There were three main factors that made The Nazarene by Sholem Asch a bestseller. These same three factors are the determining factors for the financial success of every novel. These factors are: who the author is, what he wrote, and when he wrote it. If an author is well known, and writes a compelling work that resonates with his times then he is all but guaranteed a success. In Asch's case, his popularity as an author in 1939, when The Nazarene was published, was built on three decades of work in Yiddish literature, which established him as the preeminent Jewish author in the world. The novel depicted the life of Jesus, which is compelling subject matter in itself, but takes on a whole new interest when written by a Jew. This interplay between Jewish and Christian religions presented in the novel, and in Asch himself, was especially controversial considering the time when the book was published. In 1939, stories of Hitler's atrocities against Jews in Europe, often understood to be in the name of Christianity, were starting to filter into the West. In light of these factors, The Nazarene's success is not surprising, and neither is the controversy that surrounded it. It was this controversy, in fact, that solidified The Nazarene as a bestseller.
At the time The Nazarene was published, in 1939, Sholem Asch had "enjoyed for decades?the role of a spokesman for his people"(1). Asch was born on November 1, 1880, in Kutno, Poland, but moved to Warsaw, which was the central place in the Jewish literary world in Poland at that time.(2) There he wrote both plays and novels in Yiddish, the vernacular of European Jews. His choice to write in Yiddish was influenced by the urging of I.L. Peretz, a renowned Yiddish writer. After a short stay in America during World War I, Asch returned to Poland and then later moved to France. During this period in Europe, Asch continued to write novels depicting the lives of Jews, both past and present. A few examples of Asch's Jewish subject matter include: Kiddush ha-Shem (1919 English translation 1926), a story of Jewish martyrdom during the Chmelnitsky uprising in mid-17th century Ukraine and Poland, which is one of the earliest historical novels in modern Yiddish literature, The Witch of Castile (1921), which is the story of a Jewish girl's choice of death in order to defend her faith, and Farn Mabul ("Before the Flood," 1929-1931, translated as Three Cities, 1933) which describes Jewish life during the first two decades of the twentieth century in St. Petersburg, Warsaw, and Moscow.(3)
Asch's historical, yet emotional presentation of the struggles and triumphs of European Jews both in the past and present established him as "their greatest writer"(4). However, as Hitler began his destruction, the Jewish Europe that had been the subject matter of so much of Asch's work was disappearing. Even with all the prestige his now vast body of work had earned him, "American readers knew him primarily as the novelist-historian of a Europe now gone."(5) His career was at an impasse. Not only his beloved people, but also the heart of his readership were being killed and scattered.
So Asch wrote The Nazarene for a larger audience. "He was relying heavily on The Nazarene to win him a new and wider readership"(6) for two reasons. He wanted to draw in both Christian and Jewish readers for both ecumenical and financial purposes.
Ecumenically, Asch hoped that his novel would foster unity between Jews and Christians. Asch was "torn emotionally by the Nazi persecutions of Jews,"(7) and he was convinced "that only one force can save our world?that of a union of the Jewish and Christian religions and cultures"(8). According to Oscar Cargill, Asch's purpose in writing The Nazarene "was to pay reverence to the goodness in Christianity, not to subscribe to it or to settle the theological question. And, because this was his purpose, he may be suspected of another subordinate but equally valid purpose, that is, to show how much of the Christian faith is derived from the Hebrew."(9)Asch hoped that "reminded of this historic kinship, Christians of goodwill ? would be moved to protest past and present cruelties to Jews"(10). He hoped that his work would bring peace to a violent world.
Asch's hope is summed up in the final pages of the novel. Viadomsky, a virulent anti-Semite through most of the book, dies clasping the hand of his Jewish assistant. In this moment of union between men of the two faiths, "There came in through the window the first rays of the morning sun, which had pierced the barriers of darkness and cobwebs to find their way to the bedside. They were tired, these rays, with their long journey, and with the obstacles which they had overcome, but they were still warm with the benediction of the sun."(11)The imagery of hope and redemption in unity between the faiths is almost overwhelming.
Unfortunately, his ecumenical aim was largely overlooked and generally misunderstood. Though Asch realized that his subject matter would rub some Jews the wrong way, "He failed to foresee the shock, the distaste, the virulence his Biblical novels would evoke. Certainly he did not realize how completely he would lose his near-legendary reputation as a Jewish leader. For he proved totally unprepared for the avalanche of hostility, even hatred, that engulfed him for writing a ?Christianizing' or ?missionary' book, one designed, his critics cried, to lure Jews from their traditional faith."(12) In its ecumenical aims, The Nazarene must be considered a failure. Asch put himself between Jews and Christians, and tried to pull the two together, but in the end he was rejected by Jews, and accepted by a Christian faith he respected, but did not want to join. He was left in the middle.
Asch's second purpose in writing The Nazarene was financial. With the European Jewish community in tumult, he had to look elsewhere for an audience, and America was the only viable option. He wrote The Nazarene about the life of Jesus because, "he badly needed a literary success in America ? [he] needed a financially successful novel" and "he also wanted the Nobel Prize, and the story of Jesus seemed of enough substance and import to win the requisite critical attention and approval"(13). So, he wrote a novel about the man who formed the cornerstone of American religion and culture at the time and even sent it to ministers, priests and rabbis so that they "might make the book a subject of their sermons, and thus spread the gospel of its quality"(14).
In this aspect, the novel was a success, but not exactly as Asch had expected. It sold about 250,000 copies the first year according to Siegel who estimates that "two million Americans may have read The Nazarene in the two years following publication"(15). It was number nine on the annual bestseller list in 1939 and number five in 1940. He had hoped to write a book that would appeal to both Jews and Christians alike, but the work was basically reviled by Jews, making his now vast readership dominantly Christian. The Christian subject matter and themes of The Nazarene "appealed to those readers and reviewers who had made bestsellers of Quo Vaddis and Ben-Hur and who now were doing the same for The Robe, The Big Fisherman, and The Silver Chalice"(16).
Though Asch had failed in his ecumenical objective, that failure might have in fact aided the success of the novel financially. The controversy that swirled around the novel, and its author who was accused of betraying his faith, provided interest and publicity for a story that had been told before. And one reason the novel created such a stir was the position its author held in the Jewish community. According to Siegel, "Earlier Jewish scholars and writers had made similar efforts, and many American and German rabbis had expressed comparable views. But generally the Jewish public had ignored them"(17). But when the "spokesman for his people" wrote a Jewish Jesus story, the Jewish community, and the literary community in general paid attention, and bought the book.
The controversy among Christians in response to the novel was minor. The novel was generally well accepted. Even though Asch was "dealing?with the story of the life of Christ, the greatest story in the Christian world," as Peter Monro Jack of the New York Times said, "he deals with it greatly and humbly, careful and exact to the last detail ? it is the great story that passes through his mind, and it is sufficient praise to say that Mr. Asch has not made it less"(18). However, some Christians found fault in the gospel according to Sholem Asch.
Though Asch "convinced himself that he could restore Jesus to the Jewish tradition, without dispossessing Christians"(19), one critic claimed that Asch "goes to extreme limits in claiming Jesus of Nazareth for the Jews"(20). But, even though there were some complaints that Asch was stealing Jesus for the Jews, and Asch himself said "Jesus was not a Christian; he was a Jew"(21), Christians were less offended by the book than Jews. This ambivalence is surprising considering "complaints against him more logically should have come from Christians disturbed by his ?Judaizing' than from Jews"(22).
Christians were probably less offended by the novel because they did not have to deal with the feeling of betrayal the Jews felt. It was easier for them to read the book without being emotionally involved. In fact, one contemporary Christian reviewer espoused that detached approach to the novel, and even predicts success for the novel ecumenically. "No orthodox Christian need fear offense to his personal faith if he reads The Nazarene with a calm and open mind. On the contrary, his knowledge will be enriched and his thought stimulated by the beauty and truths in the book. The Nazarene is a novel which will do much to further tolerance and understanding among men."(23) Based on the vast success of the novel, the minor controversy that surrounded it from the Christian perspective could not have had a serious negative effect on its sales, and might have even increased them.
In contrast to the Christian reaction, the Jewish reaction to The Nazarene was overwhelmingly negative. There was a small handful of predominantly younger and American-Jewish critics who defended Asch's creative freedoms as an artist. This group included Yiddish critic Samuel Niger, who considered the novel "Asch's highest achievement"(24). However, this group was swallowed up in the turbulent sea of negative criticism that made up the rest of the Jewish literary community.
The most damaging attack made on Asch was made by The Yiddish Daily Forward. The newspaper had regularly accepted Asch's work previously, but after The Nazarene was published it "not only refused to publish the work, but openly attacked the author for encouraging heresy and conversion by preaching Christianity,"(25) and much of the Jewish press followed its example. In the years immediately following, "every Yiddish newspaper but one closed its pages to Asch"(26).
Beyond the accusations of heresy and conversion, many Jews were infuriated by Asch's apparent bad taste in publishing a book presenting Jesus Christ as the Jewish Messiah when Hitler was at the height of his power, massacring Jews in the name of "Christianity". Many Jews "derided Asch as a shoddy opportunist and turncoat taking mercenary advantage of his people's tragic plight"(27). These accusations were unfounded for two reasons. First, Asch had been planning on writing a novel about Jesus for thirty years, ever since he first visited the Holy Land. Second, as mentioned above, he hoped, as he said, "to help the Jews in their present dire circumstances. Never before have the Jews been so isolated in the world. They have no defenders, and are surrounded by enemies. My only aim was to create friends for them"(28).
Even considering Asch's intentions of good will, the "untimely" publication of The Nazarene, did have a positive effect on the novel's financial success. Siegel admits that "were The Nazarene now to make its initial appearance, it would stir little more than a slight grumble from even the most parochial Jewish critics"(29). The vast publicity Asch received over the "bad timing" of the novel could only have had positive effects on its sales. Vilification is much better than apathy when it comes to selling books.
What was bad timing for the Jewish community was good timing for Asch. The more Jewish critics attacked the book, the more they publicized it as controversial, cutting edge, and intensely relevant to the contemporary world. Abraham Cahan, "with the enormous influence and prestige of the [Yiddish Daily] Forward at his disposal, launched a campaign of vilification against author and novel, devoting two years of his life to the task; he even wrote a book, Sholem Asch's New Way, expressing his angry disapproval"(30). In a way, Asch got the influential Cahan to devote two years and a book to advertising for The Nazarene!
The controversy that surrounded The Nazarene ensured the success of a novel that had all the other major components necessary to be a bestseller. Asch's reputation as a voice for the Jewish people, his compelling subject matter in the life of Jesus, and the way it resonated with the violent times in which it was released may have been enough on their own to make the novel popular. Adding the label "controversial" was simply the icing on the cake.
1. Siegel, Ben. The Controversial Sholem Asch: An Introduction to his Fiction. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976. p.145
4. Golden, Harry. "Sholem Asch and Anne Frank," Carolina Institute, May 1957, p. 9
5. Siegel, 130
6. Siegel, 130
7. Siegel, 131
8. George, Ralph W., "Sholem Asch?Man of Letters and Prophet." Religion in Life. Abingdon Press. Vol. XX, No. 1, Winter, 1950-1951, pp.106-13.
9. Cargill, Oscar, "Sholem Asch: Still Immigrant and Alien," in College English. National Council of Teachers of English, vol. 12, no. 2, Nov 1950, pp. 67-74.
10. Siegel, 137
11. Asch, Sholem. The Nazarene. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1939. p. 697.
12. Siegel, 130
13. Siegel, 141,144
14. Letter from Earle Balch to Ben Siegel, 14 July, 1965 found in Siegel, 145
16. Siegel, 145
17. Siegel, 143
18. Jack, Peter Monro, The New York Times. Oct. 29, 1939 VI 3:1
19. Siegel, 131
20. Bates, E.S. Saturday Review of Literature. Norman Cousins, ed. Saturday Review Associates, Inc, New York. Oct. 21, 1939
21. Asch, Sholem. Quoted in Madison, Charles A. "Sholem Asch: Novelist of Lyric Intensity," Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers. New York: Frederick Unger, 1968. p.252.
22. Siegel, 137
23. Rick, L.C. Springfield Republican, Springfield, Mass: Republican Pub. Co., Nov. 5, 1939
24. Niger quoted in Siegel, 150
26. Siegel, 150
27. Siegel, 130
28. Asch. Quoted in Madison, 252.
29. Siegel, 140-141
30. Siegel, 127