Who is Rudolph Block? After researching him for four years, I thought I knew. Then, I discovered I didn’t. And that’s OK.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been doing what we in the ivory tower call a “revise-and-resubmit”: this is an article that you’ve submitted to a journal and have been asked to revise, per the suggestions of one, two, or (in my case) three reviewers. Peer review is a pain in the ass, but it is also (to mix some unlikely metaphors) one of the pillars on which all academic scholarship rests. You have to show your “peers”–the scholars who review your manuscript–that your research is methodologically sound and actually adds to the body of knowledge before it can be unleashed on the world, in all its glory.
The article I’m working on is the second chapter of How the Other Half Laughs. It is, however, the first chapter I drafted, and has gone down a long and winding road since I started working on it in 2011. It’s about a guy named Rudolph Block, who was one of William Randolph Hearst’s most loyal employees: he edited the comics section of Hearst’s New York Journal for almost 30 years, starting in 1897. At the helm of the comics section, he rubbed elbows (and locked horns) with many of the early greats of the comic strip genre: R. F. Outcault, who created the Yellow Kid, Frederick Opper (Happy Hooligan), George Herriman (also the subject of a chapter of How the Other Half Laughs), who created one of my favorite comic strips EVER, Krazy Kat. No one remembers poor Rudolph, though. No one remembers the Editor, of course– just the Author. Or in this case, the Artist.
But Rudolph Block was also an author. He wrote stories– lots of stories– and published them in some of the most popular magazines of the day, especially, Cosmopolitan. Yes, that Cosmopolitan. Back then, it wasn’t the great source of celebrity gossip and sex tips that it is now, but it did have lots of pictures.
Back then, it also was known for its fiction. Jack London and Edith Wharton published stories in Cosmopolitan. So did Willa Cather. But none of them, except maybe Jack London, published as many as Block. Under the pseudonym Bruno Lessing, Block published over four dozen short stories in Cosmopolitan alone. Of course, quantity isn’t the same as quality, but you’ve all at least heard of Jack London, right? (I wouldn’t call him a genius writer, myself.) One of the goals of this article/chapter is to figure out why you haven’t heard of Lessing, and to suggest some reasons why he’s worth remembering.
I won’t go into the specifics of the argument I pursue in my article, except to say that since 2011, when I first ran across and fell in love with Bruno Lessing’s stories in Cosmopolitan, I thought Bruno Lessing, a.k.a. Rudolph Block, was Jewish. The stories are almost all set in New York’s Lower East Side, and feature characters trying to make their way in a new, often hostile culture. Lessing’s stories struck me as strange, however, because they are not depressing at all. Most of them make me laugh out loud (you can read some of them here–I recommend either Jake–or Sam or the With the Best Intention, though Children of Men is the one that’s best known). What I really like most about them is the way that Lessing plays with language, mixing Yiddish and English idioms, syntax, and allusions to the Torah and the Declaration of Independence all at the same time. I think I just assumed that anyone with such facility with these different languages and cultures must have come from the Lower East Side, and the sources I consulted, with titles like The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century Jewish American Fiction and A History of Jewish Literature (in five volumes, no less) included Lessing among their authors.
One of the people who reviewed my article, though, said he (or she) had found a source that cast doubt on Block’s “Jewishness.” Initially, I scoffed at this. I mean, The Dictionary of Literary Biography. But the more I looked, the more I started to wonder if maybe there was something to it. No one– even the DLB–explicitly said he was Jewish. But no one explicitly said he was a Gentile, either. And Block never said anything to indicate anything one way or another.
After weeks of being unable to find an answer (at a high point of frustration, I took a break and baked some challah–showing you how successful I am at getting away from my research), I went to my source of last resort: Ancestry.com. On the website, I found lots of interesting info, like where he lived when he was 10 (New York, East 34th St between 1st & 2nd Ave.), when he applied for a passport, whom he had as servants (one pair of sisters were originally from the West Indies), stuff like that. And I found one of his living descendants– a great great grandniece who was working on the family genealogy. I couldn’t resist– I emailed her. And she got back to me, very excited to hear that someone was doing research about this “really interesting” side of her family. When I asked, she said she had no idea whether Uncle Rudolph was Jewish or not. She herself had been raised Catholic.
Well, this is the kind of thing that really makes you shake your head and go “hmmmm.” Had I– and the Dictionary of Literary Biography– been fooled? Was Rudolph Block a closeted Jew? Who could say? If the family genealogist couldn’t find out, I’m not sure anyone can.
But I realized that it’s actually fine for the purposes of my essay that Rudolph Block’s religious/cultural identity is uncertain. In retrospect, I am very grateful to the person who reviewed my manuscript. He or she may have prevented the perpetuation of an error that began when the first person who wanted to compile a history of Jewish American fiction cast the net wide, wanting to show how many Jews could– and did– write in America. This person may have made the common mistake of assuming that someone who wrote about Jews (especially, sympathetically) was Jewish. It’s an understandable mistake. But it’s still a mistake.
It’s been a bit mindblowing to have to rethink what I think about Rudolph Block, after reading and researching him for four years and thinking he was writing about his own community the entire time. But sometimes, it’s a good thing to have to revise your notion of history. In the past few days since realizing that Rudolph Block may not have been Jewish, and was certainly not a practicing, Eastern European, Lower-East-Side Jew (I’ve learned a lot about Eastern European immigration patterns over the past few weeks!), I can at least say with confidence that Block was very much part of the German American community in New York. And it’s been really interesting to realize how important Germans as an immigrant group (and the Germans, of course, included many Jews) were in forming what we now think of as American culture. Since World War II, obviously, and World War I before that, the United States hasn’t really crowed a whole lot about its German roots.
In my research, I’ve always been interested in the exception that proves the rule– meaning that it tests the rule (using the word “prove” the way one “proofs” yeast or “proofreads” a paper), not necessarily that it proves that a rule is true (which is how most people use this phrase). I’m interested in the anomaly, the one that doesn’t seem to fit, the thing that goes against expectations. My first book (whose title is so arcanely academic, I’m embarrassed to include it in this post, but you can still purchase it here!–on Kindle, even!) was about a writer named Winnifred Eaton, a half-Chinese, half-English Canadian novelist who wrote popular romances during the early twentieth century. Eaton–who used the very exotic-sounding pseudonym Onoto Watanna–fascinated me because she did not act like other Asian American writers I knew about. She didn’t act the way I did, either. When I discovered her, I was getting my master’s degree, still very uncomfortable speaking up in class (those of you who know me now will find this impossible to believe), hating to be singled out as “the Asian one” or, more likely in Texas, where I was in grad school, “the Oriennal one” or “the Chinese one.”
Winnifred– I mean, ahem, Onoto– flaunted an Asianness she only partly embodied: she declared she was the daughter of samurai, pretended to know Japanese, dressed in a kimono when she went out in public, and wrote novels about red-haired half-Japanese, half-American geisha girls who snubbed their would-be American lovers (eh, no thanks, Pinkerton!). I loved the fact that she wasn’t like any Asian American writer I’d read before. Thus, the dissertation. Which turned into a book.
Since then, I’ve researched and written about a number of other exceptional-rule-provers: Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance-era African American writer who never apologized for being her very own “Colored Me”; Henry McNeal Turner, the African Methodist Episcopal preacher from South Carolina who embraced the back-to-Africa movement when everyone else was lining up behind either Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. DuBois; and so on. I think it freaks some people out to think that history is not something you can ever pin down, that it’s not something you can ever know. I mean, we can’t even grasp our own personal histories, our memories. I happen to think that’s pretty cool. It’s pretty cool to think about something you know you will never be able to completely know.