Spotting the Jewish in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Tomorrow night at 7pm we’ll be screening (for free) the film version of Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunteras part of DC’s Big Read. There are many differences between the film and the novel: the period is changed, the ending completely re-written and as expected, many liberties are taken with the plot and timeframe. But one of the biggest changes for me from the book to the film are the removal of a few key references to Jewish characters and Jewish characteristics.

112214__lonely_lIt’s not that The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is what you could call a Jewish book. But Carson McCulllers clearly had a thing for Jews, or if not actual Jews, what Jews represented to her — a combination in different parts of wisdom, suffering and quintessential outsider status. In fact, in its early drafts, the central character of The Heart Is… was explicitly Jewish, Harry Minowitz. As McCullers later wrote:

Suddenly, as I walked across a road, it occurred me that Harry Minowitz, the character all the other characters were talking to, was a different man, a deaf mute, and immediately the name was changed to John Singer. The whole focus of the novel was fixed and I was for the first time committed with my whole soul to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

In the finished novel, Harry Minowitz does appear as Mick Kelly’s anti-Fascist Jewish neighbor and her first sexual experience. But that does not mean all of the Jew has been taken out of John Singer. Because he is a mute, he is a bit of a cypher for the characters that surround him, each able to project onto him the characteristics that each needs to be reassured. For Doctor Copeland, that image of Singer reflects his own self-perception: that of a philosopher misunderstood by his own people.  When Singer shows up at his Christmas party, Dr. Copeland observes, “The mute stood by himself. His face resembled somewhat a picture of Spinoza. A Jewish face. It was good to see him.”

Dr. Eliza McGraw, author of Two Covenants: Representations Of Southern Jewishness will be giving a short introduction at the screening that is sure to touch on these and other issues related to the novel, the movie (whose sole Jewish characteristic that I could discern was the casting of Alan Arkin as John Singer) and the role of Jews in Southern culture and imagination.

Despite its significant differences from the novel, the movie does stand on its own — and if you haven’t read the book, it will definitely inspire you to do so. And you should be reading the book as part of DC’s Big Read. So get crackin’.

DC’s Big Read: The Great Gatsby

As part of DC’s participation in the NEA’s Big Read program, I recently read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I should say re-read, because I distinctly remember reading the book in high school and then again in college. But that was awhile ago, so I was reading with fairly fresh eyes this time around.

A couple of things struck me going through the novel this time. The first is that Fitzgerald is much harsher on the WASP establishment than perhaps I have given him credit for in my memory. For all the elegance of that upper-class world of “prominent families” there is a moral rot lying fairly close to the surface, most notably in the person of Tom Buchanan. All it takes is an impostor like Jay Gatsby to reveal how little virtue there necessarily is behind the wealth, good manners and high connections.

I was reading with a particular eye towards portayals of race in the novel because I know some groups were upset with the book’s selection for the District. Interestingly, most of the book’s patently racist statements are attributable to the most repugnant of its characters, Tom Buchanan (when he’s not breaking his mistress’s nose, he likes to expound on topics like the survival of the white race and miscegenation). Given that Tom is such a creep, (even his body is described as “cruel”) I can’t help but suspect that Fitzgerald was not just reflecting the casual racism of the period, but also subtly subverting it. Even a later passage in the book where Nick describes being passed on the Queensboro bridge by a limo ” driven by a white chauffuer, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl” employs racist language while making the point of a world being remade, where “anything can happen…Even Gatsby could happen without any particular wonder.” While Fitzgerald isn’t overly concerned with social conditions of African Americans in that period, he was keyed-into the fact that those old relationships, where blacks knew their “place,” were changing in ways that were threatening to the same people who were threatened by the kind of person Gatsby represented.Der Sturmer, 1931.

Unfortunately, I had a much harder time with Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Meyer Wolfsheim–Gatsby’s business associate, who is based on the real-life figure of Arnold Rothstein, who did indeed have a role in fixing the 1919 World Series. I kept tripping over the physical descriptions of Wolfsheim that seemed to come straight out of an anti-Semitic caricature: “a small flat-nosed Jew…with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril.” He wears human molars as cuff-links, he oggles the “Presbyterian nymphs” in a Manhattan speakeasy and his shifty eyes case the room even as he eats with “ferocious delicacy.” He offers a business “gonnegtion” to Nick and esteems that Gatsby went to “Oggsford College.” Even his secretary, a “lovely Jewess” has “black hostile eyes.”  And of course, there is the creepy-in-retrospect detail of Wolfsheim’s company name of “The Swastika Holding Company.” What are we to make of this?

Early on, Fitzgerald tells us, that as noble as Jay Gatsby’s motives were, there were all kinds of “foul dust that floated in the wake of his dream.” Tom Buchanan with his hypocrisy and Daisy with her “vast carelessness” are one example. The hangers-on who ate Gatsby’s food, drank his liquor and then wouldn’t even come to his funeral were another. And of course, Meyer Wolfsheim and his ilk, who traded on Gatsby’s charisma industriousness for their own ill-gotten gains are another. Wolfsheim’s not being singled out necessarily. Except that while Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway are all unique inventions in American literature, the portrayal of Wolfsheim draws on long-held stereotypes of Jews dating back thousands of years, and which would reach their murderous climax a few years later under the German Reich. That doesn’t overshadow the brilliance of Fitzgerald’s work, but for me, it does bring it back to the realm of the fallible. Fallible not in the trivial sense like Fitzgerald’s erroneous description of the Queensboro Bridge connecting Long Island City and Astoria, but in a sadly diminutive way because his great creativity combined with the real life figure of Arnold Rothstein, should have given us so much more than a stage Jew.

DC’s Big Read–The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great GatsbyThe DC Public Library is participating in the National Program The Big Read by encouraging everyone in DC to read The Great Gatsby and holding a series of events and discussions between now and May 24. There was some chatter on other blogs about the choice of this particular novel, but moving past that for the moment, let’s dive-in and get reading!

My first step will be to see if I can recover the copy I’ve had since college–or maybe it was high school? It is going to be interesting re-approaching a work I haven’t read in a very long time, but think I enjoyed the first time through. Growing up in the 80s with Reaganomics and the corporate raiders on Wall Street I recall finding the book to be very relatable. 

Anyone else out there reading?

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