Benjamin Schreier argues that Jewish American literature's dominant cliché of "breakthrough"—that is, the irruption into the heart of the American cultural scene during the 1950s of Jewish American writers like Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Grace Paley—must also be seen as the critically originary moment of Jewish American literary study. According to Schreier, this is the primal scene of the Jewish American literary field, the point that the field cannot avoid repeating and replaying in instantiating itself as the more or less formalized academic study of Jewish American literature. More than sixty years later, the field's legibility, the very condition of its possibility, remains overwhelmingly grounded in a reliance on this single ethnological narrative.
In a polemic against what he sees as the unexamined foundations and stagnant state of the field, Schreier interrogates a series of professionally powerful assumptions about Jewish American literary history—how they came into being and how they hardened into cliché. He offers a critical genealogy of breakthrough and other narratives through which Jewish Studies has asserted its compelling self-evidence, not simply under the banner of the historical realities Jewish Studies claims to represent but more fundamentally for the intellectual and institutional structures through which it produces these representations. He shows how a historicist scholarly narrative quickly consolidated and became hegemonic, in part because of its double articulation of a particular American subject and of a transnational historiography that categorically identified that subject as Jewish. The ethnological grounding of the Jewish American literary field is no longer tenable, Schreier asserts, in an argument with broad implications for the reconceptualization of Jewish and other identity-based ethnic studies.
Introduction. What's the "History" in "Jewish American Literary History" the History Of?
Chapter 1. The History of Jewish American Literary History: "Breakthrough" and the Institutional Rhetoric of Identity
Chapter 2. Before Jewish American Literature
Chapter 3. After Jewish American Literature
Benjamin Schreier is a passionately engaged, deeply critical reader of the history of Jewish American literary history. In The Rise and Fall of Jewish American Literature, he seeks to demystify the intellectual foundations that continue—problematically in his view—to determine the cultural-political interpretive assumptions that shape the field. Schreier argues that a reimagined, more theoretically sophisticated critical consciousness among scholars would elevate Jewish American literature’s current standing in the humanities, where it is either marginalized, ignored, or relegated to a segment of the white Western literary canon."—Modern Philology
"Benjamin Schreier here calls for radical rethinking of the basic ethnographic premise that has shaped Jewish American literary studies. An astute and provocative genealogy of the emergence of the field and its institutional settings, this book asks for much needed theorizing of the concepts of identity that underlie Jewish Studies more broadly. Schreier's passionate and polemical wake-up call will reinvigorate the conversation about Jewish American literature."—Hana Wirth-Nesher, Tel Aviv University
"A bold, bracing examination of Jewish American literature, this book is revelatory. Benjamin Schreier's relentlessly intelligent analysis yields a frequently polemical but impossible-to-dismiss critique that directly questions the fundamental assumptions and premises underwriting an entire field of study."—Dean Franco, Wake Forest University