Monthly Archives: November 2010

Gold by Name but None by Nature: Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money.

Although Jews Without Money (1930) is classed as a proletarian novel, I think its admirability is not due to its proletarian nature. This novel is a tribute to the ability of people, in this case especially Jews, who transcend their circumstances in order to create a life for themselves.

Jews Without Money is a pseudo-autobiographical, fictionalized account of Michael Gold’s growing up in the Lower East Side, his conversion to communism that ends with a temporal leap to his present vision of how to liberate oneself from social injustice and poverty. The novel does not contain a coherent narrative, but rather a series of impressionistic snapshots or vignettes of the Jewish immigrant experience, their daily struggle for survival in the inhospitable environment of America. Although their is an absence of subsistence, there is not an absence of community as they band together in order triumph over their conditions, which suggests that materiality does not define their humanity, but rather their spirit.

What is most remarkable about Gold’s novel is his lurid depiction of the conditions of poverty and the underbelly of New York City’s ethnic neighbourhood. Gold captures it all from the criminals, prostitues and gangs to the vile, infestation of bed bugs in the tenements of the Lower East Side. Subsequently, the vivid picture Gold paints has attracted accusations of sensationalism from critics of the novel.

As the tile of the novel suggests, Gold’s objective is to deconstruct the stereotypical image of the rich Jew by narrativizing the poverty-stricken conditions that the majority of Jewish immigrants grew up in.


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Call It Spectacular: Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (16 November 2010)

Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep is a remarkable book, depicting a realistic chronicle of the Jewish immigrant experience in America, through the infantile eyes and stream-of-consciousness of David Schearl. With two intertwining stories, the novel immerses the reader deep in the world of New York’s immigrant ghettos, and David and his family’s daily struggle with attempting to acclimatize to their harsh and foreign milieu.

David’s first experience of America becomes a microcosmic specular reflection of every immigrants’ experience, which we as readers become part of. Reading this book is a willful, submission of one’s mind to the literary mediumship of David’s consciousness, which at first feels peculiar as one readjusts to a puerile perception of the world, but the further one reads the more one becomes enveloped in his state of consciousness. David’s struggle with America, its streets, languages and people become our struggle because as readers we are immigrants or tourists in the foreign world of David’s consciousness. We are reading this novel in our familiar tongue of English, but it is narrated from the perspective of a foreign narrator, who is attempting to comprehend the foreign language and world of America, in Yiddish. Roth turns the scales, by positioning the English-speaking reader in the role of a foreigner, akin to David.

The language of David’s stream-of-consciousness is poetic English, while spoken English is portrayed with a Yiddish inflection. In the Introduction to Call It Sleep, Alfred Kazin claims that “Roth caricatures the terrible English […] in order to bring out the necessary contrast with the Yiddish spoken at home” (xv). This is true to a certain extent, but if we analyse Roth’s use of English closely then an alternative reading may be formed. The language of David’s stream-of-consciousness is Yiddish, but it is translated and written for the reader in English. Therefore, it could be interpreted as not legitimate English or David’s English because he is not communicating his thoughts in English. They are translated into English for us, while the English dialogue in the text is not translated and is spoken in English with a Yiddish lint.

This interplay with language provides a glimpse of the struggle Roth and many other writers of immigrant texts face when attempting to convey a multi-lingual world with a mono- or bi-lingual means of expression. The difficulties of this is also implied further from the semantic ambiguity of the bilingual punning of David’s name, which means different things in Yiddish and Hebrew. In Hebrew, David means ‘beloved’, while in Yiddish David means ‘scissors’.

This role-reversal of native and foreigner is one of the outstanding accomplishments of Roth’s novel, which also evokes the use of these two binaries in American society. Can an American be considered a true native of America, if they are merely descendants of European immigrants who invaded the native land of the indigenous people? Are Americans not all in the same boat (pardon the immigration-connoting pun), with regards being foreigners and immigrants? I find this concept particularly interesting because my research interests include Native American literature and culture, colonialism and post-colonialism.

What is also worth noting about Call it Sleep, in comparison to other immigrant stories, is the juxtaposition of the old world with the new world. David’s infantile amnesia prevents him from fully remembering his country of birth and he is left with only vague memories. His experience of the new world, however, is still foreign, which situates him in the immigrant status as his parents. David’s conceptualisation of the old world is shaped by his parents’ and family’s recollections of it. The subtle contrasts between the old and the new world reveals Roth’s attitudes towards them.

Since the majority of the novel is communicated from David’s perspective, there is an absence of an omniscient narrator to provide us with a total view of the immigrant ghetto of New York City. As readers, therefore, we are provided with a fragmented and restricted view of America and American society.

From the culmination of themes towards the end of the novel, however, critics interpret the railroad tracks scene as a moment of transformation, rebirth or redemption. Hana Wirth-Nesher claims that “David becomes a naturalized American by becoming a Christ symbol (460). This is plausible to the extent that David’s fascination with Christian symbolism and ritual objects that litter the novel. If David’s near-death experience on the railroad tracts could be read as similar to Jesus’s self-sacrifice then this reading could be interpreted negatively as condemning Jesus’s actions. David’s actions if fulfilled could have resulted in his death, which may be classed as suicide, but he failed to achieve divine communion. Therefore, his actions were in vain.

Consequently, Call It Sleep provides an insightful depiction of the immigrant experience, especially the Jewish immigrant experience, in America. Although there are certain scenes in the book that could be edited because they are protracted, overall it is a spectacularly vivid read.

Works Cited

Kazin, Alfred. Introduction. Roth Call It Sleep ix-xx.

Roth, Henry. Call It Sleep. New York: Picador, 1991. Print.

Wirth-Nesher, Hana. “Between Mother Tongue and Native Language in Call It Sleep.” Afterword. Roth Call It Sleep 443-462.


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The Cop and Criminal in US: Irish-American Ethnicity in The Public Enemy and The Departed.

The history of the representation of Irish-Americans in American cinema demonstrates a trajectory curve that mirrors their gradual assimilation (which American cinema partly contributed to) into American society. Contemporary depictions of Irish-Americans have come a long way from the stereotypical images of aggressive, alcoholic, working-class ‘Micks’, ‘Paddys’ or ‘Boy-Os’ of early American cinema, which were short-lived because of the influx of a new wave of immigrants into America who were deemed to be less ‘white’ than the Irish. As a result, the Irish were repositioned further up on the ‘white’ spectrum and were utilized as an exemplification of assimilation. Benshoff and Griffin observe that “the Irish were regarded as an ethnicity and a nationality, whereas they had previously been considered a race” (59).

In the 1930s, however, a few gangster films portrayed Irish-Americans in an anti-Irish light by depicting Irish-American criminality and their involvement in organized crime. This negative image was counter-balanced in some films by the inclusion of the image of the Irish-American law abiding citizen. Both these images are evident in The Public Enemy, with Tom Power’s policeman father and patriotic brother, and in The Departed with Costigan and Dignam who are the most law abiding despite their few deviations. This cop-criminal image of Irish ethnicity is also present in films like Gone Baby Gone(2007) and the most recent film, The Town(2010).

William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed(2007) are two examples of the way Irish ethnicity is represented simultaneously as both positive and negative on screen. As typical of the gangster genre, there is an abundance of violence in both films, which also demonstrate an interconnectivity between ethnicity and violence.

James Cagney wanted to transcend the stereotypical representations of the Irish-American by relocating that figure from the social stratum of the ghetto to the bourgeoise classes, which he achieves in ‘G’-Men (Smith qtd. in Barton 5). Cagney’s most memorable persona is that of the quasi-psychotic and unpredictably explosive gangster in The Public Enemy and White Heat.

Kevin Rockett claims that the success of The Public Enemy (1931) did for the Irish what Little Caesar(1930) did for the Italians (29). However, it also developed Cagney’s stardom with his performance of Tom Powers, the Prohibition era Chicago gangster. Despite the fact that following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 Italian gangsters dominated Chicago’s underworld, there is an abundance of Irish ethnic references in the film. This comes across most powerfully from the importance of the matriarchy, familial loyalty and kinship in the Irish family system.

This is clearly established with the juxtaposition between Tom’s criminality and his brother Mike’s patriotism and abidance of the law. Tom disrupts family unity by engaging in criminality and disputing with his brother, Mike, over it. Rockett contends that the disruption of familial unity is solidified by the deliverance of Tom’s dead body to his mother, at the apogee of the film (29).

However, there is also an attempt at transcending ethnic identity in The Public Enemy. The suit is synonymous with the gangster image. In this film, like the majority of other gangster films, there is a scene where Tom goes to a tailor to get fitted for a suit. This scene conveys a numer of significant transformations. Tom’s acquisition of a suit, a symbol of wealth and civility, suggests he has ascended the social ladder from working-class irish immigrant, but he falsely attains this status by criminal means. Tom attempts to masquerade his authentic working-class, Irish identity by dressing in a suit, which could be interpreted as a denial of his Irish ethnic identity in order to pass as an upper-class American citizen. As can be seen from the film, his attempts at passing is a failure, which culminates in his death.

On the other hand, The Public Enemy‘s fixation with the mother figure is the opposite in The Departed. Colin Sullivan and Billy Costigan are limbo characters who are fixated with finding a father figure and satisfying their, what James Herzog calls in his book of the same title, ‘Father hunger’ (6). Sullivan’s and Costigan’s purgatorial status is also implied from the title of the film, which is taken from a Catholic prayer for the souls in purgatory. Their liminal status is a result of their ambiguous professions. Both Sullivan and Costigan switch between the identities of a cop and criminal. However, their liminality is also a result of their hyphenated, ethnic identities because they are both Irish and American, but neither fully one or the other. To fully achieve one identity is to deny the other because both cannot simultaneously coexist.

Sullivan is desparte to evade his Irish ethnic identity so that he can pass as a fully assimilated citizen of American society. This is suggested by his exclusion of photographs-visual signifiers of the history of his Irish ethnic identity-from his new, 7th floor apartment that is architecturally aligned with the golden globe of the State House. The position of Sullivan’s apartment in the structural stratification of the building symbolises his position in the social stratification of American society. He has risen from the Southie projects of his childhood upbringing to a position that overlooks society, which is also reflected by his profession in the Massachusetts State Police because as a detective his duty is to overlook society. Colin attempts to achieve complete severance from his ethnic roots in South Boston by cutting the last remaining sinew connecting him to it. Sullivan kills Costello-who is appropriately wearing a T-Shirt with ‘Irish’ written on it- to terminate his Irish ethnic past, but total eradication is only possible with his own death. The close up shot of the rat in line with the State house on the ledge of Sullivan’s apartment balcony suggests that a rat has simultaneously infiltrated the hierarchical social strata of American society and its law enforcement system.

In terms of a post-9/11 context, The Departed‘s reference to the absence of an appropriate father figure could be read not only psychologically, but also in political terms as suggesting the absence of an appropriate leader in the American patriarchy. During the aftermath of 9/11, George Bush was overly preoccupied with establishing ‘us-and-them’ binary oppositions in order to vindicate his ‘War on Terrorism’ and his attempt to take economic control of the rich oil resources of the Middle East.

The Departed‘s reference to the absence of a patriarchal figure in society, the ambiguity concerning patriotic loyalty, the blurring of the lines between good and evil, as suggested by the opposition of cop and criminal, could be perceived as a critical commentary on the post-9/11 historical context.

Consequently, both The Public Enemy and The Departed are prime examples of how Irish-American ethnicity is represented on screen in a positive and negative light by juxtaposing the Irish-American criminals against the Irish-American law-abiders and enforcers, which is another way for America to exemplifying the good and bad immigrant that has been portrayed since early American cinema in films like The Black Hand(1906).

Works Cited & Consulted

Barton, Ruth. ed. “Introduction.” Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 1-14. Print.

Benshoff, Harry M. and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2004. Print.

Herzog, James. Father Hunger: Explorations with Adults and Children. New Jersey: Analytic P, 2001. Print.

Rockett, Kevin. “The Irish Migrant and Film.” Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 17-44. Print.

 


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