The Un-Americans

Jews, the Blacklist, and Stoolpigeon Culture

Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 6 photographs Published: November 2009

Author: Joseph Litvak

Cultural Studies, Gender and Sexuality > LGBTQ Studies, Media Studies > Film

In a bold rethinking of the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthyite America, Joseph Litvak reveals a political regime that did not end with the 1950s or even with the Cold War: a regime of compulsory sycophancy, in which the good citizen is an informer, ready to denounce anyone who will not play the part of the earnest, patriotic American. While many scholars have noted the anti-Semitism underlying the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC’s) anti-Communism, Litvak draws on the work of Theodor W. Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Alain Badiou, and Max Horkheimer to show how the committee conflated Jewishness with what he calls “comic cosmopolitanism,” an intolerably seductive happiness, centered in Hollywood and New York, in show business and intellectual circles. He maintains that HUAC took the comic irreverence of the “uncooperative” witnesses as a crime against an American identity based on self-repudiation and the willingness to “name names.” Litvak proposes that sycophancy was (and continues to be) the price exacted for assimilation into mainstream American culture, not just for Jews, but also for homosexuals, immigrants, and other groups deemed threatening to American rectitude.

Litvak traces the outlines of comic cosmopolitanism in a series of performances in film and theater and before HUAC, performances by Jewish artists and intellectuals such as Zero Mostel, Judy Holliday, and Abraham Polonsky. At the same time, through an uncompromising analysis of work by informers including Jerome Robbins, Elia Kazan, and Budd Schulberg, he explains the triumph of a stoolpigeon culture that still thrives in the America of the early twenty-first century.


“[A] formidable piece of scholarship, one with which subsequent studies of the blacklist, the Hollywood social problem film and accounts of Jewish-American culture will most certainly have to contend.” — Art Simon, Cineaste

“[T]his book is an elegant, provocative, and at times brilliant contribution to both Jewish cultural studies and debates about the mix of popular art and politics in the blacklist era.” — Brian Neve, Theatre History Studies

“In its focus on the broader political and cultural impact of Jewishness (as well as Jews) and in its refusal to get mired in the stasis of identity studies, Litvak’s book represents a new and welcome direction for both American Studies and Jewish Studies, especially as they relate to one another.” — Daniel Itzkovitz, MELUS

“Litvak says outright his is not yet another history. Instead, he gives us a craftily organized disorderly form, which I mean as a compliment. Despite its gravity regarding the individual and social harm caused by Cold War anti-Communism, The Un-Americans offers readers a festive scavenger hunt, streaked with Yiddishkeit (remnants of a time when Jews were still outsiders in the United States) and stocked with insight into the blacklist’s cloudy cultural terrain and legacies.” — Clay Steinman, Jump Cut

“This is a book which is a revelation in itself, and defines what it is to be free in an allegedly democratic society, where difference is damned and duty to nation comes before conscience and what is right. A triumph for Litvak and necessary reading for anyone who believes that the land of the free is alive and well.” — Danielle Mulholland, M/C Reviews

“A candidate for instant classic of Jewish cultural studies, Joseph Litvak’s The Un-Americans displays the great capacity for work in that mode to revise our understanding of political-cultural history tout court. Realizing the originating ambition of Jewish cultural studies to arrive at a kind of Jew theory, Litvak’s book articulates the interanimations of queer and Jew theories in its reading of the Jew/queer as un-American comicosmopolitan through his frequently brilliant analyses of the performances of American Jewish writers and actors before the House Un-American Activities Committee. It would be, however, a violation of the very spirit of this spirited book were one to fail to note the gifts of Litvak as a comic writer himself. To misquote a line from the book, the Jewish issues of Litvak’s work are its universal issues.” — Daniel Boyarin, University of California, Berkeley

“It has been a long time since I found a book so convincing. The Un-Americans is a truly original interpretation of the blacklist and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the 1950s as the era that established the functioning of both citizenship (in the political sphere) and mass entertainment (in the cultural sphere) as ‘the staging and enforcement of a normative style of American seriousness.’ It is a model combination of history, interpretation, and theory.” — Sharon Marcus, Columbia University

“Joseph Litvak makes an entirely cogent case that in recent decades ‘you don’t have to be Jewish’ to be subjected to the public policing tactics developed in the McCarthy era: certain types of feminists, queer activists, and African American and Native American academics will serve as even ‘better’ objects of protracted exposure in the media and eventual professional and political disrepute. This is what gives The Un-Americans its strong intellectual and political salience and makes it an original and notable contribution not just to the history of anti-Semitism and the blacklist in the United States but also of a broader and more enduring strain of ‘sycophantic’ politics and resistance thereto.” — Michael Moon, Emory University


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Price: $27.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Joseph Litvak is Professor of English at Tufts University. He is the author of Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel, also published by Duke University Press, and Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

1. Sycoanalysis: An Introduction 1

2. Jew Envy 50

3. Petrified Laughter: Jews in Pictures, 1947 72

4. Collaborators: Schulberg, Kazan, and A Face in the the Crowd 105

5. Comicosmopolitanism: Behind Television 153

6. Bringing Down the House: The Blacklist Musical 182

Coda. Cosmopolitan States 223

Notes 229

Bibliography 271

Index 283
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Honorable Mention, 2010 James Russell Lowell Award, presented by the Modern Language Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4484-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4467-4
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