“How tame will his language sound, who would describe Niagara in language fitted for the falls at London bridge, or attempt the majesty of the Mississippi in that which was made for the Thames?” —North American Review (1815)
“In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” —Edinburgh Review (1820)
Turning from an eastern dusk and towards a western dawn, Benjamin Franklin miraculously saw a rising sun on the horizon after having done some sober demographic calculations in 1751. Not quite yet the aged, paunchy, gouty, balding raconteur of the American Revolution, but rather only the slightly paunchy, slightly gouty, slightly balding raconteur of middle-age, Franklin examined the data concerning the births, immigration, and quality of life in the English colonies by contrast to Great Britain. In his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Franklin noted that a century hence, and “the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side of the Water” (while also taking time to make a number of patently racist observations about a minority group in Pennsylvania—the Germans). For the scientist and statesman, such magnitude implied inevitable conclusions about empire.
Whereas London and Manchester were fetid, crowded, stinking, chaotic, and over-populated, Philadelphia and Boston were expansive, fresh, and had room to breathe. In Britain land was at a premium, but in America there was the seemingly limitless expanse stretching towards an unimaginable West (which was, of course, already populated by people). In the verdant fecundity of the New World, Franklin imagined (as many other colonists did) that a certain “Merry Old England” that had been supplanted in Europe could once again be resurrected, a land defined by leisure and plenty for the largest number of people. Such thoughts occurred, explains Henry Nash Smith in his classic study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, because “the American West was nevertheless there, a physical fact of great if unknown magnitude.”
As Britain expanded into that West, Franklin argued that the empire’s ambitions should shift from the nautical to the agricultural, from the oceanic to the continental, from sea to land. Smith describes Franklin as a “far-seeing theorist who understood what a portentous role North America” might play in a future British Empire. Not yet an American, but still an Englishmen—and the gun smoke of Lexington and Concord still 24 years away—Franklin enthusiastically prophesizes in his pamphlet that “What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea as well as Land!”
A decade later, and he’d write in a 1760 missive to a one Lord Kames that “I have long been of opinion, that the foundations of the future grandeur and stability of the British empire lie in America.” And so, with some patriotism as a trueborn Englishmen, Benjamin Franklin could perhaps imagine the Court of St. James transplanted to the environs of the Boston Common, the Houses of Parliament south of Manhattan’s old Dutch Wall Street, the residence of George II of Great Britain moved from Westminster to Philadelphia’s Southwest Square. After all, it was the Anglo-Irish philosopher and poet George Berkeley, writing his lyric “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” in his Providence, Rhode Island manse, who could gush that “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”
But even if aristocrats could perhaps share Franklin’s ambitions for a British Empire that stretched from the white cliffs of Dover to San Francisco Bay (after all, christened “New Albion” by Francis Drake), the idea of moving the capital to Boston or Philadelphia seemed anathema. Smith explained that it was “asking too much of an Englishmen to look forward with pleasure to the time when London might become a provincial capital taking orders from an imperial metropolis somewhere in the interior of North America.” Besides, it was a moot point, since history would intervene. Maybe Franklin’s pamphlet was written a quarter century before, but the gun smoke of Lexington and Concord was wafting, and soon the idea of a British capital on American shores seemed an alternative history and a historical absurdity.
Something both evocative and informative, however, in this counterfactual; imagining a retinue of the Queen’s Guard processing down the neon skyscraper canyon of Broadway, or the dusk splintering off of the gold dome of the House of Lords at the crest of Beacon Hill overlooking Boston Common. Don’t mistake my enthusiasms for this line of speculation as evidence of a reactionary monarchism, I’m very happy that such a divorce happened, even if less than amicably. What does fascinate me is the way in which the cleaving of America from Britain affected how we understand each other, the ways in which we become “two nations divided by a common language,” as variously Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw have been reported as having waggishly once uttered.
Even more than the relatively uninteresting issue that the British spell their words with too many u’s, or say weird things like “lorry” when they mean truck, or “biscuit” when they mean cookie, is the more theoretical but crucial issue of definitions of national literature. Why are American and British literature two different things if they’re mostly written in English, and how exactly do we delineate those differences? It can seem arbitrary that the supreme Anglophiles Henry James and T.S. Eliot are (technically) Americans, and their British counterparts W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas can seem so fervently Yankee. Then there is what we do with the early folks; is the “tenth muse,” colonial poet Anne Bradstreet, British because she was born in Northampton, England, or was she American because she died in Ipswich, Mass.? Was Thomas More “American” because Utopia is in the Western Hemisphere, was Shakespeare a native because he dreamt of The Tempest? Such divisions make us question how language relates to literature, and how literature interacts with nationality, and what that says vis-à-vis the differences between Britain and America, the lion and the eagle.
A difficulty emerges in separating two national literatures that share a common tongue, and that’s because traditionally literary historians equated “nation with a tongue,” as critic William C. Spengemann writes in A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature, explaining how what gave French literature or German literature a semblance of “identity, coherence, and historical continuity” was that they were defined by language and not by nationality. By such logic, if Dante was an Italian writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau a French one, and Franz Kafka a German author, then it was because those were the languages in which they wrote, despite them respectively being Swiss, Czech, and Florentine.
Americans, however, largely speak in the tongue of the country that once held dominion over the thin sliver of land that stretched from Maine to Georgia, and as far west as the Alleghenies. Thus, an unsettling conclusion has to be drawn; perhaps the nationality of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson was American, but the literature they produced would be English, so that with horror we realize that Walt Whitman’s transcendent “barbaric yawp” would be growled in the Queen’s tongue. Before he brilliantly complicates that logic, Spengemann sheepishly concludes, “writings in English by Americans belong, by definition, to English literature.”
Sometimes misattributed to linguist Noam Chomsky, it was actually the scholar of Yiddish Max Weinreich who quipped that a “language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” If that’s the case, then a national literature is the bit of territory that that army and navy police. But what happens when that language is shared by two separate armies and navies? To what nation does the resultant literature then belong? No doubt there are other countries where English is the lingua franca; all of this anxiety over the difference between British and American literature doesn’t seem so quite involved as regards British literature and its relationship to poetry and prose from Canada, Australia, or New Zealand for that matter.
Sometimes those national literatures, and especially English writing from former colonies like India and South Africa, are still folded into “British Literature.” So Alice Munro, Les Murray, Clive James, J.M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie could conceivably be included in anthologies or survey courses focused on “British Literature”—though they’re Canadian, Australian, South African, and Indian—where it would seem absurd to similarly include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison in the same course. Some anthologizers who are seemingly unaware that Ireland isn’t Great Britain will even include James Joyce and W.B. Yeats alongside Gerard Manley Hopkins and D.H. Lawrence as somehow transcendentally “English,” but the similar (and honestly less offensive) audacity of including Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath as “English” writers is unthinkable.
Perhaps it’s simply a matter of shared pronunciation, the superficial similarity of accent that makes us lump Commonwealth countries (and Ireland) together as “English” literature, but something about that strict division between American and British literature seems more deliberate to me, especially since they ostensibly do share a language. An irony in that though, for as a sad and newly independent American said in 1787, “a national language answers the purpose of distinction: but we have the misfortune of speaking the same language with a nation, who, of all people in Europe, have given, and continue to give us thefewest proofs of love.”
Before embracing English, or pretending that “American” was something different than English, both the Federal Congress and several state legislatures considered making variously French, German, Greek, and Hebrew our national tongue, before wisely rejecting the idea of one preferred language. So unprecedented and so violent was the breaking of America with Britain, it did after all signal the end of the first British Empire, and so conscious was the construction of a new national identity in the following century, that it seems inevitable that these new Federalists would also declare an independence for American literature.
One way this was done, shortly after the independence of the Republic, is exemplified by the fantastically named New York Philological Society, whose 1788 charter exclaimed their founding “for the purpose of ascertaining and improving the American Tongue.” If national literatures were defined by language, and America’s language was already the inheritance of the English, well then, these brave philologists would just have to transform English into American. Historian Jill Lepore writes in A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States that the society was created in the “aftermath of the bloody War for Independence” in the hope that “peacetime America would embrace language and literature and adopt…a federal, national language.”
Lepore explains the arbitrariness of national borders; their contingency in the time period that the United States was born; and the manner in which, though language is tied to nationality, such an axiom is thrust through with ambiguity, for countries are diverse of speech and the majority of a major language’s speakers historically don’t reside in the birthplace of that tongue. For the New York Philological Society, it was imperative to come up with the solution of an American tongue, to “spell and speak the same as one another, but differently from people in England.” So variable were (and are) the dialects of the United States, from the non-rhotic dropped “r” of Boston and Charleston, which in the 18th century was just developing in imitation of English merchants to the guttural, piratical swagger of Western accents in the Appalachians, that this lexicographer hoped to systematize such diversity into an unique American language. As one of those assembled scholars wrote, “Language, as well as government should be national…America should have her own distinct from all the world.” His name was Noah Webster and he intended his American Dictionary to birth an entirely new language.
It didn’t of course, even if “u” fell out of “favour.” Such was what Lepore describes as an orthographic declaration of independence, for “there iz no alternativ” as Webster would write in his reformed spelling. But if Webster’s goal was the creation of a genuine new language, he inevitably fell short, for the fiction that English and “American” are two separate tongues is as political as is the claim that Bosnian and Serbian, or Swedish and Norwegian, are different languages (or that English and Scots are the same, for that matter). British linguist David Crystal writes in The Stories of English that “The English language bird was not freed by the American manoeuvre,” his Anglophilic spelling a direct rebuke to Webster, concluding that the American speech “hopped out of one cage into another.”
Rather, the intellectual class turned towards literature itself to distinguish America from Britain, seeing in the establishment of writers who surpassed Geoffrey Chaucer or Shakespeare a national salvation. Melville, in his consideration of Hawthorne and American literature more generally, predicted in 1850 that “men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day born on the banks of the Ohio.” Three decades before that, and the critic Sydney Smith had a different evaluation of the former colonies and their literary merit, snarking interrogatively in the Edinburgh Review that “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” In the estimation of the Englishmen (and Scotsmen) who defined the parameters of the tongue, Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Washington Irving, Charles Brockden Brown, and James Fenimore Cooper couldn’t compete with the sublimity of British literature.
Yet, by 2018, British critics weren’t quite as smug as Smith had been, as more than 30 authors protested the decision four years earlier to allow Americans to be considered for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. In response to the winning of the prize by George Saunders and Paul Beatty, English author Tessa Hadley told The New York Times “it’s as though we’re perceived…as only a subset of U.S. fiction, lost in its margins and eventually, this dilution of the community of writers plays out in the writing.” Who in the four corners of the globe reads an American novel? Apparently, the Man Booker committee. But Hadley wasn’t, in a manner, wrong in her appraisal. By the 21st century, British literature is just a branch of American literature. The question is how did we get here?
Only a few decades after Smith wrote his dismissal, and writers would start to prove Melville’s contention, including of course the author of Benito Cereno and Billy Bud himself. In the decade before the Civil War there was a Cambrian Explosion of American letters, as suddenly Romanticism had its last and most glorious flowering in the form of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Emily Dickinson, and of course Walt Whitman. Such was the movement whose parameters were defined by the seminal scholar F.O. Matthiessen in his 1941 classic American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, who included studies of all of those figures saving (unfortunately) Dickinson.
The Pasadena-born-but-Harvard-trained Matthiessen remains one of the greatest professors to ever ask his students to close-read a passage of Emerson. American Renaissance was crucial in discovering American literature as something distinct and great in its own right from British literature. Strange to think now, but for most of the 20th century the teaching of American literature was left for either history classes, or the nascent (State Department funded) discipline of American Studies. English departments, true to the very name of the field, tended to see American poetry and novels as beneath consideration in the study of “serious” literature. The general attitude of American literary scholars about their own national literature can be summed up by Victorian critic Charles F. Richardson, who, in his 1886 American Literature, opined that “If we think of Shakespeare, Bunyan, Milton, the seventeenth-century choir of lyrists, Sir. Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Addison, Swift, Dryden, Gray, Goldsmith, and the eighteenth-century novelists…what shall we say of the intrinsic worth of most of the book written on American soil?” And that was a book by an American about American literature!
On the eve of the World War II and Matthiessen approached his subject in a markedly different way, and while scholars had granted the field a respectability, American Renaissance was chief in radically altering the manner in which we thought about writing in English (or “American”). Matthiessen surveyed the diversity of the 1850s from the repressed Puritanism of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to the Pagan-Calvinist cosmopolitan nihilism of Moby-Dick and the pantheistic manual that is Thoreau’s Walden in light of the exuberant homoerotic mysticism of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Despite such diversity, Matthiessen concluded that the “one common denominator of my five writers…was their devotion to the possibilities of democracy.” Matthiessen was thanked for his discovery of American literature by being hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee over his left-wing politics, until the scholar jumped from the 12th floor of Boston’s Hotel Manger in 1950. The critic’s commitment to democracy was all the more poignant in light of his death, for Matthiessen understood that it’s in negotiation, diversity, and collaboration that American literature truly distinguished itself. Here was an important truth, what Spengemann explains when he argues that American literature is defined not by the language in which it is written (as with British literature), but rather “American literature had to be defined politically.”
When considering the American Renaissance, an observer might be tempted to whisper “Westward the course of empire,” indeed. Franklin’s literal dream of an American capital to the British Empire never happened. Yet by the decade when the United States would wrench itself apart in an apocalyptic civil war, ironically America would become figurative capital of the English language. From London the energy, vitality, and creativity of the English language would move westward to Massachusetts in the twilight of Romanticism, and after a short sojourn in Harvard and Copley Squares, Concord and Amherst, it would migrate towards New York City with Whitman, which if not the capital of the English became the capital of the English language. From the 1850s onward, British literature became a regional variation of American literature, a branch on the latter’s tree, a mere phylum in its kingdom.
English literary critics of the middle part of the 19th century didn’t note this transition; arguable if British reviewers in the mid part of the 20th century did either, but if they didn’t, it’s an act of critical malpractice. For who would trade the epiphanies in ballad-meter that are the lyrics of Dickinson in favor of the arid flatulence of Alfred Lord Tennyson? Who would reject the maximalist experimentations of Melville for the reactionary nostalgia of chivalry in Walter Scott? Something ineffable crossed the Atlantic during the American Renaissance, and the old problem of how we could call American literature distinct from British since both are written in English was solved—the later is just a subset of the former.
Thus, Hadley’s fear is a reality, and has been for a while. Decades before Smith would mock the pretensions of American genius, and the English gothic novelist (and son of the first prime minister) Horace Walpole would write, in a 1774 letter to Horace Mann, that the “next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, a Virgil at Mexico, and an Isaac Newton at Peru. At last, some curious traveler from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St. Paul’s.” Or maybe Walpole’s curious traveler was from California, as our language’s literature has ever moved west, with Spengemann observing that if by the American Renaissance the “English-speaking world had removed from London to the eastern seaboard of the United States, carrying the stylistic capital of the language along with it…[then] Today, that center of linguistic fashion appears to reside in the vicinity of Los Angeles.” Franklin would seem to have gotten his capital, staring out onto a burnt ochre dusk over the Pacific Palisades, as westward the course of empire has deposited history in that final location of Hollywood.
John Leland writes in Hip: The History that “Three generations after Whitman and Thoreau had called for a unique national language, that language communicated through jazz, the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance…American cool was being reproduced, identically, in living rooms from Paducah to Paris.” Leland concludes it was “With this voice, [that] America began to produce the popular culture that would stamp the 20th century as profoundly as the great wars.” What’s been offered by the American vernacular, by American literature as broadly constituted and including not just our letters but popular music and film as well, is a rapacious, energetic, endlessly regenerative tongue whose power is drawn not by circumscription but in its porous and absorbent ability to draw from a variety of languages that have been spoken in this land. Not just English, but languages from Algonquin to Zuni.
No one less than the great grey poet Whitman himself wrote, “We American have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources.” Addressed to an assembly gathered to celebrate the 333th anniversary of Santa Fe, Whitman surmised that “we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake.” He of the multitudinous crowd, the expansive one, the incarnation of America itself, understood better than most that the English tongue alone can never define American literature. Our literature is Huck and Jim heading out into the territories, and James Baldwin drinking coffee by the Seine; Dickinson scribbling on the backs of envelopes and Miguel Piñero at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Do I contradict myself? Very well then. Large?—of course. Contain multitudes?—absolutely.
Spengemann glories in the fact that “if American literature is literature written by Americans, then it can presumably appear in whatever language an American writer happens to use,” be it English or Choctaw, Ibo or Spanish. Rather than debating what the capital of the English language is, I advocate that there shall be no capitals. Rather than making borders between national literatures we must rip down those arbitrary and unnecessary walls. There is a national speech unique to everyone who puts pen to paper; millions of literatures for millions of speakers. How do you speak American? By speaking English. And Dutch. And French. And Yiddish. And Italian. And Hebrew. And Arabic. And Ibo. And Wolof. And Iroquois. And Navajo. And Mandarin. And Japanese. And of course, Spanish. Everything can be American literature because nothing is American literature. Its promise is not just a language, but a covenant.
Image credit: Freestock/Joanna Malinowska.
A little less than 50 miles from Krakow, at the confluence of the Vistula and Sola rivers, there is a town of slightly under 50,000 inhabitants named Oświęcim. The official tourist site for Oświęcim describes the city as being “attractive and friendly.” Image searches bring up Victorian buildings the color of yellow-frosted wedding cakes, and of modest public fountains; red-tiled homes and blue-steepled churches. There is a castle and a newly built hockey arena. Oświęcim would be simply another Polish town on a map, all diacriticals and consonants, were it not for its more famous German name—Auschwitz.
Everyday people wake up under goose feather duvets, go to work in fluorescent-lit offices, buy pierogis and kielbasa, prepare halupki, and go to bed in Auschwitz. Women and men are born in Auschwitz, live in Auschwitz, marry, make love, and raise children in Auschwitz. People walk schnauzers and retrievers in Auschwitz—every day. Here, at the null point of humanity, in the shadow of that factory of death, people live normal lives. Amidst an empire of fire, ash, and Zyklon B. A mechanized, industrial hell on earth derived its name from this town. Theodor Adorno opined in his 1951 “Cultural Criticism and Society” that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Here, in the dark presence of gas chamber and crematorium, there are no doubt women and men who pass their time reading Czeslaw Milosz or Wislawa Szymborska, oblivious to the philosopher’s injunction.
If you are to read that observation as optimism—that even in the midst of such trauma, such horror and evil, the music still plays—then you misunderstand me. Nor am I condemning those who live in Oświęcim, who’ve had no choice in being born there. Their lives are not an affront; I do not impugn to them an assumed lack of respect concerning this absence-haunted place. Such as it is to exist amidst the enormity of sacred stillness, a quiet that can only ever result from tremendous horror. The lives of Oświęcim’s citizens are simply lives like any other. Whatever the ethics of poetry after Auschwitz, the fact remains that there can’t help but still be verse—and waking, and working, and sleeping, and living. This has nothing to do with the perseverance of life in the face of unspeakable trauma; rather, it’s to understand that quotidian existence simply continues after Auschwitz—that very rupture in the space-time continuum of what it means to be a human—because there is no other choice.
In Auschwitz we understand a bit about how the gravitational pull of trauma warps and alters space and place, and a true consideration of that singularity must also admit how demon-haunted other corners of our fallen world are, how blood-splattered and ghost inflected the very Earth itself is. What makes Auschwitz such an incomparable evil is not that it’s so very different from the rest of the world, but that it is even more like the world than all of the rest of the world already is. In that perverse way, Auschwitz is the most truthful of places.
Judaism’s genius is that it understands how trauma permeates place. Auschwitz may be the exemplar for this praxis of suffering, but Jewish history is arguably a recounting of cyclical hatreds, all the way back to Pharaoh. Such an elemental, irrational hatred as anti-Semitism is very deep within the metaphysic of the West, seemingly in the marrow of its bones and drawn with mother’s milk, so much so that anyone truly surprised by its resurgence is either disingenuous or not paying attention. The Tanakh is a litany of those who’ve tried to destroy the Jews—the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. Such is this basic narrative reoccurrence that it almost makes one concur that there is something to the concept of chosenness, but as the old Jewish joke goes, “Couldn’t G-d choose someone else sometime?”
But if Judaism is a recounting of trauma (and perseverance in spite of said trauma), it’s also a religion of place, and what it means to live separate from particular places. The Tanakh itself recounts exile as the human condition. Before the MS St. Louis was turned back from Havana, from Miami, from Halifax and returned to the dark heart of Nazi Germany; before millions of Jews boarded Hamburg ships that were New York-bound; before the survivors of Czarist pogroms found succor in Hapsburg lands; before the expelled Sephardim of the Reconquista; before the Romans burned Jerusalem during Simon bar-Kokhba’s failed rebellion, and before the destruction of the second Temple; before the attempted genocide of Haman in Persia, and before the Babylonian Exile of the Judeans; before even the Assyrians scattered the 10 tribes of the Israelites; exile was at the core of the Jewish experience. The earliest reference to Israel is the Merneptah Stele, chiseled in Egypt some 12 centuries before Jesus Christ, predating the oldest extant scripture. There, at the bottom of an account of Pharaonic victories against adversaries, some nameless Egyptian scribe wrote, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” The first reference to the Hebrews is how there are no longer any Hebrews.
Exile and diaspora are the twin curses and gifts of the Jews; exile an individual condition and diaspora a collective one. This is the story of Abraham going into Egypt, of Moses being a “stranger in a strange land,” of being by the “rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” Even the earliest story of Genesis is one of exile, of being kept from the Promised Land by the flaming swords of Seraphim with their eyeball-covered wings and their fiery tongue of perverse ecstasy. Even now that a state which claims to speak on behalf of and in defense of Jewry governs from an undivided Holy City (with all the attendant geopolitical ramifications) the traditional Pesach injunction remains “Next year in Jerusalem!” for, there is a wisdom in understanding that the spoken Jerusalem is not the real Jerusalem.
Such is the itinerary of Ahasuerus, the so-called “Wandering Jew,” who was a feature of Christian folklore; an immortal from the lifetime of Christ condemned to wander the world until the Second Coming. Yet a sense of dislocation, of fallenness, should be central to all understandings of what it means to be human. Judaism merely keeps that awareness front and center. One should always have bags packed since you never know when you might suddenly have to leave. Exile is, of course, intimately tied to the idea of place; for in being an exilic one is acknowledging that there is a place in which you feel you should be, but that which you are not.
Such a condition only exists if there is an acknowledged home to which you are no longer privy. A useful distinction between what humanistic geographers call “place” in contrast to “space.” Far from obvious synonyms, the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in his classic Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience explains that “‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place.’ What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we begin to know it better and endow it with value.” Hard to ever build a place when you’re always on the road, though—when your bag always needs to be packed for that moment’s notice.
Part of what Jewish history teaches us is the incommensurate difficulty of actually being able to turn space into place. The horrors that have been experienced over millennia are a genealogy of how trauma can transform place and space back and forth into each other. A dusty alleyway in the shadow of Herod’s Temple can be a place where one cooks lentils in olive oil and drinks wine from earthen clay pots, but that same place can very quickly be transformed into an abstract space once it’s been violated by the violence which sees family members’ blood spilled on those same dusty streets.
If trauma is the crucible that can transform place into space, then the exile which results from that trauma counterintuitively transforms space back into place. When one is a wandering Jew with no country, then one is forced to make the whole world into one’s country. Such is the true origin of humanism, of the Persian poet Kahlil Gibran’s contention that “The universe is my country and the human family is my tribe,” or the American radical Thomas Paine’s mantra that “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, to do good is my religion,” with neither of these men themselves being Jewish. Such perspective is the true gift of chosenness.
Zion becomes that which you carry within you. Again, the spoken Jerusalem cannot be the true Jerusalem. This embrace of diaspora is an embrace of a humanism, which engendered a suspicion in stupid little anti-Semites like Joseph Stalin, who slurred the Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans,” not understanding that there is the most solemn strength in that very rootlessness. Today, the inheritors of that brutal myopia use the word “globalist” instead, but the same rank provincialism is still displayed. Judaism’s cosmopolitanism was born from trauma, for in the biblical age the faith was supremely concrete, the locus of worship projected onto a few square miles occupied on the Temple Mount. Yet the destruction of that sanctuary necessitated that a new Temple be found, one built in text and inscribed in memory and taken from place to new place. What results is a type of abstraction, if not the very invention of abstraction. God no longer dwells in the Holy of Holies, but rather in the scroll of the Torah, in the very imagination itself.
Literary critic George Steiner has identified a hatred of abstraction as the ultimate origin of anti-Semitism. In his contribution to Berel Lang’s anthology Writing and the Holocaust, Steiner argues that people “fear most those who demand of us a self-transcendence, a surpassing of our natural and common limits of being. Our hate and fear are the more intense precisely because we know the absolute rightness, the ultimate desirability of the demand.” Across his career, in novels like The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., and in books such as In Bluebeard’s Castle, Steiner has claimed that it’s precisely Judaism’s humanistic abstraction that engenders such perennial, if irrational, anti-Semitism.
In that later book, he claims that there are three dispensations, “Monotheism at Sinai, primitive Christianity, [and] messianic socialism” where Western culture was presented with “’the claims of the ideal.” Steiner argues that these are “three stages, profoundly interrelated, through which Western consciousness is forced to experience the blackmail of transcendence.” Western culture has been presented with three totalizing abstractions that have a Judaic origin; abstractions that are born from the traumas of dislocation and that reject the idolatrous specificity of place in favor of the universalism of space. These tripartite covenants are represented by Moses, Christ, and Karl Marx, and Steiner sees in the rejection of the idealized utopian promise which each figure represents the origin of this pernicious and enduring hatred.
For Steiner, anti-Semitism is at the very core of the Western metaphysic, irreducible to other varieties of white supremacy. Telling that the fascism which so often directs its rage against Jews is of the “Blut und Boden” variety, the “Blood and Soil” mythos which elevates a few miles of land and the superficial phenotypical commonalties between arbitrarily linked groups of people into an idol. Naive faiths that turn ooze and mud into the locus of belief, rejecting the rootlessness which praises the Temple that is all of creation. When such rhetoric as that of these fascists rears up again, it’s no surprise to see a resurgence of that primordial bigotry, for those that speak of blood and soil have no compunctions about staining the latter with the former.
For American Jews, this has historically been more difficult to see. Historian Lila Corwin Berman asks in The Washington Post if we should have ever “believed in American exceptionalism, even just for Jews, when all around us was evidence of the limitations and ravages of that exceptionalism?” Berman asks an important question, one which gets to the heart of a paradoxical and complicated issue. America has long been imagined as a New Israel, even a New Eden, where our national civic religion is a strangely Hebraic branch of heretical Protestantism. Rhetoric from the 17th-century Puritan divine John Winthrop as delivered aboard the ship Arbela has long been enshrined in American consciousness, that we shall be as a “city on a hill.” Though Winthrop was alluding to the Book of Matthew, American faith is often written in that Hebraic idiom, where the “New World” is dreamt of as a “land of milk and honey,” a place where the New Jerusalem may dwell and where history is brushed aside in the regenerative millennialism of the continent itself.
In Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America, the Israeli historian Avihu Zakai explains that there were two biblical templates for early American understandings of colonization: “the Genesis type, which is a peaceful religious migration based … upon God’s promise to his chosen nation that he will appoint a place for them,” and the “Exodus type, which is a judgmental crisis and apocalyptic migration, marking the ultimate necessity of God’s chosen people to depart.” Zakai has argued that those models have organized American self-understanding, where that initial migration of Puritans to America is as the Jews in the wilderness, imagining the push to the western frontier as a version of the Hebrews coming into Canaan. This subconscious philo-Semitism, which appropriates scriptural narrative and idiom, is arguably that which sets this nation’s experience regarding the Jews as being so different from that of Europe, and it goes somewhat toward an explanation of the national “exceptionality” that Berman rightly interrogates.
Christendom has historically defined itself as being that which is not Jewish, yet that particular metaphysic is not foregrounded in American self-definition. If anything, the Jewish narrative as transposed onto American experience was an inoculation against the same sort of anti-Semitism that defined Jewish life in Europe. Despite the anti-Semitism that marks the nation’s history, alongside every other form of race hatred and bigotry, this was still the country where President George Washington could with right celebration write to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790 that the “children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land [will] continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington’s language consciously echoed that of the prophet Micah, where the spoken Jerusalem would be uttered in an American tongue.
America as New Zion, however, has encoded within its own calamities, for divorced from the moorings of the faith which inaugurated it, the model remains dangerously embraced: this myth of America as empty, promised land awaiting settlement. In his classic study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, Henry Nash Smith wrote that one of the “most persistent generalizations … is the notion that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward through the passes of the Alleghenies, across the Mississippi Valley, over the high plains and mountains of the Far West to the Pacific Coast.” The tragedy was that the land was far from vacant, and how place would be defined in the Alleghenies, the Mississippi Valley, the Far West, and the Pacific Coast would be through a similar type of amnesia as that which allows the citizens of Oświęcim to buy their groceries and go to work every day.
Anti-Semitism may not have been the central organizing metaphysic of America, but the loathsome and genocidal ethos of what the historian Richard Drinnon termed “the metaphysics of Indian-hating” was. Colonization was not a simple process of transforming abstracted space into place as settlers burnt a line across North America all the way to the Pacific; rather it was an exercise in trauma—in genocide and ethnic cleansing. We may ask ourselves how it is that the people of Oświęcim can live their lives in the shadow of a death factory, and yet in America we do a near equivalent. My own charming little corner of Massachusetts was witness to the almost gothic horror of the 17th-century Pequot War, and of King Philip’s War, which per capita remain among some of the most violent in American history—we live our lives on top of those mass graves. Historian Timothy Snyder in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning explains how Adolf Hitler’s expansionist and eliminationist nightmare of Lebensraum was directly inspired by American Manifest Destiny, writing that for the dictator, “the exemplary land empire was the United States of America,” for this country’s example “led Hitler to the American dream.” The current president may similarly speak of himself as a descendant of those who “tamed a continent,” but never forget that those settlers wrote their scriptures in blood.
Any uncomplicated celebration of how America has been good for the Jews must keep that aforementioned metaphysic in mind. So much of the mythopoesis of America is that this was always a land of refugee, the resting place for the Mother of Exiles. As true as some particulars of that myth may be, Lady Liberty’s torch can obscure as much as it can illuminate, for it would be very dangerous to pretend that America’s shores are a place where history had somehow stopped. Philo-Semitism can easily curdle into its near twin, and the American metaphysic is not so distant from the Christendom that birthed it. Anti-Semitism has re-emerged as poisonous fascist ideologies thrive from Budapest to Brasilia. Only the profoundly near-sighted could pretend that America—especially at this current moment—is immune from hatred of the “rootless cosmopolitans.” From the first arrival of Sephardic conversos to New Amsterdam in the 17th century until today, and the worst pogrom in American history happened last month in Pittsburgh, a half mile from where I grew up. As my fellow Pittsburgher Jacob Bacharach wrote in Truthdig following the Tree of Life massacre, “they are coming for Jews, for my people, coming for us again.”
The corner of Wilkins and Shady is a few blocks from where I went to elementary school; it’s where I waited for the 74A when I was too lazy to continue my walk home from the stores in Squirrel Hill; it’s across the street from Chatham’s campus where I went to summer camp. This is a place that I love, and continue to love, and now it is the site of the worst pogrom in American Jewry’s four-century history. We ground ourselves in place, but there is always the threat of it being converted back into space, so better to carry those Jerusalems in our hearts. I draw an inspiration from the sacred condition of exile, from the undefined ideology of Diapsorism. Just as it’s impossible and still necessary to write over the trauma of place with a liturgy of mundane life, so, too, do I often see my own identity as being an exilic within exile, distant Jewish roots defining me as such in the eyes of the anti-Semite. I’m supremely cognizant of Jean Paul Sartre’s observation in Anti-Semite and Jew that “Jew is the man whom other men consider a Jew.” If we go by that definition, then I can show you a litany of emails in response to my political writings where the increasingly not anonymous anti-Semites of the world very much consider me to be a Jew.
John Proctor declares in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!” Just as I would never overwrite my own surname, so, too, would I never overwrite the trauma of place. Shira Telushkin, in a remarkable piece for Tablet, explains how in Jewish burial the bodies of those who are martyred in the practice of the faith are buried in the same state as when they were murdered, for “their blood cannot be forgotten, simply scrubbed away and disposed of. It must be honored, collected, and buried.” For this ultimately is what we must do: We must honor the blood of the dead, honor the trauma of these places, because rupture is preserved to remind us of God’s broken covenant, of America’s broken covenant. There must not be an exorcism of these ghosts of place; rather, there is no choice but to live with them. Moving from place to place, we carry that imagined Jerusalem within us, we carry that imagined America within us, warmed by the utopian lamp of the Mother of Exiles more than we ever could be by the disappointing reality of the actual one.
Image: Tree of Life memorial; official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks