Monday, November 2, 2015

The Pawnbroker's Daughter: A Memoir by Maxine Kurmin 2015

"'The Pawnbroker's Daughter'" is not a posthumous volume of poems (though she draws from her work throughout), but a loose and lucid memoir that charts Kumin's path from  middle-class Jewish kid in Philadelphia to a  Pulitzer Prize-winning poet laureate, feminist icon, and, perhaps most significantly, flatlander turned New England farmer," from a review in the Boston Globe by Michael Andon Brodeur 7/18/2015

This memoir, consisting of five chapters about the life of the American poet Maxine Kumin, was published in 1915, shortly after her death.  In it, this well-respected poet traces the arc of her life from young Jewish girl growing up in Germantown, Pennsylvania in the 1940’s to emerging poet in the 50’s and beyond.  Only the first of the five chapters is new. The four others had been previously published in literary magazines.

 It’s interesting that the memoir is called “The Pawnbroker’s Daughter” because only in the first of the five chapters does she talk about her family. Her father took over the successful pawn shop his father had started in Philadelphia, providing a good living for his family, but at the same time it created embarrassment for Kumin’s socially-striving mother. Kumin explains that her mother, the child of German Jewish immigrants who was raised in Radford, Virginia, felt that she had in fact married beneath her. Her husband’s background was Russian Jewish, his business was suspect.  All of these attitudes and embarrassments filtered down to Kumin and she remembers distinctly her mother instructing her to use the vague word “broker” in saying what her father did for a living.

Kumin describes aspects of her Jewish upbringing – their membership in Temple Rodeph Shalom, a reform synagogue where she says the service felt close to being Unitarian. She also remarks on the Temple’s anti-Zionist stance, common in the early days of the Reform movement. She remembers her father heartbroken over letters he received from relatives stuck in Poland at the same time she and her family were living lives of privilege, striving to assimilate, to become indistinguishable from all other Americans. Hers was a Jewish childhood typical in many ways.

In all subsequent chapters Kumin’s Jewish identity is either left behind or falls away. In chapter 2, “Love in Wartime,” Kumin summarizes her years at Radcliffe College where she was immersed in a wider world than she had been exposed to at home. Victor Kumin, a graduate of Harvard who was in the army and was working at Los Alamos, entered her life and they embarked on a whirlwind courtship that culminated in a marriage that lasted more than sixty years

The other chapters in this slight but engrossing memoir are about Maxine Kumin as a poet and the world around her that fed her poetry. She writes about what it was like living in the suburbs – they lived in Newton, Massachusetts for many years – trying to raise her children and work on poetry.  It’s an interesting story of feeling tentative as a woman in a field dominated by men, making her way, staying with it, juggling her responsibilities.  As time marches on she receives well deserved recognition. She is taken seriously as a poet and becomes a teacher and mentor of others. The last chapters have most to do with the family’s moving permanently to a farm in New Hampshire where they living out their days raising horses and tending their gardens.

Is this a Jewish story? A case can certainly be made that many an American Jew assimilated into mainstream culture, leaving behind the vestiges of  their Jewishness that their immigrant ancesters brought with them to this country. In Maxine Kumin’s case an argument can also be made that her “Jewish” legacy became part of her poetry. She frequently talks about “bearing witness” and the subject matter of many of her poetry confirms this. Perhaps this is a way to view her life as more “Jewish” than it appeared on the surface. She was the pawnbroker’s daughter.

To read a short biography of Maxine Kumin, which emphasizes her Jewish roots click here.

Max Winokur
Joseph Winokur – son of Max; married to Bea
Pete Winokur – son of Max
Herbert Winokur – son of Pete
Peter Winokur – son of Pete
Maxine Winokur – son of Pete; married to Victor Kumin

Philadelphia, Pa
Germantown, Pa
Newton, Ma
Radford, Va