Conference to explore Jewish-American writers, artists, Oct. 21-23

To view a Webcast of this conference, click here.

More than two dozen well-known writers and cartoonists - from E.L. Doctorow to Wendy Wasserstein, from Art Spiegelman to Susan Sontag - will be on the Princeton University campus Oct. 21-23 for a conference on Jewish-American writing. The conference coincides with an exhibition at Firestone Library marking the opening of the Leonard Milberg '53 Collection of Jewish-American Writers and the release of a double volume of never-published stories, essays and poems by prominent American writers.

The double volume, a 392-page special edition of the Princeton University Library Chronicle, will include previously unpublished stories, essays and poems by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Henry Roth and other writers and critics; excerpts from a novel in progress by Cynthia Ozick; and facsimiles of previously unpublished letters by Lionel Trilling, Hannah Arendt, Philip Roth and Alfred Kazin.

Princeton alumnus Leonard Milberg "has made an enormously generous contribution to the future of Jewish studies at Princeton," said Ben Primer, acting associate University librarian for rare books and special collections. "Altogether, these events offer an amazing breadth and depth of information about Jewish-American writing."

The conference, "Celebrating Jewish-American Writers," opens 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21 in Alexander Hall with readings by playwright Tony Kushner, essayist and author Susan Sontag, novelist Marge Piercy, short-story master and poet Grace Paley, and poets Robert Pinsky and C. K. Williams. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein will present the opening lecture, on "My Life in the Theater," at 8:30 p.m. in 101 McCormick Hall. Author E. L. Doctorow will deliver the keynote address at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 22 in the Film and Dance Theater in the Frist Campus Center.

In addition to reading their work, writers and scholars will participate in panels to discuss Yiddish America, American irony, the fiction of identity and the Holocaust. Artists Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer and Art Spiegelman will explore the work of Jewish cartoonists and artists in a roundtable discussion called "COMIX!!"

Conference events are sponsored by Princeton's Program in Jewish Studies and are open to the public. For the complete schedule, click here .

The Princeton conference "is the first and probably the largest such gathering of Jewish-American writers ever," said Morris Dickstein, professor of English and senior fellow of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who will participate.

The exhibition of selected items from the Milberg Collection of Jewish-American Writers, which opens in the gallery of Firestone Library Oct. 21 and will remain on display through April 21, was two years in the making. It was the brainchild of Leonard Milberg, a member of Princeton's class of 1953 and a passionate collector.

More than 130 writers are represented in the collection, which includes poetry, fiction, drama and essays. Among the items are sermons from the 19th century; the memoirs of Leonardo da Ponte, who penned librettos for Mozart; works in Yiddish by Celia Dropkin and Chaim Grade; books by contemporary fiction writers Allegra Goodman and Nathan Englander; and essays by Jewish intellectuals Harold Bloom, Philip Rahv and Norman Podhoretz. There are also manuscripts, such as a draft of a poem by Stanley Kunitz later included in a prize-winning collection of his poetry. The collection will be available to researchers in Firestone Library.

To assemble the forthcoming double volume of the Library Chronicle, a scholarly journal for the Friends of the Princeton University Library, the organizers wrote to every living author whose work was included in the Milberg collection and asked for a submission of an unpublished work. Several essays also were commissioned, and some writers whose work does not appear in the collection also were asked to contribute.

In his search for unpublished works to bring to light, Milberg and Princeton Professor Michael Wood, chairman of the English department, pored through about 20 file cabinets brimming with the unpublished work of Henry Roth at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City.

They discovered a short story called "Antica Fiamma," about a man who runs into a former girlfriend. In the Chronicle, Wood paired the story with an excerpt from Roth's journal in which Roth recalls running into a former girlfriend. The story and diary excerpt will give readers a sense of how Roth transformed a real-life experience into fiction, Wood said.

Also remarkable are the two stories by I.B. Singer. Singer, who grew up in Poland and emigrated to the United States, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. His varied and rich body of work, most of it written in Yiddish, make him an important link from the Yiddish writing of the Old World to the Jewish-American writers of the 20th century. Singer died in 1991.

One story, titled "Distinguished Lineage" in the English translation, tells the tale of a father who moves up in the world and decides that, because of his elevated status, he should break off his daughter's betrothal to a baker and marry her to someone from a good family. "The story has Singer's wonderful sardonic humor, and it gives a sense of the lost world he's writing from," Milberg said. Singer's stories will appear in the Chronicle in the original Yiddish, accompanied by an English translation.

Milberg is the chairman of Milberg Factors Inc., a finance company in New York City. He has given Princeton University several collections, including the Leonard L. Milberg Collection of Irish Poetry and "Pride of Place," a collection of American prints. In 1998, the Friends of Princeton University Library presented him with the Hyde Award "for distinction in book collecting and service to the community of scholars."

"There are a lot of surprises here, and I hope people will find them," Milberg said. "I'm looking forward to the discoveries they make. This is a field in which a lot has been written, but there are still many questions to be answered."

The collection, its publications and the conference are dedicated to Harold T. Shapiro, president of Princeton from 1988 to 2001.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601