A practitioner of the trendy academic discipline of “digital humanities,” Richard Jean So sets out in his book Redlining Culture to use masses of data and complex statistical analysis to show the overwhelming racism of the American literary establishment in the second half of the 20th century. In their review, Mordechai Levy-Eichel and Daniel Scheinerman contend that So’s argument is not only “narrow and moralistic,” but rests on unsound assumptions and bad math. It also seems to have a blind spot vis-à-vis the Jews. (Free registration required.)
According to So, the underlying feature of postwar American literature was the “inertia of whiteness”—by which he means the predominance of white, male writers like John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow in terms of awards, reviews, and prestige. . . . Notable figures like Toni Morrison, who won both a Pulitzer (1988) and the Nobel (1993), and who, as an editor at Random House, significantly expanded its roster of African American authors, are not examples of any lasting shift but merely occasional exceptions.
In order to show the dearth of Black writers with the most cultural power or regard, So lists the “top ten authors in the top 1-percent most-reviewed titles,” a list headed by Philip Roth (over all, the list is 30-percent Jewish). The only Black member of this select group is Toni Morrison, with Alice Walker clocking in next, down at number 47. Jews are, well, overrepresented. So tries to explain away this fact by imposing his overarching white/Black binary on it: “Jewishness articulates a specific type of ‘whiteness.’” Well, sure, some do say that, but others would very strongly disagree! (Unintentionally, So confirms the comedian and critic David Baddiel’s recent book, which touches on precisely this issue, namely that in many ways Jews Don’t Count.) But either way, why are Jews not “minority writers”?
One of the most memorable anecdotes in this regard comes from Saul Bellow, who had hoped to study English literature in graduate school but was told that, as a Jew, he would never have “the right feeling for Anglo-Saxon traditions, for English words.” This points to an essential missing piece of So’s narrative, namely the (declining) centrality of religion and ethnicity to literature.
Redlining Culture anachronistically chops up postwar literature into the academic categorizations of today rather than examining the terms and transformations of the period itself.