Authenticity, Complaint, and the Russianness of American Jewish Literature

Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and their critics embraced the notion that their work displayed an affinity to Russian and Yiddish literature, especially to the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, and Sholem Aleichem. Like these writers, the prominent American Jewish writers of the 1960s were understood as producing writing that emerged from their authentic, often negative emotions, work that voiced complaints. I first describe this generation's playful claiming of a Russian and Jewish genealogy, their definition of the Russian and Yiddish writers as a collective worthy of copying. I then use close readings of six passages to evaluate the American writers' assertions about their influence by the Russian and Yiddish ones. I compare the inset oral and written complaints in Roth and Bellow with those in Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Sholem Aleichem, both acknowledging their striking formal similarities and distinguishing the comic, satirically presented literary complaints of prerevolutionary Russia from the potentially more therapeutically oriented—albeit still satirical—literary complaints of postwar America. Finally, I look outside the literary texts to understand why it was appealing to 1960s American writers to think of themselves as influenced by prerevolutionary Russian and Yiddish verbal art. This article situates the American Jewish writers and their critics in an aural environment where Russian and Yiddish sounds were increasingly available in entertainment and where they were associated with authenticity and political opposition. In spite of the formal parallels among the American Jewish, Russian, and Yiddish literary complaints, and in spite of Roth and Bellow representing themselves compellingly as imitators, I argue that they need to be understood instead in their own national and temporal communicative context.