Hunan Normal University, a higher education institution serving over 30,000 students in Changsha, China, recently launched The Journal of Foreign Languages and Cultures, a peer-reviewed, open-access academic journal targeted at a broadly interdisciplinary and international audience. Each issue of the journal will be published in both English and Mandarin, and the editorial board includes scholars from nine countries on three continents.
Among the fifteen articles in the opening issue, there are analyses of Chinese novelist, Zhongshu Qian, and Trinidadian critic, C. L. R. James, an interview with African-American novelist, Ishmael Reed, and an interpretation of the Hollywood musical, Meet Me In St. Louis. There is also a prominent essay by Shelley Fisher Fishkin on Mark Twain’s writings about Judaism and anti-Semitism.
Dr. Fishkin, who won the Tuckey Award for lifetime achievement in Twain Studies scholarship from CMTS last year, was approached by Lauri Ramey, a professor at Hunan Normal and an editor for JFLC, about contributing to the opening issue. Fishkin says,
I have long been interested in how fascinated many Chinese are by Mark Twain, and also by Jewish culture and history. Selina Lai-Henderson’s wonderful book, Mark Twain in China, provides a terrific overview of Chinese interest in Twain. During a trip to a conference in Guangzhou some years back for the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford (which I co-direct), I was struck by the passionate interest in Jewish history and culture on the part of a Chinese graduate student I met. More recently, I met a young man whose ancestors were part of the Jewish community that existed in Kaifeng since the 10th century or earlier, who was interested in learning more about his heritage. Given the strong interest in both Twain and Jewish culture—and the fact that anti-Semitic stereotypes are not a concept of which many Chinese are aware (although they are increasingly aware of anti-Asian and anti-Black stereotypes)—it made sense to me to publish this article in a journal which might include a significant Chinese readership. I encourage other Twain scholars to publish there as well. You keep the copyright and are free to reprint elsewhere articles of yours that they publish.
On that note, Dr. Fishkin has graciously agreed to allow us to reprint a selection from her essay, the remainder of which you can download at the JFLC’s website.
A Fresh Look at Mark Twain and the Jews
On a clear, brisk mid-April Sunday afternoon in 1907, a white-suited Mark Twain strode to the front of the stage of the theatre at the Educational Alliance at Jefferson Street and East Broadway on New York City’s Lower East Side and beamed with pleasure. Little Rhoda Rosenblum had just taken a curtain call for her performance as Tom Canty, the pauper who ends up changing places with Prince Edward, in a dramatic version of Twain’s novel, The Prince and the Pauper. Little Helen Schwartz, who played the Prince, had taken a bow at her side.
The audience of 800 included, in addition to Mark Twain and several of his friends, many of the Lower East Side neighborhood children who had besieged the Educational Alliance when plans for the play were first announced, showing up as pairs of identically-dressed, identically coiffed girls and boys vying to be cast as the Prince and Pauper before the theatre’s director, Minnie Herts, announced that the roles had been filled. Rhoda Rosenblum had acquitted herself well as the Pauper: the next day’s New York Times would observe that she played the part “with a touch of ingenuousness that was spontaneous.” Helen Schwartz was quite credible as the Prince (the Times said she “sketched well the range of her role”). And Sara Novick, playing the pauper’s sister, Nan, nearly stole the show with her comic shtiks.
Seventy-year-old Mark Twain was clearly delighted. He marveled that he had lived in New York but hadn’t known about the Educational Alliance and its Children’s Theatre. “It’s like a man living within thirty miles of Vesuvius and never knowing about a volcano. It’s like living for a lifetime in Buffalo, eighteen miles from Niagara, and never going to see the Falls,” he was quoted as having said in the next day’s paper. “If we had forty theaters of this kind in a city of 4,000,000, how they would educate and elevate.”
In November 1908, Twain was back at the Children’s Theater again, this time for an evening of short plays, scenes, and musical interludes. Once again he took the stage after the performance. The young actors – many of whom spoke Yiddish at home – were gratified to hear Twain announce that they “knew their Shakespeare far better than many Broadway audiences.” And they were thrilled to hear that Twain himself had agreed to be Honorary President of the Board of Directors of the Children’s Theater.
Few people would have been surprised by Twain’s enthusiasm for this cause and his willingness to support it. After all, as a writer and as a father, Twain had focused on children and their educational development for over two decades. He had been a passionate theatre-goer for even longer. And he was well-known for being a friend of the Jews. Readers of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, The Washington Times, The New York World, and the New York Times during the previous decade were familiar with his distaste for anti-Semitism. He had published a searing expose of anti-Semitism in the Austro-Hungarian empire. He had minced no words denouncing pogroms in Russia and had been a featured speaker at a benefit for Russian Jews. He had condemned French anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair on numerous occasions. And in a widely-read essay called “Concerning the Jews” he had provided his own analysis of the roots of anti-Semitism. Would he want his daughter to marry one? Absolutely. When Clara Clemens did just that in 1909, Twain embraced his Jewish son-in-law, the Russian pianist and conductor, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, with unreserved affection, hosting their wedding ceremony on the lawn of his Connecticut home. So how can it be that some of Twain’s comments from “Concerning the Jews” regularly get quoted with approval today on white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and other anti-Semitic websites and blogs?
Shelley Fisher Fishkin is a Professor of English and the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities at Stanford University. She is author of numerous books and articles on Mark Twain.