The twentieth century saw America forge its own identity. Writers like Twain, Whitman and Melville had already begun to construct an image of the United States and their work now resounded in the national conscience as deeply as the constitution and the memory of their war-hero politicians. This new country was not born of its native people, however, but of immigrants. At this time, the Jewish race – ancient, nomadic and exclusive – was tipped into a bubbling pot that was now called America. A collision of old and new cultures took place, expectations differed, misunderstandings were rife and, out of this, grew the realisation that identity is not a done deal but rather something subject to evolution.
by Anzia Yezierska is an exploration of this struggle between old and new. A father steeped in Jewish tradition, who never veers from the letter of the law, clashes with his young daughters about their encounters with a very different world from the one in which he grew up. In the end, the fate of the individual is lost to tradition, and the girls are forced to sacrifice their desires. However, through all the unhappy marriages and family resentment shine glimmers of hope, with the experience of one daughter differing greatly from that of the others.
With The Assistant
, Bernard Malamud creates a strange and compelling novel, set within a barely surviving grocery store. The lives of the grocer and his family are changed forever when a mysterious young man volunteers to help in their ailing business. The atmosphere is claustrophobic but intriguing as the mundane routine of an empty shop takes on a rhythm that the reader cannot help but fall into. Although we know that the events of the novel take place in America, no other place names are mentioned and this contributes to the sense of isolation. Though bleak in tone, as with Bread Givers, a vein of hope runs through The Assistant in the form of the new generation and the possibility of good to come.
Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March
is a staggering work of insight and beauty. This story of a young boy growing up in Chicago is drafted with the pastoral sensitivity of Whitman and the abstract magic of Bob Dylan. Brought up in a poor household under the imposing influence of his grandmother, Augie lives in an America where everybody has a dream. Naïve and well intentioned, he falls in with the ambitious plans of those around him, jumping onto a carousel of career changes, from dog washer to paint salesman, from coal merchant to thief. Bellow's skill lies in his ability to describe human experience with startling accuracy and a lightness of touch that can leave you undone by laughter or with eyes full of tears.
Cynthia Ozick is a writer who has spent her career sculpting the short story. Her writing is compact, sharp, and possesses a wit verging on the absurd. In 'The Pagan Rabbi'
, a young man goes to meet the grieving and furious widow of an old college friend – a brilliant rabbi who has hanged himself from a tree. During this meeting it becomes clear that the rabbi, so praised in the Jewish community, had veered towards paganism. Ozick covers much ground in a short time, offering us a sumptuous rumination on family, faith and the outcast.
In Goodbye Columbus
, Philip Roth details a summer affair between a young man working in the local library and the daughter of a successful businessman. Brenda and her family are athletes, small-town champions and competitors, while Neil is an idle romantic. Roth highlights this contrast with humour; awkward scenes with the mother, the maid and the un-athletic Neil on the basketball court are neatly carved and painfully funny. The novel isn’t without its touching moments either. At one point, Neil helps a poor black boy out-manoeuvre library policy, allowing the child to spend afternoons gazing at expensive books on Gauguin.
These novels tend to foreground the struggle between cultures wary of one other. But the characters that we discover here are not only frightened, they are curious. While secondary characters remain mostly static throughout the course of these narratives, the protagonists are always altered by their encounters. These are not stories that offer a final declaration of difference or dig lines of trenches, but rather encourage conversation, the possibility of change, and the chance for growth.