The Nov. 26 New York Observer carries a bracingly stupid editorial accusing John Updike of anti-Semitism because, in a recent New Yorker review of Peter Carey's latest novel, My Life as a Fake, Updike makes reference to a "rich Jew." By running the review, the Observer fulminates, The New Yorker may be "implicitly endorsing anti-Semitism."
No, it isn't. The phrase that offended the Observer appeared in the middle of Updike's summary of the book's plot. One element of the story (Updike explained) is a literary hoax in which a book purportedly written by a popular deceased poet named McCorkle turns out to be the work of an unknown and very-much-alive poet named Chubb. "The rough-hewn opus," Updike elaborated,
was accepted and published with fanfare by the avant-garde journal Personae, whose editor was a rich Jew[italics Chatterbox's] who had befriended Chubb, one David Weiss. When Weiss, on the strength of one punning line, was prosecuted for obscenity, Chubb exposed the hoax, humiliating him further; in mid-trial, Weiss died violently, apparently a suicide. Readers up on Australian artistic pranks … will recognize the lineaments of the real-life Ern Malley affair, which was perpetrated in 1944, by two skillful anti-modernists, Harold Stewart and James McAuley, victimizing a Melbourne magazine called, believe it or not, Angry Penguins.
Chatterbox hasn't read My Life as a Fake, so he can't tell you how important it is to the articulation of Carey's themes or plot that David Weiss is Jewish and rich. Even so, Chatterbox is astonished by the Observer's outrage:
To say that the expression "rich Jew" is loaded with historical anti-Semitism is an understatement. Would Mr. Updike describe someone as "a rich Catholic" or "a rich Protestant"? It is disappointing that an author of Mr. Updike's talent and position would put his name on a piece of writing that furthers the stereotype. Anti-Semitism is no less harmful when it appears in a highbrow publication than when it is scrawled by thugs on a storefront or a synagogue.
The Observer thinksUpdike would never describe someone as a "rich Catholic" or a "rich Protestant." Happily, we live in an age when this sort of accusation can be subjected to empirical analysis. Using Amazon.com's beguiling "search inside the book" feature, Chatterbox did not, it's true, catch Updike using the phrase "rich Catholic" or "rich Protestant." But Chatterbox did catch multiple instances where Updike, speaking in his own voice or that of one of his fictional creations, described somebody's privileged economic status in close proximity to that person's religion. (As anyone who's ever read him knows, religion is one of Updike's major preoccupations.)
From Updike's short story "The Other" (originally published in The New Yorker and reprinted in Prize Stories: O. Henry Awards 1985):
You never loved me, you just loved the idea of sneaking into a family. You loved my family, the idea of there being so many of us, rich and Episcopalian[italics Chatterbox's] and all that.
From Updike's novel Couples:
Why was she not content?....[T]here was little in her religious background—feebly Presbyterian [italics Chatterbox's]; her father, though a generous pledger, had been rather too rich[italics Chatterbox's] to go to church, like a man who would have embarrassed his servants by appearing at their party—to account for her inconvenient sense of evil.
From an Updike essay about Graham Greene in More Matter: Essays and Criticism:
Greene's long affair with Catherine Walston was tormented, and in violation of the sixth commandment, but sacrilegious? In this rich [italics Chatterbox's] and glamorous American Greene met his spiritual match; like him, she was a promiscuous, frisky, hard-drinking Catholic[italics Chatterbox's] convert.
"I love Updike," the Observer's usually sensible editor Peter Kaplan (who wouldn't disclose the editorial's author) told Chatterbox this afternoon. "But somebody's antennae should have been up at The New Yorker. It's an observation, not an indictment. There are certain phrases that ring bad historical bells."
But Amazon's "search inside" feature informs us that the phrase "rich Jew" gets used all the time to no particular anti-Semitic effect. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg used it in The Jews in America. Sholem Aleichem used it in Tevye the Dairyman. Philip Roth used it in American Pastoral. Robert Caro used it in The Power Broker. In none of these instances did the author imply anything derogatory or imply that some other person who used the phrase was expressing anti-Semitism.
Chatterbox doesn't deny that the phrase "rich Jew" can sometimes be used in a way that reinforces a harmful ethnic stereotype. Quite often, though, it's used simply to indicate that somebody is, well, rich and Jewish. Kaplan told Chatterbox that a New Yorker editor should have kicked the story back to Updike and asked him to find another phrase. But he admitted no substitute came immediately to mind. What was Updike supposed to do, scribble in "rich person who happens to be Jewish"? That sounds like something you'd hear from the sort of plodding Jewish authority figure that Philip Roth loves to send up in his novels.
What happened here, Chatterbox guesses, is that the Observer had on its mind the recent incident in which the journalist Gregg Easterbrook (full disclosure: a Chatterbox friend) stumbled into some much more vivid phrasing along these lines ("Jewish executives to worship money above all else") that was genuinely anti-Semitic, though clearly not intended as such. (Easterbrook is nobody's idea of an anti-Semite.) Easterbrook and the magazine he writes for, the New Republic, immediately recognized and apologized for the legitimate offense they caused, and the Anti-Defamation League was appeased. In Updike's case, though, the offense seems entirely imaginary. The Observer is fighting the last war.