When Henry James paid a visit to his native country in 1905, after decades living in Europe, he was struck with a kind of pious horror by the spectacle he found on the Lower East Side of New York City. As a novelist, James was bothered most of all by his fear of what these “swarming” Jews would mean for the future of the English language in America. Visiting Yiddish cafés, he saw them “as torture-rooms of the living idiom; the piteous gasp of which at the portent of lacerations to come could reach me in any drop of the surrounding Accent of the Future.” To James, the English language and English literature were the inalienable possession of the Anglo-Saxon race—a common feeling that persisted long after James wrote. As late as the 1930s, while Jews made up more than their share of Ivy League students—and would have been even more overrepresented if not for quotas—they were still virtually absent from the English faculty.
Then, almost overnight, everything changed. Starting in the postwar years, anti-Semitism became intellectually unrespectable, thanks to its association with Nazism and the Holocaust, while the flood of new students entering the universities under the G.I. Bill meant that there was an urgent need for new faculty. Jewish professors, critics, and scholars were newly acceptable—Lionel Trilling studied Arnold at Columbia, and Harry Levin studied Joyce at Harvard. Leon Edel wrote the biography of Henry James, and Hershel Parker wrote the biography of Melville. Alfred Kazin recovered the history of the American novel in On Native Grounds, a title whose defiant claim could not be missed.
Of that pioneering generation, one of the last survivors is M.H. Abrams, who will celebrate his 100th birthday on July 23. (Abrams is also still publishing: In August, Norton will bring out a new collection of his essays, The Fourth Dimension of a Poem.) Abrams’ name will be familiar to just about every English major of the last half-century, if only because it appears at the top of the spine of each edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, which Abrams created in 1962.