M. H. Abrams, who passed away on Wednesday, was the last surviving member of a “pioneering generation” of American Jewish literary scholars whose university careers began when the academic field of English literature was still largely off-limits to Jews. Adam Kirsch writes (2012):
Meyer Howard Abrams was born in 1912 in Long Branch, N.J., the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Until he started school at age five . . . he spoke only Yiddish, though his knowledge of the language has faded. His father, a house painter, was an Orthodox Jew, while his mother only “played along” at religious observance. While he and his younger brother . . . went to Hebrew school, Abrams recalled, his father “never pressed his sons to follow” his religious path. As a result, Abrams now believes, he “never got to resent religion, and could look at it with a neutral gaze”—a kind of sympathetic interest that is key to the insights of [his book] Natural Supernaturalism, which shows how much of modern literature is a recasting of age-old biblical tropes. . . .
[W]hile Abrams recalled that he experienced no overt anti-Semitism (though “if I looked for it, I would have found it,” he said wryly), he was given a “downright warning” by his faculty adviser that the “profession was not open to Jews.” . . .
In writing about [the influence of religious ideas on romantic literature], Abrams delves deeply into the Christian theological tradition. . . . Only occasionally, however, does he pursue what he calls “the redemptive imagination” back to its ultimate origin in the Hebrew Bible and in Judaism. The farthest he goes in this direction is a brief discussion of kabbalistic ideas of fall and redemption, and the Jewish component of the story of Natural Supernaturalism is left for others to tell.
Still, Abrams told me, his ability to see the Christian and post-Christian tradition in such novel ways might be attributable to his position outside that tradition. His own “freshness of outlook” he credited to the fact that he “didn’t take these [Christian] ideas for granted.” “Jews,” he pointed out, “had an outsider’s eye on a lot of Western tradition,” which may have helped them to see it in unexpected ways.