Israel Zangwill: the “Dickens of the Ghetto”

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the death of Israel Zangwill. He was a British author at the forefront of cultural Zionism during the nineteenth century. Born in London in 1864 to Jewish immigrants, Zangwill was educated at the Jews’ Free School where he later became a teacher. He produced numerous poems, plays and novels including The Children of the Ghetto: a Study of a Peculiar People (1892) and The King of Schnorrers (1894). His play, The Melting Pot (1908) about a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, popularised this metaphor used to describe American absorption of immigrants and his work earned him the nickname the “Dickens of the Ghetto”.

Israel Zangwill

Israel Zangwill [MS 295 A1018/5]

Correspondence from the collection MS 116/52 Papers relating to Israel Zangwill indicated the circles Zangwill moved in. For example, in January 1894 he wrote to the author and poet Richard Le Gallienne:

I have hesitated to ask you to come up all this way but have decided to give you the option. To-morrow night (Tuesday) from 8.30 interesting men will be dropping in to smoke and talk. The notice is short because the thing is informal. There will be several “Waterloo” men.   [MS 116/52 AJ208/1]

In 1898, he corresponded with Walter Bliss of the American Publishing Company to thank him for sending a copy of Mark Twain’s book: “I hope it will be a big success. Mark is a fine old fellow.”  [MS 116/52 AJ209/5]

Zangwillpostcard

Postcard from Israel Zangwill, Florence, to his mother, Ellen Hannah Zangwill, St John’s Wood, 7 May 1901 [MS 295 A1018/1/2]

We also hold a collection of postcards [part of MS 295 Papers of Louis and Israel Zangwill], many sent by Israel and his brother Louis to their mother while they were on a tour of Europe. Israel was 37 and already a successful author and lecturer.  The text, difficult to decipher in the image, recounts how Zangwill has inadvertently switched hats following a haircut:

I have just discovered I changed hats with somebody in Rome: as good or better but of different shape. I didn’t notice it, perhaps through having my hair cut, so I expected to look different. They wanted 1 franc for Mark’s shampoo, so I had a row and wouldn’t pay it. They always give in. [MS 295 A1018/1/2]

Harry Ward, secretary to the Golders Green Synagogue, was a founding member and honorary secretary of the Israel Zangwill Fellowship. He spent 60 years collecting a vast library of Zangwilliana, now in the University’s Special Collections [MS 294]. Collected over Ward’s lifetime, the material includes Zangwill correspondence – for example with his lecture agent, Gerald Christy, 1895-1906 – as well as Ward’s own correspondence and research papers.  Ward’s comprehensive collection of books by Zangwill, or in which he is mentioned, was added to the Parkes Library.

Israel Zangwill

Israel Zangwill

Zangwill was a founder of the Jewish Territorial Organisation (ITO).  This group of Zionists wanted to find an alternative to Israel for the creation of a Jewish homeland.  In 1906, Zangwill wrote to Carl Stettaeur seeking support for the organisation. Stettauer had visited Russia the previous year to arrange relief work following the pogroms:

At most you can say that your desire to identify yourself with other causes prevents you identifying yourself with the practical work of our Organisation, but what prevents you from paying 1/- a year as a passive member to produce an effect, however distant, that cannot possibly be other than beneficial?   [MS 128 AJ22/F4]

Another smaller collection of papers is that of Ruth Phillips, secretary to Lucien Wolf and Israel Zangwill [MS 116/5].

Zangwill died in 1926 in Midhurst, West Sussex.  In celebration of his life, the Jewish Museum, London has created Zangwill’s Spitalfields, an audio-visual walking tour of the historic Spitalfields area of London’s East End.

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