Monday, June 27, 2011

Sholem Asch: An Appreciation

Translated from the Yiddish, East River (1946) by the Polish-born American writer Sholem Asch (1880-1957) resonates like rare microfilm. If you are patient enough to crank the handle, the research will yield bountiful gifts attainable from no other source. His accounts of early Twentieth Century New York and the cultural clashes that defined its identity have a legitimacy that is informed by first-hand witness and exacting scholarship. Unlike the suave pastiche of the modern documentary style that partakes heavily of familiar borrowed images and formulaic devices, the grainy details that Asch’s prose reveal are stunning for their novelty and staying power. This is truly living history. The arc of the storyline is interpolated by polemics about such compelling topics as the infamous Triangle fire, the meteoric rise of Jazz and its immediate social consequences, conflicting ideologies within the labor movement, the clutches of Tammany Hall—such asides remind the reader that there actually is a narrator behind the scenes of this captivating drama. Journalism is only one component of his vital and dynamic voice: humorist, poet, epic storyteller, Asch is also noteworthy for his religious scholarship. His depiction of the dynamics of Irish Catholicism is as authentic (though kinder) than the harsh narrative of Chicagoan James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonnigan Trilogy.

Upon the microcosm of the orthodox Davidowsky family, Asch unleashes forces that constantly threaten to usurp the ancient traditions the patriarch Moshe Wolf attempts to uphold. This devout father is beset with adversity, and like Job, withstands the challenges to his enduring faith. His favorite son Nathaniel is stricken with infantile paralysis while in his late adolescence. The younger son Irving, the mother’s favorite, heeds the siren call of the American dream. He overrides ethical considerations using predatory business tactics to rise high in the garment industry. In his vivid depiction of the garment trade, Asch equals Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Amazingly, that is only a subplot! The story arc is driven by the inclusion of a devout Irish Catholic girl into the family. Her presence galvanizes the crippled boy into a religious healing. Her marriage to the successful brother rends the family asunder before transforming it on distinctly American ground. It is refreshing to see that no character comes out of these travails smelling like a rose. Through dialog and interior monologue, we see all the principles struggling with their personal and religious identities. The bit players, too, are vivid despite the broad strokes with which they are painted. In this seamless work of timeless literature, all characters are essential to the final outcome.

Asch is unique among Yiddish writers for his devotional literature about Christianity. His Christian trilogy The Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1943) and Mary (1949) reveals his vast knowledge of history and of his people. Regardless of your stance on Christianity, you will be startled by the details Asch unearths and with which he embellishes the dusty lore (or True Religion, if you prefer). I strongly sensed that East River was part of his biblical continuum. His discussion of the issues in which various factions were embroiled within the Jewish community of Manhattan hearken back to the politics of ancient Jerusalem. He is unsparing in his critique of those power brokers who corrupt the message of his beloved Prophets. Perhaps it is the secular airing of those accusations in his literature, coupled with his upholding of Jesus as the true Messiah that made him a controversial figure during his lifetime. He is deserving of much wider recognition as one of the greatest American authors to have written in his native tongue. Among those “polemics” which I sited are several passages celebrating the egalitarian ideals of the early American vision. For all of his unsparing depictions of corruption and squalor, his vision of this country is ultimately a patriotic one.

From an NPR interview with Pete Seeger (who recorded a Christmas record written by Asch in the mid-‘50s), I learned that Moses Asch, his son, founded Folkways Records. This was the mainstay of the folk revival from the ‘40s and well beyond. During the late ‘30s when portable recording was cutting-edge technology, his father asked him to broadcast a dire radio warning from a portable disk to the Jews remaining in Europe: Get out while you can!
 "Sweatshop," William Gropper. No Date. Lithograph