Mark Twain's Jews. By Dan Vogel. N.J.: KTAV Publishing House, Inc. Pp. xiv + 146. Hardcover. $22.95. ISBN 0881259160.

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The following review appeared 8 December 2006 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Barbara Schmidt

Was Mark Twain guilty of anti-Semitism? Dan Vogel offers his answers in Mark Twain's Jews, which documents and analyzes references to Jews in Twain's writings. The book consists of eleven chapters, a facsimile of "Concerning the Jews" from September 1899 Harper's New Monthly Magazine, reference notes and a bibliography.

Mark Twain's Jews begins with Twain's first exposure to Jewish playmates, the Levin brothers, in Hannibal, Missouri. Vogel describes Hannibal as a "hotbed of bigotry" and blames the town for instilling in Twain "The Hannibal Syndrome"--a disease "normally in remission whose symptoms would intermittently, gratuitously, slither out of Mark Twain's subconscious to infest his writings as brief, passing slurs about the Jews" (p. 3).

Vogel's second chapter titled "Out West with Two Jews and a Righteous Gentile" examines Twain's relationships with Artemus Ward (a gentile), Bret Harte and Joseph Goodman. Vogel's assertion that Goodman was a Jew may come as a surprise to some Twain scholars and Vogel admits that few sources are available to confirm this supposition. However, rather than proving that Twain was aware of Goodman's Jewish heritage, Vogel simply states, "It never occurred to Mark Twain to ever mention that his fast friend was Jewish. It was not that that made him special" (p. 19). Vogel may have made a stronger argument for positive Jewish influence if had he been familiar with Shelley Fisher Fishkin's recent contribution to Arizona Quarterly, (Spring 2005) titled "Mark Twain and the Jews" wherein Fishkin discusses Adolph Sutro of San Francisco as a prominent influence in Twain's development of positive feelings towards Jews. Fishkin's essay does not appear in Vogel's bibliography and may not have been available to him at the time his book went to press. However, it is one of several essays by Twain scholars that appears to have been overlooked by Vogel.

Vogel's third and fourth chapters are examinations of Twain's 1867 contributions to the San Francisco Alta California newspaper and his best-seller The Innocents Abroad. Vogel asserts that much of Twain's emphasis on Jewish noses in descriptions of the Holy Land are the careful observations of a newspaper journalist. "However, Mark Twain's preoccupation with the squalor, disease, and noses" (p. 35) raised criticism from at least two scholars. Vogel refutes arguments by scholar Sander Gilman who claimed Twain's tracing of diseases was a commentary on the role of Jews in Western civilization. Vogel counters that Twain described the deplorable conditions of the Jews the same as he described all inhabitants of the Holy Land. Vogel also disputes scholar Andrea Greenbaum who believed Twain was influenced by theories of "pseudoscience of ethnology" that were popular at the time. Vogel argues that Greenbaum never cited any such works in Mark Twain's personal library nor found evidence of it elsewhere in his writing.

Vogel finds only a small number of Jewish references in Twain's writings during his most productive years between 1867-1897. Among these are anti-Jewish comments in a letter to Henry H. Rogers about Broadway producer Daniel Frohman. Vogel points out that Frohman recalled in his memoirs that he and Twain played amicable games of pool each night together while engaged in litigation against one other. Vogel suggests that Twain could have emulated Dickens's creation of Fagin the Jew (from Oliver Twist) or followed the trend of Christian "popular scribblers" by creating greedy Jewish characters in the form of the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn. But he did not. Vogel states "the silence of the missed opportunity in his creative years speaks of his basic humanity" (p. 46).

In a chapter titled "A Triad of European Jews" Vogel discusses Twain's numerous writings on the Alfred Dreyfus affair, his friendship with journalist Theodor Herzl, and his association with Sigmund Freud. Twain apparently never met Dreyfus but continually condemned the French miscarriage of justice in Dreyfus's conviction for treason. Vogel discusses Theodor Herzl's play The New Ghetto and Twain's interest in translating the work, which featured an innocent Jew and a Christian villain who compromises their friendship for political and personal gain. Twain's relationship with Sigmund Freud is not well documented but Freud's admiration of Twain is.

In a chapter titled "Shock Treatment in Vienna" Vogel examines Twain's visit to the Austrian parliament and the resulting "Stirring Times in Austria" essay published a few months later in March 1898 Harper's. Twain reported the Jewish slurs and insults he heard hurled around the parliament and the fights that broke out on the floor. Vogel sees "Stirring Times in Austria" as the stimulus for Twain's major statement on the Jewish race the following year--"Concerning the Jews."

As one might expect, the longest chapter in Vogel's book is devoted to analyzing "Concerning the Jews." Vogel identifies the two motifs of Twain's essay as the Jews' ability to acquire money and the envy it arouses in those less successful and how Jews should guard themselves against this reaction by organizing their political power. Vogel's explanation of Twain's indictment of the Biblical Joseph as a cruel money-grabber is that Twain's intent was to prove that prejudices that are instilled early are never entirely erased. Vogel does not include in his bibliography the studies of Mark Twain's writings on Joseph by Twain scholars Lawrence Berkove and Louis J. Budd. Budd's statement that "even Twain should have seen that it did not help his own side to describe Joseph as the greediest stockmarket wolf in all history" was certainly worth quoting.

One passage in "Concerning the Jews" that has been controversial among scholars is Twain's statement, ". . .if that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world was going to be made in a free country (bar Scotland), I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let that race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride anymore." Vogel believes that Twain's "sense of humor went awry at this point in his essay" (p. 79).

Vogel provides his readers with summaries of reactions to "Concerning the Jews" from the Jewish community in America and London--"Misdirected, misguided, narrowly educated on this subject, Mark Twain was still, after all, a friend" (p. 84). As a result of criticism concerning Twain's statements regarding the pacifist posture of Jews, subsequent reprintings of "Concerning the Jews" include Twain's "Postscript--The Jew as a Soldier." Vogel points out that "Concerning the Jews" is still controversial because "the 'Jewish Question' has not been answered, not in 1899 nor thereafter" (p. 86). Vogel concludes that Twain's misspent humor in "Concerning the Jews" indicated he had not yet fully recovered from the "Hannibal syndrome."

In a chapter titled "Two Fantasies and a Twice-Told Tale" Vogel examines the positive characteristics of Solomon Goldstein in Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (contained in a passage that was not published in Twain's lifetime) and Solomon Isaacs from The Mysterious Stranger manuscripts. "Newhouse's Jew Story" and its longer version "Randall's Jew Story," is a story of a brave Jew defending a Negro girl and Vogel offers the theory that Twain wrote the story in response to criticism he received from "Concerning the Jews." Vogel laments the fact that it was too late in Twain's creative life to build good fiction around positive Jewish characters. However, Vogel believes these final works indicate Twain had at last cured himself of the "Hannibal syndrome."

Vogel's book concludes with a brief account of Twain's activities in Jewish social events during the last years of his life and the marriage of his daughter Clara to Ossip Gabrilowitsch, a Russian Jew. In the final analysis Vogel concludes that the worst Twain could be accused of is innocent anti-Semitic writing in his early career.

In addition to Sander Gilman and Andrea Greenbaum, Vogel disagrees with interpretations of Twain's work published by scholars Jude Nixon, Cynthia Ozick, and Susan Gillman. (See their citations in the end notes below.) Vogel provides worthy arguments against their positions.

Vogel was a professor at Yeshiva University and later head of the English Department at Michlalah-Jerusalem College. Mark Twain's Jews will be a good companion to Arizona Quarterly, Spring 2005 which contains Shelley Fisher Fishkin's "Mark Twain and the Jews." While the two works overlap, there is much to distinguish both and help further the understanding of the Jewish-related debates that arise in Twain studies.


End Notes:

Essays that contain interpretations of Twain's work with which Vogel disagrees include:

Susan Gillman. "Mark Twain's Travels in the Racial Occult: Following the Equator and the Dream Tales," Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Sander Gilman. "Mark Twain and the Diseases of the Jews," American Literature, March 1993.

Andrea Greenbaum. "'A Number-One Troublemaker': Mark Twain's Anti-Semitic Discourse in 'Concerning the Jews'," Studies in American-Jewish Literature, 1996.

Jude Nixon. "Social Philosophy," The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (Garland Publishing, 1993).

Cynthia Ozick. "Mark Twain and the Jews," Commentary, May 1995. Also "Introduction," The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Essays (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Essays by Twain scholars that are not referenced in Vogel's bibliography include:

Lawrence Berkove. "Mark Twain's Hostility Toward Joseph," CEA Critic, Summer 2000.

Louis J. Budd. "Mark Twain on Joseph the Patriarch," American Quarterly, Winter 1964.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin. "Mark Twain and the Jews," Arizona Quarterly, (Spring 2005).