By g emil reutter
Charyn opens this collection of essays, written 1978 through 2005, with an introduction that flows like a fast moving stream. He writes about the sadness that consumes Saul, a king without a song. David is a singer of songs and admired by many much as Charyn’s father was a silent man without a song and Charyn himself a singer of words. He tells us at the end of In the Shadow of King Saul:
“If David is history’s darling, then we, all the modern fools—liars, jugglers, wizards without song—still have Saul.”
In Ellis: An Autobiography, Charyn writes of the hard knock neighborhood he grew up in, of the gangs and peacemakers of the scars left upon families that were processed through Ellis Island into America. He visits Ellis on a tour and tells us:
“She took us step by step through an immigrant’s day, and for me it was like going through the Stations of the cross, rituals of suffering every five or ten feet.”
Charyn writes of the discrimination of not only Jews but of other groups gaining entry:
“The Irish came here and discovered another ruling class: politicians, bankers and grocers. The natives clamored to send them back to Ireland, organizing into secret societies like the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner and other Know-Nothings, who were a kind of northern Klan.”
He tells us of the arrival of Italians and Jews from Eastern Europe after 1880. “..they were no more dirty than the Irish had been. Other nativists opposed this “eastern horde.”
I find this essay timely for today’s world for many of the descendants of those who entered Ellis Island and suffered great discrimination are now in the role of the natives who opposed their forefathers entry into this country and now oppose others coming to America.
Charyn writes two essays on the writer Isaac Babel who wrote in Stalinist Soviet Union and had a love for all things French. Charyn explores Babel, his public and private lives, the great conflicts and Babel’s own influence on Charyn’s writing.
In Haunch Paunch and Jowl he writes of those who were for a time forgotten. Herman Melville, Scott Joplin and Henry Roth all who were discovered later and now have influenced generations of writers and musicians. He tells us of the author of Haunch Paunch and Jowl, Samuel Ornitz and how the novel was condemned by critics:
“…published in 1923 as “An Anonymous Autobiography” has more to tell about the relationship between Jews, politics, and crime than any other work of fiction or nonfiction. The novel reads like a sociological song.”
He enlightens us to the past and our current events once again writing:
“The nativists had finally won. The National Origins Act of 1924 put an absolute quota on the number of Italians, Slavs, and Jews that could enter the United States…stopped the flow of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.”
In the ten essays in this collection Charyn writes of literary figures, Saul Bellow, Lionel Trilling, and Anzia Yezierska. He writes of the great baseball player, Josh Gibson, recounts his visits to the movies and his fascination with Rita Hayworth and Errol Flynn and even the comics and the character Krazy Kat. He is a writer of great passion, lyric and empathy. Charyn tells of the fleeting fame that comes from pop culture and the literary world. Of the pain of immigration and its lasting effects on families, of bigotry and the battle of all to become one with America. My own father once told me you have to know where you come from. It was advice I have always carried with me. A son of the Bronx he grew up during the great depression and he would have enjoyed these essays that flow from the page with realism and from an author who knows the truth.
You can find the book here: https://blpress.org/books/shadow-king-saul/
g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. He can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/