I love to read about reading, so Gordon Hutner’s What America Read: Taste, Class and the Novel 1920-1960 was irresistible. I brought it home from the library hoping for something like Amy Cruse’s books about Victorian reading habits, but Hutner’s work is more academic; he is curious about the creeping cultural amnesia which erases so many successful authors from literary memory. Hutner blames this on the critical and academic establishments; he feels they ignore successful middle-class work in favour of either elitist experimental novels and working class fiction. I think Hutner has something of a point — middle-class fiction (also called middlebrow) is exactly what I want to study if I ever pursue a doctorate in English Literature — but his book is incredibly frustrating; he ignores the work in this area that women such as Nicola Beauman and Nicola Humble have been doing over the past decades. After eighty pages of irritation I quit reading, wrote down some of his forgotten authors, and then sent the book back to the library with a feeling of relief.
My usual way would be to let this new list sit with many similar companions for a few years before investigating it, but where is the adventure in that? I decided to try one of the authors immediately, settling on Elias Tobenkin, whose 1925 novel God of Might Hutner suggests “may well be the fulfillment of his literary career.” In fact, Hutner spends three pages arguing the merits of this novel of “middle-class realism” which “dramatizes the consequences of making it” for Jewish immigrants. I am not at all familiar with Jewish immigrant literature, despite having a set of Jewish great-grandparents who came to the United States from Russia in the early 20th century, so it seemed a fine place to start.
Alas and alack, God of Might is a terrible, terrible book. It is, yes, the story of a Russian Jewish immigrant, Samuel, who comes to the United States and finds work in a small town in Illinois. He assimilates to the society there, gives up religious observances, succeeds in business, marries, and then eventually realises that other people still see him as Jewish even if he does not see himself so. At the end he has a moment of crisis in which he begins to reconnect to his Jewish roots. That is the novel; you will not learn anything more if you read it yourself because there is nothing more, despite 272 pages of text. The characters are there as representative types, and while Tobenkin tells us that Samuel is “abstruse and dreamy, like his father, and then again he was sharp and clear, sedulous and self-assertive, as his mother had been,” we never see Samuel doing anything, dreamy or self-assertive. There is no texture, no concrete detail, no personality, absolutely nothing except the author’s voice telling us what happens. It is a lost book because it is a terribly written book, and I am rather astonished that Gordon Hutner could not figure this out for himself.
However, reading this terrible book did lead me on an interesting adventure, as I kept putting it down to Google the author, trying to figure out why on earth he had produced this particular book. What I found, via a biographical sketch at the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin where Tobenkin’s papers are kept, was fascinating. Although he wrote at least six (some sources say eight) novels, Tobenkin was primarily a journalist, which may explain why his novel reads the way it does — it is reminiscent of a sort of factual reporting in which there is no need to show anything because the journalistic voice is the authority telling the story. I do not know if God of Might was in any way autobiographical, but Tobenkin was, in fact, a Russian Jewish immigrant; he was born in Slutsk in 1882, and came to the United States with his parents in 1899. After graduating with an MA from the University of Wisconsin in 1906 he found work as a journalist, first in Milwaukee, then in Chicago. By the 1920s he was a successful foreign correspondent for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune, as well as writing for various magazines, and he published several books of non-fiction; the last was The Peoples Want Peace, in 1938, after which his career began to be eclipsed by that of his son, the renowned labour and anti-bigotry reporter Paul Tobenkin.
Paul who? If you, my dear reader, go Google right now on Paul Tobenkin, you will find only a few thousand hits — and almost all of them will refer back to this:
The Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award was established at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1959—during the heart of the civil rights movement—to honor Paul Tobenkin, The New York Herald Tribune reporter’s work and to recognize outstanding achievements in reporting on racial or religious hatred, intolerance or discrimination in the United States.
It is, apparently, quite a prestigious journalism award — or so most references to it indicate. Yet in spite of this, I can find almost no other information about Paul Tobenkin himself. Exhaustive Googling combined with the biographical sketch of his father at the archive in Texas tells me that Paul was born in 1913, his career flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, and then he died of illness in 1959. He was a charter member of what is now the News Guild of New York, “the union for news professionals in America’s media capital” — although there’s no information about him on their site that I can find. Eventually I turned up a speech reported in the 1961 Congressional Reporter that praises him for carrying on a “dedicated crusade for civil and human rights” — but the actual words he wrote as part of that crusade seem to have vanished entirely. There’s no collection of his work I can find, nothing has been reprinted, there isn’t even a biography of him up at Columbia. Cultural amnesia indeed.
Why has Paul Tobenkin’s work been forgetten? It seems strange that a crusading reporter who wrote about racial bigotry and labour struggles would have vanished so utterly. Were his politics too far to the left to survive the beginning of the Cold War? Was his work pioneering for its time, but then overshadowed by the Civil Rights movement? Or was he simply an ordinary, hard-working reporter who didn’t really break new ground? The Columbia award was established by Elias after Paul’s death; perhaps the laudatory language is that of grief rather than a real reflection of the son’s accomplishment. I do not know, and with the resources online it is impossible for me to tell. I hope that eventually the Ransom Center will expand Project Reveal to include forgotten American writers, and then I can study Paul’s work online — or perhaps I will win the lottery and can indulge my curiosity enough to fly to Texas. However it might come about, I would love the chance to read Paul’s journalism and see if any of it is worth resurrecting. That would be a fascinating adventure.