These essays on representative Jewish and Irish writers are true to the form's definition as an attempt or experiment rather than a credo. Wohlgelernter defines the author's "excited imagination" by thoroughgoing analysis of the work's constituent parts. He gives particular emphasis to the author's own words and expressions, those verbal inventions that linger in the mind long after the act of reading or criticism. He finds a passionate love of words and language forging a powerful link between Jewish and Irish literature, rooted as they are in similar historical experience. Both literatures engage the human struggle with life and death, virtue and weakness, success and failure, dreams and nightmares, all under the constant surveillance of tradition.
Wohlgelernter divides his book into four general categories: the Holocaust, Jewish-American writers, Irish writers, and memoirs and autobiography. His chapters on Holocaust literature engage a range of literary perspectives that combine memoir, journalism, fiction, and philosophical reflection in the writings of Ladislas Fuks, Lucy Dawidowicz, Sabine Reichel, and Primo Levi. Chapters on postwar Jewish writers including Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth explore the ambivalences of assimilation with its encroachments of a provincial past and dissatisfactions with mainstream culture. Wohlgelernter notes how all yoke street raciness and high cultural mandarin in a distinctive contribution to American prose style. A similar richness of language and preoccupation with the political and cultural claims of the past characterize the chapters on the great short story writer Frank O'Connor, the playwright Brendan Behan, and the Irish-American journalist and novelist Pete Hamill.
The last decades of the twentieth century have seen a prolific outpouring of autobiographical writing, and in the concluding section of the book the author treats representative examples that amplify or reflect on the personal and historical themes encountered in Jewish and Irish fiction: assimilation, personal ambition, intermarriage, and political allegiance. Among the writers treated here are Norman Podhoretz, Calvin Trillin, James McBride, Ari Goldman, and Howard Shack. Wohlgelernter's emphasis on the timeless, recurring themes of literature is matched by a lucidity of style and soundness of method that yield what is central to all criticism, namely insight. Jewish Writers/Irish Writers will be of interest to literary scholars, Jewish studies specialists, and cultural historians.