WILLIAM NATANSON (NATHANSON) (November 27, 1883-September 15, 1963)
He was born in Povelitsh, Kiev district, Ukraine. He was raised in the woods and villages. He studied Tanakh and Talmud with itinerant village teachers. He left home at age thirteen. He studied privately in Belaya Tserkov (Bila Tserkva), where he passed his examinations and then moved to Zhitomir to prepare for his baccalaureate, but he was drawn into the Jewish labor movement, was active in the Bund, and befriended Mark Liber who was his first teacher in Marxism. At age twenty he left for the United States and studied medicine for two years at university, but he was lured away to community activity, and after marrying a practicing doctor, Miriam Yampolski, he turned completely to studying philosophy. He studied philosophy and psychology at university for three years, while at the same time organizing Jewish clubs and school, where he worked as a teacher and speaker, primarily in his place of residence, Chicago. He gave lectures as well in English and led public debates with Dr. Chaim Zhitlovsky. He debuted in print in Fraye arbeter-shtime (Free voice of labor) in New York with articles on minority and majority, anarchism, and agnosticism, among other topics. He also wrote under the pen name Ben-Nosn. He published important work in: Zhitlovsky’s Dos naye leben (The new life) on Henri Bergson and pragmatism; “Perets in likht fun filosofye” (Perets in the light of philosophy), in Vilna’s Yudish velt (Jewish world) (1915); “Di filosofye fun leben” (The philosophy of life), in Di idishe velt (The Jewish world), edited by K. Fornberg; on Perets’s “Di goldene keyt” (The golden chain), “In polish af der keyt” (Detained in the synagogue anteroom), and “Natsyonalizm un patryotizm in likht fun kultur” (Nationalism and patriotism in the light of culture), in Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter) in New York; on Leivick’s “Der goylem” (The artificial man), in Warsaw’s Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves)—as well as pieces in: Tog (Day), the anthology Royerd (Raw earth), the collection Shriften (Writings), and in the Anglophone journal of philosophy Open Court, among other serials in New York. For a time he was editor of Louis Miller’s weekly Kultur (Culture), in which, aside from other items, he published the essay “Farbergsonisher un bergsonisher bagrif fun frayen viln” (Pre-Bergsonian and Bergsonian concepts of free will). He was also for a while co-editor of the quarterly Kheshbn (The score) in Los Angeles. In 1923 he published his work Kultur un tsivilizatsye (Culture and civilization) in the series “New socialism” (Chicago: Naye gezelshaft), 461 pp. That year the same publisher brought out his Marksizm in likht fun kultur, esents fun bukh “kultur un tsivilizatsye” (Marxism in light of culture, the essence of the book Kultur un tsivilizatsye), 98 pp.; Shpinoza un bergson, a parallel (Spinoza and Bergson, a parallel), 46 pp.; his translation of Bergson’s Araynfir in der metafizik (Introduction to metaphysics), 58 pp., which had initially appeared in the anthology Shriften in 1921; and his translation of Spinoza’s Etik, dervizn af a geometrishe oyfn (Ethics, demonstrated in geometrical order), 317 pp. The edition of the Etik published in Poland (Warsaw: Kultur-lige) went through a number of printings in a short period of time. Later, the following of his works appeared: Inteligent, kunst un kinstler, literatur in likht fun filosofye (Intelligence, art, and the artist, literature in light of philosophy) (Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1931), 545 pp.; Tsu der revizye fun natsyonal-radikal gedank (Toward a revision of national radical thinking) (Chicago: L. M. Shteyn, 1936), 71 pp.; H. leyvik, der dikhter fun onkum un oyfkum (H. Leivick, the poet of arrival and rising) (Chicago: L. M. Shteyn, 1936), 177 pp.; Sovetisher despotizm, vi lang? Nay sotsyalizm verzus sovietshn komunizm (Soviet despotism, how long? New socialism vs. Soviet Communism) (New York: Idisher kemfer, 1936), 47 pp.; Mentsh un kosmos, filozofish-literarishe eseyen (Man and cosmos, philosophical-literary essays) (Chicago: L. M. Shteyn, 1953), 381 pp.; Kultur-kvaln, filozofish-literarishe eseyen (Cultural sources, philosophical-literary essays) (Chicago: L. M. Shteyn, 1959), 348 pp. His book Kultur un tsivilizatsye was soon after publication received by the critics as possessing considerable merit. In this work, Natanson clarifies the difference between civilization and culture, and he demonstrates that civilization is materialistic and rational, while culture is idealistic and irrational. In a fundamental manner he expressed the struggle that a fight for a better social order would not solve the painful issues as long as the fight was led by the light of civilization and not by that of culture. Culture, he argued, and not the economy determined the means and the content of the revolution that a people experience. Natanson was an idealist in the entire realm of social and spiritual life. He placed the emphasis on the individual and also on the irrational and the religious. In his book Tsu der revizye fun natsyonal-radikal gedank, he came out publicly for the revival of everything (in the old Jewish way of life) that possessed “a depth of life and a perception into life.” He knew that “much that makes sense and has worth transcends reason and logic.” In his social and political consciousness, he was an ethical socialist. In his books on literature and art— Inteligent, kunst un kinstler and H. leyvik, der dikhter fun onkum un oyfkum, among others—he dealt with these issues in light of philosophy; namely, he sought primarily a philosophical interpretation in artistic ideas. “Natanson,” wrote Shmuel Niger, “is opposed to looking or seeking in life or in art only one thing—only the aesthetic value or the ethical, only ideas or only feelings, but what is clear, open, and noted or, conversely, to only seek what lies under the threshold of consciousness, in the dark depths of our psyche.” As Yankev Glatshetyn put it: “Natanson is a name that belongs to the young and ascending in Yiddish literature in America. When he was in Chicago, he dispatched from his remote seclusion his long-winded treatises…. In his own way, Natanson created a holiday around Yiddish literature and solemnly received the words of his creations. He experimented—we didn’t recognize it at the time, years ago—in his own manner with the rising esteem of the Yiddish word; he spread and created living room and spaciousness for it…. Natanson devised a fine expression for the Zhitlovsky influence: ‘Cultural zest.’ However, this zest had a definite impact. This is evident in Wm. Natanson’s book, Mentsh un kosmos. This is apparent even when one now reads…the freshness of Natanson’s Yiddish. No sign of obsolescence, despite the fact that most of his essays were published years ago, is there that his language has grown stale. His voice is clear and resonant. Also clear, clearer than ever, are the changes in secular Jewish thought and in Yiddish literature…. Natanson dared to dream that our literature or our Yiddish language would resound in a university. One need know for student listeners that the works of Yiddish writers should be left to cling to the required curriculum of their general studies…. In Natanson’s books there is an abundance of indications of a youthful optimism and devotion in the comfort of Yiddish literature and in its possible influence. Therefore, Natanson’s essays may be read even with the joy and recognition with which they were read years ago.” Natanson died in Los Angeles, California.
Sources: Emma Goldman, in Forverts (New York) (September 14, 1931); Shmuel Niger, in Tog (New York) (April 23, 1932; March 3, 1935); Niger, H. leyvik, 1888-1948 (H. Leivick, 1888-1948) (New York, 1951), pp. 264-67; Y. Botoshanski, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) 4 and 9 (1932); Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Morgn-zhurnal (New York) (January 22, 1932; December 23, 1932); B. Tutshinski, in Tshernovitser bleter (Czernowitz) (September 3, 1936); Dr. B. Grobard, in Di tsukunft (New York) (September 1954); Noyekh Goldberg, in Ilustrirte literarishe bleter (Buenos Aires) (November-December 1958); Y. Yonasovitsh, in Di prese (Buenos Aires) (January 13, 1960); Dr. Kh. M. Rotblat, in Kheshbn (Los Angeles) (May 1960); Y. Fridland, in Kheshbn (May 1960); Fridland, in Fraye arbeter-shtime (New York) (November 1, 1963); N. Sumer, Af zaytike vegn (Along side streets) (New York, 1963), pp. 50-52; Meyer Esters, in Fraye arbeter-shtime (December 1, 1963); Yankev Glatshteyn, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (January 26, 1964).