English 079.403 / Jewish Studies 179.401 -- Fall 2004
Jewish American Fiction

Tuesday / Thursday 3-4:30 -- DRLB A6

INSTRUCTOR: Daniel Traister
Email: traister@pobox.upenn.edu
Phone: 215 898 7088 (voicemail: 7089)
Office: 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
Office hours: call or email in advance


In the twentieth century, many American Jewish writers apparently decided no longer to allow themselves to be the (somewhat exoticized) subjects of others' portrayals but instead to portray themselves and their country directly. Simultaneously, they eschewed "explaining" themselves to those others, writing instead for themselves and for anyone else who might want to listen to them. Eventually, many others did.

This class briefly surveys a very small fraction of the fictions written by Jewish Americans, beginning early in the last century with a work by Anzia Yezierska, an immigrant, and coming into the present century with a book written by a Philadelphian. It also includes some ringers: a "Jewish" novel by the American Protestant John Updike; a rumination on "Jewishness" after Auschwitz by the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. Time limits require the omission of numerous enjoyable and important other fictions, short stories as well as novels. We also read no poetry or drama written by Jewish Americans.

You should be ready and able to read through a good deal of fiction quickly. You should be prepared to deal comfortably with the fact that many of the Jewish writers we will read are "Jewish" in the sense that they are of Jewish descent, but they are not necessarily therefore also religiously observant. They include writers identified with the political left and the political right -- and you need to be prepared for the fact that such identifications often actually matter to them.


The success of this course depends entirely on your willingness to be engaged by the material and by each other. You need to keep up with the reading and to read carefully, but you also need to be adventurous about the interpretations that you offer. Take risks, draw connec-tions, ask questions. Above all, talk to one another during -- and, if you can bear it, after -- our class meetings. The instructor will facilitate discussion and suggest some broader historical and cultural contexts for the material that we read, but a good deal of the direction and momentum of our conversation will be for you to determine.

The instructor regards your classroom participation very seriously. He will count it as 20% (one-fifth) of your final grade. That is, he will assign you a letter grade for your contributions to our discussions. You must arrive promptly for class. Unexcused absences are not permitted. Habitual lateness and/or more than one unexcused absence during the semester will result in the deduction of one-third of a letter grade from your final grade. Two or more unexcused absences before the end of the drop period will cause you to be dropped from the class. Five unexcused absences during the semester will result in a failing grade for the course.


The formal work for this class consists of several written assignments: occasional very short (spur-of-the-moment) papers (250-500 words) and two longer papers (1250-2000 words). The instructor will require, at the end of the class, either either a long final paper (2000-2500 words) or a final examination.

All written assignments must be submitted at the beginning of class on the relevant due date. No extensions will be granted without an appropriate excuse from the College Office or Student Health Center. Unexcused late work will receive a failing grade.

You may have quizzes (both announced and unannounced) in this class.

In general, the instructor appreciates good writing. He will look with disfavor upon essays that are poorly written. Sloppy writing normally means sloppy thinking.



Related to the papers and examination, it is your responsibility to be familiar with the relevant sections of the University's Code of Academic Integrity. Inevitably, all work is collabor-ative. You will, as a matter of course, draw on and respond to the work of scholars, instructors, and other students. But your work must also be original: its central ideas, questions, or ways of considering problems must be your own. Acknowledge your intellectual debts. Any student who commits academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade for the course.


The single best resource for readers of English-language works is the Oxford English Dictionary. OED is freely available to Penn students through the Library's website. It is also found in its various printed forms in Reference Rooms throughout Penn and the region. This dictionary provides simple "definitions." But also, and much more importantly, it offers historical definitions, recording how a word has been used over time. These histories, and not just "the definition," are what you want to learn to use when you use OED. They allow you to see the range of different, competing, or overlapping usages and meanings any given word might have made available to the writer using it, in addition to its primary, "obvious," or present-day denotative values.

The writers we read are not English, however. Most are Americans writing about people who often speak both English and Yiddish. You may therefore find help from such additional tools as Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (1961), also freely available to Penn students through the Library's website, and such guides to Yiddish as those by Leo Rosten (popular) or Uriel Weinrich (scholarly).


Texts are available at the Pennsylvania Book Center (130 South 34th Street, at Sansom Street).

The instructor believes in supporting local independent bookstores but knows that you can often find textbooks (on the web, new, or used) for less money. (This will probably be especially true for the LofA edition of Bellow, listed below.) If you go to a different source for your texts, PLEASE be as careful as you can be about the precise edition of a work you buy. All of the texts we read are common; all can be found in other editions very easily. A specific edition may seem a matter of indifference. But it isn't, in part for the obvious reason that if students use different texts in class, it will make it difficult for us all to be on the same page (literally!) during our discussions.


  1. Week 1 -- 9 September

  2. Week 2 -- 14 September; 16 September NO CLASS (Rosh Hashanah)

  3. Week 3 -- 21-23 September

  4. Week 4 -- 28-30 September

    1. "Which is the merchant, which the Jew?" asks Portia as she enters the courtroom for Shylock's suit against Antonio in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. One could conceivably ask a similar question -- even though the answer may seem obvious -- of Bellow's novel: who in it is "the victim"? Is this really a conceivable question? Why? If you can see ways in which Finkielkraut is relevant to a consideration of the novel and this question, feel free to use his book in your paper.

    2. The end of The Victim -- perhaps like the end of Dangling Man? -- is not entirely satisfactory, is it? You may argue that it is, showing how and why; or that it is not, showing how and why not -- and, once again, if you can see ways in which Finkielkraut is relevant to the novel and this question, feel free to use his book in your paper.

  5. Week 5 -- 5-7 October

  6. Week 6 -- 12-14 October

    1. Discuss the paragraph that opens chapter 11 (from "Now there's a dark Westminster" to "and opportunities are finished"). How does it work? If you think of works of literature as "little machines," how does this paragraph function in the "machine" that is this novel? What are its "moving parts"; how do they move? And what is/are the relationship(s) of the paragraph's technique(s) and function(s), if any, to the major theme(s) of Augie?

    2. Throughout Augie, Bellow's prose style is characterized by his use of sentence fragments, that is, dependent clauses and phrases used as if they were complete sentences. In the first place, cite some examples, perhaps from varied places in the book. (Let's make sure you know enough basic grammar to recognize a fragment when it's set down in front of you.) But more important: can you think of any reason(s) for Bellow to have chosen to use this ungrammatical characteristic? (Let me suggest, at least tentatively, that an argument that "Bellow doesn't know English grammar" would, almost surely, qualify as A Bad Answer.) How might these fragments function thematically in Augie, if they do?

    3. A large number of sentences (or fragments!) in Augie begin with conjunctions (e.g., "and," "but," "or," "so") or such words as "like," a form of beginning usually frowned upon by English teachers and other guardians of propriety in written English. Once again, cite a few examples. Can you think of functional or thematic reasons -- can you, that is, offer any explanation -- for this grammatical and stylistic solecism?

  7. Week 7 -- 19-21 October

  8. Week 8 -- 26 October NO CLASS (fall break); 28 October

  9. Week 9 - 2-4 November

  10. Week 10 -- 9-11 November

    1. Compare and contrast the political attitudes/views of Roth and Doctorow. Does it matter to the ways in which readers can understand what either writer thinks of the society in which his characters are placed that they are often Jewish characters? and, if so, how?

    2. To what extent does the word "claustrophobia" seem apposite (or, if you prefer, inapposite) to the world(s) Roth (in Portnoy's Complaint and The Human Stain) and Doctorow create? What does such claustro-phobia (or its absence) -- assuming, of course, that you agree it is something to be felt in either or both of these writers, or perhaps in only one of them -- signify? If claustrophobia does not seem a concept that is relevant to either of these two writers, can you think of a different term for the atmosphere both create? Or do these writers simply create different atmospheres from one another, or different atmospheres in each book?

  11. Week 11 -- 16-18 November

  12. Week 12 -- 23 November; 25 November NO CLASS (Thanksgiving)

  13. Week 13 -- 30 November-2 December

  14. Week 14 -- 7-9 December

    1. How does Weiner make Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" work for her in this novel?

    2. In Her Shoes (is)(is not) a species of Jewish chicklit. Choose one, and then argue the case for or against this novel's seriousness as a work of literary art. ("The instructor assigned it, so it must be [good][bad]," unfortunately, will not cut it as an argumentative approach.)

FINAL PAPER (ca. 2000 words) or EXAM

Whichever the class chooses will be due no later than 5 P.M., 22 December. It will focus on John Updike, Bech: A Book, but with references to other works read this semester.

You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at traister@pobox.upenn.edu.

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