Isaac Bashevis Singer described his arrival in America on May 1, 1935, several times over—in the third volume of his fictionalized memoir, Gloybn un tsveyfl (Faith and Doubt, 1978), which was translated into English as Lost in America (1981) and incorporated into the three-volume Love and Exile (1985), as well as in two articles for the New York Times: “When the Old World Came to Sea Gate” (Jan. 2, 1972) and “Greenhorn in Sea Gate” (Nov. 3, 1985). As with any artist of variations, each version reveals a different aspect of Singer’s perspective on coming to America as an immigrant.
The following undated version of Singer’s arrival myth was translated in his lifetime, possibly drafted as an introduction to Lost in America. The original manuscript includes both corrections written in Singer’s hand and additional unidentified handwritten notes. It appears to have been written later in Singer’s lifetime, likely in the early 1980s, after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, when his perspective on literature was broader, more general, and reflected its role and function in the quickly globalizing world. The piece is a reflection on New York in 1935—from the standpoint of nearly fifty years later, as modernity neared the age of the internet. And it insists that, in such a globalizing world, the search for authenticity in America is located not in exoticizing or coopting the culture of the other, but in acknowledging that being other is itself at the root of the American experience.
Singer was known for using young unexperienced people to help translate his work—but most of them didn’t even know Yiddish and, ultimately, worked more as stenographers than translators. Many of these people were volunteers, though some were paid by Singer for their work, and the final works were often signed, “Translated by the author and ________.” Singer never openly admitted that he was translating himself for decades, but he did address the issue in a Q&A session after a lecture in which he gave his advice on writing. The sound recording, which is stored at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, was made on January 29, 1964; in response to a question on translation, Singer answers: “I write everything in Yiddish, but I translate them myself lately. I used to have translators, but now I do a lot of the translation myself. I translate word by word, and I have a collaborator who helps me organize the sentences so that they should sound more English. Because in my case I know the words, but I don’t know the construction of the English sentence so well as a man who was born here.”
Singer’s conception of American culture and society was deeply influenced by the immigrant experience. From today’s perspective, which takes into account the fraught history of indigenous Americans as well as African Americans, his framing may appear to flatten what it means to be American. Yet it reflects the immigrant experience of a Jewish writer attempting to adapt his message to America’s majority culture—without leading to a loss of his own cultural identity. Singer was acutely aware that his image as a translated author was part of his appeal to American audiences and so incorporated his otherness into both his literary practice and his public persona. But he was also particular about how to translate himself into English—which is what gives much of his work in English its own voice despite being “translated” by so many different people with no knowledge of Yiddish.
I often feel that world literature has overlooked or utterly neglected the human experience connected with the process of immigration. Countless works were written about love in all its variations, but we haven’t yet seen a Flaubert, a Maupassant, a Tolstoy who has described the deep crisis of those who were forced to leave their country, their home, their mother tongue, and begin life anew in a strange land. This crisis is especially profound when the immigrant happens to be a writer. In my case, coming to New York in May 1935 gave me a shock I could never forget. I had the uncanny feeling that all my values, all my notions and emotions, were shattered. I was torn away from the roots without which literature cannot exist.
I left Warsaw at the beginning of a cool and blossomy spring, but New York was already roasting in a premature heat wave. I had just published my first book, Satan in Goray, which was saturated with Messianism and Jewish demonology, but the din and clamor of this wild city—the constant thunder of the subway and “el” trains, the shrieking of police cars, fire engines, and ambulances—was too sober, too rationalistic and scientific, to allow the slightest possibility for the existence of angels, demons, or dybbuks. In Poland I knew my place in the world: a Jew in exile. But here everybody and everything seemed to be in exile—the Jews, the Gentiles, even the pigeons that hopped with their red little feet between the wheels of cars and trucks, resigned to be smashed to death at any split second. My brother, I. J. Singer, and Leon Crystal, the book editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, who came to pick me up in a car from the ship, were eager to show me Manhattan Island before taking me to Seagate, Brooklyn, where my brother lived—sights such as the skyscrapers of Fifth Avenue, Broadway, Times Square, Madison Avenue, Radio City, Riverside Drive, Wall Street, the streets and markets around the Lower East Side.
I registered whatever uniqueness I could see. The people all rushed and ran as if chased by some common danger—an earthquake, a forest fire, or an invading enemy. Had Hitler and his Nazis managed to suddenly cross the Atlantic and attack America? Are they so bewitched by that famous American slogan “time is money” to the degree that they cannot stop for a moment? I was amazed to see fruit stores selling potatoes alongside oranges, radishes next to pineapples, which were the highest luxury in Europe. In drugstores food was served to men and women seated on high stools. Boys holding sticks resembling rolling pins and wearing huge gloves on one hand played ball in the middle of the street. They bellowed in adult voices. Among several stores—for shoes, lamps, and rugs—stood a mortuary. Pallbearers dressed in black carried out a coffin and loaded it into a limousine draped with curtains. The family or whoever attended the funeral did not show any signs of mourning. They conversed and behaved as if death were an everyday occurrence to them. They could just as well have been guests at a wedding.
I have forgotten that it was the first of May. The columns of The Jewish Daily Forward were completely draped in red, and a large throng stood there before the building listening to a speaker. He was preaching through a megaphone that all proletarians and peasants must unite and be ready for the final war against capitalism. Had the social revolution taken place in America over the course of my journey? Had Mr. Crystal, by some supernatural mistake, taken me to Moscow?
We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and came to Coney Island. To the left, the ocean flashed and flared with a blend of water and fire. To the right, carousels whirled, Black youths shot at tin ducks. On rails emerging from a tunnel, then looming straight up into the pale blue sky, boys rode metal horses while girls sitting behind them shrieked. Jazz music throbbed, whistled, screeched. A mechanical automaton laughed hollowly. In front of an exhibition hall, a Black giant cavorted with a midget on each arm. On the streets opening to the boardwalk I saw men and women sitting in rickshaws pushed by Black people, as they do in China. It felt like some upheaval was taking place in my mind, some mutation for which there was no name in my Yiddish vocabulary. We drove through a gate with a barrier, guarded by a policeman, and it suddenly grew quiet and pastoral. The people there spoke half English, half Yiddish. Seagate teemed with people. Mr. Crystal knew everybody and pointed at them. According to what he said, everyone had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Wall Street crash. How was this possible? Were they all millionaires?
I was frightened not only by the idea that they had distorted my language but also by the fact that I would not know how to write about them—how to identify my people the way I did in Warsaw. I would have no names for the clothes or shoes they wore, for their gestures, for the things they were saying and the way they said them: a mixture of irony and boastfulness, self-assurance and complaints. The women all smoked cigarettes, which was still quite rare in Poland. They seemed to have become like men—sharp, worldly, clever, as if they had undergone some kind of unknown mutation. I would never know them, I decided. I would never be able to write a sentence about them. America was like a new planet. How could I ever make love to such women? My old bashfulness, which I had tried so hard to discard in the years I visited the Writers’ Club in Warsaw, came back in a flash. Both my brother, Crystal, and the people whom I met began to criticize me in a polite way. They tugged at my tie, said my suit was too heavy, my hat too wide, and that I didn’t need my scarf on a hot day like this. As a matter of fact, my brother unwound it. I had heard the word “greenhorn” when I was still in Warsaw. And I knew that this was what I appeared to be. Some imp, who always played in my mind and said both funny and spiteful things, now said, “Better go back to Warsaw.” One woman said to my brother, “Why does he need those long pants? He needs a pair of shorts.” I realized that she herself wore nothing but a swimming suit and some strange slippers on her mannish feet. Could this be the portent of equality proclaimed by Warsaw’s bluestocking feminists?
I realize now that these kinds of confused thoughts were characteristic only for me and not for other immigrants, but I still feel that, in general, it may reflect all immigrants—a sudden loss of values, a confusion and irritation that takes years to heal, and sometimes even generations. It occurred to me that perhaps this had happened to the Jewish people when they were driven out of the Land of Israel, and that they were still suffering its effects today. In all my feeling of shock, the writer in me decided to write about this: a book about the impotence of those who were torn away from their roots and can never find themselves again.
Perhaps this would be the Great American Novel the critics have been writing about and demanding for many years: the love of two lost souls from some Polish shtetl or Irish shtetl or some shtetl in Africa some hundreds of years ago. Perhaps the very essence of love between the sexes is permeated with the fear of meeting a strange unknown element, which remains so from the beginning to the very end. Perhaps the title of my book, Lost in America, came to me right then and there. Of one thing I am sure: that Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy missed being the great American novel because his protagonists were all born in America. The Great American Novel must be, by its very essence, a novel of immigrants. Which basically we all are.
I haven’t written this book yet, but I still feel it’s never too late to use this theme—obviously in connection with a love story. It seems we can only love the unknown. What is known is already a form of incest and therefore forbidden for generations.
Isaac Bashevis Singer was a Polish-born Jewish-American author noted for his short stories. He was one of the leading figures in the Yiddish literary movement, receiving numerous awards and honors for his work. In 1978, Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. A prolific writer, the main theme of Singer's works is the clash between tradition and renewal—preservation versus regeneration—which serves as a backdrop to stories delving into the grip of human passions that unleash the destructive, yet also constructive, force of the emotions. Singer's profound talent allowed him to manage these weighty topics with a light, often comedic, touch.