During the past few years several new Jewish novelists and playwrights have attracted considerable attention in the British literary world. Whereas Jews have long played an important role in American literary life, they have until recently been a negligible element in British letters. A few months ago, Brian Glanville (himself one of the new Anglo-Jewish novelists) remarked on this difference in an article in Encounter where he glanced longingly at the greater Jewish population of the United States (five million to Britain’s less than half a million) and at what he conceives to be “a definite Jewish intellectual life, centered on New York.”
Now, the contrast between Anglo-Jewish and Jewish American writing is striking, but the period for significant comparison is quite small. The Jewish populations of both Britain and the United States were relatively insubstantial until Russian oppression of the Jews in the 1880’s stimulated a sizeable immigration to both countries. The Jewish population of Britain in 1880 is authoritatively estimated at 50,000; in the years from 1881 to 1914, approximately 100,000 Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe flowed into England. Most of the highly visible British Jews today—including the writers—are the descendants of these immigrants and others who followed.
In the period preceding the great immigration, British Jews made modest contributions to their nation’s literature. We have, in the 19th century, no American counterparts to Benjamin Disraeli or even to such lesser figures as Sir Sidney Lee (best known as a biographer of Shakespeare) and Sir Francis Palgrave (who edited the Golden Treasury). Then, out of the first generations of immigrants, there came Israel Zangwill in England and Abraham Cahan in the United States.
Both Cahan and Zangwill were prolific, Cahan devoting most of his energy to Yiddish journalism and Zangwill to a great variety of literary genres. But their differences as writers of Jewish fiction in English were significant for the different course Anglo-Jewish writing took in the two countries. Zangwill, while he was capable of producing authentic Victorian period pieces (his Big Bow Mystery is one of the classic English detective novels), proved unable to adapt Jewish subject matter to English literary forms. When he turned to Jewish fiction (in Children of the Ghetto and that book’s various sequels), he wrote an essentially alien story, a pathetic, tragi-comic, warm-hearted account of East European Jewish life transplanted to London’s East End. He created no pattern for others to follow, and in consequence he was not followed. Cahan, on the other hand, fitted his Jewish subject into the most suitable fictional genre of the time. The Rise of David Levinsky1 is a Dreiserian novel, with a Jewish hero who bears a strong resemblance to Frank Cowperwood in The Financier. A few years later, when Sinclair Lewis and others were belaboring the American Babbitt, Ben Hecht and Ludwig Lewisohn—working directly in the tradition of Cahan—used the exotic, “different” Jew for the same purpose. In the 30’s, when “social” novelists dominated, Meyer Levin, Albert Halper, and others wrote Jewish novels to match, while Henry Roth and Daniel Fuchs contributed some brilliant variations on the theme; Clifford Odets provided an equivalent in the theater. Still others, like S. J. Perelman, George S. Kaufman, and George Jean Nathan, were developing a peculiarly urban kind of wit, and Nathanael West came forward with a peculiarly original body at work of his own.
And where were the Anglo-Jewish writers all this time? British Jewry produced in Isaac Rosenberg a distinguished poet who died in the First World War but few others of consequence. A little research turns up the names of Siegfried Sassoon (so assimilated that he could write a novel called Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man) and Benn Levy (a Labor Member of Parliament and a facile comic dramatist whose most recent play, The Rape of the Belt, has just made a brief appearance on Broadway). But, except for Rosenberg, these are Jewish writers only by accident; they do not attempt any distinctively Jewish subject or manner. A popular writer, Louis Golding, sentimentally interpreted some aspects of Jewish life, and two “hard-boiled” novelists undertook Jewish subjects—Willy Goldman and Gerald Kersh. Their work is intended as social criticism, but some of it, Kersh’s fiction especially, suggests Jerome Weidman more than Halper or Levin. According to Glanville, attacks from the Jewish community discouraged them from further development of their Jewish subject matter.
But still we may wonder at the comparative absence of Jewish writers. Where were the rebels of the 1920’s, in Aldous Huxley’s pattern if not in Sinclair Lewis’s? And where were the responsible social critics of the 1930’s? No coherent group of able Jewish writers appeared in England until the present youthful generation of Arnold Wesker, Dan Jacobson, Harold Pinter, Wolf Mankowitz, Dannie Abse, and others. What was responsible for the delay?
One important factor is the cultural ideal that until very recently dominated—some would say tyrannized over—British life and letters: the ideal of the Gentleman. This ideal was intimidating and persuasive in a way that no single American image has ever been, and its prestige surely contributed to the powerful pressure toward assimilation and conformity that Glanville finds in the Anglo-Jewish community. Boys’ books helped define this gentleman’s image and to glorify it, and we have Maurice Samuel’s testimony as to its damaging effect on young Jews of East European birth or parentage. In his autobiographical volume, The Gentleman and the Jew, Samuel makes a point of the implicit hostility toward Jews involved in the ideal of the British gentleman, and Richard Usborne’s Clubland Heroes indicates the same strain in adventure stories from the Edwardian period on. Bulldog Drummond, for example, thrashed Russian Jewish conspirators whenever circumstances warranted, and when he disguised a friend as a Jew, he naturally expected of him the lisp that had become a standard feature of Jewish characterization. Drummond was not a professional policeman; he was a patriot and a lover of adventure, but he was first of all a gentleman, a gifted amateur like Sherlock Holmes or like Raffles, “the amateur cracksman.” John Buchan’s Richard Hannay of the British Secret Service belongs in the same company. Gertrude Himmelfarb has recently commented on the comparative innocence of Buchan’s anti-Semitism, but, innocent or not, it was there, and it was based on the conviction that the Jew was the antithesis of the gentleman who always played fair and gracefully but never played too hard.
A hostile image of the Jew frequently appeared in serious literature as well as in boys’ books. We can easily enough list some of the serious British writers whose work exhibits the earmarks of anti-Semitism—D. H. Lawrence, H. G. Wells, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Hilaire Belloc, T. S. Eliot. It is no less easy to offer an American roster of equally distinguished contemporaries against whom similar charges have been made—Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner. But there are many cultural milieus in the United States, and to be excluded from one or another is not necessarily crippling to a writer. Such writers as Odets, West, Perelman, and Bellow joined their own literary circles, which were not so much Jewish as they were liberal and tolerant. In England, however, there was little alternative to the Establishment and its somewhat emancipated literary arm, Bloomsbury. Outsiders had tough sledding; obstacles existed not only for Jews but also for writers of working-class origin and for colonials. Only the other day, Edmund Wilson was observing that Morley Callaghan was unduly neglected because no one could believe that a Canadian was capable of writing so well. D. H. Lawrence and, years later, F. R. Leavis could give testimony to the difficulty of being a literary outsider in England.
If the outsider was to find any secure place at all, one might expect that it awaited him in the socialist movement. But British socialism had a considerable strain of anti-Semitism, of which the late Ernest Bevin was one of the last stubborn exemplars. Now, socialist anti-Semitism is not in itself unique; parallels are to be found in American Populism and French socialism. But the Fabian socialism of England was, unlike Populism, an intellectual movement, and of the Fabians we might have expected better, especially from someone like H. G. Wells, who continued writing well into the time of Hitler’s ascendancy and persisted in his impression that the Jews primarily devoted themselves to amassing wealth, stifling social reform, and ignoring the rest of the world. In an early work of science fiction, In the Days of the Comet (1906), a comet threatens the world, and the British cabinet meets. The Jewish member is, naturally, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
He made his confession for his race. “We Jews,” he said, “have gone through the system of this world, creating nothing, consolidating many things, destroying much. Our racial self-conceit has been monstrous. We seem to have used our ample coarse intellectuality for no other purpose than to develop and master and maintain the convention of property, to turn life into a sort of mercantile chess and spend our winnings grossly. . . . We have had no sense of service to mankind. Beauty which is godhead—we made it a possession.”
In The Research Magnificent (1915), a British agent tries to persuade some Russian Jewish survivors of a massacre to stop oppressing their peasant neighbors. For his pains, he is attacked by the Jews, who claw his cheek and tear his coat.
Neither revolutionary Russia nor Hitler’s Germany induced Wells to reconsider his attitude. In The Shape of Things to Come (1933), he attributes anti-Semitism to two causes—Zionism and the Jewish failure to take a hand in monetary reform, especially in view of the reputed Jewish “cleverness in monetary processes.” A novel of the same year disposes of the superficial signs that Jewish radicals might exist. The hero of The Bulpington of Blup meets a Jewish brother and sister at socialist gatherings. He is seduced by the sister, who reveals to him the true nature of her brother and her people:
There are no Liberal Jews, my dear; there are only liberal Jewesses. Our men have got respect for property and propriety ingrained. Melchior for all his Communism is as greedy and wary and timid as a rat.
Wells continued to defend the same position in still other novels, not always expressing himself through characters. No evidence ever intruded to shake his firmly held view that the Jews were the dedicated enemies of social reform, that their misdeeds directly caused whatever persecution they encountered.
This hostility turns up in the work of writers more sophisticated than Wells. Bernard Shaw, a fellow Fabian, defends the Jews against it in several plays, reversing the stereotype by exposing anti-Semitism as a mask for Gentile sharp dealing. Thus, in Major Barbara, the Gentile munitions maker reveals that he has a Jewish partner only to support the reputation created by his own vicious practices:
Lazarus is a gentle romantic Jew who cares for nothing but string quartets and stalls at fashionable theatres. He will get the credit of your rapacity in money matters as he has hitherto had the credit of mine.
But in a late play, Geneva, Shaw presents the stereotype without remembering to reverse it. The League of Nations learns that the world is about to be destroyed. A Jewish delegate excuses himself, and a British delegate informs those who remain that the Jew will use this information to make himself “a millionaire until the icecap overtakes him.”2
In The Dog Beneath the Skin—an important product of the British literary left of the 30’s—W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood briefly present an international financier named Grabstein—“The biggest crook in Europe. Got his finger in everything. Whatever happens, he’s in on the ground floor.” After indicating his sinister qualities, Grabstein bursts into a pathetic song about social anti-Semitism:
I want to be friendly
But it’s no good, for
No one has love for me,
Only a shove for me . . .
The main purpose seems to be to satirize the conception of the ubiquitous, omnipotent Jewish financier, but the dramatists incidentally testify to the prevalence of this image. They remind us that the literary left did not provide the happiest home for the Anglo-Jewish writer.
Show business did give a home of sorts to Jewish talent. British Jews have long been prominent and safe in what we call the entertainment industry. In London’s theater district one finds the Jewish atmosphere of Times Square, with all the lively testimony of Jewish gastronomy. Right off Shaftesbury Avenue—the background of the recent British film Expresso Bongo (based on Wolf Mankowitz’s popular stage musical)—are the delicatessens, row on row with their salt beef, their “haimische” pickles, and their “beigels.”
Jewish dialect comedians have flourished in England, along with other performers who traded on the ludicrous aspects of lower-class or outlandish speech—Cockneys, Scots, and Irishmen. Potash and Perlmutter and its sequel—American dialect comedies of the garment industry,—won sensational popularity in London as they had in New York. (Their popularity was European, not merely English. Last summer, I found a new play, Potash and Perlmutter on Vacation, delighting unsophisticated audiences in Amsterdam.) When the American dialect comedian Harry Green found in 1934 that Hollywood had no more roles for him, he went to England where he resumed playing George Washington Cohen in his famous vaudeville act, The Cherry Tree.
On the stage, Jewish characters were present mainly for diversion. They were not yet persona grata in the serious theater except as objects of earnest inquiry; a Jew was so presented in John Galsworthy’s Loyalties, which explores the problem of the Jew as clubman. To suit this environment, serious Jewish actors often submerged their Jewish identity. Consider that actor whom Americans came to regard as the perfect British gentleman, Leslie Howard; his origin was Jewish, and, curiously, his nephew, Alan Howard, plays a Jewish role in Arnold Wesker’s trilogy—the male lead, in fact, in the last play, I’m Talking About Jerusalem.
All this contrasts sharply with the present situation. Jewish writers of some distinction have appeared, and they have begun to assess themselves and their significance as Jews. Some can be placed in reference to their American counterparts. Arnold Wesker has often, if inexactly, been hailed as a latter-day British equivalent to Clifford Odets; in his plays, he examines the problems of socialism more directly than Odets ever did, and he comments more affectionately, more nostalgically than Odets on the family ties that lie at the heart of Jewish life. Wolf Mankowitz is more frankly an entertainer; the characters and the milieu of his stories suggest the world of Bernard Malamud, but Mankowitz’s treatment of these humble Jews is less intense or profound. In his musical comedies, Expresso Bongo and Make Me an Offer, he is obviously drawing upon the bickering dialect comedy of stage tradition. Bernard Kops does the same in his unpretentious play with songs, The Hamlet of Stepney Green, which loosely adapts the story of Hamlet to a poor Jewish section of London. (One of Kops’s gags drew a few protests from the Jewish community. Some Jews at a seance encounter the ghostly spirit of Hitler. One suggests: “Maybe he just wants to apologize.”) Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, a musical based on Oliver Twist, offers a lovable Fagin who also reflects the stage tradition of dialect comedy. This Fagin is a jolly man, wide-eyed, unrestrained, loping about wildly, hugely enjoying his extravagant actions; fanatically caressing his treasures, he looks heavenward to beg pardon for his one small fault, his avarice. But if he is more explicitly Jewish than the Alec Guinness portrayal in the film of Oliver Twist, he is less villainous, and, finally, he does not go to prison like Dickens’ Fagin but escapes, promising us once more that he will turn over a new leaf. (The Jews of England, by the way, take this in stride. The reviewer in the London Jewish Chronicle called this Fagin “the most lovable scamp of all . . . deservedly, it stopped the show.”)
Expresso Bongo, Make Me an Offer, and Oliver! have an air of amorality about them which they share with the Cockney musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be. (Fings has songs by Bart, and, like Make Me an Offer, it was first performed at Joan Littlewood’s Stratford Theatre Royal, a center for lively dramas of social criticism.) In Make Me an Offer, the sharp-dealing junk traders must take an unfair profit from someone in their sale of worthless china; Mankowitz solves his hero’s moral problem by having him sell to some visiting Americans, who have more money than is good for them.
Of the dramatists, Wesker deals most directly with Jewish subjects, and with socialism and family life as necessary parts of the Jewish scene. His Chicken Soup with Barley shows a Jewish milieu warmed by the hope of socialism. In Roots we see a provincial Gentile family divided against itself and impervious to ideas. The daughter of the family, inspired by the socialist doctrine of her absent Jewish lover, loses the lover but—what is made to seem more important—keeps the socialism. In any of Wesker’s plays, a certain self-consciousness intrudes, but his gift is real and his promise is great.3 I have seen Wesker attacked in print for urging his fellow dramatist, Harold Pinter, to be more Jewish. Pinter’s manner requires a certain anonymity, for the shaping influence in his plays is the work of Samuel Beckett. His characters tend to be Everyman; his one Jewish character, Goldberg in The Birthday Party, seems to stand for conformist vulgarity. But, obviously, Pinter’s enigmatic dramas, serious, social, and psychological, should not be judged by a sectarian standard.
Recent Anglo-Jewish triumphs in the novel are less spectacular but equally genuine. Dan Jacobson, a South African expatriate living in London, has in his stories and novels presented moving portraits of alienated figures—who may be Jewish, Negro, colonial, or even English. His fiction conveys the inevitable separateness of men, bridged only rarely and freakishly by the sort of instinctive tie that unites the Zulu and the Zeide in the title story of his collection. A parallel case is Dannie Abse’s Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, a sensitive, nostalgic account of a Welsh Jewish boyhood, of the life of a minority within a minority.
Some of the other Anglo-Jewish novels that have attracted critical attention are a little more smooth and commercial. Brian Glanville, in The Bankrupts, arrives, like Philip Roth, at the historical moment when Jewish tragedy arises out of Daddy’s refusal to let Babs have the car and his insistence that her suitors have clean fingernails. But Glanville is personally caught up in the pattern he describes in his Encounter essay, the violent assault upon the older generation. Like Kersh and Goldman before him, he expresses considerable animosity toward repressive, conformist Jewish parents. Some pattern of reverence or guilt makes it impossible for corresponding American figures to return quite such bitter indictments of their elders. Even the hard-boiled Americans, Weidman and Budd Schulberg, differed from their British counterparts, Kersh and Goldman, in this respect; they found their primary targets in ruthless young entrepreneurs, not in the families that produced them. Even when Roth exposes parental stuffiness, as in the title story of Goodbye, Columbus, his intention is comic; in The Bankrupts, Glanville attacks the same job with a heavier hand, and never does he exhibit that Jewish nostalgia which shapes such a story as Roth’s “Eli, the Fanatic.”
Two new Anglo-Jewish novels have appeared within the last year; the stir they have created suggests that such books are hopefully anticipated, that an eager audience is looking for a writer who will do in fiction what Wesker has done in drama. Frederic Raphael, author of The Limits of Love, 4 probably will not turn the trick. His long, attenuated novel of conventional Jewish life arranges three sisters in significant order; one marries a reactionary would-be assimilationist, another marries a Communist, and the third, the good one who follows the golden mean, marries . . . well, in effect, she marries the novelist.
A more serious, more able novel is Gerda Charles’s The Crossing Point, which observes Anglo-Jewish life from two vantage points. Much of the story is seen through the eyes of an Orthodox rabbi who is seeking a bride. Most of the rest centers about two daughters of a pious, vicious, old egotist. Typically, the rabbi thinks the old tyrant is saintly. One of the daughters would be the perfect bride for him, but again typically, he picks another girl. Of more interest than what passes for plot are Miss Charles’s little sketches of an eligible rabbi besieged by a hopeful mother, of a Jewish girl taking her first hesitant steps out of the fold, of a possessive parent exaggerating his ailments to keep his daughters in line, of the idle Jewish rich playing at charity, of an international conclave busily conferring to no visible purpose. I am occasionally taken aback by Miss Charles’s firm identification of an “Aryan smell,” a “Gentile smell,” and this or that emanation of “the Jewish psyche,” but I am persuaded that her generalizations have meaning for the world she is describing. She is not only a shrewd observer but also a shrewd analyst, equally of Jewish affectation and aspiration. The Crossing Point stands virtually alone as a serious, substantial novel of Anglo-Jewish life. It is the nearest approach that recent fiction has made to the quality of the Wesker trilogy.
The forces behind the new Anglo-Jewish writers are primarily the same ones that produced the so-called “Angry Young Men” and the new generation of dramatists. Writers of these groups, like John Osborne, John Braine, and Shelagh Delaney, tend to be of lower-middle-class or working-class origin. They are social critics whose attitudes range from a sharp-tongued hostility directed against the Establishment to a sentimental nostalgia for working-class warm-heartedness. They have been propelled into the literary scene by the declining prestige of Britain and the traditional British images, by the social mobility which the war induced, and by the economic and social leveling which they owe to the welfare state. The living standards of the lower classes have improved, and so they have risen into literature—as authors and as serious subjects. Among the beneficiaries of the welfare state have been the Jews; hence this present generation of Anglo-Jewish writers. The new generation has been stimulated also by the example and by the international success of Jewish-American writers—especially Bellow and Malamud.
Like their Gentile contemporaries, the Anglo-Jewish writers are dedicated to social criticism, but they direct their critiques mainly at the world outside while tending to show the same uncritical nostalgia for humble Jewish life that Osborne and Braine have for the life of the working class. The competitiveness and injustice they attack always seem to be imposed on the lower class from without. Even when some of the novelists (Jacobson, Raphael, Glanville) take self-critical positions, they are criticizing nouveau-riche conformism that seeks to remake the Jew in the image of his Gentile neighbor.
Their American counterparts have moved beyond nostalgia and defensiveness in their treatment of Jewish life, but the presence of these qualities in Anglo-Jewish writing serves to remind us that it is, in a sense, truly beginning only now. This beginning is, like all beginnings, quite modest, and consequently we must be careful not to overrate what has been done. Although writers of considerable ability have come to light, none has yet established the permanent importance of his work. What has been established is promise, and there is plenty of that.
1 Recently reissued in Harper's Torchbook series at $2.45.
2 Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild has published in The Magic Curtain the correspondence in which he unsuccessfully urged Shaw to alter the Jewish references in Geneva.
3 Wesker's three plays have just been published by Random House in a volume titled The Wesker Trilogy.
4 In this country it has recently won the Lippincott Fiction contest and will be published in April.