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Updated Up To 26/06/2018
Volume 15, issue 2 (June 2017) : 217-239
An End to Wandering? Jonas B. Phillips and Mary Shelley’s “The Evil Eye”

Yael Shapira
Rubric A: Topoi
Rubric B: American Literature



The essay focuses on Jonas B. Phillips (1805–1869), a largely forgotten author, poet, and playwright who was one of the first Jews to enjoy literary success in early 19th-century America. Phillips won his fame mainly by writing popular stage melodramas that did not openly explore Jewish themes, causing him — like other Jewish writers of his time and literary interests — to be excluded from histories of Jewish American writing, since his work has been seen by scholars as neither “Jewish” nor “literary” enough. The essay argues that Phillips’ play The Evil Eye (1831), an adaptation of a short story by Mary Shelley, gives covert expression to the challenges of early Jewish American citizenship by reworking the image of the Wandering Jew, a mythic figure that had recently been revitalized in Romantic and Gothic literature. Though he is never identified openly with the Wandering Jew, the hero of Shelley’s story and of Phillips’ play bears striking similarities to the famous wanderer, and in Phillips’ adaptation he comes to represent the menacing foreigner who is miraculously recognized as kin and welcomed back into the family. Offering an allegory for the Jews’ homecoming in the newly established United States, the play also reflects lingering fear of anti-Semitism in its efforts to tone down the wanderer’s Gothic “otherness.” A later, uncompleted attempt by Phillips to make a villainous Jew into the hero of a new melodrama points to his lingering interest in Gothic iterations of the Jew, while also suggesting the danger that such demonized figures presented to Jewish authors in the young Republic. 

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