Brinig, Myron. “Singermann”, Arno Press Reprint, 1975.
A Man of Firsts
Many of you have never heard of Myron Brinig but then neither had I until I came upon his name while researching gay Jewish literature. He was one of the first writers of his generation to write in English (instead of Yiddish) and he was one of the first to create homosexual characters. Between the years of 1929 and 1958, he published some 21 novels and although he himself was gay, he was closeted all of his life which he thought was necessary not only for his writing career but also for American society.
Brinig was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1896 and then his family moved to Butte, Montana when he was three. We usually do not think of Jews in Montana but many Jewish immigrants followed the crows and his father opened a dry goods store for the community of copper miners. Brinig grew up in the store but then in 1914 at age 17 Brinig left Butte to study at New York University, where he took writing courses with the poet Joyce Kilmer.
His education was stopped by military service but he returned to New York in 1919 and instead of returning to school, took a job with Zanuck films. Except for rare visits, he did not go home again. His first novel was published in 1929; “Madonna Without Child” is a character study of woman who is obsessed with someone else’s child. Then his editor, John Farrar joined Stanley Rhinehard in a publishing house, Brinig went too and that same year published “Singermann”, the story of Moses Singermann, his wife, Rebecca and their six children and it is the story of how traditional Jewish values changed when they clashed with the freedom of America. We meet here the two gay Singermann brothers, Harry and Michael. Some think that Harry is Brinig himself thus making this book an autobiography. Through Harry, Brinig tell his life story without having to come out. Critics claim the knowledge that Brinig was gay and because of that he was shunned by them. Leaving the literary scene, new gay writers emerged (Gore Vidal, James Baldwin) and they explored homosexuality in their writings. There was a new generation to write about homosexuality and did so graphically and bravely.
“Singermann” was originally published in 1929, when the author was only 23. It is a family saga set in a Butte-based town Brinig calls Silver Bow, which provides a vivid portrait of Butte’s once-thriving Jewish community. Closely based on Brinig’s own experiences growing up in Butte, it features many vivid characters and a lively plot and subplots. The patriarch of the Singermann clan is the aptly named Moses. When anti-Semitic persecution forces him from his native land in Romania, he emigrates to Silver Bow, opening a men’s clothing store on East Park Street, having heard from a cousin that there is money to be made selling attire to the local miners. Moses brings along his wife, Rebecca, and their large brood of children, including five sons and one daughter.
“Singermann” offers a perceptive picture of the impact of assimilation on Jewish immigrants in America. A pious Jew, Moses faces a dilemma over whether to keep his store open on Saturdays. Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, when Jews are commanded to stay home and in synagogue, refraining from all work. But Saturday is also the best day to sell clothes, because the miners are off-shift, paychecks in hand. Momentously, Moses decides to keep his store open on the Sabbath, opting for commerce over religion. In so doing, he sets in motion the mechanism of assimilation and secularization which goes even further with the Singermanns’ next generation.
Assimilation has long been a serious problem for American Jewry. In Europe, Jews were so persecuted that they banded together for mutual protection, a development which strengthened their faith. But in America, Jews were so welcomed that they blended deeply into all facets of American life. The result has been an intermarriage rate of over 50%, which, since Judaism does not seek converts, has caused the Jewish American population to dwindle.
Not only does “Singermann” explore the consequences of Jewish-American assimilation, but it also, through the character of Moses’ son, Harry, delves into the subject of homosexuality. Harry is a closeted gay young man, who enjoys secretly applying lipstick in the confines of his bedroom. When his history teacher tries to seduce him, the boy is forced to squarely confront his homosexuality for the first time, and he runs off in a panic, vowing to “fight” his taboo feelings. Obviously this is the stereotypical behavior of that day and is a reflection of Brinig himself who was gay and spent the last decades of his life living with a male partner in New York City, and wrote about homosexuality with an honesty and sensitivity astonishing for his time.
I have been trying to locate a copy of “Singermann” to add to my library but it has been out of print for a very long time and since there does not seem to be very much interest in it, it is likely to remain that way for a very long time. Even though Brinig was a popular and critically acclaimed writer early in the 20th century, by the time of his death at 95 he had been almost entirely forgotten.