The Final Notes of Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s Epistolary Exchange over Sholem Aleichem


The last three letters exchanged between Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse over Sholem Aleichem’s fiction and its meaning show us the subtle differences between these two important thinkers and literary critics.  As I pointed out in my last blog entry about this dialogue, Ruth Wisse suggested that Aleichem was, in contrast to the Yiddish writers Mendel Mocher Sforim and I.L. Peretz, more “balanced.”  This was a part of Wisse’s epistolary strategy since she was countering Howe’s harsher view of Sholem Aleichem’s fiction.  Wisse’s response to Howe shows us that while she agrees that there are “dark undercurrents” in Aleichem’s work, these words do not subsume Aleichem’s approach to Jewishness, Jewish history, and Yiddish literature.

For Wisse, as I’d like to show in this entry, Howe’s view should be balanced out with a more positive view of the Jewish writer.  Like her brother, David Roskies, she sees Aleichem as an artist who acknowledges fragmentation but who, in response to it, takes on the tradition of the Magid (story-teller).   She sees Aleichem as a “stand-up” comic of sorts who is looking to create bridges and create balance; unlike Howe, who sees him primarily as a modernist writer who focuses on fragmentation and ruin.  The last letters between Howe and Wisse work to bring out this differing take on Aleichem and his work.

At the end of his third letter to Ruth Wisse, Howe notes that although Sholem Aleichem’s Motl Stories are “casual offhand, charming, even mischievous,” Aleichem will “suddenly…drop to a fierce irony, a harrowing sadness.”  And this, for Howe, is the keynote of Aleichem as a modernist writer.  He ends on the sad note: for Howe, Aleichem goes from laughter to tears.

In response, Wisse turns to Aleichem’s Yiddish so as to show that he was a Yiddish artist.  In other words, she agrees with Howe that Aleichem is an artist, but she takes a different strategy with respect to explain why this is the case. She turns to his language and shows that Aleichem used Yiddish to show how repetition is used to create a closed circle of thoughts – what she calls a “circular style.”   Noting this style in relation to one of Aleichem’s characters, Wisse points out that “her mind is imprisoned in its own obsessive circularity.”  But the point of Aleichem’s using circular style in relation to this character is to “give truth to her particular embattled consciousness, self-protecting and self-defeating.”  This speaks to the negative note that Howe is addressing.

But from here, Wisse turns to the linguistic strategies of Tevye (one of Aleichem’s most celebrated characters).  Wisse sees this character as evidence of Aleichem-the-artist and not simply Aleichem the-folk-storyteller:

Like a true musician, he enjoys showing the speed and grace with which he can skip from one note or one tone to another.  His best jokes and quotations are polyglot, drawing attention to their mixture of high and low.

But Aleichem differs from a writer like I.L. Peretz who “drew attention away from the specificities of Yiddish, away from its folk expressions, the interplay of its source languages, the different dialects of its various speakers.”  Contrary to Peretz, “the unfixed nature of Yiddish was its greatest attraction, and its infinite range of dialects and oral styles the best literary means of capturing the dynamic changes – or the resistance to change – in the culture.”  By pointing this out, Wisse is shifting the emphasis of this epistolary exchnage.  For Wisse, the emphasis should be on the way Aleichem bridges high and low culture by way of his use of Yiddish.  This makes him a modern artist.

Howe catches wind of this shift of emphasis and, so to speak, sticks to his guns.  In his final letter to Wisse, he reiterates his points.  His first words seek for the agreement between he and Wisse about the “oddity” of his stories.  In other words, he acts his if they agree fundamentally but, ultimately, he is changing emphasis.  Howe ends with five points which convey this “oddity” and how it relates to Aleichem being a quintessential modern writer.  For the purpose of understanding his tactic, I’ll summarize each.

1)    Aleichem is a literary artist and not an “oral story teller” and the evidence for this can be found in the “sudden, abrupt blockage” of closure in Aleichem’s stories.

2)    His work demonstrates that he is not interested in “resolution of an external action” so much as evoking “shocked laughter.”

3)    His work is more interested in the “clever Jew” (who is “complicated, quizzical, problematic”) than in the naïve simpleton who is concerned with the “old ways of piety.”  The relation of the “clever Jew” to the past is secondary to his being…a “complicated, quizzical, problematic” Jew.

4)    He is a sophisticated writer who is “very much aware” of his full departure from the tradition of oral storytelling.

5)    Shalom Aleichem, like Saul Bellow who followed in his footsteps, “knew intuitively that the boundary between comedy and tragedy is always a thin and wavering line.”

Howe’s last point is something I have been discussing from the very beginning of my blog series on Howe.  It taps into his approach to Jewishness.  To be sure, he sees the fluid movement between comedy and tragedy as a defining characteristic of modern Jewishness and modern Jewish-American literature.  And this reiterates what he was saying in his introduction to Jewish American Stories.

Wisse final letter to Howe – literally, her last word –  provides us with a key to understanding how she differs with Howe over how we should understand Sholem Aleichem and his project.

First of all, she notes that he avoided “the romantic subject, the heroic possibility, the grand style of the novel” because he was “simply unconvincing and demonstrably uncomfortable in this mode.”  More importantly, he was a modern writer because he is able to work on many levels simultaneously.  She notes “On Account of a Hat,” a story Howe loved, and points out that it has a “dozen interpretations: it is the plight of the Diaspora Jew, an exposure of rootlessness, a mockery of tyranny, the comic quest for identity, a Marxist critique of capitalism, and, of course, an ironic self-referential study of literary slight of hand.”

In other words, Wisse wants to “balance” out the “oddity” – that Howe finds so fascinating – with other elements of the text that Howe’s reading overshadows.  To be sure, she points out that Aleichem works by way of “indirection” with “the worm’s angle of vision, and with apparently flimsy materials.” But he uses them to present something tenacious about Jewishness, something Howe may miss.

As we saw above, Howe sees Aleichem’s Motl in terms of the final, negative note.  Wisse, reading the same character, points out his tenacity: “He confronts all the things that happened to him and forces himself upon life again and again, and the sum of these trials shape the rhythm, constitute the meaning, of his existence.”

Commenting on this, Wisse notes that:

Sholem Aleichem’s admiration for the stubborn ruggedness of Jewish faith and the surprising vitality of the people comes to expression not just thematically, in story after story, but in the resilient, recuperative shape of all his major work.

Knowing full well that her reading may not be deemed “academic” enough, she notes that Aleichem had no obsessive interest in an academic, modernist reading. She asks us to contrast Aleichem’s memoir to the “mountaineering saga of Jewish writers with all the high, serious climbs of other European literati.”  And what we will find from his simple memoir (consisting of only four anecdotes about the ordinary nature of other Yiddish writers and forgetting) is that he “he deflates intellectual and artistic pretentiousness, and even undercuts the grandeur of the Alps!”

In other words, Wisse, like Aleichem, thinks that Howe’s obsession with the “quizzical” and “troubling laughter” of Aleichem is something Aleichem would laugh at.  Playing on the word “quizzical” (which Howe uses several times in his letters to Wisse), Wisse gives her final words on Aleichem which show us a correlation of simple faith (hope) in the story (and storytelling) and not with the world:

What confronts us, finally, is the quizzical smile of the author, compulsively skeptical about everything but the story.

This tension between hope and skepticism, for Wisse, not only informs her reading of Aleichem as an artist; it also informs her reading of the schlemiel.   Howe’s reading of the schlemiel would differ significantly because, in reading Aleichem, he puts the emphasis on the quizzical-as-such and not the relation of the quizzical with the tension between fiction and reality or hope and skepticism.





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