In Zelda Popkin: The Life and Times of an American Jewish Woman Writer, Jeremy D. Popkin provides a loving, clear-eyed, and intellectual biography of his grandmother’s life. Having previously held a relatively minor place in Jewish American literary history, Zelda Popkin (1898 – 1983) emerges here as a writer whose archive of novels, memoirs, and journalism demands a fresh rereading. Her story — “a story about our country,” her grandson insists — continues to resonate a half-century after her death.
Zelda Popkin may now be an obscure figure in Jewish American history and literature, but her biography intersects with a range of well-known authors. Born to immigrant parents who settled in Wilkes-Barre (she would eventually revisit the psychic strains of small-town Jewish family life in her novels and memoirs), Zelda started out in the twenties as a fledgling cultural critic for the important magazine American Hebrew. She reviewed Anzia Yezierska’s story collection, Hungry Hearts, situating this key work of immigrant fiction with and against now-canonical books by Abraham Cahan and Mary Antin. Later, when she began writing her own fiction, Saul Bellow gave a lukewarm review — but a review nonetheless — of her 1945 novel, The Journey Home in Commentary. And in the early 1960s, she spent time at the famous Yaddo writers’ colony, conversing with a young Philip Roth and the formidable literary critic Alfred Kazin.
Zelda’s story, in Jeremy Popkin’s view, reflects the trajectory of many American Jewish women’s experience. He speaks of her “hard-boiled view of humanity” — a tough-mindedness that was no doubt a response to personal loss (her beloved husband, with whom she worked in various Jewish fundraising organizations, passed away early on in their marriage) and, above all, to bearing witness to the horrific events of the twentieth century.
Popkin focuses much of his attention on Zelda’s novels. Based on her experiences observing life in a postwar DP camp, Small Victory (1947) was among the first works to confront the impact of the Holocaust. And Quiet Street (1951), according to Popkin, was both the first novel about the creation of the State of Israel and Zelda’s “most substantial contribution to American and Jewish literary history.” The biographer holds that it was his grandmother’s fate to be overshadowed by more middlebrow — and male — authors like Herman Wouk and Leon Uris. But in contrast to Uris’s much better-known Exodus (1958), Quiet Street presents a “feminized version of the events of 1948,” revealing the “dignity” of Zelda’s female characters.
Popkin speaks with sadness about how defeated his grandmother felt at times; and Zelda, he tells us, “had every reason to feel defeated.” The end of her literary career was marked by a seventeen-year gap between novels; she was always scrambling for money; and the NYPL declined the gift of her literary archive (which now resides at Boston University).
Ultimately, however, Popkin makes a compelling case for Zelda’s renewed importance. He argues that her 1968 novel, Herman Had Two Daughters—a roman à clef about small-town Jewish life that closely resembles her immigrant family’s experiences in the shtetl (ghetto?) of early twentieth-century Wilkes-Barre — deserves particular reconsideration.
Zelda Popkin harbored a rich literary imagination and an “insider’s view” of the “tensions in twentieth-century American Jewish life.” Will her work get the revival that it’s owed? That much remains to be seen. But Jeremy Popkin’s faith-keeping, granular portrait is a revival of its own.
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He divides his time between Brooklyn and Mohegan Lake, NY.