function as the site or source for a continued extension of the play’s final acts of recognition and responsibility. The challenge of Homebody/Kabul is the question of replication: If Priscilla does the right thing, how...

    • Epilogue: Less Absurdistan, More Boyle Heights
      (pp. 193-208)

      Risking nostalgia, I close by rolling back time to the origin of the melting-pot myths and the cultural pluralist penumbra with a look at Jewish American “frontier” writing, Rachel Calof’s memoir Rachel Calof’s Story, and Harriet Rochlin’s contemporary novels comprising her Desert Dwellers trilogy.¹ Calof ’s and Rochlin’s stories are quite different, but together they may hint at how to think about a deracinated and dynamic pluralism. Calof ’s memoir describes her life on a North Dakota homestead between the 1890s and 1940s and seems wholly uninfluenced by either literary trends or prevailing social theories of pluralism, even though her...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 209-222)
  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 223-232)
  9. Index
    (pp. 233-240)