Jo Sinclair, Novelist, 1913–1995
1961 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE
As a young girl growing up on Cleveland's east side in the years just before and after World War I, Ruth Seid heard the words the rest of us heard growing up—the ones hurled like weapons at those who were different—as in “What’ja expect from a dago?” or “He got mixed up with some Jews.”
What stuck with her, though, was how such epithets affected the way you experienced yourself. At first a child feels “a little fear,” Seid would write in a newspaper column in 1946, then “a little doubt”—“a nameless thing” that soon begins to hang like a weight on the neck of a boy or girl. The real ghetto, she believed, was the “ghetto of the spirit” into which large numbers of Americans were herded as children, when their inability to rationally explain such rejection left them with a bewildering sense of shame (and ever-present fear) that would inhibit their full flowering.
A “human wasteland lies about us,” wrote Seid just months after V-E Day, “like the piled corpses of Europe”—except that these “are spiritual corpses, people unfulfilled” because of a numbness in their hearts.
This point was made even more powerfully in her first novel, published in February of that year. Wasteland, which had beaten out 700 other submitted manuscripts to win the $10,000 Harper Prize, was already being translated into seven other languages as well as Braille. “Once in a decade . . . there comes a novel calculated to wrench the reader out of complacency,” said The Philadelphia Inquirer, “to leave him feeling bruised and breathless, as only the shock of a deep and genuine experience can do.” The Boston Globe spoke of its “Tremendous . . . impact”; The Saturday Review, of its “sweeping emotional power.”
Wasteland is the story of Jacob Braunowitz, who is persuaded by his sister to enter psychotherapy because he feels bad about himself. Jake at length confesses that no one at the place where he works, not even the woman he is sleeping with, knows he is Jewish. Forced by 1940s America to be “invisible”—he goes under the name of John Brown—Jake has ended by becoming invisible to himself. Then he has a flashback to a family Seder when he was 15. He sees his family (whose angry behavior drives him crazy) “with new eyes,” notes Vivian Gornick in her perceptive introduction to the 1987 edition, brought out as part of the Gems of Jewish Literature series. Jake’s therapeutic task is suddenly clear: He must “experience the pain and fear of all the others in the house so that he may free himself of their dark influence.” In the same way, he must “accept his Jewishness so that he will be free to leave it for the larger world.”
Ironically, Wasteland had been published under the pen name Jo Sinclair, which Seid had adopted almost a decade earlier with the publication of her first story in Esquire. She had submitted it under that name, she said, “to camouflage my sex,” because Esquire, a self-proclaimed “magazine for men,” was said to accept articles only by men. “Jo” was her little private joke on them, as the spelling was then used by both men and women.
“Jo Sinclair” had the additional advantage, though she does not mention this, of not sounding Jewish. Today, in an era of ethnic pride and gender liberation, resorting to this sort of ethnic “camouflage” may seem cowardly or lacking in self-respect, but it was very common in 1930s America, when gender bias was both universal and legal, and anti-Semitism widespread and undisguised.*
The third daughter and fifth child of Nathan Seid and Ida Kravetsky Seid, Russian-Jewish immigrants, the woman the world came to know as Jo Sinclair was born in Brooklyn in 1913, just a few years after her parents’ arrival. She was three when her father, a carpenter, moved the family to Cleveland. Graduating as class valedictorian in 1930 from John Hay High School, then “a commercial school that trained students for office jobs,” she created her own college at the local branch of the Cleveland Public Library, reading voraciously in English literature and other areas. (A highpoint of her high school years had been a class in journalism taught by Miss Emma J. Wilson, a Quaker, who made her editor of the school paper; one of Ruth’s theater reviews was reprinted in a volume of the best writing in American high schools.) As the Depression worsened, Ruth helped to support the family by assembling boxes in a factory, proofreading telephone directories, working as a salesclerk in a department store and serving, she would later write, as “a sort of [bookkeeper] in a neighborhood store that was supposed to sell spaghetti and olive oil at the front, while the proprietor handed big sacks of sugar out the back door to bootleggers.”
Landing a job with a WPA project not only enabled her parents to get off relief, but put her smack in the middle of “an enormous and very beautiful building” she had “seen once but never entered”: the downtown main library. It would become her “graduate school”. As editor of The Foreign Language Newspaper Digest, she condensed and cleaned up articles from the city’s many ethnic newspapers that had been awkwardly translated into English. From her colleagues, mostly immigrants, she began to hear about what was happening in Europe, and their fears for their families under the frightening politics of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.
Seid was eager to share with others what she was learning. A piece she wrote about the suffering that Franco’s bombing raids were inflicting on children was bought by Esquire for $75 (a fortune compared to what New Masses had paid her for a piece). When it appeared in the January 1938 issue of the magazine, she was just 25. Throughout the war Sinclair continued to write short pieces, not only for two Red Cross publications, but for popular magazines like Coronet, Ken and Harper’s—and for Common Ground, a visionary forum founded by Louis Adamic to seize the “opportunity” to explore cultural diversity and its place in the struggle between fascism and democracythat had been provided by recent world developments. Contributors included Langston Hughes, Roi Ottley, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gunnar Myrdal and Woody Guthrie. (A complete set of Common Ground, a fascinating window on those tumultuous and exhilarating times, is owned by the Cleveland Public Library.)
One of several pieces Sinclair wrote for Adamic is an account of Cleveland’s Karamu House (“I, Too, Sing America,” Autumn 1942). “Red Necktie” (Spring 1941), about an immigrant who dreads a repeat of the pogroms, was reprinted in four anthologies and dramatized by Radio Stuttgart.
Sinclair had tried her own hand at drama. In 1935, a short one-act play by the 22-year-old writer she would later describe as “raw with ghetto protest and frustration” was used as a curtain-raiser for the Cleveland People’s Theater production of Clifford Odetts’ play about a workers’ strike, Waiting for Lefty. Listen to My Heart, written a couple of years later while she was a night student at Cleveland College, Western Reserve University’s legendary downtown experiment in non-credit adult education, played to a packed college auditorium.
In 1950, Sinclair’s three-act play, The Long Moment, would be given its premiere by the Cleveland Play House; and her 1955 television script, We Can’t Be First, would take Second Prize in a national competition sponsored by the Fund for the Republic to “stimulate public understanding and discussion of civil liberties issues.”
But it was her novels that made her reputation. “Jo Sinclair’s Wasteland was startling for its psychological precocity and for a boldness of social feeling that linked Jews, blacks and homosexuals”—Jake’s sister Debby is a lesbian who has accepted her orientation—“as cultural outsiders in a time when very few were able to make that parallel,” says Vivian Gornick. “Sinclair had grasped whole the language and drama of psychoanalysis, and she brought to her story of American working-class Jews great understanding of the anxiety that lies behind social exclusion.”
Sing at My Wake (1951) shows how the emotional compromises and frustrations of one generation are passed on to the next, while The Changelings (1955; reissued in 1985), which won the Harry and Ethel Daroff Memorial Fiction award from the Jewish Book Council of America, is a fast-paced narrative about a juvenile gang of adolescent boys and girls. All the children of foreign-born parents, their inherited attitudes toward blacks (and girls) lead to a series of explosive events as Negro families begin moving into the heavily Jewish neighborhood. The “changelings” of the title (recalling the old term for fairy children switched with human infants) are 13-year-old Judy and her two friends, Dave and Juley, who rebel against the “mob-thinking” of their own people.
Anna Teller (1959; reissued in 1989), perhaps Sinclair’s most ambitious book, tells the harrowing story of a Hungarian Jew, a powerful woman and controlling mother, who refuses to flee Hitler’s rise—only to lose each of her children, one by one, except her rebellious poet-son Emil who immigrated to America. Old and bitter, she comes to live with Emil, whose own son Steve has always felt suffocated by his father, as the latter has by Anna. Almost too late, she is forced to face the hard truth of her life, in a climax the Cleveland Press’ Emerson Price called “tremendously satisfying.”
On her beloved farm near Novelty, Ohio, where old friends Mort and Helen Buchman built a house with a room for her, Sinclair could often be seen hoeing the soil in her blue sweater and worn Levis, pausing occasionally to jot notes for a new book or story. She was to take great and deserved pleasure, not only in the anthologizing of much of her work, but in the republication when she was in her mid-70s of three of her novels written in her 30s and early 40s. Indeed, she was to write one more book, a memoir, The Seasons: Death and Transfiguration (1993). The last 20-plus years of her life were spent in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, where she and her companion Joan Soffer lived until Sinclair’s death in April 1995 at the age of 81.
* The fact that the first two authors awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize, in 1961 and ’62, were a Jewish writer and an Italian American was more significant than we now realize. As Edward Ifkovic notes in his essay “The Ethnic Imagination: Cleveland’s Immigrant Writers,” in The Birth of Modern Cleveland, 1965-1930, so strong was America’s identification with the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition, it was not until the 1950s that the American literary pantheon—peopled with names like Hawthorne, Poe, Emerson, James, Eliot, Faulkner, Frost, Lowell, Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair—began to be infiltrated by the likes of Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Malamud, Mailer and Roth. Indeed, Seid revealed in her memoir, The Seasons, her pen name was a conscious tip of the hat to Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, whose searing visions of middle class America and industry she admired.
Jake Confronts His Own Shame
“Do you want to tell me about it? What’s bothering you, John? Can you talk today?”
“I can talk, all right!“ Jake hitched his chair closer to the desk, became aware, almost painfully, of the watching eyes.
“I’m not drunk,” he said immediately. Heat sluiced down over his face and into his neck and collarbone. “I had a few drinks, sure. It’s always easier to talk when I’ve had a few.”
The doctor nodded. He didn’t look surprised, or disapproving, or anything but waiting and listening. His eyes were the same. Gentle, that blue-and-gray mixture which was the quietest color Jake had ever seen . . . .
“You feel confused, don’t you?” the doctor said.
“But take it slowly, easily.” The doctor’s voice was that way, too, slow and easy, and Jake pulled the breath slowly into his chest. “What bothers you very much? At this moment? Tell me about that one thing. Never mind all the others right now. We’ll talk about them eventually. What bothers you most right now?”
Jake shoved the words out almost frantically. He did it in shame, the way he had come here, half afraid, the way he had been half afraid coming here.
“It’s my nephews. My sister Sarah’s kids. That’s why I really came to you. I don’t give a damn about myself! But those two kids—my God! When I think of it, how they’re going to go through the same hell I did—and wish they were dead. Young kids like that. I can’t stand it when I think they’re going to be knocked out, too. The same as all of us. Every Goddamn one of us. Except Debby! She’s O.K. She’s the only one of us who got away.”
He watched the doctor write, and the quiet movement seemed natural, a part of this quiet room, and the doctor’s eyes seemed scarcely to leave his, so that the writing had much of that automatic and anonymous quality which made him feel safely away from the ordinary world.
He felt himself at the beginning of a wonderful exhilaration. It was the tremendous and almost shattering relief of telling something he was ashamed of; and he knew that he would tell it all, just as Debby had, all the secret things no one knew, just he, the things which sucked at the core of him, which had corrupted him from the very beginning of his being.”
—Wasteland (Harper Books, 1946)
How Words Can Form a Wall
“Ma, this whole Schwartze business . . . . It’s only a match—to start the real fire in people. Their real fight with themselves in life. Ma, the big fire that makes you sweat, and change—for better or for worse. Either you burn up or you come through—pure, good. Ma, I want you good. My whole family—good people.”
“Juley,” she muttered, “what is it? I can’t understand you. It’s like you’re talking a different language to me.”
“I’ll teach you this language,” he said glowingly. “It’s beautiful—when you know the words. You’re never afraid again! Let me tell you.”
“Tell me, tell me. I’m listening to you.”
“That a girl! All right, Ma, look. The Schwartze—what are they? Just a name you gave to a lot of stuff you’re afraid of. You gave it a name and then you were able to curse it. Hate it. All right! Here’s another way to look at it. The Schwartze—they’re a wall that you made yourself. You made it, and it—well, it stands between you and—and the right kind of world. Do you understand?”
She shook her head, and he patted her arm. “A wall, Ma—higher than any kind there is. Higher than the no-money wall, the sickness wall. Like you made it yourself, brick by brick. A mistake! People make mistakes. But now you’ve got to climb over it, Ma. You first, then the whole family—after you show them how! Even Alex. Even Becky. You’ll say to them, ‘Climb, climb! Watch me, don’t give up!’ You understand, Ma?”
Yes, she felt that she was beginning to understand him, though it was more a sensing of the powerful emotion he was holding out to her than any actual realization. She leaned toward him, as if she could breathe in his wonderful certainty.
“Ma,” he said, “you know what’s outside that wall? Flowers, the sun. The whole beautiful world. And Ma, your heart is just as beautiful—only you put a wall around it. You made yourself afraid, and you made me afraid. With the Schwartze.”
His quiet eyes looked magnified behind the glasses, and his joy and love seemed magnified. “You made me so afraid that I thought—my God, Ma, I was afraid you couldn’t ever change. My whole family—they’d stay ugly and—and weak. I couldn’t stand that. I felt how all of you were pulling at me, your hands—so scared of life. I had to go on trying to help you. Change you, so you could stand up by yourself—all of you, my family. But especially you, Ma. With your beautiful heart. I had to holler and fight, and I was so afraid all the time. I couldn’t lay back and rest. Not while you were afraid.”
Mrs. Golden took one of his hands. Their eyes clung over the intense feeling of closeness, over the understanding she was beginning to touch.
—The Changelings (McGraw Hill, 1955)
Cleveland Arts Prize
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