African American and Jewish American

Published 10 Jan 2017

In the novel ‘The Tenants’ Bernard Malamud stages racial intricacies between African-American and Jewish American in a multicultural society. In this novel he presents a realistically impossible racial conflict. It depicts an unpredictable correlation between an African American writer and a Jewish writer who reside in a New York apartment building. Gates, H. L, Jr. (1992)

The advance of this novel rests on two main characters, a one Harry Lesser who is the Jewish-American writer and Willie Spearmint who is the black writer. The locale is an old and dilapidated New York apartment building belonging to Levenspiel, the Jewish landlord. Spearmint requests to convince Lesser to move out, but Lesser hang on as the remaining tenant as he works on his third novel on the prospect of love. Being a lonesome and secluded artist, he tries to realize love aesthetically in art because he cannot apparently participate in it.

One day he stumbles upon the embryonic Spearmint, a black writer, who has illegitimately been squatting in another apartment in the same building. After prevailing over the initial distrust, the two at last works together and Gates, H. L, Jr. (1992), asserts that he is ready to read Spearmint’s first literary efforts. In a short autobiographical fragment Spearmint, strives to come to terms with his violent and socially oppressed past. When Gates, H. L, Jr. (1992), criticizes him of his immature ‘black’ writing style, a first quarrel is generated between the two. Gates, H. L, Jr. (1992)

Before long, Gates, H. L, Jr. (1992), meets and falls in love with Spearmint’s girlfriend, Irene, who later leaves him (Spearmint) and wants to move to San Francisco with Harry. On learning about the relationship, Spearmint confronts Gates, H. L, Jr. (1992), in his apartment for a physical battle. Soon afterwards, we see Gates, H. L, Jr. (1992), apartment devastated by Spearmint’s black friends, as Spearmint burns the manuscript of Lesser’s novel which has taken him years to write. After these episodes, Lesser continues to find Lesser’s manuscript pages in the thrash container of the apartment house. They have got racist and anti-Sematic passages, including a black pogrom’s vision against the Jewish merchants in Harlem. Gates, H. L, Jr. (1992)

Initially the conflict between the two writers intensifies on several different levels. We see Lesser as the stereotype of the educated and certainly the instantaneous variance of personalities is most conspicuous: talented white American writer. He has so far published two novels, one which conforms to his own high literary standards, and the other one is less literary ambitious but sells very well. He lives a lonely life of an aesthete, filled and endowed with meaning only of art. He has placed all his effort in the completion of his third novel. On the other hand, we see Spearmint as a stereotype of the black “angry young man.”

Even with endeavors to become a writer, calling himself ‘Bill Spear,’ he fails to break away from his own resentment and powerlessness, a necessity to becoming a successful literary artist, as stated by Abramson in his book “Bernard Malamud Revisited.” His autobiographical attempts explains his inexorable obsession with a very hard and troubled childhood, with poverty in the rural part of the American South, besides migration to a ghetto of Detroit, a criminal career and time spent in prison. The social class attachment of the two protagonists could not be more absolutely perse.

With a mixture of politely replicated curiosity and intuitive abhorrence, Lesser approaches Spearmint’s first literary manuscript: “The book, although for various reasons not a finished piece of work, was absorbing to read, Willie’s human history: from ‘Downsouth Boy’ to ‘Black Writer’; via progression ‘Upsouth’, ‘Harlem Nights’, ‘Prison Education’. The last chapter was entitled, ‘I write for black freedom’.” (50).

Apart from a very conflicting personal history, Spearmint also has a character in direct opposition to that of Lesser: he is overcharged with energy, impulsiveness, sincerity, as well as detestation of white American because of his many depressing experiences. As a writer, he is mainly defined by “how much he hates the whites for maiming the blacks who maim him.” He proposes three different titles for his first work, in addition to the fictitious name which he uses, that are in themselves ingredients of his own uncertainty regarding the role of the writer, with the exact definition of his inspiration to produce literature.

As Malamud writes in his novel: “Willie’s book had once been entitled A Nigger Ain’t Shit, crossed out for Missing life, by Bill Spear, ingenious pseudonym, part surname, part tribal hunting weapon, plus overtone of Shakespeare, also Willie. A third title had been lightly penciled in. examining it closely with his better-visioned eye, lesser made out Black Writer, followed by a question mark. (49).

The most essential aspect of the novel is presented in the two antipodes of Harry Lesser and Willie Spearmint as perse literary personalities, who are both occupied with the transformation of their particular experiences of veracity into fiction. The family backgrounds, educational echelon, over and above the “stages” of verbal and literacy advancement in which both protagonists get themselves in The Tenants are imbalanced and eventually must tend towards inaptness.

In the two characters two perse conceptions of creation with the social role of literature have been effectively created. The role of Lesser is that of the representative of the Western tradition of letters. It could be assumed that his education and his artistic orientation were conveyed though a conformist canon of European literature, possibly with particular emphasis on British writers. For example, he quotes John Dryden (1631-1700), the English poet, dramatist, and critic and in so doing greatly baffles Spearmint. His values are founded on the humanistic tradition as well as from Enlightenment thinking, as they developed in Europe and have been introduced in America since the commencement of the seventeenth century.

His consideration is thoroughly nonfigurative and apprehensive with human problems which are not valid to acute and handy social issues. He is instead interested in the psychological and intellectual interior of persons who feel like and can easily empathize with artists such as himself. He is writing a novel about the problems and ideals of human love that will likely appeal to an audience who resembles him, i.e., urban, informed intellectuals, who can identify and grasp the symbols and linguistic codes that he utilizes in his writing. Malamud, B, (1971).

Spearmint’s dream of writing literary texts is essentially dissimilar from Lesser’s. He principally employs the fabrication of literary texts in order to surmount his resentment which has accrued in many years of personal intricacies and setbacks experienced as a member of the American social underclass.

The autobiographical outline and the five short stories which he first makes mainly function as an escape for his anger and a discussion of explicit social problems which have had a depressing effect on him and scores of other young black men of his generation: harrowing and intricate youth experiences in families overwhelmed with poverty; encounters with white racism; felony as a way of continued existence as well as weapon of the deprived against those whom they consider as their exploiters; and conceivably most important, the prison experience.

While in prison and after his release, Spearmint recognizes the power of literature, which is pertinent in two important ways. First and foremost, literature is a way towards acknowledging the personal past. It is through writing that he is able to appreciate the patterns of his own life, and to fill these patterns with meaning. Therefore, writing becomes for him a sort of self-direction, self-rescue, self-analysis, and towards a better future. Malamud, B, (1971).

Secondly, he has ascertained writing as a social and political tool. The end of his tracts must be that of social protest: with an attack on what he personally identifies as a white mainstream society he wishes to expose its deficits and call attention to own plight. He also wishes to give a warning to other young black men in America about the dangers of prospective evil future for themselves. As Henry Louis Gates had argues initially pertaining the slave narratives of the nineteenth century, Spearmint recognizes the “direct relation between freedom and discourse,” and has taken a great step towards his own emancipation by writing.

He is also attempting to write himself out of slavery and write himself into being as Gates states in Loose Canon. He is involved very much in the nature of investigative and seditious process described by Gerald Early as postmodern and multicultural. This process is to achieve much for his peers as it is likely to do for him: his self-liberation will in due course aid the emancipation of his race.

Lesser in no way shares the social veracity of Spearmint and the blacks of generation, and he especially does not share Spearmints idea of literature. Malamud, B, (1971).

There increasingly develops a serious conflict between two swerving conceptions of style and literary purpose. Spearmint is right, from the beginning, preconditioned to write in a different way, as his linguistic forms of expression are so far detached from those used by white middle class society.

He uses politically insensitive language, taken from the areas of sexuality, crime, and racism. He calls his girl friend “a bitch”, the police is called “the pig,” blacks referred as “niggers” and the Jews are either known by the names “Jewgirls” or “Goldbergs.” These and many other examples from the novel The Tenants depict the experiences of the African American and Jewish American in the United States. Early, Gerald. (1993).


  • Malamud, B, (1971). The Tenants London: Penguin, 1972
  • Gates, H. L, Jr. (1992) Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York: Oxford UP,
  • Early, Gerald. (1993). Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation. New York: Penguin
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