Retrieving American Jewish Fiction: Myron Brinig
"For Jews," the historian Jerry Z. Muller said recently, "Jewish economic success has long been a source of both pride and embarrassment." Very few Jewish writers have risen to even this level of ambivalence. The ground note of Jewish fiction has been hostility to business—the prooftext is The Rise of David Levinsky—and the story of Jewish success in establishing banks, department stores, and clothing lines has fallen to strangers (including anti-Semites) to tell.
The one striking exception is Myron Brinig's Singermann. Although relatively unknown today, and likely to be praised for having introduced outré characters into American Jewish fiction, Brinig's 1929 novel explores a common but largely neglected theme in American Jewish experience: the transformation of a Jewish peddler into a thriving merchant on the American frontier.
A story-within-a-story, the novel begins with the bris of the youngest (and only American-born) son in the Singermann family, and ends less than two decades later when the young favorite goes off to college. But beginning and ending are merely preface and coda. The real story gets under way in Chapter Two, when Moses Singermann leaves Romania, where "a Jew was never safe from humiliation at the hands of an empty-headed religious fanatic," and joins his cousin in Minneapolis. There he peddles fruit and vegetables, and from the first is successful: after all, "[h]e had not come across the great ocean to fail." After eight years in Minneapolis, where he is soon joined by his wife and children, Moses sells horse and wagon and moves the family to a copper-mining town in Montana (a thinly fictionalized Butte, where Brinig himself was raised). There Moses opens a clothing and dry-goods store; the family lives in three rooms partitioned off in the rear. Within two years he has moved into a larger store and a house on a respectable street. By now the family comprises seven children, of whom Michael, the youngest son, is born into the family's new prosperity.
Although the other six children follow their father into business, none is happy about it. Joseph, the eldest, marries a "hard and clever" Jewish girl who pushes him to compete with Moses by opening a store of his own directly across the street. Rachel, the only daughter, marries a handsome barber who turns out to be a bigamist. Abandoned by him, she consents to wed her first beau, an oppressively "steady and reliable" man who starts up a store in Anaconda, twenty-five miles away, and makes a success of it while Rachel continues to moon after the bigamist.
Then there is Louis, who adores Corot and El Greco and wants nothing more than to design window displays for Moses' store; when his father sneers that Louis's Christmas display is turning the place into a "church for Gentiles," the boy decamps to Spokane until, defeated in his bid for independence, he returns and meekly accepts penance as his father's clerk. David weds a prostitute; Sol becomes a journeyman boxer; Harry dresses in women's clothes.
It is, indeed, for its notes of homosexuality and transvestism that Singermann is most likely to valued by critics today. But what really give the Singermanns—and Brinig's 400-page novel about them—the interest they possess are the family's stubborn, gnarled roots in Moses' business acumen, single-mindedness, and stiff-necked competitive drive. Even when he disappears for pages at a time, even when his children are utterly oblivious to him, Moses and the store that he personally manages six days a week for twenty years—the store that funds their dreams of escaping store-keeping into sport, art, and self-fulfillment—form the reality in which they and their dreams are anchored.
Brinig himself may have been only half-conscious of the true originality of his material. Like most Jewish intellectuals, he seems to have been more intrigued by the drama of the leisure-seeking sons, especially the youngest, his alter ego, Michael. "Everybody else [in the family] sells socks and he wants to be a writer," his brother-in-law cracks.
But if Singermann remains a fascinating classic of American Jewish fiction—out of print, difficult to find, and deserving a new edition—that is largely because of its grudging sympathy for the novel's family of sock-sellers. Like few other American books, Brinig's novel celebrates the Jews' contribution to the settlement of the American frontier by opening stores in far-flung unglamorous towns, staying in business on small margins, supplying communities with goods that made life better, and bringing culture with them: a love of books and ideas that, however shallow and derivative, was powerful enough to inspire disdain in their children for the money-making side of life.
"The moment when a peddler traded in his pack for a merchant's apron was a turning point in the formation of Jewish communities all over the United States," the historian Hasia Diner has written. The same could be said of a good many Jewish families, most of whom, like this remarkable novel about a still insufficiently explored chapter of American Jewish life, would prefer to talk about almost anything else.
D.G. Myers is a critic and literary historian at Texas A&M University and the author of A Commonplace Blog. This is one of a series by him on landmarks in American Jewish writing.
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