Date of Degree

6-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Wayne Koestenbaum

Committee Members

Nancy K. Miller

David Richter

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature

Keywords

Jewish American literature, intermarriage, Jewish identity

Abstract

This dissertation concerns the legacy within the Jewish American imagination of two related ideas: the pseudoscientific belief in the Jewish body’s inherent physical difference, and the conviction, shared by rabbis, sociologists, and Jewish advocacy organizations in the second half of the 20th century, that Jewish-gentile intermarriage threatened Jewish survival in America. The Jew’s association with illness and debility is central to the Nazi race theories that undergird the Holocaust; the postwar American anxiety over intermarriage responds to that destruction. Fearing that intermarriage may yield a second, “silent” Holocaust through assimilation, American Jewish leaders metaphorically equate exogamy (out-marriage) with genocide.

I argue that the postwar fiction of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth attempts—not always successfully—to imagine a Jewish American life freed from the self-hatred traditionally directed toward the Jew’s body and his presumed inclination toward intermarriage. In chapter one, I demonstrate that Bellow’s fiction after Augie March overcomes his early squeamishness about representing the Jewish body; a noted caricaturist of the human form, the mature Bellow creates flamboyantly flawed, pained Jewish characters whose defiant bodies replace the antisemitic stereotype of Jewish inferiority with positive images of an embodied Jewish identity. In chapter two, I argue that Roth offers a model of Jewish identity that accepts intermarriage, assimilation, and other forms of attenuated Jewishness. While postwar sociologists and Jewish leaders fret that intermarriage signals the end of one’s Jewish belonging, Roth creates a cast of protagonists who remain Jewish despite their detachment from traditional institutions of Judaism.

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