American Naturalism and the Jews: Garland, Norris, Dreiser, Wharton, and Cather

University of Illinois Press
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American Naturalism and the Jews examines the unabashed anti-Semitism of five notable American naturalist novelists otherwise known for their progressive social values. Hamlin Garland, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser all pushed for social improvements for the poor and oppressed, while Edith Wharton and Willa Cather both advanced the public status of women. But they all also expressed strong prejudices against the Jewish race and faith throughout their fiction, essays, letters, and other writings, producing a contradiction in American literary history that has stymied scholars and, until now, gone largely unexamined. In this breakthrough study, Donald Pizer confronts this disconcerting strain of anti-Semitism pervading American letters and culture, illustrating how easily prejudice can coexist with even the most progressive ideals.

Pizer shows how these writers' racist impulses represented more than just personal biases, but resonated with larger social and ideological movements within American culture. Anti-Semitic sentiment motivated such various movements as the western farmers' populist revolt and the East Coast patricians' revulsion against immigration, both of which Pizer discusses here. This antagonism toward Jews and other non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicities intersected not only with these authors' social reform agendas but also with their literary method of representing the overpowering forces of heredity, social or natural environment, and savage instinct.

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About the author

Donald Pizer is Pierce Butler Professor of English Emeritus at Tulane University. He is the author of The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism, the editor of The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism and A Picture and a Criticism of Life: New Letters, Volume I by Theodore Dreiser, and coeditor of Theodore Dreiser: Interviews.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Illinois Press
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Published on
Oct 1, 2010
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Pages
112
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ISBN
9780252092176
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Language
English
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Genres
Literary Criticism / American / General
Literary Criticism / General
Social Science / Jewish Studies
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This content is DRM protected.
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Scorned by critics since birth, decreed dead by many, naturalism, according to Donald Pizer, is “one of the most persistent and vital strains in American fiction, perhaps the only modern literary form in America that has been both popular and significant.”

To define naturalism and explain its tena­cious hold throughout the twentieth century on the American creative imagination, Pizer explores six novels: James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, John Dos Passos’s U.S.A., John Stein­beck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, and Saul Bellow’s The Adven­tures of Augie March.

Pizer’s approach to these novels is empiri­cal; he does not wrench each novel awk­wardly until it fits his framework of general­izations and principles; rather, he approaches the novels as fiction and arrives at his defini­tion through his close reading of the works.

Establishing the background of natural­ism, Pizer explains that it comes under attack because it is “sordid and sensational in sub­ject matter,” it challenges “man’s faith in his innate moral sense and thus his responsibility for his actions,” and it is so full of “social documentation” that it is often dismissed as little more than a photographic record of a life or an era; thus the “aesthetic valid­ity of the naturalistic novel has often been questioned.”

Pizer posits the 1890s, the 1930s, and the late 1940s as the decades when naturalism flourished in America. He concentrates on literary criticism, not on the philosophy of naturalism, to show that literary criticism can make a contribution to a particularly muddled area of literary history—a natural­ism that is alive and changing, thus resisting the neat definitions reserved for the dead.

From the moment I got to Auschwitz I was completely detached. I disconnected my heart and intellect in an act of self-defense, despair, and hopelessness." With these words Sara Nomberg-Przytyk begins this painful and compelling account of her experiences while imprisoned for two years in the infamous death camp. Writing twenty years after her liberation, she recreates the events of a dark past which, in her own words, would have driven her mad had she tried to relive it sooner. But while she records unimaginable atrocities, she also richly describes the human compassion that stubbornly survived despite the backdrop of camp depersonalization and imminent extermination.

Commemorative in spirit and artistic in form, Auschwitz convincingly portrays the paradoxes of human nature in extreme circumstances. With consummate understatement Nomberg-Przytyk describes the behavior of concentration camp inmates as she relentlessly and pitilessly examines her own motives and feelings. In this world unmitigated cruelty coexisted with nobility, rapacity with self-sacrifice, indifference with selfless compassion. This book offers a chilling view of the human drama that existed in Auschwitz.

From her portraits of camp personalities, an extraordinary and horrifying profile emerges of Dr. Josef Mengele, whose medical experiments resulted in the slaughter of nearly half a million Jews. Nomberg-Przytyk's job as an attendant in Mengle's hospital allowed her to observe this Angel of Death firsthand and to provide us with the most complete description to date of his monstrous activities.

The original Polish manuscript was discovered by Eli Pfefferkorn in 1980 in the Yad Vashem Archive in Jerusalem. Not knowing the fate of the journal's author, Pfefferkorn spent two years searching and finally located Nomberg-Przytyk in Canada. Subsequent interviews revealed the history of the manuscript, the author's background, and brought the journal into perspective.

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