A Hun­dred Acres of Amer­i­ca: The Geog­ra­phy of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary History

  • Review
By – August 26, 2019

In A Hun­dred Acres of Amer­i­ca Michael Hober­man seeks to enlarge the tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tives of Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­ary his­to­ry, just as he seeks to chal­lenge them. Famil­iar canon­i­cal texts tend to focus on themes of old world migra­tion to an imag­ined promised land and the sub­se­quent ordeal of new world assim­i­la­tion — as in the nov­els and sto­ries of Abra­ham Cahan, Anzia Yezier­s­ka, and Hen­ry Roth. Instead, Hober­man intro­duces us to a group of Jew­ish Amer­i­can authors who were inspired, he argues, by the shap­ing influ­ence” of the Amer­i­can land­scape. He posits that encoun­ters with and respons­es to Amer­i­can geog­ra­phy, in a vari­ety of con­struc­tions and forms — the fron­tier, the city, the small town, the sub­urb, the imag­ined old world shtetl, the con­tem­po­rary ironies of Israel as home­land” — have enabled” Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ers to test assump­tions, chal­lenge hege­monies, and assert agency” in a search for an Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty. Hoberman’s exam­ples of geo­graph­i­cal­ly-inspired authors invites us to recon­sid­er a long-stand­ing lit­er­ary his­to­ry based on the immi­grant model.”

Hoberman’s major con­tri­bu­tion in A Hun­dred Acres of Amer­i­ca is the recov­ery of a cohort of rel­a­tive­ly obscure mid and late-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Jew­ish writ­ers who wrote about the migra­tion expe­ri­ence in the West or, lat­er in the cen­tu­ry, the defin­ing Jew­ish pres­ence in the ear­ly for­ma­tion of cities in the North­east. I doubt that even the most well-read schol­ars of Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture have heard of Solomon Carvalho’s Inci­dents of Trav­el and Adven­ture in the Far West (1857) or Israel Joseph Benjamin’s Three Years in Amer­i­ca, 1859 – 62 (1862). For Hober­man, their fron­tier nar­ra­tives chal­lenged canon­i­cal Amer­i­can lit­er­ary tra­di­tions, as in the exam­ples of Emer­son and Thore­au, of indi­vid­u­al­ist-roman­tic sen­si­bil­i­ty and the cri­tique of con­strain­ing social norms (think Self-Reliance”). By con­trast, in Hoberman’s view, writ­ers like Car­val­ho and Ben­jamin decen­tered” the Amer­i­can wilder­ness mythos of indi­vid­u­al­ism via a Jew­ish” voice, con­jur­ing a vision of Amer­i­ca that went against the grain”. It is iron­ic that the major Jew­ish crit­ics a cen­tu­ry lat­er — such as Alfred Kazin and Irv­ing Howe, both immi­grant sons — cel­e­brat­ed, indeed iden­ti­fied with the rad­i­cal-indi­vid­u­al­ists of the Tran­scen­den­tal­ist era.

Per­haps even more inter­est­ing is Hoberman’s recu­per­a­tion of fig­ures like Hen­ry Samuel Morais who, in The Jews of Philadel­phia (1894) sought to locate the Jew­ish immi­grant ori­gins of the Amer­i­can city”, espe­cial­ly the Jew­ish influ­ence on the ear­li­er Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. Hober­man draws on his­to­ri­an Beth Wenger’s shrewd insight, that fig­ures like Morais sought to place Jews at the cen­ter of an emerg­ing pub­lic mem­o­ry of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion.” As a result, Hober­man deep­ens our under­stand­ing of the bound­aries of Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­ary history.

In lat­er chap­ters Hober­man extends his claims about the shap­ing influ­ence of geog­ra­phy to fig­ures like Edna Fer­ber, who wrote on small town Amer­i­ca, chal­leng­ing the dom­i­nant mytholo­gies” about the homo­gene­ity and pre­sumed provin­cial tem­per of these region­al enclaves, imag­ined as inhos­pitable to Jews. Ferber’s Jew­ish­ness was pri­mar­i­ly a reac­tive force,” Hober­man claims; rather than view­ing them­selves as strangers in the land,” Ferber’s Jew­ish char­ac­ters (in a nov­el like A Pecu­liar Trea­sure [1940]) occu­pied cen­ter-stage in the nation­al dra­ma”, feel­ing at home in Amer­i­ca, nat­ur­al-born inher­i­tors of the rur­al tra­di­tion”. Thus Hober­man invites us to recon­sid­er, indeed re-read a rel­a­tive­ly minor fig­ure like Ferber.

In his last three chap­ters Hober­man dis­cuss­es an array of major and emerg­ing con­tem­po­rary authors, includ­ing Philip Roth, Alle­gra Good­man, Rebec­ca Gold­stein, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jon Paper­nick, and Risa Miller. He shows how the imag­i­na­tion of place pro­vides an explana­to­ry struc­ture for under­stand­ing some of their key works. Roth’s Amer­i­can Pas­toral and Goodman’s Kaater­skill Falls both respec­tive­ly put pres­sure on the pas­toral myth; each nov­el warns against what Hober­man terms, in a strik­ing phrase, as geo­graph­i­cal escapism”. Foer and Gold­stein explore the recon­sti­tut­ed shtetl” in Every­thing is Illu­mi­nat­ed and Mazel in order to reclaim stolen lands and stolen lives”. Papernick’s sto­ry col­lec­tion The Ascent of Eli Israel and Miller’s nov­el Wel­come to Heav­en­ly Heights con­jure a con­tem­po­rary Israeli land­scape demythol­o­gized, blight­ed”, the would-be promised land emp­tied” of redemp­tive poten­tial, offer­ing only a false promise of home­com­ing for dis­lo­cat­ed Amer­i­can Jews.

In the end, Hoberman’s study, although designed pri­mar­i­ly for stu­dents and schol­ars of Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, chal­lenges us to recon­sid­er what the canon of our lit­er­a­ture ought to be in a series of orig­i­nal read­ings of both obscure and major fig­ures whose vision of land­scape — above all sites of mem­o­ry and myth — shaped their vision of Amer­i­ca in rich and strik­ing ways.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions