Overcoming Literary Anti-Semitism in America

by Richard Kostelanetz (February 2015)


Having exposed the egregious absence of Jewish writers in anthologies of American Literature published before 1950, most notably in my The End of Intelligent Writing (1974), I was recently pleased to discover the American Caravan (1927), the first in a series of four thick hardbound annuals published until 1931 by The Macauley Company, a truly distinguished literary publisher whose achievements should not be forgotten, even if, for one negative measure, the Wikipedia scribes haven’t yet remembered it. (A fifth volume, differently titled The New Caravan, appeared, belatedly, in 1936, this time for W.W. Norton, which is still with us.)

Among the 70 authors contributing their writing to this first Caravan are Nathan Asch, Stanley Burnshaw, Manuel Komroff, Carl Rakosi, Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Louis Untermeyer, Michael Gold, Louis Kronenberger, Babette Deutsch, and Gertrude Stein—all Jewish names still familiar—along with less familiar poets named David Rosenthal, Josephine Strongin, Louis Gruden, J. G. Sigmund, Gertrude Diamant, Jennings Tofel, and Isidor Schneider. The last, whose contribution I found particularly brilliant, was apparently a Communist so crushed subsequently that websites report only the year of his death (1974) but no month or day.

In the Second Caravan (1928) appear many of these same writers along with Joseph T. Shipley, Waldo D. Frank, Marya Zaturenska, and both Lewis Mumford and Alfred Kreymborg with long fictions, and otherwise unknown poets named Joseph Vogel, Martin Feinstein, and Myron Mage. (The last man I knew in the late 1940s as my dentist!) The third Caravan (1929) published the poetry of young Stanley Kunitz, who had recently been discouraged from pursuing a doctorate in English literature at Harvard, even though he graduated summa cum laude, because Jews, so he told me in 1969, weren’t permitted to teach English literature in the Ivy League (and indeed did not until after WWII).

To no surprise perhaps, three of the four original editors of American Caravan were Jewish: Mumford, Kreymborg, and Paul Rosenfeld. (The fourth was Van Wyck Brooks, who didn’t collaborate in any of the later volumes.) Even though the ulterior purpose of this book appears to be the inclusion of a group of writers otherwise excluded, I can’t find the epithet “Jewish” appearing in the 800+ pages of the first two books. (They also include African-American writers without identifying their race.) In that case, consider this a stealth literary publication, confronting a real problem in literary dissemination without saying so. I write this brief appreciation because, as far as I can tell, no one has noticed the hidden significance of these American Caravans before.

II

When this appreciation of American Caravan first appeared, some readers doubted whether literary anti-Semitism before World War II was as virulent as I claimed . This prompted me to recheck the anthology American Harvest that was published in 1942 and thus probably commissioned before American entrance into the War. Its editors were Allen Tate and John Peale Bishop, two American literary pros then in their forties. The first, born in 1899, is best remembered as a publicist for literature produced in the American south. The second, born several years earlier, was a journeyman Princeton graduate who published both poetry and criticism before dying young in 1944. Tis said that he’s the model for Thomas Parke D’Invilliers in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel This Side of Paradise (1920).

The book’s initial publisher was L.B. Fischer, whose co-founder was Gottfried Bermann Fischer, a German-Jewish refugee who had a few years before formed with Fritz Landshoff, a Dutch-Jewish refugee, a publishing company mostly to favor books by prominent German writers exiled in America. How or why this anthology was published by them we cannot learn, as the informants are long gone; but my hunch is that these newcomers to America thought such a book would introduce their imprint and thus interest to native writers as prestigious as the Germans they published. Another hunch is that it might have been commissioned by another publisher who rejected it, the connection thus becoming an orphan needing to find other parents.

American Harvest does indeed include American writers prominent between the world wars, including Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, James Thurber, Robert Penn Warren, T.S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Hart Crane, John Steinbeck, Carl Sandberg, and William Carlos Williams, among others. May I venture that the anthology probably earned favorite reviews and general respect from literary readers.

What I find most curious about this anthology now, some seventy years later, is the small number of Jewish writers among the dozens published here. Unless I’m missing someone, I count only Jerome Weidman (1913-1998), here with a short story though he would become better known as a Broadway playwright; and two poets both likewise born in 1913 and thus about 30 when American Harvest appeared, both of whom had meteoric careers.

Delmore Schwartz was touted to become a great American writer, publishing distinguished poetry, fiction, and criticism before turning forty. However, within his next decade, he personally fell apart, dying in 1966 of alcoholism (so rare in Jews) and offending his supporters. (Perhaps the current claim to fame is mentoring the rocker Lou Reed.)

The career of the other Jewish poet, Karl Shapiro, mystifies me, unable to account for why he slowly fell out of favor well before he died in 2000. What’s curious about the inclusion of both these young Jewish poets is that they appear at the end of the fifth section with a single poem apiece, with three pages in sum (439-441).

As a general rule, I find picking on anti-Semitic expressions, especially from serious writers, less laudable than exposing anti-Semitic exclusions in admissions, here in editorial policies. The latter were always more deleterious, even if less obviously visible. In this respect, regarding the “higher Anti-Semitism,” as I call it, may I recommend Jerome Karabel’s great book, The Chosen (2006), which documents the biases in undergraduate admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton universities during the 20th Century. Simply, don’t let what they said obscure examining what they did.

Knowing nothing (as all informants are gone), may I venture imagining that the Jewish publisher, noticing an absence, ordered his anthology’s editors to add two more Jews to their almost Judenfrei book. This they did in the least obtrusive way. Decades later, may I suggest that an anthology of American writing between the wars might have included more of the authors published a decade before in American Caravans, and that some Jewish critics at the time might have noticed such egregious absence but not written about it. Need I say more?

 

_______________________

 

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

 

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