Jacob Glatstein's Prophecy
The Glatstein Chronicles
by Jacob Glatstein, edited with an introduction by Ruth R. Wisse, translated by Maier Deshell and Norbert Guterman
Yale University Press, 432 pp., $20
It isn't every day that one has the opportunity to read a literary masterpiece. But a literary masterpiece that doubles as a work of prophecy? Such books have been rare since the death of Isaiah—which is why this new English edition of The Glatstein Chronicles deserves not only praise but its own cantillation. Largely set in a Jewish sanatorium—resort in 1934 Poland, The Glatstein Chronicles is easy to label as a Jewish Magic Mountain. But Thomas Mann's novel about the decline of European civilization as dramatized at a sanatorium-resort was published in 1925, after the ravages of World War I made his characters' prewar lives poetically moot. The Glatstein Chronicles might have been that book, had it been written in 1946. Instead, this devastating kaleidoscopic vision of doom for Jewish Europe first appeared in print in . . . 1934. Jacob Glatstein was no mere poet, but a Yiddish prophet. And now American Jews can rediscover what prophecy really means.
Like most prophets, Glatstein at first resisted the call. Born in Lublin in 1896, he escaped Poland's painfully circumscribed opportunities by convincing his parents to send him to America at age 17—where his one American uncle couldn't even leave his sweatshop job to meet him at the dock. Bright enough (and fluent enough in English) to enroll in New York University Law School, and also bright enough to voluntarily drop out, Glatstein at 24 made a conscious decision to live his literary life in Yiddish. His early poetry is phenomenal, world-class modernist verse that catapulted Yiddish into the worlds of Eliot and Joyce and beyond. Almost untranslatable because of his punning and layering of nearly every word (in Yiddish, Hebrew, English, and Polish) and his clever references to both Yiddish highbrow and children's culture (all, by 2011, requiring extensive footnotes), Glatstein's first three published books of poetry are works of genius by a writer stretching his wings in a Jewish world that felt too small for his talents.
But in time Glatstein saw that these brilliant tours de force could be no more than brilliant, and the growing crisis in Europe made him see the pitiful aspect of writing Yiddish verse modeled on the language games of Anglo-American poets. Like claiming today that his novel is a "Jewish Magic Mountain," this kind of work suggests that Jewish literature is a pale imitation of "world literature," rather than the generator of world literature's most fundamental themes. Without anti-Semitism, this assumption would be merely pathetic. But when one considers the active degrading of Jewish culture within the most lauded realms of Western civilization, the idea that Jewish literature ought to mirror its non-Jewish counterpart becomes worse than base. After violent pogroms in Poland in 1938, Glatstein in New York wrote his most famous poem, "Good Night, World," which bids a sarcastic farewell to the supposed glories of Western civilization, insisting to the non-Jewish world that "Not you, but I slam the gate," as the poet rejects Western culture for a stunted Judaism that at least opposes the wider world's moral hypocrisy: