(1902 - 1964)
Nathan Asch Finding Aid (PDF)
From: "Twentieth Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers." Ed. Daniel Walden. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 28. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. Written by Eva B. Mills, Winthrop College
The Office (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925; London: Holden, 1926);
Love in Chartres (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1927; London: Holden, 1927);
Pay Day (New York: Brewer & Warren, 1930);
The Valley (New York: Macmillan, 1935);
The Road: In Search of America (New York: Norton, 1937).
“In the Country,” in The American Caravan, edited by Van Wyck Brooks and others (New York: Macaulay, 1927), pp. 515-525;
“In the City,” in The Second American Caravan, edited by Allied Kreymborg, Lewis Mumford, and Paul Rosenfeld (New York: Macaulay, 1928), pp. 63 1-64 1;
“Heart's Desire,” in American Stuff, edited by Henry G. Alsberg (New York: Viking, 1937), pp. 82-95;
“In Search of America,” in The 30’s: A Time to Remember, edited by Don Congdon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962), pp. 284-306.
“The Voice of the Office,” transatlantic review, 1 (June 1924): 414-420;
“Marc Kranz,” transatlantic review, 2 (August 1924): 144-153;
“Gertrude Donovan,” transatlantic review, 2 (DeDecember 1924): 608-622;
“Dying in Carcassonne,” Forum, 84 (November 1930): 305-310;
“Tod Eines Helden” Neue Rundschau, 42 (January 1931): 95-107;
“Im Stillen Thai,” Neue Rundschau, 42 (November 1931): 668-682;
“Moses,” New Yorker, 8 (2 April 1932): 23;
“The Program Continues,” New Republic, 74 (20 March 1933): 189;
“Cross Country Bus,” New Republic, 78 (25 April 1934): 301-314;
“Mr. Bromley's Tonsils,” New Yorker, 10 (28 April 1934): 19-20;
“Truth, Beauty, and Efficiency,” New Yorker, 11 (2 November 1935): 71-72;
“Route 61,” New Republic, 85 (15 January 1936): 380;
“Marked Tree Arkansas,” New Republic, 87 (l0 June 1936): 119-121;
“Deep South,” New Yorker, 13 (10 April 1937): 5;
“WPA Adult Education,” American Federalist, 45 (April 1938): 386-390;
“On War Policy,” New Republic, 99 (June 1939):147-148;
“Five to Seven,” New Yorker, 16(18 May 1940): 42;
“The Works,” New Yorker, 16(27 July 1940): 24-26;
“A Home for Emma,” Yale Review, 31 (December 1941): 350-374;
“Late-afternoon Sun,” New Yorker, 18 (8 August 1942): 44-45;
“Mary,” Contact, 1 (8 August 1942): 18-44;
“The Lake: A Story,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 22 (Summer 1946): 386-393;
“Young Man on His Way,” New Yorker, 22 (22 June 1946): 26-28;
“Inland Western Sea,” New Yorker, 26 (29 April 1950): 29-35;
“Only So Big—A Puzzler,” Commentary, 14 (November 1952): 489-491;
“Game,” Commentary, 15 (March 1953): 280-284; “The Nineteen Twenties: An Interior,” Paris Review, 6 (Summer 1954): 82-92;
“Women in Munich,” Contact (July/August, 1964);
“My Father and 1,” Commentary, 39 (January 1965): 55-65.
Not until after World War II did scholars and critics begin to pay much attention to American-Jewish writers as a group. Many of these — Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and others — have received public acclaim. While not all sharing the same tradition — one need only contrast the tradition informing the work of Saul Bellow and that informing the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer — most of these writers draw on some identifiable tradition. Certainly Nathan Asch is an American-Jewish writer, but he felt he had no tradition. Asch questioned his being an American and being a Jew and often wondered whether he was a writer. In 1936 he wrote his mother: “What does it mean to be a European Jew? To feel you are a Jew and yet you are not anything that Jews are known to be? To have no conscious Jewish culture. . . , to have never been in a Synagogue, to have known no Yiddish; but to go to a European school, and speak a European language and have European friends, and symbolically not to wear a kaftan, but to wear the European clothes, and yet to be a Jew?”
Yet, like many Jewish writers, throughout his life and in his writing he searched for a spiritual identity and in the process examined his own past and tried to come to terms with the present.
Asch, the first child of the well known Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch and Mathilda Spira Asch, was born in Warsaw, Poland. At age ten, after having spent a few months with his maternal grandfather in Lodz, he joined the family in Paris, where the Asches had migrated. There he met émigré artists, including Chagall, Kissling, and Pascin, who later, when Asch returned to Paris during the 1920s, spoke with longing of their visits to the Asch family's beautiful home in Chatillon, a suburb of Paris. Within three years of settling in Paris, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, the Asches were again on the move — to America. There they settled on Staten Island in a neighborhood where there were no Jews. Nevertheless, young Asch did have extensive contact with Jewish writers living on the West Side of New York whom he met through his father, already one of the most prominent Yiddish writers of that time. Asch attended the public schools in New York City; he also studied at Syracuse University and at Columbia, but he never graduated from college.
In light of his father's strong identity with the Jewish and Yiddish language and culture, one might well ask why Nathan Asch was obsessed with his own rootlessness. Leaving aside psychological interpretations, one can readily see that Asch's frequent moves and his exposure to various nations and languages would raise questions in the mind of a sensitive child and young man. On the one hand, Asch seems almost emblematic of the wandering Jew; on the other, he is a precursor of a whole generation of writers, Jew and non-Jew alike, searching for their roots.
At age twenty-one, Asch returned to Paris, where his career as a serious writer began in 1924 with the publication of three stories in the transatlantic review. “Gertrude Donovan,” “Marc Kranz,” and “The Voice of the Office” later appeared as episodes in his first novel, The Office, published in 1925.
Asch soon became a member of the expatriate colony in Paris. He counted among his friends Josephine Herbst, John Herrmann, Kaye Boyle, Evan Shipman, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, Eugene Jolas, and Pierre Loving, who in a 1925 article for the Paris Tribune called Asch one of the most interesting and promising young writers. Even after returning to the United States in 1926, Asch kept in touch with Robert McAlmon, Morley Callaghan, and Paul Shinkman, who spoke of him as “that well-known Quarterite . . . now in New York.” Asch and his wife, the American Lysel Ingwersen whom he met and married in France, lived among former expatriates in Connecticut and in the same boardinghouse with Hart Crane in Paterson, New Jersey. In 1929, their only child, David, was born in New Milford, Connecticut. Though always pressed for money, Asch seemed relatively satisfied. He was writing, and his work was being published.
His novel The Office had already appeared. The novel, a series of sketches narrating the effects of bankruptcy on the employees of a firm, was praised by many reviewers for its experimentation with structure, language, and point of view. The effect of the book upon the reader, according to one critic, “is like the experience of the art-viewer who observes a gallery of pictures.” Walter Yust, Literary Review, found fault in the book — “too ostentatiously restrained when it is restrained and too callously violent when it’s violent” — and Joseph Wood Krutch was cautious with praise in a review for New York Herald Tribune Books. For Krutch, the novel’s virtues and failings were typical of “much contemporary fiction”; Asch had mistaken “surface novelty for profundity” and imagined “that an ingenious scheme is sufficient to make a great work.”
Asch had started his second novel, Love in Chartres (1927), in Paris but revised the manuscript after his return to New York. In this work, a fictionalized account of Asch’s love affair with Lysel Ingwersen, the young American writer decides that he must forego marriage in favor of his career, breaks off the relationship in Chartres, and goes to Paris to write. Though the novel did not sell well, reviewers were mostly laudatory. At least one, however, complained that Asch’s style was forced and unreal and reproached the novelist for not probing the psychological depths of his characters. Asch and Ingwersen were divorced three years after the novel was published.
Asch was beginning to make a name for himself, not only in America but also on the Continent. His third work, Pay Day, (1930), was published simultaneously in the United States and in Germany; a year later it appeared in Hebrew translation in Warsaw. Although featuring a Jewish protagonist, Harry Grossman, the narrative centers on the contrast between the young Grossman’s hedonistic pursuit of pleasures and the night’s sobering event — the Sacco-Vanzetti execution. The Nation’s reviewer found it “an excellent study of the type,” but one which according to the critic for New York Herald Tribune Books does not slight the “messy details” so often missing in the “dissections of mental and moral fibre of the younger generation.”
Although Asch sometimes felt rejected by the New York publishing establishment, he was pleased by the popularity of his works in Germany, where translations of The Office, Pay Day, and several of his short stories sold well until Hitler outlawed all Jewish writing. Possibly as a result of his divorce, his lack of success in America, and his concern about the events in Germany, Asch became more conscious of his rootlessness. Unsure of himself, Asch felt he was neither a Jew nor an American. In January 1931, shortly after he returned from a trip to France to see his parents, he wrote Malcolm Cowley: “I am not American, and probably if I never went back to Europe and lost all contact with it, and remained in America I still would never be an American. Which probably explains why they read me in Germany and Russia more than they do here. But the curious thing is that I love this place and feel no sympathy with Eastern Europe. ... I feel clean in America and not in Germany. ... So you see I have no place anywhere,... I love America, and am not an American, not liked by Americans.”
In spite of these doubts about himself, Asch had two more novels published during the 1930s: The Valley (1935) and The Road: In Search of America (1937), composed of tales and sketches in the manner of The Office. The sketches in The Valley concern the problems faced by rural men whose land has become barren. Most reviewers suggested that, as in his earlier works, Asch was looking at what one critic called the “outer aspects” of life. H. W. B. in the Saturday Review of Literature cast Asch as a “sympathetic outsider taking notes.” Horace Gregory found The Valley “a reassertion of those qualities which have made his [Asch’s] prose distinctive” — a judgment shared by many others.
The Road: In Search of America depicts people, places, and events from all over the American continent. According to some reviewers, though Asch showed sympathy and understanding, his writing at times bordered on sentimentality; others chose to emphasize the influence of Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway they perceived in Asch's latest book. Asch had gathered the material for this, his last work, while on a bus trip across the United States. Some of the sketches were first
published in the New Republic, along with reviews Asch regularly wrote for that journal between 1931 and 1939. Asch’s trip ended in Hollywood, where he found work as a scriptwriter for Paramount Pictures. Later he moved to Washington, D.C., to accept a position with the education program of the Works Progress Administration.
Letters to his family, particularly his mother, and friends reveal his intense feelings of loneliness and rootlessness. He was determined to find a home. In 1930 he applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship to visit Poland and his relatives scattered throughout Europe. He particularly longed to see his maternal grandfather with whom he had lived for several months before leaving Poland and who, he knew, could give him much of the information he needed about his extended family. The proposal he submitted to the foundation poignantly describes his feelings: “The problem to be examined is one of rootlessness. Most writers, like most people, have within them the memory of a home — physical: they spent their childhood in one house, went to one school, grew up, played, fought in one neighborhood — a spiritual home: they relax in one language, one region, one country. They are motivated by its tabus, are moved by love for it, are loyal to it. As is in a tree, from old roots to new leaves, their past flows in an unbroken line into their present, sustains and explains it. There seems to be, there seems always to have been, a quality to being native. It is a quality the writer of this statement does not possess.” Asch did not receive the fellowship, despite recommendations from Stephan Zweig and Malcolm Cowley.
During World War II, Asch enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force, while his second wife, Carol Tasker Miles of Philadelphia, whom he had married in 1939, joined the WACS. He served by doing journalistic work in London for the Air Force and later as a member of the occupation forces in Paris after the liberation of that city. After the war, he and his wife bought a house in Mill Valley, California — a home she still occupies. While Asch continued to write, Carol Asch worked at a variety of jobs, providing the family’s main support. During the McCarthy era she was temporarily suspended from her job with the Civil Service Commission as a result of an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee that probed her husband’s supposed left-wing activities during the 1930s and her father-in-law’s connections with Soviet Russia.
Encouraged by his wife, Asch wrote feverishly, occasionally having pieces accepted for publication by such magazines as the New Yorker or Commentary. One of these, “Only So Big — A Puzzler,” was a humorous piece documenting the depiction of Jews in literature as “little.” It contained quotations from some fifty authors, Jews and Gentiles, Americans and Europeans, and included a citation from Asch’s own writings. During the late 1940s he spent most of his time and energy writing his most ambitious novel, “Paris Is Home,” completed in 1947. Malcolm Cowley was enthusiastic about the book and wrote Asch that it contained some of the best writing Asch had ever done and that “it shouldn't be merely accepted by the publisher but accepted with enthusiasm . . . and reviewed on page one or at least page three of the Times and Herald Tribune.” But, Cowley added, Asch needed to make revisions, assuring him that it was worth the time and effort it would take. Publishers shared both Cowley’s enthusiasm and his reservations. Harold Strauss’s evaluation of the book—contained in a letter to Maxim Lieber, Asch’s literary agent—is representative: “Everyone [who has read the manuscript] is enthusiastic about the descriptions of postwar Paris. Everyone is captivated by Asch’s evocation of the strange postwar mood among the occupation personnel. But only because it is fiction can “Paris Is Home” be called a novel. The structure is almost nil. . . . There is no true ending to the book; it merely stops when Kranz decides to go home. Few or none of the moral issues are resolved. Mr. Asch is no novice. I think the crux of the matter hinges on his development of the clash of moral values. Kranz never moves one way or the other in the book as it stands “... I admit that this is not a matter of minor editorial revision but requires that a new series of climactic episodes be built into the book.”
In letters to Cowley, Asch spoke of revising material, but it seems that he was not revising “Paris Is Home.” None of the extant manuscripts of the novel show revisions, as do some of Asch’s other manuscripts. The book was submitted to dozens of publishing houses but was never accepted. Only one short section, a twenty page excerpt entitled “The Nineteen-Twenties: An Interior,” appeared a few years later in the Paris Review; with a laudatory introduction by Cowley. As late as 1955, Knopf was inquiring about the possibility of publishing the novel.
During the early 1950s, Asch planned that “Paris Is Home” would be part of a series of novels, tentatively titled “Marginal Man” — “the story of forty years in the life of a Jew from Eastern Europe in the West” that “would take seven to eight years to write.” Of this projected series, Asch completed only “London is a Lonely Town,” a work that also went the rounds of publishers for several years but was never accepted. The major obstacle to publication — so clearly identified by Harold Strauss, Malcolm Cowley, and others — was Asch's difficulty in synthesizing his material and distancing himself from it. Undoubtedly Asch wrote well and was most effective in depicting places, time, mood, feeling, emotion, and sensation. His letters, as well as the character sketches of people he had known — his father, maternal grandfather, other members of his family — and of public figures such as Hart Crane attest to his artistry. Most of his writing (Love in Chartres is the exception) is episodic. It lacks the continuity and the unity that were missing from his own life. In his later years, Asch recognized this characteristic of his art. When telling Cowley about the sketches he was writing, tentatively titled “Gallant Ladies and Illustrious Men,” he saw they did not fit together. He hoped to publish them some day as a miscellany, but he did not want them published while he and some of his subjects were still living. The only exception he made was for a long piece, eighty-two typewritten pages, he had written about his father. This piece, the last one by Asch ever published, appeared as “My Father and I” in the January 1965 issue of Commentary — a month after Asch died.
Although none of the novels Asch wrote after the war was ever published, Asch continued to write and enjoyed writing. Two short novels, “The Shrewd and the Mad” and “The Livelong Day,” and a longer one, “Celia,” also made the rounds of publishers without success.
Toward the end of his life, Nathan Asch no longer seemed preoccupied with finding his roots. He could relax with his wife at home in Mill Valley, among furniture he had crafted himself, teaching occasional writing classes to eager adult students in his home and writing for himself. He had grown his own roots. He died of lung cancer at age sixty-two.
Kay Boyle and Robert McAlmon, Being
Geniuses Together, 1920-1930 (Garden City: Double-day, 1968);
Morley Callaghan, That Summer in Paris (New York: Coward-McCann, 1963);
Malcolm Cowley, And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade (New York: Viking, 1978);
Cowley, A Second Flowering (New York: Viking, 1973);
Samuel Putnam, Paris Was Our Mistress (New York: Viking, 1947).
Copies of published and unpublished manuscripts as well as letters and other memorabilia are in the Archive Collection at Winthrop College, Rock Hill, South Carolina. Asch’s letters to Malcolm Cowley and other materials are with the Cowley papers at the Newberry Library, Chicago.