Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, February 27, 2000
Finding the right words for a literary tradition and translation
English Professor John Felstiner translates Paul Celan, co-edits anthology of American Jewish literature


In his introduction to the recently published Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, Stanford English Professor John Felstiner poses a question that is exquisite and wrenching:

"Would we, if somehow this were possible, trade Anne Frank's diary for her life, give up those salvaged pages to let her survive unscathed, in her seventies now? And would we forego Charlotte Salomon's Life or Theater?, her 1941 autobiography in 760 watercolors, if in exchange she were not to perish at Auschwitz? Would we, in effect, do without such indispensable human documents, relinquish them so as to secure the undeflected lives their creators might have lived?"

The passage compels us to reflect on what it would mean to never read Frank's words, with the richness they afford our understanding of history, suffering and tenderness, even as we continue toward Felstiner's inevitable response:

"Why yes! it goes without saying."

The questions in the passage also point to the Jewish identity of the diarist and artist, whose works went on to animate the blood and flesh of their ideas long after their lives were extinguished.

In addition to translating Celan's poems and prose, Felstiner recently has helped to complete a project that turns centrally on the notion of Jewish identity in writing and art: He is among four editors who have compiled, annotated and written essays for Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology (2000).

An event celebrating the new anthology is set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28, in the first floor auditorium (Room 113) of Building 260. The program, which is free and open to the public, will feature students singing Broadway show tunes; a scene from Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing!; and readings by some authors whose work is included in the volume, such as Carl Rakosi, who is one of the oldest living poets in the world.

Felstiner, 64, had never before worked on an anthology when, in 1996, one of his former graduate students, Kathryn Hellerstein (now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania), recruited him to help edit the proposed volume.

"It was an immense job," Felstiner said. "And it was a labor of love."

One of the most gratifying aspects of the project, he said, was the "very steep and exciting learning curve." While he has taught a course on literature of the Holocaust since 1977, his area of expertise is literary translation and modern American and European poetry and literature. He said he knew relatively little about Jewish American literature when he joined the project.

The present anthology, which forms the basis of his freshman seminar this quarter, is split into five main chronological sections -- covering 1654 to the present -- and three special sections, dealing with Jewish humor, Broadway songs and "Jews Translating Jews." Felstiner was responsible for the section titled "Achievement and Ambivalence, 1945-1973," as well as for "Jews Translating Jews."

In teaching his freshman seminar this quarter, he decided to try a different tack. "Usually, when you order a Norton anthology, you just take it for granted," he said. "It's there like an encyclopedia. Nobody questions its existence or even its content. But I thought I would do the opposite here. Since it was such a new book -- and the problematic nature of it was still so present for me -- I would make the seminar into a critique of the book."

The "problematic nature" of the volume is apparent even in its title, which Felstiner contested. He pressed for the phrase "American Jewish" instead of "Jewish American," but he was outvoted by the other editors.

"Jewish American suggests that the 'Jewish' part, being an adjective, is subordinate to the 'American' part -- and for a lot of us that's true," he said. "Whereas if you say 'American Jew,' that says that the American part is, as it were, contingent, and the Jewish part essential. At least, that's they way I look at the grammar of it."

In any case, Felstiner and the other editors agreed to lay out arguments around both formulations in the introduction, which begins, appropriately: "At the outset, the editors wrestled with the question of what to call this anthology."

During an interview, Felstiner said he was excited by the notion that Jewishness "binds [Jews from various cultural and national backgrounds] together around the world and through time."

In the Norton introduction, co-written by the editors, this idea is couched in a series of interrogatives:

"The other formulation -- 'American Jewish literature' -- might also sound primarily American and secondarily Jewish. Or does that term point up a distinctively Jewish writing in its American incarnation? Can we discern an 'American Jew' at the root of the phrase, someone as deeply akin to Russian or Argentine or Israeli Jews as to other Americans? Yes and no, depending on the circumstances. . . . So both terms seem richly problematic."

The editors' preoccupation with the title leads, naturally, to a larger question, which arises a little later: "Do these Jews writing in America make up a literary tradition, even without being particularly aware of their forebears? And, if so, what defines that tradition? As ever, it depends on who's doing the defining."

Felstiner points out that defining, say, Renaissance poetry is pretty simple: For the most part, where and when the poets lived dictate whether they fit into that category.

"Whereas with Jewish American literature -- well, what is it? Is it Norman Mailer? Is it J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye? Is it West Side Story by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein?" Felstiner said. (He noted that, as originally conceived, this musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet would have told the story of a Jewish boy's infatuation with an Italian Catholic girl.)

Felstiner said he has settled on the following definition: "The piece of literature has to help us think through the American Jewish experience in some way."

Works of art also can reveal a Jewish identity without being pointedly Jewish in content, Felstiner said. For example, he said there is nothing blatantly Jewish about Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman.

"But the character Willy Loman -- kind of marginal, a bit defeated but always hopeful -- reflects something characteristically Jewish that I'm sure Miller meant. But he was not concerned to write a particularly Jewish play," Felstiner said.

When American Jewish songwriters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote Oklahoma!, they were, Felstiner argues, doing what all children of immigrant parents do: desiring to possess the new land.

"And how do you do that? Not by assimilating, necessarily, but by acculturating," he said. "Assimilating means you really lose your Jewishness; acculturating means you keep it but get to live vitally within the culture and land."

In the same vein, George Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess, Irving Berlin wrote "God Bless America" and Aaron Copland wrote "Appalachian Spring."

Uninitiated readers of Jewish American literature -- those whose grasp of the tradition may be limited to Woody Allen and Allen Ginsberg (both authors' work is represented in the volume) -- probably will be surprised by the "variety" and "buoyancy" of the writing in the anthology, Felstiner said.

Felstiner said that throughout much of his early life he was aware of his Jewish identity but "paid very little attention to it" -- that is, until he took a hiatus from Stanford in 1974 to teach American literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"That just turned my life around," he said. "And when I got back to Stanford in 1975, I said, 'I need to do something with this.'" He began teaching a course on literature of the Holocaust and working toward what is now the Jewish Studies Program.

Then, in 1976, he came across some of Paul Celan's poetry.

"I was so struck by Celan's poetry and breathtaken by it that I said to myself, 'I can't get around this.' I knew I had to go through rather than around it," Felstiner said, noting that he has spent more than two decades of his life studying the poet's life and work.

Celan's parents were German-speaking Jews who lived in Czernowitz, a city in the eastern part of the Austrian Empire. Celan was born there after the Great War, when the city came under Romanian control. But he grew up amid the songs, folktales and classics of German culture. He lost both his parents during World War II -- they were picked up during an overnight raid -- and never saw them again.

Celan eventually settled in Paris, where he lived the rest of his life. But he wrote poetry in German, which, of course, was the language of the Nazis.

"He decided it was the only language he could tell the truth in," Felstiner said. "And he purged the German language through poetry."

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass once devoted two syndicated columns to one of Celan's most famous poems, "Todesfuge" ("Deathfugue"), calling it "one of the most indelible poems of the 20th century."

Elie Wiesel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, called Celan among "the greatest and most moving Jewish poets of our turbulent time."

Felstiner first wrote a literary biography of Celan -- Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew -- published in 1995. The Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, translated by Felstiner, was published in 2000.

The literary biography met with critical and popular acclaim. "People needed Paul Celan. They needed to hear that voice," Felstiner said.

Celan's poetry tends to be vivid and dark; his life was striated by bouts of depression, and he eventually committed suicide by drowning himself in the Seine. But Felstiner's translations keep us afloat on the dark, lyrical and turbulent waters of the poet's verse and prose:

"Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink . . . "

-- from "Deathfugue"

John Felstiner