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A Celebration of The Jewish Decadence: Jews and the Aesthetics of Modernity by Jonathan Freedman

April 26, 2022

As Jewish writers, artists, and intellectuals made their way into Western European and Anglo-American cultural centers, they encountered a society obsessed with decadence. An avant-garde movement characterized by self-consciously artificial art and literature, philosophic pessimism, and an interest in nonnormative sexualities, decadence was also a smear, whereby Jews were viewed as the source of social and cultural decline. In The Jewish Decadence, Jonathan Freedman argues that Jewish engagement with decadence played a major role in the emergence of modernism and the making of Jewish culture from the 1870s to the present.

The first to tell this sweeping story, Freedman demonstrates the centrality of decadence to the aesthetics of modernity and its inextricability from Jewishness. Freedman recounts a series of diverse and surprising episodes that he insists do not belong solely to the past, but instead reveal that the identification of Jewishness with decadence persists today.

About the Author

Jonathan Freedman is the Marvin Felheim Collegiate Professor Emeritus of English, American Studies, and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture; The Temple of Culture: Assimilation, Anti-Semitism, and the Making of Literary Anglo-America; and Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity.

About the Speakers

Maud Ellmann is Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago. Her research and teaching interests focus on British and European modernism and critical theory, particularly psychoanalysis and feminism. Her recent interests focus on British writing of the 1930s and 1940s, especially on the literature and culture of World War II.

Len Gutkin is a Senior Editor at The Chronicle Review and a scholar of the American and British novel. He is the author of Dandyism: Forming Fiction from Modernism to the Present (UVA Press, 2020) and is working on a second book, Unseriousness Seriously Pursued: Irony and Camp Affect from James to von Trier.

Amy Hungerford, the Ruth Fulton Benedict Professor of English and Comparative Literature, currently serves as Executive Vice President of Arts and Sciences and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. A scholar of American literature, her first two monographs explore literary engagements with genocide and with religion in the 20th century.

Josh Lambert is the Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English, and Director of the Jewish Studies Program, at Wellesley College. He's the author of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture and co-editor of How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish. His next book, The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American Literature, will be published by Yale University Press this summer.

Maurice Samuels is the Betty Jane Anlyan Professor of French at Yale University and chair of the Judaic Studies Program. He is the author of four books, including most recently The Betrayal of the Duchess: The Scandal that Unmade the Bourbon Monarchy and Made France Modern. He is currently working on a biography of Alfred Dreyfus for the Jewish Lives series at Yale University Press. He also directs the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism.

Lisi Schoenbach is Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She works on twentieth-century literature and philosophy, with a particular focus on modernism, pragmatism, and political theory. She is the author of Pragmatic Modernism (Oxford, 2012) and is currently at work on a new book project entitled Institutionalism and the Fate of the Public University.