Wodehouse’s Anti-Semitism in Context by Elliott Milstein

This article was originally published in the March 2019 edition of Wooster Sauce, the journal of The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

* * *

Wodehouse’s Anti-Semitism in Context

by Elliott Milstein

In searching the internet for reactions to the recent news regarding Westminster Abbey’s plans to dedicate a memorial to P. G. Wodehouse, one of the netizens of PGWNet uncovered an article by Benjamin Ivry in the October 18, 2018, edition of Forward whose title really says it all: “How Lovely P.G. Wodehouse Was – Such a Shame About the Anti-Semitism.”

To put this publication in context, the online journal Forward began life in 1897 as the Yiddish language daily paper Der Forvart, dedicated to the advent of worldwide socialism. Today it remains both Jewish and decidedly left-wing.

As we know, socialists, even in Wodehouse’s time – let alone today, as their numbers dwindle – were not particularly fond of him, partly because of his parodies of them and their cause, and partly because he was seen as advocating for the leisured class. So we should keep in mind that Mr Ivry and his ilk likely come to Wodehouse already thinking him not so “lovely”, despite his use of the word in the title. Ivry even tangentially refers to Wodehouse’s efforts to reduce his tax burden, a gratuitous comment that is clearly an attempt to prejudice his leftward-leaning readership, as such actions would be particularly repugnant to any good socialist.

That being said, there are specific accusations made in the article that deserve an objective response, regardless of its author’s prejudice. In doing so, we need to examine those arguments not only in themselves but also within the context of the extraordinarily complicated and nuanced concept of “anti-Semitism” itself.

There are those who aver that all anti-Semitism is the same. Like some of the aggrieved women of the #MeToo movement who equate any salacious remark with rape, there are many Jews who see anyone who says they’ve been “jewed” at the local greengrocer as a Nazi. I personally do not see these issues in pure black and white, but rather on a continuum. Indeed, the majority of scholars on the subject divide anti-Semitism into two categories, frequently labeled “radical” and “genteel”.

Radical anti-Semites are true Jew haters: those who see Jews as enemies, Christ killers, members of a global cabal bent on world domination, who sacrifice gentile children and drink their blood (if you are unfamiliar with the infamous “blood libel”, I assure you this is not an exaggeration). Such people see Jews as deserving not only of persecution but annihilation.

The more genteel variety are those who merely indulge in Jewish stereotypes: the hard-nosed and even corrupt businessman – greedy, grubbing, cheap, excessively usurious, vaguely obnoxious; people who look funny, dress funny, and talk funny; what Margalit Fox, in her excellent book Conan Doyle for the Defence refers to as “the Other”. They would be abhorred at the idea of persecuting or harming Jews in any way, but they’d rather avoid them, if they can, preferring to associate with PLU (“people like us”). They are not above making a nasty crack from time to time, but more in the way of a witticism than a true expression of grievance, much as such a one may callously mock a person with a lisp or physical deformity.

Ivry makes no specific distinction on the continuum but, based on his arguments, seems to see Wodehouse in both lights, though perhaps more genteel than radical. His arguments fall into three categories: the wartime broadcasts, evidence from his writings, and his private reflections and personal letters.

I will not take the time here to rehash the broadcast arguments and counter-arguments. I will assume that the Sauce readership is fully familiar with this canard and its refutations. Suffice it to say that anyone who believes, as Ivry clearly does, that Wodehouse made these broadcasts out of sympathy with the Nazi cause would certainly believe him to be a radical anti-Semite, but he would just as certainly be wrong. Let us leave this entire subject in the dustbin of history where it belongs and look at the arguments from his writings.

To begin, we must remember that genteel anti-Semitism was so infused in Victorian and Edwardian society that it was virtually everywhere. Perhaps the most notorious example of an anti-Semitic character of the time was Dickens’s Fagin from Oliver Twist. But Dickens himself never saw it as such. When challenged by a Jewish acquaintance, Eliza Davis, for perpetrating this “great wrong” against her people, Dickens protested that he had “no feeling towards Jews but a friendly one”. When asked why he made such a point of making Fagin Jewish, his long reply could be summed up as “literary convention”. In fact, after this exchange, Dickens felt so bad about Fagin that he deliberately made the Jew Riah in his next book, Our Mutual Friend, a remarkably good and sympathetic character. Davis responded by presenting Dickens with a Hebrew-English Bible inscribed, in part, with thanks for “atoning for an injury as soon as being conscious of having inflicted it”. (Our Mutual Friend, Penguin Books, note on page 820 by editor, Adrian Poole)

When I was working on my Wodehouse thesis back in 1976, I was deeply fortunate to have as my adviser J. M. Cameron, a British professor of the old school, recently retired and transplanted from his position as Chair of Philosophy at the University of Leeds to my school, St Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. This article does not give me ample space to fully describe this wonderful man, but he was, for one of his time and upbringing, extraordinarily dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism of all kinds. He told me that after Kristallnacht (November 9–10, 1938), he vowed he would never let even the most innocent anti-Semitic comment made in his presence go unchallenged.

One day as I was discussing my research before I even began writing the paper, he asked me if I had seen any anti-Semitic references in Wodehouse’s writing. I told him I had not. He replied, “He would be quite unique for that period if there were none. Look for them. I am sure you will find them.” And, of course, put on the scent like that, I did. Because, after all, as Prof. Cameron pointed out to me later, virtually every British writer of the time did. The question for us today – post-Kristallnacht, post-Holocaust – is whether, like Henry James, George Orwell, Graham Greene, H. G. Wells, etc., they fell into the genteel category; or, like T. S. Eliot, H. Rider Haggard, Sapper, John Buchan, etc., into the more virulent radical kind; or, like Dorothy L. Sayers, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, etc., somewhere on the continuum.

In Wodehouse’s early books and stories, there are several (no more than four or five, I believe) references to “Jews” as such. The most memorable for me was in Money for Nothing, when John Carroll, in order to distract Pat Wyvern during an especially embarrassing moment in a night club, remarks: “That man . . . looks like a Jewish black beetle.” A gratuitous remark, until one realizes that the character referred to is a “Mr A. Baerman”, the name of the Jewish literary agent who stole Wodehouse’s copyright to Love Among the Chickens. So this quick comment was really just Wodehouse getting a little of his own back at this admittedly nasty man.

But Ivry ignores all of these references (probably he is unaware of them, as they are so few and far between) and, indeed, eschews the more well-known examples of the Jewish money lenders disguised as Scotsmen in Leave It to Psmith; Ukridge’s nefarious partner, Isaac O’Brien, in ‘The Exit of Battling Billson’; or the obnoxious behaviour of the Cohen Brothers in ‘The Ordeal of Oswald Mulliner’. And truly, all of this is pretty mild stuff. I bring it up merely to point out that, as Owen Dudley Edwards states in his book P. G. Wodehouse, “Wodehouse for the most part showed himself far above the magazines where he learned his craft, and even here his shortcomings, while cheap, have nothing of the smooth venom apparent in many of his fellow-writers’ comments on ‘Hebrews’.”

Ivry instead concentrates his ire on Wodehouse’s portrayal of the Hollywood magnates Jacob Z. Schnellenhamer, Isadore Fishbein, and Ben Zizzbaum. There is no doubt that the names chosen are deliberately Jewish-sounding and the characters themselves are far from sympathetic. But it remains that there is no commentary by Wodehouse in the stories on any aspect of their Jewishness, nor are any of the stereotypical attributes played upon. Most likely, these movie executives are given Jewish names for the simple reason that movie magnates in the 1930s were, in fact, predominantly Jewish, something Wodehouse knew firsthand, and it would have been odd if he hadn’t given these characters Jewish names. This is hardly evidence of an anti-Semitic attitude.

It is also important to note that, post-Holocaust, even these mild references to Jews disappear entirely. The character of Ivor Llewelyn – introduced as “Ikey” in The Luck of the Bodkins (1935), making fun of him adopting a false Welsh name – comes back in the 1970s in two books as a much more sympathetic figure, and his Welshness is legitimized with a reference to a Welsh school marm in his childhood, removing even the tiny trace of Jewishness with which he was created. Thus, in a way it can be said that Wodehouse, too, atoned for an injury when he became conscious of having inflicted it.

When asked why the word “Jew” had been removed from later editions of Brighton Rock and Stamboul Train, Graham Greene responded that “after the Holocaust one couldn’t use the word Jew in the loose way one used it before the war. . . . [T]he casual references to Jews [are] a sign of those times when one regarded the word Jew as almost a synonym for capitalist.” In other words, seen through the magnifying lens of the Holocaust, earlier ‘genteel’ anti-Semitism grows to look more like the ‘radical’ version, when clearly that was never the author’s intent. Even the unworldly Wodehouse saw the truth of this and reacted similarly.

The final argument Ivry makes is that Wodehouse’s anti-Semitic attitudes can be gleaned by his references to Jews in his private letters. These are potentially more damning because they reflect Wodehouse the man, not the writer, as speaker and are therefore more likely to reflect his true feelings. Also, many of the examples are post-Holocaust.

The first example Ivry gives, however, is from Hollywood before the war, claiming that Brian Taves notes that “some of Wodehouse’s fellow screenwriters suspected him of being anti-Semitic”. He supports this by citing Philip Dunne, whom even Ivry notes was “left-wing”; Dunne “believed Wodehouse’s ‘hatred’ for members of the SWG [Screen Writers Guild] . . . was an anti-Semitic matter.” The truth behind this story, which is available in full in Brian Taves’s excellent book P. G. Wodehouse and Hollywood, is that Wodehouse was being heavily recruited by Dunne to leave the mainstream, extant Screen Playwrights union for the new, socialist SWG, but Wodehouse refused, even showing the other union Dunne’s recruitment letters. Dunne never forgave him and perpetrated this scandal in retaliation.

According to Taves, Dunne was the only screenwriter to accuse Wodehouse of anti-Semitism, not “some of [his] fellow screenwriters”. Here, it seems, Ivry’s prejudice takes the form of deliberate deception to perpetrate what he must have known was a falsehood.

The same is true of Ivry’s use of his later letters. Without rehashing each example, I will say that the only thing damning about the references, when one looks at them closely, is that Wodehouse refers to several Jewish people as “Jews”. Now, one can question why – when complaining, for instance, about how “repulsive” Groucho Marx had become in the 1950s (a perfectly reasonable complaint, I’m sad to say) – he had to describe him as a “middle-aged Jew” rather than a “middle-aged man”, but as Groucho’s Jewishness always was quite manifest, it is hardly significant evidence of an anti-Semitic remark, but more as a colorful descriptor.

The fact is that context is everything. In my own family, when discussing where to dine out, one family member will sometimes turn down a choice of restaurant as having “too many Jews”. Clearly an anti-Semitic remark, right? In actuality, we all know that what she means is that she prefers going somewhere where we are unlikely to run into a lot of people we know. It is a remark made in private to people who know exactly what she means, but, taken out of context and made public, it sounds awful. We must remember that the true context of Wodehouse’s letters to friends and family cannot be fully known.

Here, finally, is the most outrageous example from Ivry’s article, in which context is deliberately hidden. He quotes the following from a letter to Bill Townend dated January 15, 1949: “A curious thing about American books these days is that so many of them are Jewish propaganda. Notice in [Norman Mailer’s] ‘The Naked and the Dead’ how the only decent character is Goldstein. [Irwin Shaw’s] ‘The Young Lions’ is the same. It is a curious trend. The Jews have suddenly become terrifically vocal. Did you see that picture, ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’?”

Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? But then read the passage that Ivry leaves out, which immediately follows: “I am wondering if that book of yours about Jews might not do well over here. If you will send me a script, I will see what I can do with it.” (Thanks to Sophie Ratcliffe [P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, p.427] for making this research possible!)

So, what out of context looks like a complaint about the sudden vocalness and pushiness of Jews, is, in context, a prelude to Wodehouse’s offer to promote Townend’s book about Jews. This is hardly the action of an anti-Semite.

When I see examples of people in the early 21st century judging people over a hundred years ago by today’s standards, I always reflect that the young people of the 22nd century are just as likely to feel the same about me because I eat meat or have supported my local zoo, or committed some other future solecism I cannot even imagine. Attitudes and mores change over time, thank goodness. Context is everything.

P. G. Wodehouse was, by all accounts, a mild, kindly, and benign man, but he was a man of his time. It is natural that his attitudes toward the Jewish people were influenced by that, and such attitudes would manifest. But within context, and especially in comparison to his contemporaries, he still remains, in my estimation, a mild, kindly, and benign man, and our post-Holocaust sense of what constitutes anti-Semitism simply does not apply here.

* * *

My thanks to Elliott Milstein for his permission to share this piece at Plumtopia.

HP

14 thoughts on “Wodehouse’s Anti-Semitism in Context by Elliott Milstein

  1. Elliott’s article is an important perspective on anti-semitism in English literature, and about anti-semitism generally. Thank you Elliott and thank you Mrs Plum for widening its readership.

    1. Me too, Paul. I’m an optimist. I like to think that good people are generally inclined to revise their opinions if they discover they’ve misunderstood or overstepped the mark.

  2. Morten Arnesen aka Joss Weatherby

    An excellent and balanced article.
    Rewriting of history can be a nobel pursuit, but one should always keep in mind that history is just what it is. And as such, context is always important and should never be left out or overlooked.
    Thanks to the author, and to you for sharing it.

  3. Seth

    I’m sorry I feel the need to enter a few random but demurring thoughts on an essay that still has a good deal to recommend it.

    I like that Mr. Milstein sees that anti-semitism exists on a continuum ranging from from the “genteel” to the “radical”, but I think a better term for “genteel” is “casual”. The anti-semitism of many Edwardian and Victorian writers was as casual and habitual as eating breakfast. Plenty of people didn’t think it needed any thought. Dickens and Eliot being two great exceptions.

    What’s ironic about Dickens is that while the portrayal of Fagin may or may not have been anti-Semitic (I don’t think it was), he was a strong character. Riah, on the other hand, is a mere goody-two-shoes. What’s good about Our Mutual Friend and the Jews is not any positive portrayal of a Jewish character, but that it satirizes anti-semitism. In many Victorian novels a character in need of money goes to the Jews, or Hebrews. In OMF, the Jew they go to is a front for the presumably Christian scoundrel, Fledgeby. Then there’s the small bit at Betty Higdon’s funeral where the otherwise sympathetic wife of the minister gets bent out of shape because the Jewish factory owners who have hired Lizzie might be converting the Christians who work for them.

    I go on at this length to show that at least some Victorian writers explored anti-semitism in some depth. This is not the case with Wodehouse, and I’m not saying it ought to have been. What I’m trying to get at is that it doesn’t hurt us to consider the nature of his casual anti-semitism or racism. I’m rereading Right Ho, Jeeves, and the never-to-be finished Pat and Mike joke running through the novel comes to mind.

    For better or worse, that kind of thing is right up front in Wodehouse. As someone who feels he’s on the receiving end of these sorts of casual anti-Semitic assumptions in many writers I love and admire, I don’t feel as if I need to dismiss it out of hand, or excuse it. Maybe it would be better to try to understand it.

    1. Seth

      In addition, I would like to remind Mr. Milstein that a good many leftest writers loved Wodehouse, most famously, George Orwell. Alexander Cockburn and his father (I think) come to mind, also.

      1. Personally, I hate the terms left and right being bandied about as insults.

        However, there are certainly people on ‘the left’ who are misinformed on the subject of Wodehouse, but feel the need to spout forth on the topic anyway. But this failing isn’t confined to ‘the left’. And Wodehouse is certainly beloved by many people who might be described as ‘on the left’.

    2. Hi Seth
      Please don’t be sorry. I believe those of us left with the ability to discuss and disagree on things without rancour should do so – not just where there is a point to be made, but to demonstrate to others that the bally thing is possible.
      My understanding from reading the piece is that the terms ‘radical’ and ‘genteel’ are taken from existing scholarship on the subject, rather than Elliott’s own invention. You make a great point about OMF – I’ve not read it, but it’s now on my reading list.
      Your final point is also a good one, which I’ve made to certain critics elsewhere. Providing context is about understanding — not excusing. Wodehouse certainly ought not be exempt from scrutiny or criticism where it is warranted.
      But that scrutiny should be fair and informed.
      Elliott Milstein’s research puts Wodehouse at the genteel end of a continuum, and argues that ‘our post-Holocaust sense of what constitutes anti-Semitism simply does not apply here.
      It’s open to others to take a different view, of course. The Campaign Against Antisemitism certainly have. They’re currently campaigning to prevent Wodehouse being honoured with a memorial at Westminster Abbey. They claim Wodehouse was ‘an odious anti-Semite’ with a ‘lifelong unrepentant hatred of Jews’. But unless they have some new evidence that they’re not sharing with us, this is not fair and informed scrutiny. It is utterly at odds with the evidence we have (and there’s a lot of it) from Wodehouse’s work and conduct throughout a long life.

      1. Seth

        Hi Honoria,

        Thanks for your kind and thoughtful reply. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the campaign to keep Wodehouse out of Westminster, or the one to put him there, either, but I’m inclined to think that if he is kept out because of some perceived anti-Semitism, it would only be fair to disinter a bunch of the writers already there. He’s a great. He belongs in Westminster. It might even make up a little for the bad post war treatment he got in England. I’m just glad he found a home he liked on Long Island.

        I think, though, that the when you talk about a continuum of racism or anti-Semitism, the thing to remember is that it is just that: a continuum. To me that means we have to ask how what I call casual racism or anti-S can lead into more virulent kinds. For the most part I think Mr. Milstein makes a good argument. I would have liked a link to the Forward article, and it would have been nice to know what the book about Jews he offered to hawk for his friend was about.

        I guess I’m just very sensitive to the growth of anti-S, genteel, casual, or deadly, in the US, England, and Europe. I expect many of the people, rightly or wrongly, protesting interning Wodehouse in Westminster are feeling much the same.

        No need to respond. I’m done bothering the group with my little problems.

      2. What Ho, Seth.
        Quick reply just to say I agree about the concerning growth of anti-S and other nasty prejudices in my own country and around the world. I don’t think there can be any contextual excuse for it in the 21st Century. We can’t pretend we don’t know where it can lead.
        Thanks for writing.
        Honoria

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s