American Naturalism and the Jews examines the unabashed anti-Semitism of five notable American naturalist novelists otherwise known for their progressive social values. Hamlin Garland, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser all pushed for social improvements for the poor and oppressed, while Edith Wharton and Willa Cather both advanced the public status of women. But they all also expressed strong prejudices against the Jewish race and faith throughout their fiction, essays, letters, and other writings, producing a contradiction in American literary history that has stymied scholars and, until now, gone largely unexamined. In this breakthrough study, Donald Pizer confronts this disconcerting strain of anti-Semitism pervading American letters and culture, illustrating how easily prejudice can coexist with even the most progressive ideals.
Pizer shows how these writers’ racist impulses represented more than just personal biases, but resonated with larger social and ideological movements within American culture. Anti-Semitic sentiment motivated such various movements as the western farmers’ populist revolt and the East Coast patricians’ revulsion against immigration, both of which Pizer discusses here. This antagonism toward Jews and other non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicities intersected not only with these authors’ social reform agendas but also with their literary method of representing the overpowering forces of heredity, social or natural environment, and savage instinct.