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Jews, Inheritance, and Postwar American Literature

Tue, December 18, 8:30 to 10:00am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Backbay 1 Complex

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


Parent-child relations have been one of the most consistent and ubiquitous subjects of Jewish literature throughout its history, from the Tanakh onward. In postwar America, rapid increases in Jews’ socioeconomic and cultural capital and increasing rates of intermarriage directed intense attention toward issues of generation, inheritance, and parental influence, on the part of journalists, community leaders, and writers alike; “continuity” became a buzzword while a cruelly stereotypical “Jewish mother” became a figure of national mass culture, and many of the most celebrated works of literature of the period, like Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” focus directly on those relations.

This panel brings together three scholars of American Jewish literature and literary history whose current research aims to uncover new or neglected parent-child narratives in the postwar period that can complicate the more cartoonish visions of Jewish parents on display in, for example, Philip Roth’s PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT. All three papers explore the relationship between historical circumstances—specific, real-world, parent-child relationships, particularly in terms of issues of inheritance—and the representations of Jewish parents and children within key literary texts, and within the development of American Jewish literature more generally. Maeera Shreiber’s paper explores the influence of Paul Philip Levertoff, a rabbi and convert to Christianity, on his daughter, Denise Levertov’s early verse, and considers how these two figures fit within the category of American Jewish literature. Joshua Logan Wall considers the genre of the poetical kaddish, and how Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-12 (1951) proposes death not as the occasion for mourning and prayer but rather pedagogy, teaching the next generation. Josh Lambert’s paper explores what can be gained from thinking about a key event in American publishing history—the founding of Atheneum Press by Alfred Knopf, Jr. in 1959—as a Jewish family story. As a whole, the panel aims to rethink the question of parents and children in postwar American Jewish literature, and to locate new theoretical or literary historical paradigms that can help to elucidate this period.

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