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Critical Essay by Robert Warshow
SOURCE: "Poet of the Jewish Middle Class: Clifford Odets Voices Its Conflicts and Frustrations" in Commentary, Vol. 1, No. 7, May, 1946, pp. 17-22.
Warshow was a Jewish-American editor, essayist, and film critic. In the following essay, he discusses Odets's Awake and Sing! and its realistic portrayal of the common Jewish-American experience of its time.
Before migrating to America, all the ethnic groups of Yankee City possessed a family pattern of the patriarchal type in which the wife was subordinated to the husband and the children to the father. America has disrupted this pattern, increasing the wife's independence and making the children carriers of the new culture—a role that has brought them into open conflict with their parents. Among Jews these developments manifested themselves in their most extreme form.—"The Jews of Yankee City" (Commentary, January 1946)
The literary treatment of American Jewish life has always suffered from the psychological commitments of Jewish writers. Their motives are almost never pure: they must dignify the Jews, or plead for them, or take revenge upon them, and the picture they create is correspondingly distorted by romanticism or sentimentality or vulgarity. The romantic-sentimental picture, which endows the Jews with superior wisdom and an exaggerated spirituality, is typified in an earlier stage by the movie The Jazz Singer. It appears in more dignified form in Elmer Rice's Street Scene and most recently in the Hollywood biography of George Gershwin. The vulgar exploitation of the Jews is more common; the work of Milt Gross is carried on for a later audience in the self-conscious burlesques of Arthur Kober and the banality of Leonard Q. Ross. A more serious and more savage type of satire, focusing on the economic and social behavior of Jews, has appeared recently in the work of such writers as Jerome Weidman and Budd Schulberg, but their picture, if more honest, is still limited and superficial.
By a considerable margin, the most important achievement in the literature of the American Jews is that of Clifford Odets. No one else has been able to maintain that degree of confidence in the value of the exact truth which made his best work possible. His social understanding is limited, but he has been able to keep his eyes on reality and to set down his observations with great imagination and remarkable detachment. Jews are never commonplace to him—they are never commonplace to any Jew—but neither are they prodigies, either of absurdity or of pathos or of evil. He has perceived that they are human beings living the life which happens to be possible to them.
The elements that make up for most American Jews the image of their group are to be found in the Jewish culture of New York City; more specifically, in the culture of the Jewish lower middle class, in the apartment houses and two-family houses of the Bronx and Brooklyn, among those who all these years have had to think mainly about getting along. Not all Jews actually participate in this culture—perhaps most do not—but almost all are intimately connected with it. The New York pattern is the master pattern, repeated in its main outlines wherever there is a large Jewish population. What is especially characteristic of other areas of Jewish life is often simply the extension of this; what appears most sharply opposed to it, or furthest away from it, is often the expression of a deliberate struggle against it.
The crucial fact is that there are few who cannot immediately recognize and understand its smallest forms of behavior, its accepted attitudes, its language. If it is not "Jewish life," strictly speaking, it is for most American Jews the area of greatest emotional importance. It is what a Jew remembers, it is what he has in his mind when he experiences his more private emotions about being a Jew—affection, pity, delight, shame. Just as the life of the small town can be said in some sense to embody the common experience of the older Americans, so the life of New York can be said at this particular stage in the process of acculturation to embody the common experience of the American Jews.
Clifford Odets is the poet of this life. In the body of his work so far, with its rather specious "development" and its persistent intellectual shallowness, the spectacular achievement which makes him a dramatist of importance is his truthful description of the New York Jews of the lower middle class.
Awake and Sing, his first full-length play, remains the most impressive. He has since become a more skillful dramatist, but his progress in theatrical terms has involved a loss in the simple observation of fact which is his greatest talent: he has become more superficial and more sentimental. His significant field of knowledge is among the Jews, and what he knows about the Jews is in Awake and Sing.
In reading Awake and Sing, one is likely to be struck by its crudity: there is an illegitimate pregnancy and a hasty marriage, a life insurance policy, a suicide; the final curtain is brought down on a puerile note of "affirmation" (Odets has said, "New art works should shoot bullets"). But in the last analysis these crudities are of no great importance. The special experience of reading or seeing the play has nothing to do with the dramatics used to make it progress through its three acts.
For the Jew in the audience, at least, the experience is recognition, a continuous series of familiar signposts, each suggesting with the immediate communication of poetry the whole complex of the life of the characters: what they are, what they want, how they stand with the world.
It is a matter of language more directly than anything else. The events of the play are of little consequence; what matters is the words of the characters—the way they talk as much as the things they say. Odets employs consistently and with particular skill what amounts to a special type of dramatic poetry. His characters do not speak in poetry—indeed, they usually become ridiculous when they are made to speak "poetically"—but the speeches put into their mouths have the effect of poetry, suggesting much more than is said and depending for the enrichment of the suggestion upon the sensibility and experience of the hearer. Many of the things said on the stage are startling for their irrelevance; they neither contribute to the progress of the plot nor offer any very specific light upon the character of the participants: the hearer supplies a meaning.
The peculiarity of this poetic process is that it operates exclusively between the writer and the audience; it is not in the play. The characters are in a state of ignorance, always saying something different from what they think they are saying. This differs from dramatic irony in the usual sense by the fact that the ignorance of the characters is essential instead of accidental: they do know what is happening in the play; what they do not know is what they are. In a sense they are continually engaged in giving themselves away.
The effect of the method is to increase the distance between the audience and the specific facts of the play, while bringing before the audience more clearly than is usual the general facts about Jews and Jewish life which the play illustrates.
The young son, Ralph, puts into one sentence the history of his frustration: "It's crazy—all my life I want a pair of black and white shoes and can't get them. It's crazy!" The mother, Bessie, responds, betraying the bitterness of her relations with her children, the difficulty of her life, the general picture of what it must be like to live with her: "In a minute I'll get up from the table. I can't take a bite in my mouth no more." Demolishing an argument for the abolition of private property, she presents her concept of man's fate: "Noo, go fight City Hall!" She offers a scrap of worldly wisdom to justify her tricking a young man into marrying her daughter, already pregnant by another man: "Maybe you never heard charity begins at home. You never heard it, Pop?" The old man, Jacob, shows what his daughter is to him: "All you know, I heard, and more yet…. This is a house? Marx said it—abolish such families." Bessie's husband, Myron, demonstrates his ineffectuality: "This morning the sink was full of ants. Where they come from I just don't know. I thought it was coffee grounds … and then they began moving." A sentence exhibits his tenuous grasp on American culture: "My scalp is impoverished," he says, out of nowhere. Sam Feinschreiber, the unfortunate object of Bessie's choice for her daughter ("In three years he put enough in the bank …"), reacts to the news that the baby is not his own: "I'm so nervous—look, two times I weighed myself on the subway station." Uncle Morty, the successful dress manufacturer, replies to the suggestion that he might send a little more money to take care of his father: "Tell me jokes. Business is so rotten I could just as soon lay all day in the Turkish bath." Uncle Morty prepares to leave the house: "Where's my fur gloves?"
To the experienced ear, every speech tells again the whole story, every character presents over and over the image of his particular kind, the role of his kind in the culture which contains it. The characters are diminished as human beings in favor of their function as instruments of poetic evocation. Rich or poor, happy or not, they serve their purpose. The responses called forth by the play are responses to the life of the Jews, to the psychological roots of one's own life, never to the individual lives of the people on the stage.
In the end you really get something like a direct apprehension of sociological truth, the whole picture built up out of the words spoken on the stage, the tones of speech and thought, all is added to the knowledge already possessed by the audience.
It is not the whole picture of the Jews; there is no whole picture of the Jews. And even as a partial picture it calls for some reservations. Assuming all necessary reservations, the picture might be called: what happened to the Jews in New York.
The adult immigrant had some advantages. Whatever it was that drove him to come, he was able to carry with him a sense of his own dignity and importance. He had a kind of security though it is a strange thing to say of a Jew. In Europe, with the club over his head, he had nevertheless lived in a community which was in important ways self-sufficient, and which permitted him to think of himself as a man of value: he was a scholar, or a revolutionist, at the very least he knew himself to be a more serious man than his Gentile persecutors. To be a Jew was a continual burden, even a misfortune, but it could not have seemed to him a joke or a disgrace.
He came off a boat, he had to find a job the very next day, and for the rest of his life he was likely to be taken up by the numberless techniques of getting by: how to make a dollar, how to pursue the infinitesimal advantages which made it possible for him to survive from day to day. The humiliation of his poverty and impotence was tremendous, but he was already equipped with a mechanism for separating from it some of the needs of his personality. In his own mind, and in the semi-European atmosphere he created in the synagogues or the cafés and radical groups, he could contrive for his sad life the appearance of a meaning that went beyond the everlasting pettiness of which it actually consisted. He had a past.
For his children, helping after school with the family's piecework or going themselves to work in the shops, and often suffering in addition under a savage moral discipline with no apparent relevance to the real world, the pretensions of the father could be nothing but nonsense. He could create in the minds of his children only an entirely generalized ideal of moral and intellectual superiority absolutely without content. (Bessie Berger: "I raise a family they should have respect.") If the parents had a great deal of love and wisdom, or if the family made money soon enough, the children could sometimes arrive at a tolerable balance between dignity and economic pressure. But the familiar pattern was not often to be avoided: the children holding before them the image of a suffering and complaining mother and of a father whose life went on outside the home, who was somehow responsible—with his "ideas"—for the family's hardships. It was remembered with undying resentment that he had given money to the synagogue or the Party—to "make a show"—while his family went hungry, and the things he believed in came to represent a wilful refusal to understand the principle that charity begins at home. ("Go in your room, Papa. Every job he ever had he lost because he's got a big mouth. He opens his mouth and the whole Bronx could fall in…. A good barber not to hold a job a week.") If he made money at last, then his demonstrations of allegiance to the things he thought valuable might be received with more tolerance, even with pride, but they still remained for his children outside the area of practical life.
For his part, he was always disappointed in his children and his sense of disappointment was often the only thing he could clearly communicate to them. He succeeded at least in becoming a reproach to them, and the bitterness of the personal conflict which ensued was aggravated by the fact that they could never quite see from what he derived his superiority or what it was he held against them.
The children took hold of what seemed to them the essential point—that they were living in a jungle. It would not be accurate to say that they failed to understand the rest; so far as they were concerned, the rest was not there to see, it had retired into the mind.
They tried to act reasonably. Every day they could see more clearly the basic truth: without a dollar you don't look the world in the eye. This truth was not for a moment welcome to them, they accepted it with all suitable reluctance, they doffed their hats continually in the direction of the "other things," but they really saw no alternative to following out the implications of what they knew. After all, their analysis of the situation was virtually a matter of life and death ("Ralphie, I worked too hard all my years to be treated like dirt…. Summer shoes you didn't have, skates you never had, but I bought a new dress every week. A lover I kept—Mr. Gigolo!… If I didn't worry about the family who would…. Maybe you wanted me to give up twenty years ago. Where would you be now? You'll excuse my expression—a bum in the park!")
Between the facts as they saw them and the burden of undefined moral responsibility laid upon them by the father, no decision was possible. Money was at least effective, it could really solve their worst problems. It was what they had to have. What they wanted was not money, but it was nothing very definite. The best basis they could find for their life was a worldly compromise: money is filth, but money is all you'll ever get.
In general terms, the kind of life they established for themselves is not different from the characteristic life of the rest of their society: its primary concerns are economic security and social prestige; its daydreams are of unlimited economic security and unassailable social prestige. ("Ralph should only be a success like you, Morty. I should only live to see the day when he drives up to the door in a big car with a chauffeur and a radio. I could die happy, believe me.") Indeed, they were especially quick to perceive the underlying pattern of the society and to conform to it. Looking from the outside, and suffering from the hostility of those around them, they naturally understood the significant facts thoroughly; for Jews, that had always been one of the necessities of life.
But it was not merely a matter of a generation moving from one culture into another. As it happened, the newer culture had already come to a point where it was unable to provide much security or dignity even for those who indisputably belonged to it. Understanding was in this case a bar to adjustment, and the life of the Jews has been colored by their awareness of the terms of the compromise they have had to accept. Their frustration is part of a universal frustration, but their unhappiness is more acute because all along they have known what they were doing.
Sometimes their special situation gave them a kind of edge, as if they were a day older in history than everybody else. They were capable of phenomenal success. Errand boys made themselves into millionaires simply by shrewd and unremitting attention to the possibilities of capitalist enterprise. Entertainers, exploiting the contrast between what they were and what they wanted, found a huge audience suddenly ready to see the point. Hollywood became a gold mine, demonstrating that the Jews were not different from everybody else, only a little further along: they could feel the exact level to which culture had come.
Success made no essential difference. A million dollars was a great and wonderful thing—how can you refuse money if you don't know what would be better?—but they could never believe that it was really enough to make a man important. Uncle Morty says "Where's my fur gloves?" not to impress the others but to remind himself of how far he has come.
They wanted also to be good and wise men. Having no frame of reference by which to attach a meaning to "good" and "wise," even a false meaning, they were forced to seek what assurance they could find in the tangible evidences they knew to be valueless: money, prestige, the intellectual superiority of one man to another. Thus from the complex of their fears and desires they evolved the three imperatives that govern them: be secure, be respected, be intelligent. In their world a dentist is better than a machinist, a doctor is better than a businessman, a college professor is best of all. But an unsuccessful intellectual is worse than an unsuccessful businessman: he should have known better than to try.
Their economic strength comes from their ability to act as the situation demands even though the situation is abhorrent to them. But the gap between moral man and the requirements of reality has seemed to them so wide that they have been able to function successfully only by imposing cynicism on themselves as a kind of discipline. They have gone further than most in the acceptance of reality, and this is perhaps the strongest kind of subversion—to take capitalism without sugar.
What it costs them is their characteristic mental insecurity a mixture of self-pity and self-contempt. Self-pity because their way of life was forced upon them, self-contempt because they can accept no excuse.
Awake and Sing is a depression play, and its picture of Jewish life is sharper and more brutal than it would have been a few years earlier. The hidden framework of need and compulsion had come out. If it had ever been possible for the Jews to lull themselves completely in the material benefits of capitalism, that possibility was gone. With the depression, their painfully built structure of defenses shook and fell, respectability itself was threatened, and they looked again into the abyss of poverty, all the more frightening because it was so familiar, because they had given so much to get out of it.
The characters contemplate the meaninglessness of their lives. The image of their failure is constantly before them; they cannot contain themselves, they must burst out every minute in a fury of bitterness and impotence, justifying themselves, calling for pity, enveloping themselves and the world in indiscriminate scorn. They have ceased to communicate; each confronts his own unhappiness, using language primarily as an instrument of self-expression and a weapon of defense.
It is as if no one really listens to anyone else; each takes his own line, and the significant connections between one speech and another are not in logic but in the heavy emotional climate of the family.
RALPH: I don't know…. Every other day to sit around with the blues and mud in your mouth.
MYRON: That's how it is—life is like that—a cakewalk.
RALPH: What's it get you?
HENNIE: A four-car funeral.
RALPH: What's it for?
JACOB: What's it for? If this life leads to a revolution it's a good life. Otherwise it's for nothing.
BESSIE: Never mind, Pop! Pass me the salt.
RALPH: It's crazy—all my life I want a pair of black and white shoes and can't get them. It's crazy!
BESSIE: In a minute I'll get up from the table. I can't take a bite in my mouth no more.
MYRON: Now, Momma, just don't excite yourself—
BESSIE: I'm so nervous I can't hold a knife in my hand.
MYRON: Is that a way to talk, Ralphie? Don't Momma work hard enough all day?
BESSIE: On my feet twenty-four hours?
MYRON: On her feet—
RALPH: What do I do—go to night clubs with Greta Garbo? The when I come home can't even have my own room? Sleep on a day-bed in the front room!
BESSIE: He's starting up that stuff again. When Hennie here marries you'll have her room—I should only live to see the day.
HENNIE: Me too.
They live on top of one another, in that loveless intimacy which is the obverse of the Jewish virtue of family solidarity, and their discontentment is expressed in continual and undisguised personal hostility. The son, Ralph, is in love:
BESSIE: A girl like that he wants to marry. A skinny consumptive … six months already she's not working—taking charity from an aunt. You should see her. In a year she's dead on his hands…. Miss Nobody should step in the picture and I'll stand by with my mouth shut.
RALPH: Miss Nobody! Who am I? Al Jolson?
BESSIE: Fix your tie!
RALPH: I'll take care of my own life.
BESSIE: You'll take care? Excuse my expression, you can't even wipe your nose yet! He'll take care!
Someone is slow about coming to the dining-room: "Maybe we'll serve for you a special blue-plate supper in the garden?" Morty responds to one of Jacob's dissertations on the class struggle: "Like Boob McNutt you know! Don't go in the park, pop—the squirrels'll get you."
In a brilliant climax, Bessie Berger reveals the whole pattern of psychological and moral conflict that dominates her and her family: when Ralph discovers that his sister's husband was trapped into marriage, Bessie, confronted inescapably with her own immorality, and trembling before her son's contempt, turns upon her father, who has said nothing, and smashes the phonograph records that are his most loved possessions and the symbol of his superiority. This act of fury is irrelevant only on the surface: one understands immediately that Bessie has gone to the root of the matter.
Purposeless, insecure, defeated, divided within themselves, the Bergers made a life like a desert. The process which produced them was not ironbound; one way or another, there were many who escaped. But the Bergers are important. The luckiest is not out of sight of them; no consideration of the Jews in America can leave them out; in the consciousness of most of us they do in some sense stand for "Jew."
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