Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Guest Post by Samantha Seal: "On Chaucer, Jews, and Charles Muscatine"

by Samantha Seal

“But how can a Jew study Chaucer?” a professor visiting Yale asked me, a doctoral student in 2010. And that has been the question for a hundred and fifty years. Perhaps they couldn’t, perhaps Geoffrey Chaucer was the one subject sacrosanct from Jewish “intrusion.”  For Chaucer’s fame as the “Father of English Poetry” has proved at times inseparable from his successors’ claims to English blood. As the American critic John Livingston Lowes wrote, Chaucer was “himself the very thing that he begat. He is English poetry incarnate, and only two, perhaps, of all his sons outshine his fame.”[1] Race merges seamlessly into genealogy in this evaluation; Chaucer stands before his sons, each as English as the next, and glories in the exclusive aesthetics of their blood. And this filiation had space enough for critic and poet alike, for a fellowship of English blood (albeit often contained in American embodiments).

Lowes himself was an American of English extraction, the Midwestern son of a Presbyterian minister who had gone east to Harvard in 1918, and would remain there, the colossus of the English department, until his retirement in 1939. Perhaps for Lowes, to share the English blood of Chaucer was to redeem any regional distinction; certainly once at Harvard, Lowes was absorbed quickly into the multigenerational male genealogy of Chaucer Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts. George Lyman Kittredge, bona fide Bostonian and newly-named Gurney Professor of English at Harvard (1917), took Lowes under his paternal wing, in the same manner that Professor Francis James “Stubby” Child of Harvard had previously embraced Kittredge. Even as Chaucer supposedly begat his own English poetry, so too, the story goes, did one white literary critic after another beget his own intellectual heir, nurtured in Harvard’s historic womb.

This is the history of Chaucer studies that I, a Jew, knew even before I learned it, that I intuited in all the ways that one intuits the privileges and exclusions of whiteness in the world. In America, Chaucer belonged to men with surnames that could have been called out at Concord or Lexington; in Britain, Chaucer was at the heart of an English identity inseparable from Anglo-Saxon ancestry. When John Dryden named Chaucer the “Father of English Poetry” in 1700, in fact, he did so on the principles of familial inheritance. In The Canterbury Tales, Dryden found “our fore-fathers and great grand-dames all before us, as they were in Chaucer’s days.”[2] The claims of aesthetics fade here before the power of genealogy; Father Chaucer belongs to those who can claim their progenitors among his pilgrims. After 1871, a Jew could receive a degree in British literature from a British university, but he was still excluded from the larger story of that literature, from what G.K. Chesterton called (in his 1932 biography of Chaucer) “the curious primeval kinship between England and Chaucer.”[3] Elsewhere, Chesterton wrote that it was the Jew’s desire to insert himself into European literary history that provoked anti-Semitism within the world; he mocked German Jews with German names, saying that a Jew “might as well go and live in Stratford-on-Avon and call yourself Shakespeare.”[4] The great men of English literature belonged to the sons of their race, to a vibrant racial nationalism that helped fund the nineteenth-century establishment of The Chaucer Society and the twentieth-century enforcement in American of anti-Jewish and anti-Black university policies.

It is impossible, in this sense, to separate the history of English ancestry in Chaucer studies from the history of the “Jewish Problem” in American academia. By the early 1920s, the Ivy League universities faced what they termed a “Hebrew invasion,” an influx of Jewish young men with the intellectual merits to be admitted to the most elite of institutions.[5] Moreover, the flexible racial status of the Jews, their “alien and unwashed” origins, and their “infidelity to the standards of whiteness,” heightened the threat posed by their participation in “Anglo-Saxon” institutions.[6]  Shakespeare had already been ceded to Jewish intrusion; Walter W. Skeat had fostered the career of Sir Israel Gollancz, an expert on Shakespeare and Anglo-Saxon literature, who held faculty positions at UCL and Cambridge by the mid-1890s.[7] Yet Chaucer’s Englishness was sacrosanct. Perhaps it might even repel Jews, as Chesterton argued, for “not even the most glittering, shifting and opalescent Opalstein, changing his name for the tenth time, ever seems to change it to Chaucer.”[8]

Moreover, due to the specificities of faculty hiring and specialization, the same faculty member might teach both Chaucer and Anglo-Saxon literature, merging both into a literary bastion of racial purity. As Daniel Aaron, one of the first Jews to earn a PhD at Harvard, wrote of John Livingston Lowes’s graduate classroom in 1933, English medieval literature was used to reinforce anti-Jewish exclusion; Aaron remembered, “You studied Anglo-Saxon and Chaucer and Beowulf. It wasn’t as if I didn’t like those things. But I felt very much on the fringe.”[9]  And that exclusion of Jews from Chaucer studies was blamed on innately Jewish characteristics rather than institutional or personal discrimination. Lowes had taken on a Jew as a junior fellow in medieval literature, yet no university would hire Hyman Theodore Silverstein. Harry Levin, Harvard’s other Jewish junior faculty fellow in 1934, asked Lowes directly if anti-Semitism had caused Silverstein’s career stagnation. Lowes responded that he didn’t believe bigotry was a factor, but conceded, “it might be, because he [Silverstein] retains certain objectionable Jewish traits.”[10]  It was the Harvard undergraduate, E. Talbot Donaldson (Harvard BA, 1932), who would join Lowes’s Chaucer genealogy; Silverstein, Lowes’s PhD student and faculty assistant, left for friendlier terrain at the University of Kansas City, and then the University of Chicago.[11] 

And yet, as I learned last month in the midst of research for a review, despite Yale’s reputation as a bastion of Anglo-Saxon racial purity, one of the first Jews to earn his doctorate from Yale did so in the study of Geoffrey Chaucer. Perhaps this is common knowledge; perhaps I somehow missed the information that Charles Muscatine had been a Jew. But when I read Chaucer and the French Tradition, I had thought it was still part of the old tradition, part of a legacy of scholarship that presumed a member of the “Anglo-Saxon race” to exist on both sides of the author/reader relationship. Moreover, I had assumed that Jewish participation in Chaucer studies dated from the 1960s— that institutional anti-Semitism had succeeded in keeping the gates barred until overthrown by force in a triumphant upheaval of tradition. But Chaucer and the French Tradition wasn’t my idea of rebellion, nor Charles Muscatine my image of intellectual defiance. In fact, to me, Muscatine was Chaucer tradition…and, apparently, a Jew.

 The ironic thing is that Charles Muscatine was, in a sense, born into an intellectual lineage, just not into the one I’d expected. His parents, Samuel and Bertha (Greenberg) Muscatine, had each come to America as part of the last, great wave of Jewish immigration (1880-1925), before the Immigration Act of 1924 slammed shut the doors of the goldene medina to the six million men, women, and children who would no longer exist by the end of 1945. Charles was born in Brooklyn, but his father, Samuel, was born in Orsha, now a part of Belarus.[12] By virtue of where they were born, the Mushkatin family were “Litvaks,” “misnaggidim;” they were the pure intellectuals who stood in opposition to the joyful passions of the Hasidim to the south. When Geoffrey Chaucer was a child in London, the first Jews came to the town of Vilna, to bring the great “Jerusalem of the West” to life. And Charles Muscatine likely had family in Vilna; one Leib Mushkatin (a cousin? a grandfather?) moved to Vilna from Orsha in 1890. Basya Mushkatin Goldberg, Leib’s daughter, was murdered in the Vilna Ghetto during the Shoah.

This heritage made Charles Muscatine an immigrant to Chaucer. In the 1930 census, the child Charles claimed English as his primary language; his parents claimed Russian. His family moved to Trenton, New Jersey when he was still very young, and his father managed a department store there. Muscatine’s maternal grandfather, who defiantly claimed English as his native language only a few years after immigrating, was similarly involved in the woolens business, and Muscatine’s future wife, Doris Charm Corn, also came from a Russian Jewish textile family. And yet, despite all the limitations of language and class and Ivy League anti-Jewish quotas (not fully repealed at Yale until 1960), Charles Samuel Muscatine matriculated into Yale in 1936.[13]  He earned his degree in English in 1941 and his master’s degree in 1942, the same year that E. Talbot Donaldson joined the faculty. Muscatine paused his academic career to serve in the Navy for two years (receiving a medal for his part in the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach), but had returned to his doctoral studies by 1946 when the English department hired the first Jewish professor in the humanities at Yale, Charles Feidelson.[14] Muscatine received his PhD from Yale in 1948, and soon went off to have a prominent career at Berkeley. He lost his job for a few years when he refused to sign an anti-Communist loyalty oath, but Berkeley rehired him immediately after the courts invalidated such oaths. He retired in 1991 from Berkeley, and passed away in Oakland, California in 2010.[15]

Muscatine was part of a generation; his education at Yale, along with that of Charles Feidelson (who also earned his PhD there) and Richard Ellman, opened Jewish intellectual life at that university.[16] And this generational transformation grafts onto Chaucer. For, while Feidelson and Ellman edited The Modern Tradition together, Muscatine cast his mind upon the medieval tradition, and upon the man who had come to embody English identity in all its exclusions. In the opening of Chaucer and the French Tradition, Muscatine acknowledged his intellectual debt to Helge Kokeritz, calling him “myn owene maister deere,” and it is fitting somehow that America’s first Jewish Chaucerian invoked such a filial relationship with the famous Danish Chaucerian.[17]  Muscatine made his own genealogy here, a genealogy of those who came to Chaucer for purposes other than the reification of nation or race.

And Muscatine wrote a new genealogy for Chaucer, as well. John Livingston Lowes was the first Chaucerian with whom Muscatine disagreed, on the second page of the book. But, even more significantly, it was Chaucer’s idiomatic “Englishness” with which Muscatine took issue. “I am aware of Chaucer’s Englishness,” he wrote, perhaps a bit defensively.[18] But, Muscatine argued, “the most prominent source of the style of Chaucer’s poetry — his literary matrix — is not English, Latin, or Italian; his style is most compendiously and clearly described as stemming from the traditions originated and propagated, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in France.”[19] When Muscatine claimed for Chaucer that “his diction and syntax were English before him, his style was not,” he created a version of “Englishness” that assimilates the immigrant, the Jew. English is a linguistic convention, accessible through language study; it is a garment that one may put on and, potentially, take off, so as to pass through other climes. Muscatine’s Chaucer was an assimilated Englishman, French in his genealogy. “He is a common descendant of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, of the great French romancers— Chretien de Troyes, Gautier d’Arras, the anonymous author of Flamenca, — and of the Renart poets and their brothers of the naturalistic tradition.”[20]  Bloodlines were passé to Muscatine; they were the nationalistic fictions that obscured the commonalities and likenesses of the aesthetic. That Geoffrey Chaucer who had served English (and American) generations as the last bulwark for their bigotry became, for Charles Muscatine, son of Samuel and Bertha Mushkatin, yet another foreigner aping an English accent.

And so finally, I would conclude that those of us who study Chaucer now, seven years after Muscatine’s death and three months after white nationalists marched at Charlottesville, should see the existence of a man like Muscatine in our own history as a call to arms to hold onto Chaucer against the forces who would exploit him to do evil. When the National Review mocked Yale students a few years ago for protesting against the presence of too many white men (including Chaucer and Shakespeare) in their curriculum, they did so under Chaucer’s image, in his name.[21]  Their Chaucer is an English Chaucer for Englishmen (and their American cousins); to defend Chaucer’s poetry in the classroom is, in the opinions of such men, to defend the dominance of whiteness in the classroom. Yet Chaucer’s genealogy is what we make of it, his Englishness only another of his fictions with which he beguiles us. And our own academic genealogies, as Chaucerians and medievalists, are far more varied and diverse than we remember. Jews (and other underrepresented groups) are not only a part of the study of Chaucer in the present; they are a part of the way we have studied Chaucer in the past. Muscatine is the first Jew to break into the record, to receive a Yale doctorate in the study of Chaucer. Yet before him, there was Silverstein, and before him Gollancz, and before him countless other men and women who read Chaucer not because they recognized him as their racial peer, but because they recognized something human, something of worth, in the comic, tragic lines of his Middle English verse. Those men and women are as much a part of our history as John Livingston Lowes and G.K. Chesterton; they are as much a part of the future we hope to create. 

Samantha Seal is an assistant professor of English at the University of New Hampshire.  Her first book is Father Chaucer: Generating Authority in The Canterbury Tales, and she has also published on Chaucer’s engagement with medieval medicine, Jewish stereotypes, twenty-first century feminism, and motifs of disability.

[1] John Livingston Lowes, Geoffrey Chaucer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958), 1.

[2] John Dryden, Fables Ancient and Modern; Translated into Verse, from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, and Chaucer: With Original Poems (Edinburgh: A. Kincaid, W. Creech, and J. Balfour, 1773), 35.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1932), 75-6. On the Universities Tests Act of 1871 and the history of Jewish matriculation into British universities, see Cecil Roth, “The Jews in the English Universities,” Miscellanies (Jewish Historical Society of England) 4 (1942): 102-115.

[4] Quoted in Bryan Cheyette, Constructions of the Jew in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 201.

[5] Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005), 110. Cf. Susanne Klingenstein, Jews in the American Academy, 1900-1940: The Dynamics of Intellectual Assimilation (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998); Klingenstein, Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930-1990 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998).

[6] The comment on the Jews as an “alien and unwashed element” comes from Robert Nelson Corwin, chairman of Yale’s Board of Admissions from 1922-1933, and is quoted in Karabel, The Chosen, 112. The discussion of Jews as traitors to whiteness can be found in Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 127.

[7] https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Times/1930/Obituary/Israel_Gollancz

[8] Chesterton, Chaucer, 75-6.

[9] Quoted in Klingenstein, Jews in the American Academy, 203.

[10] Quoted in Klingenstein, Enlarging America, 64.

[11] http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/24/us/dr-theodore-silverstein-96-scholar-of-medieval-literature.html

[12] All genealogical information on Charles Muscatine comes from my personal research into his family on www.ancestry.com, www.jewishgen.org (particularly LitvakSIG), and www.yadvashem.org

[13] http://www.nytimes.com/1986/03/04/nyregion/yale-s-limit-on-jewish-enrollment-lasted-until-early-1960-s-book-says.html

[14] As Paul Fry recounts in his brief history of the Yale English department, when Lionel Trilling (Columbia’s first tenured Jewish professor) came to speak at Yale, Feidelson, still a junior faculty member, was “sent to meet him at the train since ‘they would understand each other.”’ https://english.yale.edu/about/history-department

[15] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/20/arts/20muscatine.html?ref=obituaries

[16] Klingenstein, Enlarging America, xx.

[17] Perhaps fittingly, Muscatine thanks multiple Yale professors (including Kokeritz), but does not mention E. Talbot Donaldson.

[18] Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, 6.

[19] Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, 5.

[20] Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, 5.

[21] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/436268/yale-students-major-english-poets-curriculum-has-too-many-white-males

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