American Jewish Writers

2:30p-3:45p TR (30) 3 cr.


Beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century, American literature broadened its mainstream tradition to include a type of author seldom seen in earlier periods. I refer to our ethnic writers, whose works reveal just how culturally complex American life can be. This course, devoted to a study of some representative Jewish writers, will aim to clarify several major aspects of this complexity, all of them rooted in a sense of history older and wider than America’s own.

We shall begin by reflecting on the Eastern European origins of American-Jewish writing and then try to see how our writers link the major traditions of American literature with traditions that derive from the European past. Accordingly, our concerns will be with both the connections and the confrontations between old world and new and with how literature tries to negotiate a balance between them. In studying a body of writing that registers a strong sense of history as well as a strong will towards modernity, we shall come to better understand some of the notable accomplishments of recent American literature as well as some of the tensions and contradictions inherent in the American experience.

Among other matters, we shall take up the following: How can American-Jewish writers help us understand the nature of the American character? How can they help us understand what it means to be an American Jew? What do they have to tell us about the place and importance in our lives of love, work, the family, religion, education, the intellectual, individual freedom, communal loyalty? These and related questions will form the core of our discussions over the course of the semester.

The list of required readings is not yet finished, but it is likely to include such authors as the following: Mary Antin, Abraham Cahan, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, I.B. Singer, and Anne Roiphe.

The course is open to all students with an interest in the subject matter and a willingness to do the assigned readings on schedule. Regular attendance of all class meetings is expected, as is active participation in class discussion. Written work will include in-class as well as out-of-class examinations and a term paper.