Stanley Elkin’s Jewish Question

Originally published in A Casebook on Stanley Elkin’s Dick Gibson Show, ed. David C. Dougherty (Chicago: Dalkey Archive, 2003).

The dinner-table game of Guess Who’s Jewish is so popular that two different books by that title have been published to answer the question. Whether a writer is Jewish, however, is a little more complicated. It may seem harmless—an occasion to shep a little nakhes, to feel a twinge of pride—but it may also betray a creeping anxiety over the whole question of Jewish identity. If Jewish images or ideas are vital to a writer’s work categorizing him as a Jewish writer would be superfluous. But if on the other hand he is a Jew only by accident of birth what dif­fer­ence does it make? A writer isn’t Jewish in the same way as, say, a ballplayer. The choices that identify ball­players as Jewish (Hank Greenberg’s enlistment in the U.S. Army Air Force in response to anti­semitic insinuations about his patriotism, Sandy Koufax’s decision not to pitch on Yom Kip­pur) are entirely unrelated to how baseball is played. For a ball­player it’s simply a matter of being a Jew. With a writer, though, the game is not so easily separated from being. If his choices are unre­lated to how a writer writes it is beside the question whether he is a Jew. To be considered a Jewish writer—for the title to have any meaning at all—a writer must write Jewishly. The question is what that could possibly mean.

Stanley Elkin was ambivalent about being known as a Jewish writer. “I don’t identify myself with Jewish writers,” he told an interviewer an in 1975. “However, you know, I resent it if I see an anthology with Jewish writers, and I’m not included.”[1] And sure enough, the anthologies—Solotaroff and Rapoport’s Writing Our Way Home (1992) and the Norton anthology of Jewish American Literature (2001)—leave him out, although this doesn’t seem right either. Born in 1930, Elkin belongs to the third generation of American Jewish writers, which includes his contempo­raries Cynthia Ozick, Irvin Faust, Bruce Jay Friedman, E. L. Doctorow, Tova Reich, Richard Stern, Leonard Michaels, Hugh Nissenson, Philip Roth, Jerome Charyn, and Max Apple. The members of this generation were known as Jewish writers from the start. Coming of age in a decade when second-generation writers like Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud had stirred up interest in Ameri­can Jewish writing, they were the lucky beneficiaries of what the non-Jewish novelist Edward Hoag­land described, with some bitterness, as a “concentrated burst of enthusiasm for writers consciously Jewish.”[2] Perhaps it should not be surprising that they chafed at the identification. They disliked being grouped together as if they were a firm of Jewish accountants. They rebelled against the expectation that they must write on Jewish subjects. Yet they remained consciously Jewish—in a way that invited the identification. Elkin may have been less reserved about his true feelings when confiding to friends, but even then the ambivalence, the inner conflict between Jewish identity and revolt against it, glared through. “He hated being called a Jewish novelist,” William H. Gass told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch upon Elkin’s death in 1995, “although a lot of his themes were Jewish.”

It is not immediately clear what those themes might be. Between Criers and Kibitzers, Kibit­zers and Criers (1965) and The Rabbi of Lud (1987), Elkin’s work is practically devoid of Jewish con­cerns. The common opinion is that Elkin is a Jewish writer principally in his use of comedy. Alfred Kazin set the tone for subsequent discussion by enrolling Elkin among Jewish “black humor” novel­ists in The Bright Book of Life (1973). After the Holocaust, Jewish writers like Elkin felt that “Jews were simply freaks of history.” They took no joy in Jewish tradition, but were fully conscious of themselves as Jews; they were “haunted by the different sounds made in the world by non-Jews and Jews.” Hence Elkin’s emphasis upon voice and desperate situations in which a “hard-pressed protag­onist” keeps talking, talking.[3] Later critics followed these leads, but where Kazin had placed Elkin in a context of post-Holocaust “absurdity” that emanated from French thought, they associated him with cultural practices that antedated the Holocaust and were more distinctively Jewish. Maurice Charney, for example, positions Elkin firmly within the tradition of “Jewish black humor,” because even though he uses “relatively few Yiddish expressions,” his “voice and tone seem distinc­tively Jewish.” How exactly? The style is “grotesque, exhibitionistic, and obsessive,” and these manifest “the defensive persona of the Jewish humorist, clown, or stand-up comedian.”[4] In an essay in Contemporary Literature, Daniel Green agrees with Charney that many of Elkin’s characters “take on the aura of the vaudevillian or standup comic,” living in “the speeded-up mode of the burlesque hall” and speaking in a patter “reminiscent of the vaudeville routine. . . .” Green goes further, asserting that the mark of burlesque and vaudeville is a “duality of tone,” which is “self-deprecating yet at the same time wiseacre. . . .” Elkin’s speakers, conse­quently, are suspended between “buffoonery and sincerity.”[5] Now, Charney and Green have spe­cified a key and unmis­takable feature of Elkin’s style—it is exhibitionistic, it is obsessive, it is characterized by a duality of tone—but they are far less persuasive on the specific Jewish sources of this style. Instead of drawing a necessary connection between his voice and the Jewishness of Elkin’s fiction, they have merely offered a corollary to it: namely, standup comedy or vaudeville. But even if it is sound, this comparison doesn’t establish that Elkin’s voice is distinctively Jewish. Although a good many standup come­dians and vaudevilleans happen to have been Jews, their Jewish identity may be no more integral to their comic style than Koufax’s to his fastball. And so too for Elkin.

In this essay I want to connect Elkin’s voice to its source in Jewish history and literature. The Dick Gibson Show (1971) is perhaps the best of his novels for making the connection, and for a couple of reasons. First, the novel is about voice. Talk radio, its apparent subject, is a mere pre­text for writing about voice. It is no accident that the novel should begin on a night when Dick Gibson, a part-time announcer in Butte, Montana, has to fill an empty stretch of air time, “a queer, infinite vacuum that might be filled with a whisper but always had to be fed with sound.”[6] The fill­ing of that vacuum with human voice—holding off the silence with the radio man’s “God-given gift of a voice,” a “voice that’s been thirty-one years old for the past decade and won’t be thirty-two for another ten years” (p. 11)—is the real subject of the novel. Dick Gibson is distinguished by his voice; it is, he admits, what he has instead of character (p. 209). Elkin’s novel is dedicated to examining the proposition that the course of a man’s life may be determined, not by his ethical choices, but by verbal behavior. The way a man talks, the language that he uses, will perform the critical function of deciding his relationship to other people, including the question of whom those others will be. To speak this language, not that, is to make common cause with these people, not those. Identity is partly a result of language choice.

Such a proposition connects Elkin to one of the Jews’ fiercest struggles among themselves—what is called the great language war.[7] As the Jews of the late nineteenth and early twentieth cen­turies arrived at modernity they faced the question whether to speak and write Yiddish, the zhargon of the diaspora; Hebrew, the loshen kodesh (holy tongue) and language of Zionism; or the land­sprakh, the vernacular of the dominant gentile culture in which they found themselves. Yid­dishists, Hebraists, and assimilationists entered into conflict, as Benjamin Harshav says, “supported by ideologies for which language (one language!) was the foundation of national identity.” What resulted, he goes on, “was overtly an often vicious war between Hebrew and Yiddish, and, subter­raneanly, between each of these and the languages of assimilation, and vice versa.”[8] To operate in one of these languages rather than another (or even, as did several of the early modern Jewish writers, to operate in more than one) was to take a side, to declare an allegiance, to make a public commitment. Modern Jewish literature may have been (in the slogan of the Yiddish critic Baal-Makhshoves) one literature in (at least) two languages, but it was also a collision between linguistic ideol­ogies. Language choice implied an answer to the prior question of where the Jews must stand in the world, politically, geographically, culturally. And this leads to the second reason that The Dick Gib­son Show is the right text for assessing the Elkin’s Jewishness. The novel dramatizes an unresolved internal conflict between voices that is strikingly characteristic, not only of Elkin’s, but of much prose fiction by third-generation American Jews—a generation that insisted upon writing in a non-Jewish language, but whose English was forged by the Jewish language struggle. Elkin’s duality of tone recapitulates the Jews’ often vicious debate among themselves over the Jewish question.

Elkin’s generation, the third generation of American Jewish writers, seems distinctive less for being consciously Jewish than for throwing off its Jewishness. Deciding to write in English rather than a Jewish language like Hebrew or Yiddish is merely one in a whole series of decisions that seem to have distanced these writers from their Jewish origins. They remained in the United States rather than emigrating to Israel; they looked for subjects in American experience rather than in Jewish milieux, including Orthodox religious life and the beyt hamidrash (the synagogue con­ceived as a study house), to which they were largely outsiders; their writing presupposes an acquaintance not with Jewish texts but with literature, a word practically unknown in Jewish tradition, the Latin translation of a Greek term, implying high culture—high enough to give the nose bleed, as Elkin would quip.[9] All this seems like prima facie evidence of cultural assimilation. And yet there is some­thing oddly Jewish about it. The third-generation American Jewish writer is a recognizable Jewish type. In The Counterlife, Philip Roth speaks for his entire generation:

To be the Jew that I was . . . which was neither more nor less than the Jew I wished to be, I didn’t need to live in a Jewish nation. . . . My landscape wasn’t the Negev wilderness, or the Galilean hills, or the coastal plain of ancient Philistia; it was industrial, immigrant America—Newark where I’d been raised, Chicago where I’d been educated, and New York where I was living. . . . My sacred text wasn’t the Bible but novels translated from Russian, German, and French into the language in which I was beginning to write and publish my own fiction—not the semantic range of classical Hebrew but the jumpy beat of American English was what excited me. I was not a Jewish survivor of a Nazi death camp in search of a safe and welcoming refuge, or a Jewish socialist for whom the primary source of injustice was the evil of capital, or a nationalist for whom cohesiveness was a Jewish political necessity, nor was I a believing Jew, a scholarly Jew, or a Jewish xenophobe who couldn’t bear the proximity of goyim.[10]In Roth’s account, the Jewish writer takes his place in the sociology of Jewish types alongside the Jewish survivor, the Jewish socialist, the Jewish nationalist, the believing Jew, and the scholarly Jew. Unlike the Jewish xenophobe who will have nothing to do with gentiles—Roth’s bitter por­trait of the Jewish exclusivist, who reviles assimilationists like Roth—the Jewish writer chooses to assimilate in order to be precisely the kind of Jew he wishes to be. He declares allegiance to “the jumpy beat of American English” rather than “the semantic range of classical Hebrew,” because he wishes to establish himself as an American writer. Here, though, is an irony of literary history that cannot be accounted for by the simple either/or of ideological debates. The American Jew writes English in a way that is thoroughly Jewish, because his literary language is the unplanned offspring of the Jewish encounter between assimilation’s vernacular and exclusivism’s jargon and holy tongue. A jumpy English—is there a better phrase to characterize the prose of American Jewish writers from Bellow to Michael Chabon, including Roth and Elkin? The language may be the language of Esau, but the voice is Jacob’s voice.[11]

The Dick Gibson Show reproduces this conflict between the language of assimilation and the language of Jewish particularity and the ideologies that support them. A war between voices divides the novel. On one side is the title character’s voice, but on the other side is the voice of the narra­tive; and the two are not easily reconciled. Through his apprenticeship in radio, Dick Gibson works long and hard to “body-build” a voice that does not draw attention to itself, but becomes “part of the generalized sound of American life” (p. 84). Dick Gibson’s represents the dream of a universal voice, regionless and without accent, which does not betray the origins of the speaker. To become a suc­cessful talk-show host, he must speak the language of assimilation. Elkin’s voice, though, is not Dick Gibson’s. The prose of The Dick Gibson Show is highly particularized, a voice print for the author, “uniquely inflected . . . as marked as his thumbs” (p. 229). Elkin “body-builds” his own narrative voice from novel to novel, developing a style that is unmistakable and ideally suited to his special kind of narrative art. With Elkin, voice replaces plot. The movement of the language, its pitch and cadence, looping back on itself or skittering forward, abruptly shifting from topic to topic or lingering to describe a Persian carpet in painstaking detail, descending into jargon or rousing itself to rhetoric—in Elkin’s fiction, language organizes the narrative. It is the determination of incident and the illus­tration of character. It is the first claim upon a reader’s interest. On the one hand, then, The Dick Gibson Show is a story about a radio man whose voice is his most important quality, but who subordin­ates the distinctiveness of his voice to a broad-based and collective medium. He develops a voice as crisp and anonymous as the name Dick Gibson. On the other hand, the story is told in a voice that demands recognition. The dramatic interplay between these two voices, universal and assimilative on the one hand, particularized and unique on the other, is the deepest source of meaning in the novel.

The prooftext appears in the novel’s opening pages. Early in his apprenticeship, before he has assumed the name that is itself the chief symbol of his assimilation, Dick Gibson must learn to speak in a flat tone that does not share the accents of his listeners. “The single time he had tried to appropriate what he took to be their vocabulary,” the novel relates, “he himself had had to answer the telephone to listen to their offended complaints: ‘You tell that damn Jew you got down there he’d best not make sport of us. . . .’ From then on he spoke to them in flat accents as unnatural to him as dialect” (p. 16). The plain truth is that Dick Gibson is a Jew. The very attempt to speak the language of the country unmasks him as one, the eternal stranger. When he tries to duplicate the accents of his audience, he is merely passing—adopting the inauthentic guise of a non-Jew. The only real way to belong, to blend in, is to shed natural speech altogether and to train himself in an unac­cented Standard English that is entirely synthetic. Dick succeeds in doing just that. He is a good radio man, he says,

Because I would rid myself of all dialect and speak only Midwest American Standard, and have a sense of bond, and eschew the private and wild and unacceptable. Because I would throw myself into the melting pot while it’s at the very boil and would, if I had the power, pass a law to protect the typical. Because I honor the mass. Because I revere the regular. Because I consent to consensus. Because I . . . daily pray to keep down those qualities in myself that are suspect or insufficiently public-spirited or divergent from the ideal. (p. 27)Here in one passage is the Kulturkampf between the promptings of assimilation and a voice that is unashamed of its particularity. Like any other Jewish male, Dick prays daily; but instead of reciting the shemoneh esrei, the eighteen benedictions that are required three times a day, he prays to “keep down” just such a custom as daily prayer, which would identify him as a Jew.[12] He takes to heart the famous line by Y. L. Gordon: he is a Jew at home, in his private thoughts, but an undifferen­tiated human being on the streets—or, rather, on the air.[13] The allusion to the melting pot is apt too, since the phrase was popularized by an earlier American Jewish writer, Israel Zangwill, whose 1908 play by that title was a Broadway smash. In the last scene, the main character David Quix­nones turns west toward the sunset and says (“Prophetically,” Zangwill instructs, “exalted by the spec­tacle”):There she lies, the great Melting Pot—listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth—the [New York] harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian—black and yellow—“Jew and Gentile,” his girlfriend, a Cossack’s daughter, interrupts. “Yes,” he continues,East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.[14]The melting pot, in short, is a Jewish ideology—a Jewish vision of universal peace and brotherhood, a Republic of Man in which the Jews are no longer persecuted by virtue of being Jews. This univer­salism, one of their great ideological temptations, is the engine that has driven modern Jews’ accul­turation and integration into modern society. Assimilation is not a social process that occurs while nobody is paying attention; it is an argument. Whether it is the slogan of Jews who yearn for mid­dle-class respectability—faites-vous oublier, the advice of well-to-do French Jews in the late nine­teenth century to make yourself inconspicuous—or the exalted prophecy of a Jewish humanist like Zangwill, the argument remains the same. The Jews must submerge difference for the sake of parti­cipation in a common culture. Dick Gibson merely gives the argument a new institutional setting in radio. By ridding himself of all dialect and speaking only Midwest American Standard, Dick lends voice to a universalist ideal. His voice is the voice of assimilation.

Although there is little evidence that Dick actually speaks in a generalized and anonymous style—the transcript of his voice sounds remarkably like Elkin’s own—his work in radio is on behalf of a similar cause. Dick submerges individual difference to play the role of “moderator” or “control” (p. 140), bestowing speech upon the novel’s other characters through the temporary gift of his voice. He undergoes a long apprenticeship, Dick explains, “to make myself worthy of my voice” (p. 82). That voice gives Dick a calling, almost a prophetic role. His purpose in life—the reason for his “God-given gift of a voice”—is to enable others to speak. Those with a story to tell but without a voice to tell it in become audible on The Dick Gibson Show. His career advances from the early days of radio, when Dick “hold[s] up his spokesman’s end of the conversation—which in radio was the only end there was” (p. 83)—through a middle period in which he conducts a live panel discussion in the studios of WHCN in Hartford, Connecticut, and into the Golden Age of talk radio when the use of telephones has at last empowered him to be himself. The steady pro­gress is toward a connection with people that is stronger than his voice, which provides a connec­tion that is merely conceptual and apparent, he complains. “Fetters give me,” Dick prays. “Let there be heavy equipment; attach me by cords, electronic leashes, to my microphonic stakes” (p. 239). But in truth his career advance­ment is largely technological; radio simply catches up with his pioneering efforts.

From the beginning, Dick’s moral effort has gone into establishing a connection with his listeners. Pursuing a vision of community—Americans clustered around their radio sets, “together in time, united, serene”—he longs “to join his voice to that important chorus,” and while working as Marshall Maine at the Credenzas’ small family-owned station in western Nebraska, he suggests that “KROP should be no different than other stations” (pp. 25–26). He wants to hook the station up to the national institution that radio is becoming. Although the Credenzas turn him down, and though he retaliates by running the station into the ground, Dick is “at the top of his form” in his last days there, speaking with “a silver tongue, lips that were sweeter than wine, a golden throat.” He imag­ines a commercial traveler driving along an icy Route 33 who tunes him in and follows his voice to safety: “Dick would guide him, preserving him on the treacherous road as art preserves, as God does working in mysterious ways” (p. 43). Years later, while serving in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, Dick learns that such a thing had actually happened. There was a traveler on the icy road, fighting sleep; he did follow Dick’s voice to safety. “I don’t even recall now what you said back then,” he tells Dick. “All I know is that whatever it was, it helped” (p. 105). The traveler, who was then running the Fifth Army headquarters in Chicago, has since become a “famous general.” Hear­ing Dick’s name again on Armed Forces Radio, he remembers it imme­diately. Now stationed in a command bunker in England, the general is cut off from the war in Europe by “false floors and new walls, the elevator and desks and typewriters. . .” (p. 106). He wants to hear the war. So he orders Dick into “terrible war zones” and “incendiary landscapes” from which Dick is to send back radio transmissions that give “the feel of the campaigns” (p. 107). Dick’s mission is to provide the general with a connection to the actual fighting.

The section of the novel that follows has been the subject of much critical disagreement. In quarreling over whether the battle of Mauritius is a variation on the theme of myth, a hoax in which the central character is Dick himself, or a tall tale cooked up in Dick’s imagination, the critics have overlooked the frame story. The whole episode—the military build-up, the rediscovery of the dodo, the Japanese POW, the legend of the emperor Shobuta—takes on meaning only in the context of Dick’s mission. What matters is not whether the episode is “true” but that it serves a social function. The broadcast from Mauritius is part of Dick’s effort to create a connection between the generals and the war. From first to last, Dick is keenly aware of his obligation to his audience; that awareness surrounds the broadcasts. “Is this the sort of thing you want?” he asks the generals to conclude his first segment (p. 110). “Am I getting warm?” he asks them at the end (p. 132). The battle of Mauritius, in short, is a story within a story. Of course the Japanese ornithol­ogist’s account of Shobuta and the dodo is a story within a story within a story. And it is an error to interpret the stories without reference to the frame. Again and again Elkin uses this narrative framing device in The Dick Gibson Show. Again and again the thematic effect is the same as on Mauritius. “I don’t understand what’s happening here, or why we came,” Dick complains upon arriving on the island. “There’s nothing to report” (p. 109). What seems like a tranquil and unex­ceptional surface, though, is soon cracked open to reveal the extraordinary, even the miraculous. The dodo is no longer extinct; armies go to war over it; the wingless bird even flies again, just as in the legend of Shobuta. In the end, Dick concludes that he was duped. He was shipped to Mauritius, “a place where not much was happening,” in order to test the army’s transmitting equipment (pp. 132–33). The radio transmissions pro­voked the military build-up and the subsequent battle. They may have been “meant to be meaning­less. But that’s very hard, you know?” Dick reflects. “Mean­ing is everywhere, even in Mauritius” (133). To broadcast a radio program is to establish a con­nection with listeners, and within that con­text—once that connection is established—meaning is generated. The melting pot boils over. The private and wild and unacceptable overrun the typical, the regular, the public-spirited.

Consider the panel discussion on WHCN in Hartford. Each of the panelists seems ordinary enough (an English professor, a pharmacist, the owner of a charm school, a disc jockey), but one by one as if under a spell they offer up uncanny and even shocking stories about themselves. The mask of the ordinary is torn off their lives. A decade later, at WMIA in Miami, having “at last found his format,” Dick hosts Night Letters, a late-night call-in show, which he describes as “a sort of club really, a kind of verbal pen pals” (p. 257). Soon, however, the program belies the conventionality of this description. One after another, callers begin to deliver extraordinary monologues—the cave­man from Africa, the last surviving member of his tribe, who falls in love with a five-year-old white Arkansas girl; the wealthy third grader who has lost his parents, grandparents, uncle, aunt, exec­utor of his parents’ will (“Everybody’s dead”) and lives alone on an enormous estate; the woman whose pierced ears, which look like a child’s sex organ, have determined the course of her life; the widow who drives around with her car door open in order to hear the mourning keen of its alarm. “There’s too much obsession,” Dick says, fretting about “the way solipsism was gradually drown­ing out the inquiry, deference, and courtesy that had set the show’s original tone” (pp. 321–22). But this is just the novel’s way, the basic narrative pattern in The Dick Gibson Show. And the principle behind it is expli­citly formulated somewhat early in the novel when Dick returns home to Pitts­burgh to see his family again after an absence of several years. They put on a masquerade to dis­tract themselves from the actual drama of reunion, pretending that Dick’s homecoming is an every­day occurrence. He is irritated. “Why did they insist upon the quotidian?” he wonders. “Surely the point of life was the possibility it always held out for the exceptional” (p. 76). In Elkin’s fictional world, the exceptional always drowns out inquiry, deference, and courtesy. Difference is not submerged, but rushes to the surface. The social progress of assimilation is reversed: obsession brings middle-class respectability into disrepute. The advice to be conspicuous only in private is cancelled as all of Dick’s guests, unembarrassed by their strange customs and jumpy conversation, take their distinctiveness public. The voice of particularity triumphs over the language of assimilation.

Yet particularity’s triumph is mediated by Dick Gibson, the talk-show host who provides his guests with access to the airways. His job is to serve as assistant—a “squire” among “brave men,” as he puts it on Mauritius (p. 127)—and otherwise to escape notice. “I’m here merely to moderate,” he explains. “I myself am not controversial” (p. 140). Without the voice of assimilation, the language of particularity could not be heard. The two ideologies are completely dependent upon each other, locked in a relentless embrace. Elkin makes this plain by framing the Hartford panelists’ confessions, the Miami callers’ obsessions, within the narrative of a radio show. The framing device is what enables the vocal encounter between Dick’s self-effacement and the self-absorption of his guests to occur at all. Their solipsism is relieved and made bearable by the addition of the frame, which trans­forms monologue into dialogue. Deviance becomes normalized through being confided to Dick, who “consent[s] to consensus.” Thus the possibility of the exceptional may be repeatedly actualized in the characters’ stories in The Dick Gibson Show, but the inconspicuous presence of Dick as modera­tor and listener is a fundamental part of the process. Without the talk-show host, there would be no one to create a connection with the larger world. In this way talk radio is not dissimilar to prose fiction, and Dick Gibson’s role is not dissimilar to Stanley Elkin’s. By providing an outlet for differ­ence, they sustain a common culture. As long as wild and unacceptable speakers hold the attention of their regular and public-spirited listener—as long as he relays their stories, being a “sucker for the first person singular” (p. 72)—then the same universe of discourse can offer a home to both the exceptional and the normal, both unashamed particularity and a readiness to assimilate.

And here is where Elkin is most recognizably a Jewish writer. The Dick Gibson Show’s reli­ance upon the framing device of talk radio is merely a variation on what the great critic Ruth R. Wisse describes as “the natural form” of Yiddish and perhaps all Jewish fiction—what she calls the “internal dialogue between Jews.” As Wisse points out, Mendele Mokher Seforim and Sholem Aleichem, the founders of Yiddish literature, cast their narratives in the form of monologues told by fictional characters to their authors, who are addressed by name. Although neither extensive nor ornate, the frame is just as important as the monologue, since the latter is not an indigenous Jewish genre. Even the most relentless and implacable discourse in Jewish literature is inevitably moderated by being placed in the context of dialogue. When a people has a 3,000-year textual tradition, no assertion can claim to be the last word on any subject, because there is always another text, another opinion, which chal­lenges and qualifies the authoritative view. Modern Jewish writers have simply internalized the dialectical workings of the tradition. Much of their writing naturally seeks the form of a vocal encounter between Jews in which opposing ideological viewpoints—antagonistic voices—are repre­sented within the same narrative. The centrifugal energy of discord is contained and prevented from destroying the basis of a common culture by privileging the vocal encounter over the contribution of any single voice. Even where the frame story is the only surviving vestige of the Jewish dialogue, it serves a significant cultural purpose. It fences off a narrative space within which different varie­ties of social distinctiveness—different and varying solutions to what in other con­texts would be called the Jewish question—can be safely put on display without inviting the conse­quences that usually accompany a minority’s exhibitionism. Attention is shifted from the social process to its literary representation. “The internal dialogue between Jews,” as Wisse explains, “transformed action into speech, the events out there, of which the Jews were so frequently the victim, into a controlled reinterpretation of those events. The action was now in the argument.”[15]

In The Dick Gibson Show, the internal Jewish dialogue has dwindled to the narrative framing device of talk radio. Yet the very use of the frame, a narrative inheritance from Mendele Mokher Seforim and Sholem Aleichem, places Elkin smack within the current of modern Jewish literature. The Jews’ often vicious debate among themselves over the Jewish question—separate and singular identity versus sharing in the wider community, particularism versus the universalism that motivates assimilation, a common culture with other Jews who speak different languages versus a common culture with non-Jews who speak the same language—has not disappeared, but has merely been driven underground, beneath the narrative surface. The action is still in the argument, but now the argument is between the frame, which represents a social standard, and Dick’s guests and cal­lers, who represent divergence from the ideal. This struggle between what a novel is about and how it is told afflicts much writing by third-generation American Jews.[16] The decision to write in English does not end the language war; the battles are simply displaced to within the vernacular itself. In Elkin, the common speech—the dream of a universal voice, regionless and without accent—becomes the medium of choice for difference and particularity. The vernacular itself frames the Jewish question. Its verbal behavior is telling, regardless of what the novel says it is about. Dick Gibson may be the only Jew in the novel, and then only in passing, but The Dick Gibson Show is an important Jewish novel—not in spite but because of the fact that it reproduces the inner Jewish conflict rather than trying to settle it.


[1] Doris G. Bargen, The Fiction of Stanley Elkin, Studien und Texte zur Amerikanistik, 8 (Frank­furt: Lang, 1980), p. 75.

[2] Edward Hoagland, “On Not Being a Jew,” in The Courage of Turtles (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 103. Originally published in Commentary in 1968.

[3] Alfred Kazin, Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), p. 259.

[4] Maurice Charney, “Stanley Elkin and Jewish Black Humor,” in Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor, ed. Sarah Blacher Cohen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 189.

[5] Daniel Green, “The Rabbi as Vaudevillian: Stanley Elkin’s Comic Rhetoric,” Contemporary Literature 34 (1993): 90–94.

[6] Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show (New York: Random House, 1971), p. 6. Subsequent references will be inserted between parentheses.

[7] For a good popular account see Hillel Halkin, “The Great Jewish Language War,” Commen­tary 114 (December 2001): 48–55. See also Giulio Lepschy, “Mother Tongues and Literary Langu­ages,” Modern Language Review 96 (2001): xxxix–xlii.

[8] Benjamin Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 25.

[9] Arthur A. Cohen observes that sifrut, the modern Hebrew word for literature, “is essentially an abstraction of the Hebrew for ‘book.’ It is ‘bookness’ ” (An Arthur A. Cohen Reader, ed. David Stern and Paul Mendes-Flohr [Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998], p. 431). That the word for literature in Hebrew is not dikduk (“grammar”), its original meaning in Latin, suggests just how far Jewish tradition stands from the Western literary tradition.

[10] Philip Roth, The Counterlife (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986), p. 53.

[11] According to Deborah Tannen, a certain jumpiness—abrupt shifting of topics, lack of hesita­tion, persistence in making a point, rapid pace of speech, fast turntaking, cooperative overlap and participatory listen­ership, pitch and amplitude shifts, marked voice quality, and strategic within-turn pauses—distin­guishes Jewish talk (“New York Jewish Conversa­tional Style,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 30 [1981]: 137).

[12] Dick lets slip another expression that identifies him as a Jew when he sets out to explain “Know Your County!” the most popular program on KROP, the station at which he works in western Nebra­ska. The program retells the history of the family that owns the station, but since it has been aired since the station’s founding, the family’s entire history has been told several times. “When they came to the end of the cycle,” Dick says, “they simply started all over again. It was the way congre­gations read the Bible” (p. 21). It is the way Jewish congregations read the Bible, publicly in the syna­gogue, finishing Deuteronomy and starting over again with Genesis on the same day—the holiday of Simhat Torah. Out of respect for the ideology of assimilation, Dick puts the word Jewish under erasure, but his very choice of an analogy is emphatically Jewish.

[13] From “Awake, My People,” written late 1862 or early 1863. The original line reads: “Heyeh adam b’tsetkha v’yehudi b’ohelekha—Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home.” See Gershon Bacon, “An Anthem Reconsidered: On Text and Subtext in Yehuda Leib Gordon’s ‘Awake, My People,’ ” Prooftexts 15 (May 1995): 185–94.

[14] Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot: Drama in Four Acts, rev.ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1918), pp. 198–99.

[15] Ruth R. Wisse, “Two Jews Talking: A View of Modern Yiddish Literature,” in What Is Jewish Liter­ature? ed. Hana Wirth-Nesher (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994), p. 132.

[16] Another third-generation writer, for example, who makes use of a framing device to similar effect is Philip Roth. His “American trilogy” of novels—American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000)—are about different characters who tell their stories to Nathan Zuckerman. The “as told to” device sets up an internal dialogue that enables Roth to explore the debates over Jewish identity since the ’fifties.