"Imaginary Jews and True Confessions: Ethnicity, Lyricism, and John Berryman’s Dreamsongs."
Berryman was fascinated with the figure of "the imaginary Jew." The phrase is the title of his first short story, it recurs in The Dream Songs, and it was to have been the topic of the final chapter of his autobiographical novel Recovery. Critics have not treated Berryman's "imaginary Jew" kindly. Early critics saw prosopopoeia as uncongenial to the confessional project. More recent critics see the figure as a misappropriation of Jewish identity. Berryman, however, did not want to pass himself off as Jewish; he invented the figure to expose the anti-Semitism of Eliot and Pound. His strategy of impersonating the stereotypical figure of "the Jew" was also in keeping with contemporary theories of prejudice and identity, which followed Sartre and psychoanalysis in understanding Jewishness as a product of morbid projection. My essay traces the critical reception—and rejection—of Berryman in order to expose what I see as the "identitarian" bias of American studies since the 1970s, most recently evident in debates over "the Americanization of the Holocaust." Berryman's transpersonal poetry, I argue, is also transnational, both in its personification of Nazi victims and in its comparison of domestic racism and the Vietnam War to genocide. Berryman's concern is not identity but the violence implicit in designating the other as Other. This violence not only plays a role in prejudice but also in progressive theories of "ethnic lyricism" that see the individual as an expression of her "culture" or "nation" and the poem as a personification of the individual.