Robert Nathan Readthrough: Introduction

Connected with my interest in fantasy literature written by Jews, I want to do a chronological readthrough of Robert Nathan (1894-1985). This might seem an odd choice for several reasons. He’s not exactly a household name today, even among fantasy readers. And the fantasies that he produced are in a gently whimsical and satirical mode, with talking animals and ironic metaphysical meditations rather than what had been recognized and canonized as genre fantasy by the time of Nathan’s death. As John Clute writes in the Encylopedia of Fantasy, Nathan’s “40 or so books tended almost invariably to be Supernatural Fictions, plus the occasional fantasy, all told in a consistently civilized, mild-mannered, moderately bittersweet tone.”

Yet Clute immediately follows this assessment with the observation: “Given the soft but ironic focus of so much of his work, and his refusal to generate happy endings to romances which seemed to beg for them, the scale of his success over 50 years was notable.” Indeed, while Nathan outlived his literary celebrity, he was a major name in the first half of the twentieth century, a frequent bestseller, four of whose novels (The Bishop’s Wife, One More Spring, The Enchanted Voyage, and Portrait of Jennie) were made into Hollywood films. Moreover, one of his most avid readers was Peter S. Beagle, who acknowledges the influence of Nathan on his own weavings of Jewish identity and the fantastic.

So, while I have only dipped a bit into Nathan’s extensive oeuvre—I began with his Zionist allegorical fantasy Road of Ages (1935)—I am intrigued and excited to begin this attempt to read all of his books in the order of their publication.

Nathan was a Jewish-American writer, but in not the way we tend to think of that category. He was not a product of the mass migration of Jews from eastern Europe that took place during the last two decades of the nineteenth century and first two decades of the twentieth, and that has so extensively shaped the very notions of Jewishness—and, for that matter, Americanness—in the United States to this day.

No, Nathan was born into one of the old, close-knit families of New York’s Sephardic Jewish aristocracy, with roots going back to the colonial period. He was a descendant of the eminent eighteenth-century rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas, and related to both Emma Lazarus and Benjamin Cardozo. One of Nathan’s paternal aunts was the suffragist and social reformer Maud Nathan; the other was the writer and activist Annie Nathan Meyer who, unlike her sister, was an anti-suffragist, and was a founder of Barnard College and promoter of African American literature and civil rights. Annie wrote in her memoirs that she shared “a secret language” with Nathan’s father Harold, who “fed my love of books, my determination to write.” Nathan attended private school in Switzerland and at Philips Exeter Academy, and matriculated at Harvard, though he dropped out to get married—the first of seven marriages—and go to work in advertising. So his is not the world of the shtetl, although small villages show up in Nathan’s fiction. And it is not world of the immigrant Lower East Side, although the impoverished tenements of the Bowery show up in Nathan’s debut, realist novel, a mode that he immediately abandoned.

Even in that first novel, Nathan’s style and sensibilities are not those of Lost Generation toughness, let alone the later political engagement of the 1930s, but of the gentle bohemianism of early twentieth-century Greenwich Village, with a Symbolist’s paintbrush and love of quiet irony. His expositor Clarence K. Sandelin observes what he sees as Nathan’s fundamental literary and political conservatism, the source of his popularity and yet so different from the writers who would be canonized in the course of the twentieth century as the proper objects of serious, highbrow, and academic attention. Sandelin writes:

Nathan’s [social] criticism, typically oblique, is muted by the esthetic distance created by his fantasy; folly and fraud seem to be tolerated by the patience of his sad exposition, and half-excused by his painful laughter. In contrast to the militant assault of Naturalistic writers or to the ruthless scorn of the avant garde, his mellow lament upon the state of society seems too temperate. But most popular writers are deeply conservative.

            Nathan himself, in a preface to a 1938 reprinting of several earlier novels, addressed “A Note to the Younger Generation,” that acknowledges and defends his increasingly unfashionable position in the literary codes and values of his day:

            My critics complain that I do not write about the real world. To discuss the loves and disappointments of little girls and old men, of mice and roosters, seems preposterous to the young realists of today. Yet what is more real than the hopes and griefs of children? Is a labor union more actual than a doll?

So in the months ahead I hope to enter the many worlds of Robert Nathan and explore their fantasies and realities.

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