Jonathan Freedman, author of The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America, is nothing if not a formidable scholar. His views on art, aesthetics, and the whole Jewish-American phantasmagoria have long been an inspiration to me. And I’ve been following him ever since I thought my interests might kind-of sort-of dovetail with American-Jewish Literature. Granted, this was not of choice; the reading list for candidacy where I completed my MA included one minor, very strange book I had never heard of: Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. At the time, I was an avowed Europeanist. I guess I thought that they had it right in the years prior to 1950: Europe, at least in my view, was the way of the past as much as it was the future. But Roth’s novel brought all of the things that had driven me as an intellectual—aestheticism, the artist as visionary, place as visionary space, cinematic experience, etc.—to an uncomfortably comfortable place in New York.
I only realized this partway through the novel, after the sort of skimming and ignoring that is a prerequisite of such exams. My notes became more and more emphatic throughout, and I ended up re-reading the beginning of the novel after my exams, something that is all but unheard of academia.
In some ways, the novel is an immigrant one. It is told from the perspective of David Schearl, a young man who arrives in New York in 1892, after a brief and troubled childhood in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His troubles do not stop in the land of “tired, huddled masses,” but that is a story for another post.
David is particularly drawn to a biblical passage about coal, fire, and redemption; and it is this visionary experience that leads to his Modernist-electrical-biblical-super-amazing conclusion. (No spoilers.) And, interestingly enough, Isaiah 6—from which was David derives his spiritual sustenance—was the parsha today. Somehow I’ve got this weird sense of when to attend to services. Sometimes it’s days when my Hebrew name comes up, sometimes it’s times when the passage speaks directly to something I’m studying. Either way, it’s uncanny. I’m not sure that I got anything from the reading that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, but I did note the coincidence. And I did think, like Joyce, ever so briefly, that there are no such things as coincidences.
But this isn’t what I thought of writing about today. I was writing about Jonathan Freedman and Victorian views on education. At least, that’s what I set out to do. The short of it is, I enrolled in a class with Freedman since, well, he’s Freedman, and I didn’t care what the course topic really was. Turns out it was fin-de-siècle modernism—something totally in line with my French/Polish/Anglo-American interests. Since our anthologies had not yet come in, Professor Freedman sent out our readings the day before we had to read them. I was not upset, nor was I annoyed, but I was, let’s say, peeved. Because I like to put a lot of time into my readings. I like to read them once, and then again, and then for a third time just to pick out my talking points. And this was not an option for the class that I had so emphatically decided would be THE ONE to lead me to my dissertation…
Instead, it lead me to a much more interesting place. “We should conceive of poetry worthily,” Matthew Arnold, the Victorian critic asserts, “and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it.” And then, surpassing even those who think poetry—and, by extension, Literature with a capital L—is to be valued, Arnold says that such work makes us better people: “We should conceive of it as capable of higher uses, and called to higher destines than those which general men have assigned to it hitherto.”
I have heard that some high schools no longer require fiction to be taught. I have heard that they teach instruction manuals instead, feeling that this is more effective, and more practically suited to students’ needs. And Matthew Arnold—in all his Victorian genius-ness—makes me wonder about education, and what it mean that we strive toward competency, whatever that means.
This is not the post I meant it to be. But I guess it is the post it wanted to be.