Daniel Walden and the Jewish Subject in American Studies

Simon J. Bronner, Ph.D.

Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore

The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg


Delivered at the Northeast Modern Language Association meeting, Harrisburg, PA, April 3-5, 2014; Roundtable– “American Jewish Literature: Retrospective and Prospective,” Simon J. Bronner, chair.


This roundtable was originally intended to be a conversation with Daniel Walden, a former president of the Northeast MLA and my Penn State colleague and friend who through his 80s was very much active in scholarship and teaching. He was the oldest professor to teach at Penn State as of fall 2013, with courses on ethnic literature, Jewish literature, and Holocaust literature. He was still productive after turning 91 on August 1; Penn State Press published Chaim Potok: Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition (2013), which he edited. He showed no signs of slowing down when we first discussed the NeMLA roundtable, and in fact,  I worked with him on what would turn out to be his last publication, an entry on Saul Bellow for the Encyclopedia of American Studies. He was excited about the idea of returning to NeMLA and sharing his thoughts on the past and future of American Jewish literary studies.  He went into the hospital in October 2013 for what he thought would be a short stint to attend to his kidney function, but he developed pneumonia and other complications, and he passed away November 8, 2013. If he had been here, I would have engaged him to discuss his view of American Jewish literature with which he had been intimately involved as critic, editor, and promoter since the 1950s. I hoped to do this as his younger colleague who regularly interacted with him since 1981; our paths regularly crossed as professors  involved in American Studies and Jewish Studies, which incidentally he established at Penn State. I know a conversation with him would have been a grand exchange, not only because of his lively personality and broad-mindedness, but also because he is undoubtedly a major figure in the study of American literature generally. He was founding editor in 1975 of Studies in American Jewish Literature, continuing his leadership for a remarkable 36-year stretch to 2011, and one of the founders of MELUS. He was editor of a landmark anthology of 1974, On Being Jewish: American Jewish Writers from Cahan to Bellow and co-editor in 1969 of On Being Black: Writings by Afro-Americans from Frederick Douglass to the Present.  In 1984, he produced an important reference work Twentieth Century American Jewish Fiction Writers for Greenwood, which established a canon of modern Jewish American fiction.  On the occasion of his 90th birthday, in 2012 Studies in American Jewish Literature issued a festschrift for him edited by Alan Berger and the American Literature Association’s 2013 Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium was devoted to his work.

Biographies and interviews of him have already been published and I don’t want to turn this roundtable into a memorial service, although we all honor him with our continued work in American Jewish studies. Applying the Jewish adage of “May his memory be a blessing,” my purpose is to review the field of American Jewish literary studies that he helped formulate during the 1960s and 1970s, and to look to the ways that this field evolved in the twenty-first century.  I am hardly the first to note the work of Walden and his cohort in Jewish literary studies but what I will propose that an overlooked bridge he built between pre-Millennium and post-Millennium scholars was his adoption of American Studies as a guiding framework for analysis.  I want to consider this framework’s relevance as we move past what I consider a crossroads moment in Jewish cultural studies.

During the 1960s, Walden reflected, Jewish American writers were celebrated for their Jewishness in a period of ethnic awareness.  In Walden’s words, “When Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Jo Sinclair, and Laura Z. Hobson introduced the uniquely Jewish experience to the reading public, the culture was ready for their insights .” Of importance to Walden, these writers “searched the American experience from a Jewish point of view” and presented themselves as Jewish writers.  Their  entrance into the mainstream and their themes of assimilation separated them from an earlier immigrant generation of writings who wrote of a Jewish ghetto milieu and a search for authenticity, often in religion. The likes of Roth and Malamud in addition to the writers he previously mentioned, Walden opined, showed “how far Jews have moved from the Covenant.”  For him, Bellow, Malamud, and Roth set the standard of American Jewish writing come of age. The worry was that they also marked a height from which writing has been in decline ever since.  He fretted over pronouncements during the late 1970s by fellow Jewish critics Leslie Fiedler and Irving Howe that as a genre the “American Jewish novel” was dead.  Without the drama of immigration and the ghetto, after all, they argued, Jewish writing lost its steam.

With his sociohistorical perspective gained from the rising field of American Studies, he argued that the issue was not of genre, of such great concern to literary scholars, but of context out of which literary expression was used to capture and interpret experience. He predicted an era of change to the end of the twentieth century characterized by “a talented group,”  as he described them, including Cynthia Ozick, Norma Rosen, Hugh Nissenson, Dan Wakefield, and “perhaps,” he grudgingly wrote, Woody Allen and Neil Simon.  Whereas other critics saw in them great differences that defied continuity, Walden declared that individuality of imagination characterized them. They deal with American Jewish experience in individual ways, he wrote.  American Studies at the time was making the case that imaginative literature was not just a reflection of experience, but also affected public action. The images created in literature fused symbols and images into an emotional construct that was on the level of myth. For Walden, if the American Jewish novel was dead, you might as well say kaddish for American Jewish identity and he was not ready from a personal and scholarly perspective to do so, or relegate Jewishness to the Yiddishkeit of the Lower East Side.

Above all in the era of change, Walden was captivated by Chaim Potok (1929-2002), who dealt more with the Covenant and orthodoxy than the others who he had described as moving away from religious themes. Yet Potok’s characters, Walden excitedly proclaimed, were  Zwischenmenschen–that is, “between persons” who felt agency to mold rather than inherit identity in the open culture of America.  Adding a psychological thread in novels of the period, Potok, Walden thought, came to the forefront of writing about the tension between religion and secularism, tradition and modernity. Potok was a scholar who interpreted his own works, rather than let literary critics provide that service, but Walden’s key role was to extend Potok as a barometer of not just the Jews as Jews, but of American culture and Jews as Americans. Walden  after the ethnic focus of On Being Jewish used Potok to provide comparisons to themes of identity and agency, and double consciousness, among African Americans and Chicanos.

Walden’s guiding hand in Studies in American Jewish Literature pushed critics and literary historians to consider Jewish writing as forms of identity formation out of the complex relations of public and private life evident in terms such as mainstream, metropolitan, and popular.  He moved interpretation of literature from the immigrant experience to the imaginaries of heritage, including public memory of Holocaust, Israel, and prejudice.  With globalization and transnationalism all the rage in the twenty-first century, there emerged a new challenge to the categorization of American in Jewish literature as being exclusive or even irrelevant.  In recent conversations, he still held fast to the importance of the idea of America in writing on the Jewish subject. He especially pointed to  trends on a spate of writing concerning new Russian immigrants in American Jewish literature and pointed particularly to Andy Furman’s idea of Russification of Jewish American literature. Indicative of his canonical thinking, he sought to identify the best of this lot and wanted to feature authors of Russian Jewish background.

Yet he did not see past the traditional frame of the book in defining literature. My perspective moving past Studies in American Jewish Literature to Jewish Cultural Studies is the decentering and decanonization of the text in the digital era.  In Jewish Cultural Studies expressions varied as blogs by orthodox women, folk narratives as legends and jokes, and composed scripts for rituals such Simhat Bat and Yom Hashoah count as literature.  Further, the Jewish subject rather than the Jewish writer is in the scope of American Jewish literature, particularly with Jewishness as an appropriated image and identity, evident in complex issues of conversion and Jewish symbolism such as Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen (1997) set in suburbia, where the Chinese protagonist who was raised Buddhist is a Jew “by choice” amidst ambivalent “authentic Jews” and  her Christian African-American best friend.  In such works the representation of Jewishness, rather than the experience of Jews, comes to the fore, and there is every sign that this concern is evident as part of a larger theme of a new era of change characterized by depictions of  overlapping, interethnic, and alternative identity explorations within a fragmenting America.  But often it is not Jews doing the explorations.

To be provocative and raise discussion here, I will propose that the prospect for American Jewish literature  is to redefine itself  culturally much as American Studies has. Still there is the question of the American context or frame, especially for a group as mobile as Jews, but the point of the American frame rather than the American community is that it is often constructed by participants with varying degrees of connection to a Jewish past. Along with this interest in the Jewish subject as trope, with different judgments of its coolness by Jews and non-Jews and those in-between, is a rediscovery of uncovered vernacular texts from history analyzed, often multilingually and multivocally, for their rhetorical strategies such as the eye-catching insertion of “A Scattering of Contemporary and Perennial Jokes” in Norton’s Anthology Jewish American Literature (2001). I think Dan Walden would allow, even encourage, critical concern forty years after his On Being Jewish under a heading of On Using Jewish themes of appropriation of Jewishness and a decentered text with the symbolic Jewish subject.

Bronner Receives Graduate Teaching Award

Graduate Dean Peter Idowu with Awardee Professor Simon Bronner

Dr. Simon Bronner (right) and Dr. Peter Idowu, assistant dean for graduate studies (left), at the NAGS award ceremony

Dr. Simon Bronner, Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore at Penn State Harrisburg, received the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools (NAGS) Graduate Faculty Teaching Award, “designed to identify excellence and creativity in curriculum development and implementation and graduate education at the master’s and doctoral levels,”  at the organization’s annual meeting, April 12 in New Brunswick, NJ.

 Dr. Bronner’s award is for doctoral level teaching. He has previously been honored for his teaching and program development with the Mary Turpie Prize from the American Studies Association, and the Penn State Harrisburg Provost’s Teaching Award and James Jordan Award for Teaching Excellence.

Chair of the American studies program, Bronner is director of the doctoral program in American studies and and graduate certificate in heritage and museum practice. He teaches a wide range of classes at the graduate and undergraduate levels on topics including: American studies theory and method, popular culture and folklife, culture and aging, Jewish studies, public heritage, and consumer culture.

Bronner, of Harrisburg, is the author or editor of more than 30 books on folklore, the formation of American history and culture, and Jewish studies. He has been invited to speak on his research and to consult other American studies programs across the United States and abroad.

NAGS is one of four regional affiliates of the Council of Graduate Schools. Founded in 1975, it draws membership from eleven states, the District of Columbia, and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec.


The following essay went “live” in the Encyclopedia of American Studies online on August 17, 2012, and is reproduced here with permission. Cite as:

Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), s.v. “American Studies: A Discipline” (by Simon J. Bronner), http://eas-ref.press.jhu.edu/view?aid=809 (accessed August 17, 2012).

Beginning in the 1970s with the rise of a generation of professionals trained in American studies departments and holding American studies degrees, research publications appeared that referred to American studies as a paradigm-driven discipline, and consequently, researchers as Americanists or American studies scholars rather than historians or sociologists. These Americanist labels were at odds with a prevalent organizing “matrix” principle of American studies program formation involving multidepartmental, and therefore multidisciplinary involvement, particularly with literature and history. The “matrix” principle was based upon the notion of American studies as a location for progressive research, a form of area studies, allowing in its flexible domain multiple ways of viewing the same subject–the United States or the Americas–and forging integrated approaches that could be called inter- or transdisciplinary. An alternative view is that American studies is counterdisciplinary because it is problem centered in a reform project of the bureaucratic university and works to break down departmental walls. Nonetheless, the number of departments and independent programs grew to the end of the twentieth century, often with the justification that American studies had its own theories, methods, practices, legacies, and pedagogies that set it apart from other units with disciplinary claims in the university curriculum. As American studies in higher education became a dominant designation for inquiry into the society and culture of the United States, the plural “studies” in the title implied multiple perspectives, although the rendering of “Studies” as a capitalized singular noun suggested that American studies existed as a bounded unit.

By 2008, the departmental or “independent” program model for American studies was the primary curricular structure in American higher education, according to a survey conducted by the American Studies Association (ASA). The report published in the ASA’s newsletter noted that a sign of change to the matrix model, and consequently for the perception of American studies as an educational field, was the replacement of the joint faculty appointment of American studies scholars in another department, or discipline, with the exclusive designation of American studies. The implication was that American studies stood on its own among the different disciplines represented in the university. The report also examined American studies departmental descriptions and found that departments tended to refer to themselves as disciplinary units constituting goals other than forming a mix of multiple perspectives from other disciplines or being embedded within an overarching discipline. In some cases the plural “studies” was replaced with the singular “American Culture,” “American Civilization,” or “American Society” to indicate the focus of disciplinary inquiry. A compromise position was that American studies is an “interdiscipline,” a distinctive hybrid or offspring study that has grown to form its own character between parent disciplines. The assumption in the concept of “interdiscipline” is that the genus of literature and history is still discernible whereas advocates for a discipline of American studies claim emergent methods, purposes, and theories that do not owe to other disciplines.

The argument for a discipline of American studies is that disciplines can be emergent rather than a preexisting pantheon of fields. The label of a discipline implies an independent existence in an organizational unit such as an association or department that constitutes a power base. It also connotes a rigor and background that requires training within that unit. Advocates for conceptualizing American studies as a discipline point out that the rise of the American studies department in the university landscape, a longstanding ASA amid learned societies, and centers, foundations, and institutes devoted to American studies bear out the disciplinary power base of American studies. Other hallmarks of a discipline that relate to American studies include the formation of its own paradigms, theories, concepts, themes, pedagogies, practices, and methods (e.g., democratization, Americanization, nationalism, frontier, transnationalism, consumerism, cultural hegemony, exceptionalism, massification, multiculturalism, empire, colonialism, futurism), or distinctive applications (e.g., myth-symbol, rhetorical analysis, ethnography, cultural criticism, socioanalysis), a distinctive intellectual history with figures identified as American studies scholars (e.g., Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Alan Trachtenberg), a separate bibliography and historiography including foundational texts and standard textbooks and reference works such as Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline (1998), Encyclopedia of American Studies (2001), and American Studies: An Annotated Bibliography (1986), and a community of discourse through journals, book series, listservs, meetings, and institutions bearing the American studies label and implying measures of American studies practice and worth.

Perhaps most important is the idea that American studies practitioners have a sense of their own identity and are aware of the field’s boundaries and characteristics. Toward that end, many departmental descriptions suggested an intellectual purpose for American studies as a discipline to displace the formerly heralded mechanical process of mixing disciplines at the core of American studies work. They frequently mentioned stylistic, organizational tendencies such as an integrative view of “seeing things whole,” “examining the big picture,” or thinking thematically and critically; orientation toward addressing problems, patterns, and issues of American society in “intersectional ways” or “multiple dimensions,” including a variety of nontraditional evidence in visual and material culture; considering the influence, often overlapping, of local, regional, national, and global contexts, particularly in the production of folk and popular expressive cultural forms; an applied project as sociocultural criticism to reform America or convey intellectual perspectives to a wider public and professions in a variety of institutions (e.g., museums and heritage organizations, government, community and cultural agencies, K-12 education, medical, business and legal professions); and a bridge (or the frequently used metaphor of “crossroads”) between, and comparative project of, humanities and social sciences, and sometimes science and technology, focused on a crucial, and complex, geopolitical area of the world.

Paralleling summaries of history as the study of the past and sociology as the analysis of society, many conceptualizations of American studies in a disciplinary perspective emphasize the interpretation of American experience in its totality or the ideas of America at home and abroad. Jay Mechling, Robert Merideth, and David Wilson, faculty members in the Department of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, for example, drew attention in 1973 to coalescing paradigms of American studies in an essay for American Quarterly (the flagship journal of the ASA) by declaring that the academic task of a disciplinary American studies is the analysis of culture with particular attention to American expressive forms and characteristically American “cultural scenes.” Murray Murphey at the University of Pennsylvania echoed this view in an article titled “American Civilization as a Discipline” for American Studies (journal of the Mid-America American Studies Association) in 1999 and underscored an historical element in his definition of American studies covering “American culture, past and present” to separate American studies from anthropology’s cultural concern. Whereas past-focused historians reportedly often are hesitant to predict the future based upon their research, American studies scholars frequently commented on trends and projections. To the objection that slicing off America from the world narrows American studies inquiry, Murphey and others cautioned that the study of American culture is properly a cross-cultural or comparative enterprise. He wrote that American studies provides “a particular case, or set of cases, viewed as instances or components of general cultural processes and systems.” American studies in this view involves inductive research toward the purpose of making generalizable and testable statements. Claiming that American studies deserves disciplinary identification because in its mature state it offers more intellectual coherence than designations of English and history, Murphey proclaimed that “Where the relevant approaches have in common an empirical orientation to the subject and share an understanding of what constitutes explanation, evidence, theory, and confirmation, they can and should be combined into a single more general discipline that can yield a holistic and consistent model of the subject.”

In the twenty-first century, formulations of “transnationalism” or “globalism” include the role or idea of America in the world and extend American studies to rhetorical and cultural uses of America and Americans in international settings. Another paradigmatic move is to diversify the awareness of culture with an American studies project devoted to uncovering the plurality of American society, particularly the ramifications on American identity or identities of social constructions (and their intersection) such as race, ethnicity, religion, community, class, gender, age, region, sexual orientation, disability, and physicality, or the representation and framing of performances and practices in situated everyday and ceremonial lives, landscapes, groups, and settings. Related enterprises in a disciplinary view are to devote American studies to foundational ideas such as citizenship, democracy, individualism, freedom, and mobility. A summative statement of disciplinary practice is that American studies identifies and interprets themes, patterns, trends, behaviors, traditions, and ideas that characterize the United States as a nation, an experience, a rhetoric, and peoples–past, present, and future, at home and abroad (or in counterconceptualizations transcending borders), and in thought and action. In short, as a disciplinary as well as intellectual enterprise, American studies is uniquely constructed to seek an understanding of Americanness.

Simon J. Bronner


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Doctoral Students Win Folklore Society Awards

Two Penn State Harrisburg American Studies doctoral students received awards from the American Folklore Society Oct. 15 at the society’s annual conference in Bloomington, Ind.

Spencer L. Green, of Provo, Utah, received the William Wells Newell Prize for his paper, “Disastrous Alternatives: Boy Scout Disaster Stories and Legends and Imagining the Natural World.” During the conference, Green presented his paper, which was published in the “Children’s Folklore Review.” Green is the second consecutive Penn State Harrisburg student to win the prize, an international competition run annually since 1980.

Amy K. Milligan, of Manheim, Pa., won the Raphael Patai Prize in Jewish Folklore and Ethnologyfor her essay, “Wearing Many Hats: Head-Covering Practices of Orthodox Jewish Women.” As a result of the prize, her essay will be published in the “Jewish Cultural Studies” series by Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in Oxford, England. Milligan is one of two recipients of this year’s endowed award, also an international competition.

Based at Ohio State University, the American Folklore Society is an international association of people who study folklore and seek to broaden its understanding. More than 700 folklorists attend its annual meeting to exchange ideas and to recognize outstanding work.

See http://harrisburg.psu.edu/news/doctoral-students-win-folklore-society-awards