African-Americans, Jews and the Catholic Novel

Harvard's Elisa New reviews new book by Eric Sundquist on African-Americans and Jews in postwar American literature. The review is terrific, even brave, as a genre piece. New weaves her own life-history as a Jew and English professor into her assessment of post World War II literature. She and Sundquist also make some controverisal judgements: downgrading the stock of Toni Morrison and Saul Bellow, upgrading Ralph Ellison (although I'm not sure he needed it), Philip Roth (ditto), Harper Lee, Anna Deavere Smith, and Bernard Malamud.

A snip: "Sundquist's new book reveals not only how much of the literature we will remember from the last half of the twentieth century is literature of America's "strangers"--blacks and Jews. He also reveals how the tragic alliance and the estrangement of these groups from each other emerged as late twentieth-century American literature's most haunting obsession."

What struck me was how distant the great "Catholic" literature of the postwar period seems from all this: the intense back and forth, the focus at once on slavery and the Holocaust, the endless reworking of Exodus. You can read Paul Elie's brilliant study of the immediate postwar period as if the authors in Sundquist's study don't exist.

Put another way: how do Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, J.F. Powers, Richard Rodriguez, Alice McDermott et al. fit into this story? Or do they? Should they?

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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