This week’s 50th yahrzeit of Isaac Rosenfeld, a brilliant and unjustly forgotten writer who belonged to a brilliant moment in American Jewish writing, offers a good occasion to measure the distance between that moment and our own.
Rosenfeld’s story is a strange amalgam of success and failure. Born in Chicago, Rosenfeld was a prodigy, at least according to a childhood friend who grew up a few blocks away. “Not only did he study Hume and Kant, but he discovered dada and surrealism as his voice was changing,” Saul Bellow said. Soon after the wunderkind came to New York in 1941 to study philosophy at New York University, he came into the warm embrace of that cerebral, fiercely competitive crowd known as the “New York intellectuals.” He held court in a tenement apartment on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village, eking out a living by writing endless book reviews for Partisan Review, Commentary, The Nation and The New Republic.
Rosenfeld’s playfulness soon became as legendary as his intelligence. He composed a Yiddish spoof of T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” — “ikh ver alt, ikh ver alt, un mayn pupik vert mir kalt” (“I grow old, I grow old, and my bellybutton grows cold”). Irving Howe, much taken by bright promise, called him the “golden boy.” “He swayed his friends with an unknown power,” Bellow reported. “We called it ‘charm,’ ‘wisdom,’ ‘genius.’ In the end, with a variety of intonations, we could find nothing to call it but ‘Isaac.’… He enlarged his power to love. Many loved him. He was an extraordinary and significant man.”
But as admired as he was, Rosenfeld’s life became lonely, ascetic, restless, anxious, desperate and, finally, dissipated; he came to resemble his “patron saint,” Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. Toward the end he wandered to Minnesota and then back to Chicago, where he died alone and spent at the age of 38. “He lived not like a writer but like a character in search of a plot,” his friend Alfred Kazin said.
Looking back at his essays and criticism and fiction, it seems clear that Rosenfeld — in his work as much as in his life — found not just any plot but the characteristic plot of the age. More purely than any other writer of that time and place, he captured and embodied the sense of alienation and estrangement that pervaded American Jewish writing in the 1940s and early ’50s, the same sense of sharpened disenchantment — with America and Judaism alike — that Bellow gave to his “Dangling Man” (1944). These were writers who did not yet feel American, who shot envious glances at an America more ardently imagined than realistically observed.
When this self-described luftmensch referred to the Jewish writer as “a specialist in alienation,” Rosenfeld may as well have been speaking of himself, for his expertise in marginality informs all his best essays. He was certainly thinking of himself when he claimed that one gauge of a society’s health is its ability “to learn from the rootless intellectual, who, precisely because he is rootless, is free to move among values in search of the best.”
Having found this plot, he followed it relentlessly. In one article, for instance, he deftly shows how Sholom Aleichem’s humor depended on alienation, and on alienation’s visible symbol, poverty. Rosenfeld argues that the Yiddish writer’s liberal use of Hebrew, “as the language, historically, of the true home and the faithful tradition, lends poignancy to the half-tones of exile, and an incongruity that mirrors in its humor the whole incongruity of Jewish dispersal.”
My own favorite Rosenfeld piece is a masterful review of Abraham Cahan’s novel, “The Rise of David Levinsky.” Rosenfeld paints Cahan’s hero as a Jew
driven by “an endless yearning after yearning.” He is thus also the paradigmatic Diaspora Man, since the Diaspora yearning for Israel had for millennia been its own object: “the yearning is itself Jerusalem.”
It is precisely because Rosenfeld so uncompromisingly held on to a certain kind of yearning that he could never come to terms with the American dream. He saw the abandonment of the old radicalism as an accommodation that “blesses the bourgeois in all of us,” and as a trade-in of the lonely risks of independence for “the ecstasy of belonging.” The imperative to “change the world” may have become “adjust yourself to it,” but Rosenfeld declined to adjust.
Rosenfeld’s great plot, however, emerges most clearly of all from his autobiographical novel, “Passage From Home” (1946), a book that Daniel Bell praised as “a parable of alienation.” The teenage hero of the book, “sensitive as a burn,” puts it this way after he runs away from his father’s suffocating house: “As a Jew… I had come to know a certain homelessness in the world, and took it for granted as a part of nature; had seen in the family, and myself acquired, a sense of sadness from which both assurance and violence had forever vanished. We had accepted it unconsciously and without self-pity, as one might accept a sentence that had been passed generations ago, whose terms were still binding though its occasion had long been forgotten. The world is not entirely yours; and our reply is: very well then, not entirely.”
Rosenfeld wrote this when he was 28 years old. With the possible exception of immigrant writers like Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar, today’s American Jewish writers who began to publish at about that age must feel alienated by a literature so soaked in alienation. Having served its usefulness as a ladder to the mainstream, after all, alienation had been kicked away within a decade of Rosenfeld’s death; by then, Bellow, Roth and Malamud had each won not the National Jewish Book Award but the National Book Award. But even in this, Rosenfeld was prescient. “Alienation from society,” he wrote, “may function as a condition of entrance into society.” It may, and it did.
Whether this entrance has, over time, dimmed the American Jewish literary flame is a matter of dispute. One fact, however, is not: In the last lines he ever wrote, Rosenfeld speaks of “finding the everlasting in the ephemeral things: not in iron, stone, brick, concrete, steel, and chrome, but in paper, ink, pigment, sound, voice, gesture, and graceful leaping, for it is of such things that the ultimate realities, of the mind and the heart, are made.” Although the reigning sensibility of a half-century ago, so perfectly formed in Isaac Rosenfeld, has long since become dated and passé, much of Rosenfeld’s writing still achieves the kind of elegant evanescence that lasts.