The Story of America’s Non-Jewish, First ‘Jewish Novelist’
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but today’s unforgiving ideologies define it as a form of appropriation or theft — especially if it involves dominant groups allegedly “ripping off” or exploiting subordinate minority cultures.
American Jews who performed as black characters and embraced ragtime and jazz, and sometimes played Native Americans in Hollywood films, are often criticized, fairly or not, as egregious “appropriators.” But I will analyze here an example where American Jews were more victims than perpetrators of “cultural appropriation.”
Who was the first American “Jewish novelist”?
If you asked American literary arbiter William Dean Howells to answer the question in the 1880s, he would probably have answered: “Sidney Luska.” In fact, there was no Sidney Luska. Luska was the ethnic pseudonym of native-born Protestant Henry Harland, who wrote romances of German-Jewish life in America.
Born in Brooklyn, the son of a successful New York lawyer, Harland was educated at the City College of New York and Harvard Divinity School. He had to hold down a tedious day job while writing fiction at night. He believed that writers who were “old stock” Americans like himself were being ignored in favor of authors of “ethnic fiction.”
His solution: the “Sidney Luska” appellation, which he used in fiction with melodramatic Jewish characters and plots.
Stephanie Foote describes Harland’s literary strategy as “ethnic transvestism.” Harland’s Jewish characters were typically either deeply-learned rabbinic scholars or ruthless exploiters of the marketplace. His female characters sometimes hid their Jewish identities to succeed in “the marriage market.” His plots often preached the era’s social reform ideas.
His first novel, “As It Was Written: A Jewish Musician’s Story” (1885), sold 50,000 copies. According to historian Louise Mayo, “It is fair to say that ‘Sidney Luska’ created the Jewish American novel and novelist.’’ To gather material, Harlan joined Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society. He wrote that “for the last six years I have circulated almost exclusively among the Jews, and have thus become all but a Jew myself.” “As It Was Written” was well-received by Jewish reviewers and readers, but his second novel, “The Yoke of the Thorah” (1887), was not.
“The Yoke of the Thorah” was the tale of Jewish artist Elias who falls in love with Christine, who shares his artistic tastes but not his religion. Divine punishment comes on the day of their wedding, when Elias falls into a coma. When he awakens, he renounces Christine for a Jewish bride.
After 1890, Harland buried “Sidney Luska.” He began writing under his real name, expatriated to England, and converted to Catholicism. He also became editor of The Yellow Book, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, the favorite magazine of London aesthetes.
Though forgotten, Harland paved the way for journalists like Hutchins Hapgood, whose “The Spirit of the Ghetto” (1902) admirably pictured the Jewish writers and artists who frequented the Lower East Side’s Bohemian cafés. Not until Abraham Cahan’s “The Rise of David Levinsky” (1917) were there serious novels written by Jews about Jews.
Depending on intent and context, “cultural appropriation” may be malign or benign — or in between.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).