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Race, Rights, and Recognition: Jewish American Literature Since 1969 by Dean J. Franco (review)

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Abstract

Rightly or wrongly, the study of Jewish American literature has often been criticized for its conservatism, particularly its allergy to theory and its sometimes overtly celebratory character. (A friend once joked that he wanted to write a book about Jewish American literature that didn't seem like it was merely a treasury of Bubbe's favorite recipes.) In recent years, the field of Jewish American literary studies has been struggling to find a new, more expansive identity and vernacular. Dean Franco's recently published Race, Rights, and Recognition: Jewish American Literature since 1969 marks an important step in carving out the ramparts of the field and providing a portal into wider discourses that have often resisted connection with American Jewish literary studies. At the center of Franco's volume is a canny argument: Jewish American literature—particularly Jewish American literature published from the 1970s onward—is uniquely positioned to exemplify, expose, and, sometimes, challenge the very basis of identity as it has been understood in a post-civil rights, increasingly global U.S. The book is loosely organized into two sections, one devoted to the ways in which Jewish American authors "explore the dilemma of the moral, ethical, or political conflicts that occur when individuals are also members of social groups" and the other "about global occasions for recognition and recognition's failure and the future of global recognition" (8). Also central to the book are "literary accounts of diversity and multiculturalism and theorizations of civil and human rights" (21). As Franco makes clear from his persuasive opening reading of Saul Bellow's infamous Mr. Sammler's Planet, he is deeply engaged in a deconstructive literary project that challenges binary thinking or simplistic argument in all of its forms. He is particularly persuasive in his critique of the simplistic polar oppositions embraced by thinkers on both the right and the left when approaching Bellow. Throughout Race, Rights, and Recognition, he challenges received narratives of all kinds. His reading of the underrated Her First American, a novel by Lore Segal, uses Segal's autobiography to complicate and destabilize fixed notions of race and identity. His appraisal of Cynthia Ozick returns the politically vexed writer and intellectual to her rightful position as a radical critic of self and other in American culture. His analysis of Tony Kushner's avowedly global Homebody/ Kabul places the valences of cultural Jewishness into conversation with the wider discourse of human rights. Franco's close readings are fresh and complex, but the most radical aspect of his book is the way in which these readings offer an implicit critique of what we might call literary essentialism—the conflation of writer and text at the heart of much literary criticism, particularly much of the criticism devoted to "ethnic" writers. Race, Rights, and Recognition also does a magisterial job of making clear just how central Jewishness (as a symbolic entity) is to making sense of the shifting sands of race and ethnicity in the U.S. while avoiding viewing Jewish American literature through the narrow lens of intra-group "generational conflict." One of the most important contributions Franco's book makes is bringing Jewish American literature into conversation with theory. His use of political philosophy to open up the literature he studies is particularly deft. At times, however, the theory weighs too heavily on the analysis in Race, Rights, and Recognition. Overdetermined concepts such as "proximity" and "culture" are gestured at, but never fully unpacked or integrated into a larger animating argument. Franco's choice of 1969 to frame the book also seems arbitrary at times. While it makes good narrative sense to frame his analysis historically, his overall argument is not well-served by this crisis model of literary and social history. To give but one example, while Mr. Sammler's Planet was published in 1969, it was written before then (as Franco acknowledges) and much of it surrounds Sammler's role during the Six Day War in Israel in 1967—an important year both for the novel and Jewish aesthetics and politics in America. Franco's focus on 1969 makes him neglect the primacy of the Six Day narrative and the way Bellow links it to the...

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