Black on White

There are books which for a Jew somehow underline his essential homelessness; at least for a Jew like the great majority of us. Their writers, we feel, are so curiously, so poignantly integrated with a particular spot on the ### its people ### its foibles. ### is not in ### fireworks ### local patriotism that we feel ###is unity of person and place so ###range to us, but in the very ab###ence of such display. Those writ###ers have no need for protesting.

Home to them is not a place adopted and retained by virtue of contracts and good works and self-conscious insistence. It is a relationship with the milieu so natural, unstrained and graceful that it is utterly unaware of itself.

Such a book has been written by Henry Seidel Canby in “The Age of Confidence,” published by Farrar and Rinehart. It is a quiet, mellifluous record of the man’s youthful years in the town of Wilmington, Del., back in the 1890′s and 1900′s.

That its reading left me—as books of this type must leave most Jews—with a gnawing sense of homelessness would be a strange and perhaps incomprehensible fact for its author. Certainly that was nowhere in the scope of his intentions. There is no emphasis upon the complete harmony between Canby and his particular Wilmington. That harmony can be sensed in the overtones, in the fact that it is taken for granted. Even where he pokes a little fun at the place and its ways, or shows up a few of its grosser superstitions, he does it by native right.

As I read the volume I could not help imagining another little boy growing up in the same Wilmington, exactly little Henry’s age, with approximately his mental equipment. He is imaginary—yet he is real enough. Maybe he was in the same school. Unquestionably he was in the same high school with young Canby. He was a “Jew boy.”

The little Jewish lad, too, was born in Wilmington. Probably his father was born there. His family, in fact, considered itself American and wore its Americanism with a certain bravado. Father was second to no other Wilmington citizen in contributing to good causes. Elder brother joined the marines after the Maine was sunk. But despite everything he remained subtly sundered from the little Canbys in that school and in that town.

Because he was well-mannered and exceptionally intelligent, he got himself invited now and then to the Canby household, or another like it. They all behaved as if it were a routine matter, a school friendship. But the Quaker-Presbyterian lad felt a little excited, the least bit apologetic in the eyes of his elders. He felt as if he had dragged a bit of the exotic East into a well-regulated American home. His Jewish guest tried ever so hard to be like Henry and outwardly succeeded. Yet a peculiar twist in his mental processes, an offhand remark perhaps which seemed alien in that house-hold, disturbed the pretense.

By now the Jewish boy is grown up and a successful American. Indeed, he is in many ways more American than Henry Seidel Canby who, like many intellectuals of his #eneration, is a good deal at odds with American institutions. The grown-up Jewish boy belongs to Rotary and contributes to super-patriotic societies. He is the only man in his lodge who knows all the words of the Star-Spangled Banner. He is not only American but seemingly typical, quintessentian American.

Yet he could not write a book such as “The Age of Confidence,” even if he had the literary gift for it. It may be his America, but it was not his Wilmington. Neither that nor any other spot can ever be his home in the sense that it is Canby’s. His roots are too close to the surface. They have not sunk deeply enough.

Have I overdrawn the imaginary “Jew boy”? Perhaps. Yet I am sure that no Jew could convey the same flavor of primordial intimacy with a small town, unless it be a Jew writing about Palestine in some distant future day. The privilege of being deeply provincial is not ours. Even on a farm we remain cosmopolitan.

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