Hyphen-mongering by readers and critics is a political, anti-literary act of laziness and myopia. We don’t read and enjoy a book because its author comes USDA-stamped “Irish-American” or “French-lesbian.” We read it and enjoy it because it’s good, to put it in the simplest terms. I’m restating what my late friend David Myers wrote more than a decade ago: “Literature is simply good writing—where `good’ has, by definition, no fixed definition.” That formulation makes some uneasy. I find it useful. We all have bookish prejudices, and I have no interest in defending or questioning mine. I’m almost immune to the charms of German literature. The only books I own written by an African writer are Confessions and The City of God. Science fiction, a species of children’s literature, leaves me cold and indifferent, and I’m too old to care. I won’t read a book because I’m told it’s good for me. Reading is not therapeutic and it’s not like eating kale. Literature is slippery and defies pre-fabricated marketing. By definition it surprises and sometimes offends. I like the spirit in which Irving Howe writes “Strangers,” an essay from 1977:
“I remember Isaac Rosenfeld, the most winning of all American Jewish writers, once explaining to me with comic solemnity that Chekhov had really written in Yiddish but Constance Garnett, trying to render him respectable, had falsiﬁed the record. Anyone with half an ear, said Rosenfeld, could catch the tunes of Yiddish sadness, absurdity, and humanism in Chekhov’s prose—and for a happy moment it almost seemed true.”
Chekhov was a Dreyfusard who championed Sholem Aleichem. As Howe notes in his essay, Jewish immigrants to America felt a solidarity with Chekhov and other non-Jewish Russian writers, though not with the “sensationalist and anti-Semite Dostoevsky.” Howe writes:
“These Russians formed a moral dike guarding the immigrant Jewish intelligentsia and then their children from the waves of American sensibility and myth. Like the Yiddish culture from which we had emerged, we were internationalist in our sentiment before we were part of any nation, living in the exalted atmospheres of European letters even as we might be afraid, at home, to wander a few streets away.”
As a non-Jewish, non-Russian American, I share a similar affinity for Gogol and Sinyavsky, David Bergelson and Isaac Bashevis Singer. They are “mine,” and I don’t need anyone telling me otherwise. In 1985, Clarence Brown edited The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, a selection ranging from Tolstoy and Chekhov to Voinovich and Sokolov. In his introduction he says provocatively and correctly: “I now look back on this banquet of words with much pleasure, which I hope nothing will prevent your sharing. These writers, after all continue in our time the tradition that has made Russian, along with English and classical Greek, one of the three supreme literatures of the world.” Nothing to argue about there, and I’m not Russian, English or Greek.