A Poem of One’s Own

A.M. Klein Laid Groundwork for Jewish Poetry in English

By Ezra Glinter

Published April 20, 2012, issue of April 27, 2012.
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The letters bring to light lesser-known aspects of Klein’s career, such as his English adaptation of a Brazilian play for Yiddish actor Maurice Schwartz (the performance was savaged by critics, and the play closed after four shows), and the fact that he turned down the editorship of Commentary magazine upon its inception in 1945. Among his many interests, Klein was a devoted reader of James Joyce and spent years working on a comprehensive commentary to “Ulysses.” The manuscript was never completed, but it put him in touch with Joyce scholars around the world. In their tapering off the letters reflect Klein’s mental breakdown and gradual withdrawal from public life, starting in the mid 1950s and lasting until his death in 1972, though they do not illuminate the tragedy of his final years beyond the little that is already known.

The collection takes on its greatest emotional and intellectual heft when Klein was induced to defend or advance his creative vision, particularly the Jewish nature of his work. Like many writers before and since, Klein was unwilling to be pigeonholed as an ethnic sideshow, and he objected to critics who read him in only a Jewish light. (In a letter to Smith, he complained: “Why did they… have to go flaunting my circumcision? It’s an adolescent trick — this whimsical opening of another man’s fly.”) But unlike many authors who have rejected the “Jewish writer” designation — Philip Roth once said that he instead considers himself a “writer who is a Jew” — Klein took his Jewishness and the Jewish content of his work as given. The question for him was not whether he was a “Jewish writer,” but how to be one.

Fluent in Yiddish and well versed in Hebrew and the rabbinical canon, Klein was fully at home in the Jewish literary tradition, and he believed strongly in its value. In a 1940 letter to Yiddish critic Shmuel Niger, he described his resentment over Yiddish literature being “treated as a series of curiosities” and over anyone being surprised that it was “mit leiten gleich,” or equal to the best. As a cultural Zionist in the vein of essayist and editor Ahad Ha’am, Klein was much enamored of the renewed vigor of Hebrew literature, and he translated the poetry of Chaim Nachman Bialik.

Yet Klein chose to write in English, a decision that created its own difficulties. For Hebrew or Yiddish writers, their very language made them part of the Jewish tradition, whether they wrote about Hasidism or Hegel. Once writers like Klein stepped into English, could they continue to claim a place in that tradition? What would define their work as Jewish?

For Klein, the answer lay not only in subject matter — his upbringing in the Montreal immigrant community was a frequent theme — but also in a Jewish sensibility that he experienced not as choice but as fact. Writing to Laughlin in 1944 regarding his mock epic poem “The Hitleriad,” which he felt had been unfairly ignored by Jewish critics, he distinguished himself from Jews who tried to hide their Jewishness as well as from those who declared it too much.

Let me make myself clear. I am not one of those I-am-proud-to-be-a-Jew Jews. A Jew I am; the whole world knows it, and I accept that fact like the fact that I have two arms… As for myself, I believe I still have a contribution to make as a Jew, a contribution to the culture of the group — the whole group — in which I dwell… Other cultures, therefore I meet as an equal, not as an interloper. I travel on my own passport.

It is worth noting the courageousness of Klein’s position. For an ambitious, creative writer, the Jewish road could seem constricting. Few Diaspora authors of Klein’s time, writing in English, were as overt about their Jewishness, or as compelled by it. But for Klein it was the most important project he could think to undertake. “The continuation of our own culture stands before the Jewish writers as the challenge,” he wrote to Shapiro in 1948. “One can either… associate one’s Jewishness with all the negativism [that] history like a mad Rashi, has appended to it; or one can feel oneself, and develop oneself as part of a great tradition, a tradition whose fruitfulness is by no means exhausted.”

Through his work, Klein demonstrated how that tradition could be pursued in English — how to “bring to the well of English that mineral content… which is my heritage from my biblical forefathers.” Just as important was the boldness he displayed in doing so, a boldness still called for today. Authors of the past century have earned a place for Jewish experience in mainstream literature, and Jews in general have achieved success in all streams of Diaspora life. But that has not yet eliminated the strain of Jewish self-contempt that treats our own culture as worthy of attention or respect only when it is also recognized by non-Jewish society. As I once heard a prominent community activist remark, “Jews love what non-Jews love about Judaism.” Though he meant it as strategy rather than as criticism, it remains one of the saddest observations about the Jewish community I have ever heard.

Klein himself craved broad recognition, and he rebelled against parochialism wherever he found it. His writing embraced themes beyond the Jewish frame, such as the multilingual culture of Montreal and the lives of rural Quebecois. He considered himself possessed of “true patriotism” when it came to Canada, and participated fully in the social, political and literary life of Montreal. He can be read today as a Canadian, a modernist and a Montrealer, as well as a Jew. But at the core of Klein’s public, private and creative self was a belief in the Jewish cultural tradition and the desire to continue it. In the end, he traveled on his own passport.

Ezra Glinter is a staff writer for the Forward. Contact him at glinter@forward.com or on Twitter @EzraG


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