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.