A (literary) conversation with Ben Nelson

A (literary) conversation with Ben Nelson

The word “retired” doesn’t seem to fit Ben Nelson, until last year a professor of English and comparative literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck.

The Englewood resident – who spends much of his time delivering lectures and leading book discussions – recently wrapped up a three-part lecture series at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on the image of the Jew in English-language literature.

The former professor, who laid out his case for “the Jew as metaphor,” shared his views with The Jewish Standard.

Historically, Jews have been presented both positively and negatively, said Nelson, though positive mentions are clearly in the minority.

“The negative begins as far back as the Gospels,” he said.

Turning his attention to the Middle Ages – the starting point for his JCC lecture series – Nelson cited the character of the prioress in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” While that image is definitely negative, “whether it’s anti-Semitic is hard to say. Chaucer was working with a stereotype. He probably didn’t know any Jews.”

The most “dastardly” Jewish villain, he said, was Christopher Marlowe’s Barabas in “The Jew of Malta.”

“He was a monster,” said Nelson, pointing out that while Shakespeare’s Shylock was created in the same period, “he was more ambiguous, more humanized.”

Jews in medieval literature had predictable characteristics, said Nelson.

“Essentially, the Jew was a ‘he,’ usually old or older, very much a materialist, or a sorcerer or wizard, often depicted as having red hair, suggesting a satanic aspect.” In addition, he was almost never a husband, but was the father of a daughter.

“There’s no sense of his being a family figure,” said Nelson. “The triumph was when the daughter left her father and rejected his religion.”

This image of the Jew was chosen in part because it was “convenient,” said Nelson. “Most of the readers didn’t know Jews,” he said. It also reflected some “guilt transference, since it was felt that if a Jew was victimized, he must have done something to earn it.”

With the dawning of the enlightenment in the 18th century, “some writers felt that they had to atone, or apologize, for these negative images,” said Nelson. John Milton, for example, in “Samson Agonistes,” presents an “anguished heroic figure.”

Nelson suggested that as the middle class came to the fore and began to interact more with Jews, writers were more inclined to see these Jews in a positive light.

“As more people met Jews through the mercantile system, the literary figure became a more humanized one,” he said, “not just an unrealistic figure out of ancient folklore.”

The problem, he said, was that these “apologetic” writers were not very good at their craft. “Their intentions were nice but the result was a failure, since the writers were mediocre and the characters were one-dimensional.”

Nelson noted that in the Victorian era, the character of Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” “was a refreshing antithesis to other daughter figures” presented generations before.

Not only does Rebecca not abandon her father, but she maintains her faith as well. Even more important, “Scott used Rebecca as the figure who basically provides the value system and morals for the story itself. While many see it as romantic adventure story, it’s really an attack on the world of chivalry, and we get that basically through Rebecca,” said Nelson. “She does not believe in dying for one’s code. She’s not simply a pragmatist, but believes in the worth of life.”

While Anthony Trollope’s character Melmotte “appears to be Jewish and is a Bernie Madoff type,” said Nelson, it is more likely the author was attacking the nouveau riche than displaying anti-Semitism. “Some of the gentiles are painted very badly, and some Jews are portrayed well,” he said. “It’s a good example of the humanizing of the Jew.”

Contrary to this “apologetic” trend was Charles Dickens, creator of the villain Fagin. Still, said Nelson, “[Fagin’s] almost purely a mythical figure that Dickens used because he was convenient. His Jewishness, in terms of the life he lived, is non-existent.” He noted that Dickens was “stung” by criticism of this stereotype and tried to atone by creating more positive Jewish figures in later works.

“The most affirmative image of the Jew” in the 19th century appeared in George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” said Nelson, “where he’s close to being too good to be true. It was one of the first novels to add a political dimension to the image of the Jew,” he added, noting that the Zionist aspect of the work “impressed Herzl.”

The 20th century presented a number of “problem writers,” said Nelson.

Georges DuMaurier’s character Svengali “was a throwback to Fagin.” But others writers were problematic as well, like T.S. Eliot, “who was one of the great poets of the 20th century but very anti-Semitic.” The most virulently anti-Semitic writer of the time was Ezra Pound, “who broadcast for fascism and Nazism and advocated for genocide.”

Presenting a different image of the Jew was James Joyce in “Ulysses.” Here the author introduces Leopold Bloom, from whom the protagonist Stephen Dedalus seeks “spiritual sustenance. It’s part of his quest to find a spiritual father,” said Nelson.

The professor said artists like Pound raise the “conundrum of artist versus human being. He’s loathsome, but an artist as well. How should that affect his reputation as an artist? There’s no easy response.”

Nelson said that after World War II, “a third metaphor works its way in,” with Jews no longer presented simply as “good” or “bad.”

“Now the Jew is seen as the modern man, as a survivor,” he said. “With the horror of World War II and the nuclear age and the realization that we can blow ourselves up,” the Jew presents a Job-like image for modern times, showing “the worst that can happen to human beings and – at the same time – that hope is still there.”

“That may be why literature about Jews, especially American Jews, became a very marketable kind of thing,” he said. “Young writers – Bellow, Malamud, Roth, Singer – whatever they wrote was a best-seller.”

The “paradox” of the Jews became the subject matter for literature for a number of decades, said Nelson. “They didn’t just make the world aware of victimization, but of living through it. The double image of the Holocaust and the State of Israel – if that isn’t a paradox, I don’t know what else would be.”

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