Cambridge Companion: Eric Homberger

If there is a dean of New York literary studies, it is Eric Homberger, who has contributed the chapter “Immigrants, Politics, and the Popular Cultures of Tolerance” to the Cambridge Companion. Eric is Emeritus Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, and is the author of four books about New York City: Scenes from the Life of a City: Corruption and Conscience in Old New York (1994), Mrs. Astor’s New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age (2002), New York City: A Cultural and Literary Companion (2003), and The Historical Atlas of New York City: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City’s History (2005).

We asked Eric to write about one of his particular specialties: New York’s immigrant cultures. (Click here for an example of Eric’s previous work on the subject.) What he gave us for the Companion was a fresh take on the subject, using Anne Nichols’s play Abie’s Irish Rose as a prism through which to understand the dynamics of Americanization. Now largely forgotten, but in its day a “commercial success … and something of a cultural phenomenon,” Abie’s Irish Rose had legs, and it turns out to lie in the background of a television show from my youth that I still remember fondly:

As late as 1972, Abie’s Irish Rose provided the plot for Bridget Loves Bernie, a 24-part television comedy series directed by Ozzie Nelson, in which the upper-class Irish-American Bridget (played by Meredith Baxter) marries Bernie Steinberg (David Birney), a Jewish taxi driver from Brooklyn.The kids love each other, but there are problems with their parents, who are uncomfortable about the differences in class and religion separating the two families. The audience’s response was quite positive, and it became the fifth-ranked show for CBS that year. But Bridget Loves Bernie was unexpectedly canceled at the end of the first season. The story went around New York that the studio executives were fed up with the barrage of anti-Semitic hate mail which greeted their cute little comedy. It was also attacked by indignant rabbis for encouraging intermarriage. The level of hostility towards Bridget Loves Bernie surprised everyone. That wasn’t supposed to be the American way. Warner Brothers’ short-lived 1998 sitcom You’re the One gave us much the same plot, Manhattan setting, and plentiful ethnic stereotypes.

The success of Abie’s Irish Rose was not solely due to effective exploitation, though it made Anne Nichols a very wealthy woman; it is also a striking instance of the interplay of cultural production and the immigrant experience in New York City. At every stage in the history of Abie’s Irish Rose, as author, director, and producer, Nichols was a serious professional in the management of her interests. She exploited the commercial possibilities of the play, and assertively defended her rights. The source of this cascade of light entertainment, Anne Nichols, was born in 1891 and raised in a strict Baptist family in rural Georgia. She was not an “ethnic” and not a New Yorker, at least not until she began to write and produce plays in the early 1920s. We are used to the notion that “ethnic literature” is written by, and reflects the experience, of “ethnics.” Nichols reminds us that a somewhat wider understanding of the uses of ethnicity is called for.

Next: Daniel Kane.