Ruth Wisse: Generous Mentor, Worthy Adversary

By Josh Lambert

Published February 11, 2009, issue of February 20, 2009.
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Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon: Essays on Literature and Culture in Honor of Ruth R. Wisse
Edited by Justin Daniel Cammy, Dara Horn, Alyssa Quint and Rachel Rubinstein
Harvard University Press, 750 pages, $75.

In September 1976, Commentary printed the letters of three novelists who had taken umbrage at appraisals of their work, in a previous issue, by a relatively unknown Yiddish professor named Ruth Wisse. Cynthia Ozick, the most fervent of the respondents, judged Wisse guilty of a “fundamental (and, for a good reader, unforgivable) critical error”: confusing literature with sociology.

This old contretemps bears recalling less for its substance — authors and critics have bickered about the relationship between fiction and life for centuries — than for what it reveals about Wisse’s personality. In 1976, at the age of 40, Wisse had already published her doctoral dissertation, “The Shlemiel as Modern Hero” (University of Chicago Press, 1971), and a translation of a novel by Chaim Grade, and she had developed a pioneering Jewish studies program at McGill University (where she received her doctorate in 1969) in Montreal, the city in which she was raised. But the provocative essay was among her earliest English-language works of criticism for the general reader, and her first contribution to Commentary. Having roused the ire of an intellectual opponent as formidable as Ozick, many scholars would have sought refuge in journals and academic jargon; Wisse not only fired back (quipping, “Jewish writers seem to have inherited from Jewish mothers the problems of letting go”), but she has also managed, in the intervening decades, to earn her opponent’s fiercest allegiance. “Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon,” an exuberant, enormous festschrift — a collection of essays written by an academic’s colleagues to celebrate his or her career — recently published to honor Wisse concludes with an impassioned tribute by none other than Ozick, who dubs Wisse “the Grand Explainer of our time.”

Ozick’s reversal illuminates a central theme in Wisse’s career, which has been characterized by the sharpness of her insight, by her unwillingness to retreat from a skirmish and by the inability of even those who disagree with her to deny her brilliance. The best introduction to Wisse’s literary scholarship, “The Modern Jewish Canon” (Free Press, 2000), surveys Jewish literary prose in all its multilingual glory, from Sholom Aleichem and Franz Kafka to Philip Roth and Aharon Appelfeld. Wisse studies this literature as “the repository of modern Jewish experience” and “the most complete way of knowing the inner life of the Jews.” In this sense, her work stands apart from the mainstream of academic literary scholarship, which, in various guises, has stressed the autonomy, disinterestedness and universality of literature; instead, Wisse embraces an approach indebted to many master critics of Jewish literature who wrote in Yiddish or English and who were never invited to share their views in the academy.

Even scholars who share Wisse’s general approach to modern Jewish literature have often disagreed with Wisse’s “Canon” on one point or another. Brilliantly, then, the new festschrift presents not a series of bland tributes or an eccentric scattering of unconnected essays, but a gathering of 35 arguments for, against and with Wisse’s insights and claims. Some contributors simply offer new readings of Wisse’s anointed authors (Isaac Babel, Yankev Glatshteyn, Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer and many others), but most, truer to the volume’s title, argue with her. Hillel Halkin differs with Wisse on how exactly to determine a book’s Jewishness; Alan Mintz laments Wisse’s exclusive focus on novels and memoirs in “Canon”; still other contributors advocate for authors she neglected. Wisse welcomes such responses to her scholarship, regardless of whether she agrees with them: She herself “lobbied” for argument as the motif of the festschrift, the book’s editors report, and from the start she saw her canon-making project as “open-ended,” and “as a way of inviting others to continue the discussion” of modern Jewish literature.

Wisse’s talent for provoking thoughtfulness without insisting on agreement has been most extraordinarily displayed in her seminars and lectures at McGill and then at Harvard, where she has taught since 1993. I studied with her as an undergraduate at Harvard, and despite my Jewish day school education, it is to her that I owe my introduction to a panoply of Yiddish writers, from Mendele Mokher Sforim to Sholem Asch; it was in her course on Jewish humor that I first read Leo Rosten’s HYMAN KAPLA*N stories and Freud’s “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious,” and met Saul Bellow a few years before his death.

Even as I benefited from the breadth of Wisse’s knowledge and the generosity of her mentorship, I didn’t realize how controversial her passionate neoconservatism made her on campus. Since then, as my own political and critical sensibilities have developed, I have often found myself silently arguing with her pronouncements; is American Jewish literature just “negative evidence of a community that has traduced its values and followed strange gods,” as Wisse declares in “Canon”? Disputing such statements — or complicating them, as literary critics like to say — has become a central aim of my own doctoral studies in Jewish literature, which is another way of saying that Wisse has profoundly influenced my scholarly pursuits.

Indeed, it seems that Wisse, more than anyone else, is the contemporary literary authority whom graduate students and younger scholars of Jewish literature feel the need to challenge, in the hopes of earning a place alongside her in the field. To her credit, Wisse encourages such dissension and debate as contributions to the conversation that constitutes modern Jewish culture; I have never heard any of Wisse’s students complain that she has imposed her political ideology or literary approach on them, or that she has been disrespectful of views that contradict her own.

The festschrift, edited by four of her former doctoral students, reflects this generous support of younger scholars. One of the editors, contemporary Jewish novelist Dara Horn, offers an unforgettable essay that reveals, with its truly unsettling surprise ending, how difficult, and even painful, it can be to emulate Wisse’s unsparingly honest approach to Jewish literature; how could it be otherwise, given the ironies and horrors of the modern Jewish experience?

Discomforting as it may be in unsettling conventional wisdom and challenging received ideas, the cultural criticism that Wisse has modeled for her students remains necessary; as she has written, “A people that intends to participate meaningfully in the world would first have to know itself and be able to represent itself through a creative cultural continuum.” Literature and culture differ in this sense from that proverbial task the Mishnah does not obligate us to finish, but from which it commands us not to desist. When it comes to the study of Yiddish and modern Jewish literature, we must consider ourselves forbidden from finishing the task, from reaching a final conclusion or speaking the last word. The day that Jewish culture stops being a subject of argument is the day that it dies.

Wisse’s most resonant achievement, splendidly exhibited by this festschrift, is that she has done more than any contemporary scholar to ensure that the conversation will continue.

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