America’s richest prize in the humanities, worth $1.5 million, has been awarded to the scholarly son of a Swedish American carpenter for a three-year project on the impact of the Holocaust on American literature.
In a study that is far more than ivory-tower research, Eric J. Sundquist argues that English-language books — original, in translation or adapted as film scripts — are largely responsible for “Americanizing” and universalizing the Holocaust in the world’s consciousness.
Sundquist is an English and literature professor at UCLA and was recently named one of four recipients of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s distinguished achievement award.
Although not as well known as the “genius grant” MacArthur fellowships, worth $500,000 over five years, the Mellon Foundation award allots $1.5 million over a three-year period, although it is not as unrestricted as the MacArthur fellowships.
Born in the small rural Kansas town of McPherson, Sundquist, 54, is described by colleagues at Columbia and Harvard universities as “the most productive American literature scholar of his generation,” whose “combination of broad erudition, subtlety of reflection and deep conviction makes his work exceptional, if not unique.”
He first joined the UCLA faculty in 1989, served as dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University from 1997 to 2002, and then returned to UCLA, where his formal title is UCLA Foundation Professor of Literature.
First widely recognized for explaining the role of black writers and culture in American literature, Sundquist expanded his purview in his most recent work, “Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America.”
Last month, “Strangers” received the Weinberg Judaic Studies Institute Award from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.
During a nearly two-hour interview at his UCLA office, Sundquist traced the three “generations” of Holocaust literature.
In the first generation, immediately following World War II, eyewitnesses, survivors and contemporaries laid the historical groundwork. In the 1960s and ’70s, the second generation explored the philosophical and theological aspects of the Shoah.
Since the end of the last century, a third generation of “postmodern and experimental” writers have added comedy, satire and even irreverence to the body of Holocaust literature.
One goal of Sundquist’s three-year project is to draw a complete “map” of these generational changes, from the 1940s to the present.
Another aim is to probe what impact the works of American writers, far removed from the crematoria of the Final Solution, as well as translations into English, have had in shaping the literature of the Shoah.
Sundquist believes that the very act of translation has helped to transform the Holocaust from a specific Jewish tragedy into a more “Christianized,” and therefore universal, experience.
“Take Elie Wiesel’s book ‘Night,’ which was first written in Yiddish, then translated into French, and from French into English. It has probably been read by more Americans than any other Holocaust memoir and thus has become part of American literature,” Sundquist said.
“But in the process of making the book more accessible to a wider audience, the original ‘Sabbath’ became ‘Sunday’ and ‘Shavuot’ became ‘Pentecost.'”
Similarly the film, “The Pawnbroker,” about an embittered Holocaust survivor in New York, is “loaded with Christian iconography and symbolism,” Sundquist said.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Sundquist’s analysis is how the literary vocabulary of the Holocaust has been adapted and taken over by other victimized people.
Japanese American writers have used the imagery of Nazis against Jews to describe their internment in U.S. “concentration camps,” as well as the “holocaust” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Native American authors have drawn similar literary analogies in recording the slaughter of their people by white settlers, but the most striking impact has been on African American writings.
In black literature, Sundquist said, “the organizing example was the biblical Exodus, but since World War II, this has been overshadowed by the Holocaust as the main paradigm.”
One striking example is Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which implicitly likens the African slave trade to the Shoah in her epigraph, “To the 60 million.”
Turning to a current cultural phenomenon, the well publicized visit of Oprah Winfrey and Wiesel to Auschwitz, Sundquist observed that “it was not only well done, but Oprah knew it would resonate with her audience, attuned to the language of suffering and survival.”
One unedifying aspect of the literary cross-fertilization has been a kind of “My Holocaust was worse than your Holocaust” competition, or, as one writer put it, a “Victimization Olympics.”
Given Sundquist’s expertise in black and Holocaust literature, readers who meet him for the first time are frequently astonished that he is not African American or Jewish.
Actually, his ancestors arrived in the Midwest from Sweden in the 1870s as farmers and craftsmen, and he was the first in his family to attend college — first the University of Kansas and then Johns Hopkins University for his graduate work.
He was raised as a Methodist and recalled that in his high school graduating class of 200, there were only two Jews and one African American.
Perhaps as an augur of his future interests, the two books that affected him most as a teenager were “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Exodus” by Leon Uris.
His interest in “multiculturalism,” before it became a catch phrase, developed in graduate school. His courses in American literature focused almost entirely on the white, Anglo-Saxon perspective, and he felt that the contributions of blacks, Jews and other minorities were missing.
This gap led him eventually to his landmark book, “To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature,” followed by studies on the Civil Rights Movement.
“The deeper I got into this, the more intrigued I became how much African Americans had borrowed from the American Jewish experience,” Sundquist said.