Benjamin Schreier argues that Jewish American literature's dominant cliché of "breakthrough"-that is, the irruption into the heart of the American cultural scene during the 1950s of Jewish American writers like Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Grace Paley-must also be seen as the critically originary moment of Jewish American literary study. According to Schreier, this is the primal scene of the Jewish American literary field, the point that the field cannot avoid repeating and replaying in instantiating itself as the more or less formalized academic study of Jewish American literature. More than sixty years later, the field's legibility, the very condition of its possibility, remains overwhelmingly grounded in a reliance on this single ethnological narrative.
In a polemic against what he sees as the unexamined foundations and stagnant state of the field, Schreier interrogates a series of professionally powerful assumptions about Jewish American literary history-how they came into being and how they hardened into cliché. He offers a critical genealogy of breakthrough and other narratives through which Jewish Studies has asserted its compelling self-evidence, not simply under the banner of the historical realities Jewish Studies claims to represent but more fundamentally for the intellectual and institutional structures through which it produces these representations. He shows how a historicist scholarly narrative quickly consolidated and became hegemonic, in part because of its double articulation of a particular American subject and of a transnational historiography that categorically identified that subject as Jewish. The ethnological grounding of the Jewish American literary field is no longer tenable, Schreier asserts, in an argument with broad implications for the reconceptualization of Jewish and other identity-based ethnic studies.