Joseph Epstein on the book by Josh Lambert titled “The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American Literature”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Joseph Epstein of the book by Josh Lambert titled “The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American Literature”:

Two old Jewish men are sitting on a park bench, where one has been bemoaning the worldwide return of anti-Semitism. After a while, his companion interrupts him to say that as he sees it, au contraire, the Jews have never been in better shape: They dominate the financial world, they control the media, politicians are in their pockets, Israel is stronger and more menacing than ever. The first man, astonished, asks on what he bases this. “Simple,” says the second man, “I listen to no radio, read no newspapers, and watch only Al Jazeera.”

The joke came to mind while reading Josh Lambert’s “The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American Literature.” Mr. Lambert is an associate professor of English and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Wellesley College, and in his book he surveys the influence of Jews in publishing and literature, chiefly in the last half of the 20th century. He reports that, until well into the 1900s, Jews in America tended to be excluded from major publishing firms and magazine editorial jobs and from professorships in literature departments in universities. Once barriers based on prejudice came down, Jews attained positions of influence and often hired other Jews, recommended Jewish students, and practiced fairly extensive literary nepotism. Nothing wrong with nepotism, I always say, if you keep it in the family.

True enough, the influence of Jews in American literature, if less than organized, once seemed pervasive. Many editors of intellectual magazines were Jewish. Jewish literary critics abounded. In publishing firms, Jews seemed ubiquitous. The number of Jews holding professorships in universities rose. The most written-about novelists were for a period starting around the late 1950s chiefly Jewish, and the Jewish novel itself probably peaked sometime in the late 1970s, when Gore Vidal, never one of the Jews’ best friends, remarked that American fiction was dominated by four Jewish novelists—Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth—and “a lone goy,” John Updike.

How did this Jewish influence come about? My sense is that, in good part, it did so through the emergence of literary talent hitherto suppressed by anti-Semitic arrangements in literary institutions. In the beginning was the word, and soon after came the Jews, than whom no wordier people has ever existed. The verbal energy once put into Talmudic and other religious studies, Jews, now increasingly secular, put into poetry, novels and stories, essays, criticism. Jewish writing soon abounded, though never in an organized way.

The title of Josh Lambert’s book suggests that this surge of activity was organized, that there was a Jewish Literary Mafia, when the author believes nothing of the kind. A mafia, after all, implies a tightly knit organization, with clear goals, marked-out jurisdictions, rich spoils, hit men. Then there is the bad precedent set by that most famous of anti-Semitic tracts, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which, one learns from one of Mr. Lambert’s endnotes, predicted the Jews would control “literature and journalism,” and “if there should be any found who are desirous of writing against us, they will not find any person eager to print their productions.” A more precise title for Mr. Lambert’s book would have been “A Literary Mafia?” with the question mark essential.

Nearly half a century ago another book, “The End of Intelligent Writing” (1974) by Richard Kostelanetz, posited such a literary mafia, one organized around four figures: Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary; Jason Epstein, editorial director of Random House; the critic Irving Howe, editor of Dissent; and Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, all four men Jews. That three of these four men did not speak to one another did not put a dent in Mr. Kostelanetz’s conspiracy theory. What they conspired to do, he held, was hold back young writers and impede the progress of the avant-garde. (Mr. Kostelanetz was then himself a youthful avant-gardist.) Everywhere finding treasure where none was buried, “The End of Intelligent Writing” ignored the fact that intellectuals, especially literary intellectuals, are too disputatious to organize themselves into a Cub Scout den, let alone a mafia.

Mr. Lambert holds no such conspiracy theory, has no central thesis and makes no distinct argument. He is instead content to show the connections between Jewish editors and authors, teachers and students, husbands and wives, parents and children in the 20th-century American literary world. In his introduction, he writes that he aims to “describe and explore one complex set of homophilous logics that had major effects in the history of U.S. literary culture.” (“Homophilous,” a sociological term I had not previously known, means the social connections formed by people with shared common backgrounds, beliefs and interests.) His book, he adds, “attends to the way that a major subset of U.S. literary professionals have had with people linked to them through kinship of one sort or another—in particular their landslayt, their students, their spouses and partners, and their children—influenced and conditioned their tastes, decision-making, and creative expression.” (Landslayt is Yiddish for fellow Jews usually coming from the same town.)

“The Literary Mafia” devotes five pages to “The Victim” (1947), Saul Bellow’s novel about anti-Semitism in publishing. Bellow himself, we learn, was turned down in 1943 for a job at Time. He was always on the qui vive for anti-Semites, so much so that Edward Shils once remarked to me that, “if our friend Saul were to have sat on the lap of the Queen of England for two hours, he would have emerged with two observations: 1. the Queen has no understanding of the condition of the modern artist, and 2. she is an anti-Semite.” Mr. Lambert takes up other fiction that concerns Jews and publishing—among it novels and stories by Rona Jaffe, Sam Astrachan, Ivan Gold, Ann Birstein and others.

A lengthy chapter of “The Literary Mafia” is given to Lionel Trilling, a letter of recommendation or a blurb from whom was once thought a golden master key unlocking literary and academic opportunity. Mr. Lambert’s Trilling chapter shows the shakiness in his underlying theme of Jews helping other Jews to literary success. For one thing, Trilling was not much of a Jew. Of himself Trilling could have said, as Jonathan Miller said of himself, that he was “not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish.” As Trilling noted, in a 1944 symposium quoted by Mr. Lambert, “as the Jewish community now exists, it can give no sustenance to the American artist or intellectual who is born a Jew.” While Mr. Lambert recounts Trilling’s aid to Jewish students, he does not mention any aid he is likely also to have given non-Jewish students. Diana Trilling, who without her husband’s name would have been out of business, gets scant discussion.

Ever the friend of the cause of women, Mr. Lambert reports that Lionel Trilling did not go out of his way to help women students or colleagues. He marshals testimony from Marion Magid, Carolyn Heilbrun and Cynthia Ozick that he largely ignored them. Mr. Lambert quotes Ms. Ozick on Trilling confusing her with another female student, “because we were a connected blur of Woman, the Famous Critic, master of ultimate distinctions, couldn’t tell us apart.” Misogyny, apparently, is a charge that can be leveled post mortem.

“The Literary Mafia” devotes five pages to “The Victim” (1947), Saul Bellow’s novel about anti-Semitism in publishing. Bellow himself, we learn, was turned down in 1943 for a job at Time. He was always on the qui vive for anti-Semites, so much so that Edward Shils once remarked to me that, “if our friend Saul were to have sat on the lap of the Queen of England for two hours, he would have emerged with two observations: 1. the Queen has no understanding of the condition of the modern artist, and 2. she is an anti-Semite.” Mr. Lambert takes up other fiction that concerns Jews and publishing—among it novels and stories by Rona Jaffe, Sam Astrachan, Ivan Gold, Ann Birstein and others.

A lengthy chapter of “The Literary Mafia” is given to Lionel Trilling, a letter of recommendation or a blurb from whom was once thought a golden master key unlocking literary and academic opportunity. Mr. Lambert’s Trilling chapter shows the shakiness in his underlying theme of Jews helping other Jews to literary success. For one thing, Trilling was not much of a Jew. Of himself Trilling could have said, as Jonathan Miller said of himself, that he was “not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish.” As Trilling noted, in a 1944 symposium quoted by Mr. Lambert, “as the Jewish community now exists, it can give no sustenance to the American artist or intellectual who is born a Jew.” While Mr. Lambert recounts Trilling’s aid to Jewish students, he does not mention any aid he is likely also to have given non-Jewish students. Diana Trilling, who without her husband’s name would have been out of business, gets scant discussion.

Ever the friend of the cause of women, Mr. Lambert reports that Lionel Trilling did not go out of his way to help women students or colleagues. He marshals testimony from Marion Magid, Carolyn Heilbrun and Cynthia Ozick that he largely ignored them. Mr. Lambert quotes Ms. Ozick on Trilling confusing her with another female student, “because we were a connected blur of Woman, the Famous Critic, master of ultimate distinctions, couldn’t tell us apart.” Misogyny, apparently, is a charge that can be leveled post mortem.

Mr. Lambert includes a long list of Jewish women in publishing whom he suggests were, if not aided in achieving their positions by their husbands’ positions of power, were at least partially dependent upon them. Prominent among those he mentions are Midge Decter (Mrs. Norman Podhoretz), Gertrude Himmelfarb (Mrs. Irving Kristol) and Barbara Epstein (Mrs. Jason Epstein), three women now all deceased. His claim that their reputations were reliant on their husbands’ is most dubious, since all three were impressive figures on their own: Midge Decter was a brilliant essayist and editor in her own right; Gertrude Himmelfarb was the anti-Lytton Strachey, a scholar who did more than anyone to bring the great Victorian intellectuals back into good odor; and Barbara Epstein, as an editor, brought a literary sensibility to the pages of the New York Review of Books, a journal otherwise dominated by mad dogs and Englishmen.

On the subject of the children and grandchildren of Jewish literary men, Mr. Lambert includes Alfred A. Knopf’s son Pat, Bernard Malamud’s daughter Janna Malamud Smith, Arthur Miller’s daughter Rebecca; Jason Epstein’s son Jacob, Rebecca Goldstein’s daughter Yael Goldstein Love and others among the children of Alfred Kazin, Daniel Bell, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Norman Podhoretz and Saul Bellow. Missing from Mr. Lambert’s list is Anne Fadiman, daughter of Clifton.

Mr. Lambert’s penchant for political correctness, in evidence throughout his book, grows stronger in his later pages. He looks forward to the day when a broader, if not a more meritocratic, distribution of power prevails throughout the literary world. He wants the past injustices accorded women in publishing more widely known, sexual predators among editors in the past revealed, and more minorities hired, which would diminish the influence of Jews in American literary culture further.

The author longs for diversity, and for publishers to bring on more BIPOC employees (Black, indigenous and People of Color). The biggest publishers in America today claim to have made this their priority as well. Yet a change in staffing in all aspects of publishing, an increase in what a gentile publicity agent at the Alfred A. Knopf imprint named Bill Cole once referred to as the goy polloi, isn’t likely to revive American literature, at least insofar as these people adhere to political correctness.

There was no Jewish literary mafia enforcing points of view, or silencing the views, to quote “The Protocols of Zion” again, of ‘any found who are desirous of writing against us.’ Political correctness does do that. It is also a strongly inhibiting factor in literary creation, limiting what authors are allowed to write about. Under a regime of political correctness, Tolstoy, a man, would not have been permitted to write “Anna Karenina”; Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Caucasian, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”; and Marcel Proust, though himself homosexual, the portions of “In Search of Lost Time” that are critical of homosexuality. It’s all quite enough to cry out, contra Mr. Lambert, bring back the Jews.

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of “Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits.”

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