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Mind Your Own Shoah Business

Eric J. Sundquist, mega rockstar of American literary criticism, was recently awarded a Mellon Foundation award worth $1.5 million over three years, for his ongoing study of the impact of the Holocaust on American literature. Sundquist, an English professor at … Read More

By / May 1, 2007

Eric J. Sundquist, mega rockstar of American literary criticism, was recently awarded a Mellon Foundation award worth $1.5 million over three years, for his ongoing study of the impact of the Holocaust on American literature.

Sundquist, an English professor at UCLA, is a non-Jewish scholar who has done some of the most kick-ass work in the fields of Holocaust studies and multicultural American literature. He was first recognized for his work on the role of black writers and culture in American literature, and his most recent work, Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America, expands some of these initial cutting-edge ideas.

For someone who works in the humanities, it doesn't get any more prestigious — or validating — than getting one of these ritzy little Mellon awards, and I think it's pretty cool that one of this year's prizes (there are only four) went to a project on the Holocaust.

On the negative flip side, I've heard some people remark that "we" need to stop talking about the Holocaust — get over it, move on. It's funny, though, that nobody says that about the Civil War, or about the legacy of slavery in the US. Nobody tries to shut Toni Morrison up.

Nobody tells black people living in the South to "get over it." But it seems that it's not cool to talk about the Holocaust unless Oprah touches it with her magic wand.

In a study that is far more than ivory-tower research, Eric J. Sundquist argues that English-language books — original, in translation or adapted as film scripts — are largely responsible for "Americanizing" and universalizing the Holocaust in the world's consciousness.

Part of his project will also examine the role that works of American writers, "far removed from the crematoria of the Final Solution," have played in shaping what we view as Holocaust literature. I'm guessing that he'll look at the works of Second Generation survivors as well as more controversial works written by both Jews and non-Jews who have no "direct" link to the Holocaust.

Sundquist believes that the very act of translation has helped to transform the Holocaust from a specific Jewish tragedy into a more "Christianized," and therefore universal, experience. This, I'm not sure I like the sound of — I'm creeped out by the idea that a "Christianized" experience is a more universal experience.

And I'm not sure I buy into the idea that the Holocaust (or any other collective tragedy for that matter) needs to be universalized. And if it does, is that not simply an indication of our own self-centeredness? Our solipsistic desire to make everything our own? Every tragedy is unique and ineffable — why try to change that?

And yet, it's clear that Sundquist is not unaware of how tricky it can be to start "Christianizing" or "universalizing" the Holocaust:

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Sundquist's analysis is how the literary vocabulary of the Holocaust has been adapted and taken over by other victimized people. Japanese American writers have used the imagery of Nazis against Jews to describe their internment in U.S. "concentration camps," as well as the "holocaust" of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Native American authors have drawn similar literary analogies in recording the slaughter of their people by white settlers, but the most striking impact has been on African American writings. In black literature, Sundquist said, "the organizing example was the biblical Exodus, but since World War II, this has been overshadowed by the Holocaust as the main paradigm." One striking example is Toni Morrison's "Beloved," which implicitly likens the African slave trade to the Shoah in her epigraph, "To the 60 million." Turning to a current cultural phenomenon, the well publicized visit of Oprah Winfrey and Wiesel to Auschwitz, Sundquist observed that "it was not only well done, but Oprah knew it would resonate with her audience, attuned to the language of suffering and survival." One unedifying aspect of the literary cross-fertilization has been a kind of "My Holocaust was worse than your Holocaust" competition, or, as one writer put it, a "Victimization Olympics."

Which reminds me — last week I blogged about Tova Reich's novel My Holocaust, a satire on the way people have appropriated the suffering of the Holocaust for their own ends. Or, to put it more succinctly, the "literary cross-fertilization" has resulted in some nasty inbreeding. I fear, though, that we now move toward capitalizing on critiques of this cross-fertilization.

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