Abraham Cahan 1860-1951
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Sotius and David Bernstein) Lithuanian-born American novelist.
Through his accomplishments as a newspaper editor and journalist, Cahan became a highly influential figure in early twentieth-century Jewish-American letters. His innovative editorship of the Jewish Daily Forward made it a major cultural force in the Yiddish-speaking American community. Writing in both English and Yiddish, Cahan also produced novels and short stories that were among the first to realistically depict the experiences of his fellow Russian Jewish immigrants in the United States.
Cahan was raised in the lower-class Yiddish-speaking Jewish subculture of Vilna, Lithuania. As a young student, he taught himself Russian in order to gain access to the Gentile-dominated public schools and library in Vilna. He attended college, preparing for a career as a teacher, but involvement in a radical socialist group at the time of the unsuccessful 1881 revolution made it dangerous for him to remain in Russia, so he emigrated to the United States in 1882. He took up residence in a poverty-plagued, overcrowded section of New York City's Lower East Side that was populated predominantly by Jewish immigrants. While working in a cigar factory Cahan experienced firsthand the deprivations and exploitation suffered by many immigrant workers. Cahan became a successful union organizer and prolabor orator. He also learned his trade as a journalist, serving as a correspondent for Russian newspapers and contributing to both Yiddish and English-language American publications, notably under editor Lincoln Steffens at the New York Commercial Advertiser. His work as a reporter brought him into daily contact with people of all classes in the Jewish and Gentile communities, and in his articles Cahan demonstrated skill as a canny social observer. Adapting the market-driven editorial strategies of mainstream American newspapers to the needs of America's new Jewish immigrants, Cahan built the Jewish Daily Forward, which he cofounded in 1897, into the most widely read Yiddish-language daily newspaper of its era. The Forward, which he edited until just before his death in 1951, championed socialist and progressive political causes, provided its readers with a forum for expressing their views and learning about American culture, and served as a showcase for fiction in Yiddish by such authors as Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. While engaged in his groundbreaking work as a journalist and social activist, Cahan also produced a number of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books in Yiddish and English, most of which expanded on themes of the Russian Jewish immigrant experience.
Cahan's first published short story, "Motke Arbel un zayn shiddokh" (1892; "A Providential Match"), introduced the topic that would typify his fiction: the struggles of Russian Jews to assimilate into American culture, and the moral, social, and psychological effects of this cultural change. The story's protagonist, a poor peasant who has made his fortune in America, sends for the daughter of his former employer in Russia, intending to marry her; however, his intended bride takes advantage of her newfound American freedom to choose her own mate. With the enthusiastic encouragement of one of his mentors, the novelist and critic William Dean Howells, Cahan expanded on this theme in his novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), about an ambitious young immigrant who rejects his devoted Orthodox Jewish wife for a flashier, more Americanized young woman. In such stories as "The Imported Bridegroom" and "Rabbi Eliezer's Christmas," Cahan further explored this theme of the clash of cultures experienced by new Americans. The novel The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Cahan's most highly regarded work of fiction, evolved from a series of magazine articles he was commissioned to write about Jewish-American entrepreneurs. Cahan chose to tell this story as the personal history of one fictional representative of this type of man, an impoverished Russian yeshiva student who becomes a millionaire in America, but in the process loses his religious values, his respect for himself and his fellow human beings, and his ability to love.
During his lifetime, Cahan's work as a newspaper editor and journalist overshadowed his career as a creative writer. Reviewers, tending to view him primarily as a reporter rather than literary artist, praised his novels and short stories for their accurate depiction of social conditions while downgrading their stylistic merits. With the emergence of interest in ethnic literature in the decades following Cahan's death, scholars have favorably reevaluated his fiction, particularly The Rise of David Levinsky. Critics have compared his experiments in social realism to those of his contemporaries Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, and have observed that his frank, unromanticized treatment of the Jewish- American experience prefigured the work of later writers, including Irving Howe, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow.
Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (novel) 1896
The Imported Bridegroom, and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto (short stories) 1898
The White Terror and the Red: A Novel of Revolutionary Russia (novel) 1905
Rafael Naarizokh: An Erzaylung Vegin a Stolyer Vos Iz Gekommen Zum Saykhl [Rafael Naarizokh: A Story of a Carpenter Who Came to His Senses] (novel) 1907
Historia fun di Fareingte Shtaaten. 2 vols. [History of the United States] (history) 1910-1912
The Rise of David Levinsky (novel) 1917
Bleter fun Mayn Leben. 5 vols. [Leaves from My Life] (autobiography) 1926-31; Vols. 1 and 2 also published as The Education of Abraham Cahan, 1969
Palestina [Palestine] (nonfiction) 1934
Rashel: A Biografia [Raschell: A Biography] (biography) 1938
Grandma Never Lived in America: The New Journalism of Abraham Cahan (journalism) 1986
(The entire section is 121 words.)
SOURCE: "The Fall of David Levinsky," in Preserving the Hunger, edited and introduced by Mark Shechner, Wayne State University Press, 1988, pp. 152-89.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1952, Rosenfeld reviews The Rise of David Levinsky, noting the novel's study of "Jewish character" and its examination of American business culture.]
I had long avoided The Rise of David Levinsky because I imagined it was a badly written account of immigrants and sweatshops in a genre which—though this novel had practically established it—was intolerably stale by now. It is nothing of the kind. To be sure, it is a genre piece, and excellence of diction and sentence structure are not among its strong points; but it is one of the best fictional studies of Jewish character available in English, and at the same time an intimate and sophisticated account of American business culture, and it ought to be celebrated as such.
The story is a simple one and fundamentally Jewish in conception, as it consists of an extended commentary on a single text, somewhat in the manner of Talmud. This text is presented in the opening paragraph:
Sometimes, when I think of my past … the metamorphosis I have gone through strikes me as nothing short of a miracle. I was born and reared in the lowest depths of poverty and I arrived in America—in...
(The entire section is 3125 words.)
SOURCE: "David Levinsky's Fall: A Note on the Liebman Thesis," in American Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1967, pp. 696-706.
[In the following essay, Singer examines The Rise of David Levinsky in light of Charles Liebman's thesis that most Jews who emigrated to the United States were shaped more by cultural and social mores than by religious orthodoxy.]
The notion that the overwhelming majority of East European Jews who came to the United States between 1880 and 1915 were Orthodox has assumed a central position in the popular mythology of American-Jewish life. On a more scholarly level, this same idea has established itself in the canon of American-Jewish historiography. The standard works on American Jewry have, in varying degrees, accepted this premise, and their interpretations have been fashioned accordingly. Even Moses Rischin, whose The Promised City is perhaps the most sophisticated achievement to date in the reconstruction of the American-Jewish experience, seems for the most part to have accepted the prevailing thesis of the Orthodoxy of the East European masses. In part, this view follows from the tendency of historians to construct a rather stereotyped portrait of East European Jewish life, in which the Orthodox shtetl completely dominates the scene. On the other hand, the Orthodoxy of the immigrant masses would appear to be confirmed by every shred of evidence accumulated...
(The entire section is 4364 words.)
SOURCE: "The Lonely New Americans of Abraham Cahan," in American Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, Part 1, Summer, 1968, pp. 196-210.
[In the following essay, Marovitz argues that Cahan's characters fail to achieve healthy personal relationships because they abandon their faith for materialism.]
William Dean Howells, impressed with a short story which his wife had pointed out to him, called on its author in the bustling ghetto district of New York's Lower East Side. Abraham Cahan was not home, but Howells left his card, and not long afterward his call was returned. The result of this interview in 1895 was Cahan's first novel, Yekl; A Tale of the New York Ghetto, which was published the following year, and which drew from Howells a very favorable review. In 1898 Cahan brought out his second book, The Imported Bridegroom and Other Tales of the New York Ghetto, a collection of five stories which Howells also greeted warmly. "No American fiction of the year," Howells wrote, "merits recognition more than this Russian's stories of Yiddish life"; and elsewhere he pointed out with confidence: "I cannot help thinking that in [Abraham Cahan] we have a writer of foreign birth who will do honour to American letters." Howells was right. When The Rise of David Levinsky was published in 1917 Cahan established himself firmly as an important American author, for since that time...
(The entire section is 6222 words.)
SOURCE: "Cahan's Rise of David Levinsky: Archetype of American Jewish Fiction," in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal, Vol. 22, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 278-87.
[In the following essay, Vogel contends that The Rise of David Levinsky became the archetype for later fiction in the same genre.]
Some years ago, in a reconsideration of Abraham Cahan's 1917 novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, Isaac Rosenfeld declared, "Levinsky [is] the essential Jewish type of the Dispersion." The truth of this assertion is underlined, it seems to me, by the rehearsal of some essential elements of theme, characterization, and method in later American Jewish fiction. My purpose here is to explore the ways in which The Rise of David Levinsky is archetypal—archetypal, not in the sense of racial memory, but in the sense of community experience during the three generations since the flood of East European Jewish immigration in the 1880's. Nor do I mean that Cahan's hero is the ideal Jewish type of the Dispersion. Rather, he is the prototype whose features of personality and career, whether for ill or for good, are reborn in later protagonists of this genre.
The origin of the type is in the closed, theocratic world of the shtetl in Russia. In his sustained reminiscence, which makes up the entire novel, David recalls his early Gorky-an circumstances in Antomir, a...
(The entire section is 4614 words.)
SOURCE: "Fiction in English by Abraham Cahan," in The Image of the Jew in American Literature, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974, pp. 485-524.
[In the following essay, Harap surveys Cahan's influence on American literature.]
Abraham Cahan began to publish short stories, novellas, and novels in the 1890s. The themes and character types adumbrated through Cahan's fiction reached their mature development in 1917 in The Rise of David Levinsky, the most important fictional work about American Jewry up to that time by any American writer, Jewish or non-Jewish.
The depth of Cahan's fiction, both as social drama and as a personal statement, raises complex questions and invites interpretation on several levels. Part of these complexities and subtleties arise from the fact that Cahan was personally involved in and helped effect the transformation of the immigrant Jewish community from a poverty-stricken, densely packed mass in the ghetto to a highly significant force in much of American life. The fact that this milieu was Yiddish has made the materials for a thorough and comprehensive interpretation of Cahan's life and work almost inaccessible to most English-speaking critics and biographers. An adequately analytical biography of Cahan and a just evaluation of the positive and negative aspects of his life and work remain to be written. His work, indeed his life, was...
(The entire section is 17655 words.)
SOURCE: "The Yiddish Fiction of Abraham Cahan," in Yiddish, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall, 1975, pp. 7-22.
[In the following essay, Chametzky provides an overview of Cahan's writings in Yiddish.]
Cahan began to write fiction cautiously—that is, in Yiddish, in the pages of the Arbeiter Zeitung, where critical tastes in literature were as yet largely unformed. Nevertheless, his first story, "Motke Arbel and His Romance" (1892), was a more than respectable performance, embodying a new literary voice and sensibility. The story tells of a low-bred fellow whose modest business success in America enables him to contract to marry the daughter of his former employer and social superior in Russia, but who is frustrated in the end because the young woman becomes engaged to another man on the journey to America. Even this cursory summary shows the undercutting of "romance" suggested in the title; "Motke Arbel" displays a sure sense of the Jewish immigrant experience and a lively feeling for real character, dialogue, situation. It was a great success with Cahan's readers.
Cahan's first English story was a translation and version of this one. As "A Providential Match" (1895), the story was to have fateful consequences for Cahan's career when it attracted the attention of William Dean Howells. On the basis of that story Howells urged Cahan to attempt a longer work on the experiences of the ghetto—the...
(The entire section is 7201 words.)
SOURCE: "David Levinsky: Modern Man as Orphan," in TSE: Tulane Studies in English, Vol. 23, 1978, pp. 85-93.
[In the following essay, Lyons examines The Rise of David Levinsky 's broader impact as a novel of modern alienation.]
Those who have acclaimed Abraham Cahan's last novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, as a great immigrant novel, as an exemplary business novel, or as the novel of the Diaspora Jew have all stressed single, usually parochial aspects of the novel and thus pigeon-holed it within a limited genre. Indeed, the novel is deeply grounded in realistic specifics about typical greenhorn experiences, coat manufacturing, and Jewish rituals—about pirated cloak designs, steerage passage to America, and Talmud scholars. But this first person confession of a wealthy unhappy Jewish businessman transcends these specifics; the various strands are united and subsumed in a more universal theme: modern man as spiritual "orphan" in search of his parents, of legitimate authority.
In spite of the obvious differences in fictional technique, Cahan's David Levinsky resembles that central exploration of the modern condition: the story of Stephen Dedalus wandering through Dublin looking for his father. And as Joyce uses Bloom's Jewishness as a metaphor for alienation as well as a literal fact, so Cahan organizes his complex narrative around the multiple...
(The entire section is 3299 words.)
SOURCE: "The Secular Trinity of a Lonely Millionaire: Language, Sex, and Power in 'The Rise of David Levinsky,'" in Studies in American Jewish Literature, edited by Daniel Walden, Vol. 2, 1982, pp. 20-35.
[In the following essay, Marovitz examines what he considers Cahan's major themes in The Rise of David Levinsky.]
When Abraham Cahan sailed from Liverpool in late May 1882, his knowledge of English was yet to be acquired, but by the time he had docked in Philadelphia less than two weeks later, he was already acting as translator, dictionary in hand, for other European immigrants like himself. Cahan quickly learned the value of linguistic facility, not in one language and not in two but in as many tongues as were useful in promoting his aims. When still an eight-year-old child in Vilna, he tells us in Bleter fun Mein Leben (Leaves from My Life), he paid a little gentile boy two pennies to purchase a Russian grammar for him and a few more pennies to give him weekly lessons in the language; forbidden to learn Russian by his parents, who insisted that he use only his native Yiddish, Cahan independently set out to acquire it without their help. Although this first attempt was quickly thwarted, he soon found other ways of achieving his goal, and eventually he attended the secular Russian school. Language, Cahan knew, was power; the lack of it, veritable impotence.
(The entire section is 6002 words.)
SOURCE: "The 'Discrepancies' of the Modern: Towards a Revaluation of Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, edited by Daniel Walden, Vol. 2, 1982, pp. 36-60.
[In the following essay, Engel interprets Levinsky's inability to integrate the dichotomies in his life—including the differing cultures of Europe and America—as his greatest flaw.]
The life of Abraham Cahan bears witness to a significant chapter in modern history, the massive immigration of the east European Jews to the United States in the years between the Russian pogroms (1882) and the start of World War I. Born in a Lithuanian shtetl and raised for the most part in Vilna, Cahan himself immigrated in 1882. In his long and protean American career Cahan distinguished himself as a journalist and writer of fiction (in Yiddish and English), translator, Socialist, and union organizer. Above all, his reputation in American Jewish culture rests, of course, on his work as founder and editor for fifty years of the largest Yiddish newspaper in the world, The Jewish Daily Forward. Under Cahan's editorship The Forward served uniquely as counsellor, mentor, and consoler to the Jewish population of that crucible of acculturation, the Lower East Side.
Insofar as Cahan may be said to have secured a place in American letters it is thanks to his novel...
(The entire section is 9967 words.)
SOURCE: "Women and Marriage in Abraham Cahan's Fiction," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, edited by Daniel Walden, Vol. 3, 1983, pp. 26-39.
[In the following essay, Kress discusses Cahan's portrayal of women and marriage, arguing that his characters' ambivalence about marriage parallels their ambivalence about assimilation in America.]
Much of Abraham Cahan's fiction reflects upon the institution of marriage in the lives of his Jewish immigrant characters at the turn of the century. Unlike writers of sentimental fiction, Cahan does not focus exclusively on the vicissitudes of courtship prior to a happily-ever-after marriage presumably to be enjoyed by the characters after the book is closed; rather, as the realist praised by William Dean Howells, he shows us glimpses of court-ship in a sweatshop, of difficult married life, of the pain of adjustment to life in the new world. In Cahan's fiction, the terrors of being unmarried are balanced against the claustrophobia of the married condition, and it is possible to see the immigrants' ambivalence about assimilation mirrored in the individual's—and especially the woman's—attitude toward marriage.
While Cahan does not create the strikingly bold women protagonists that we find in, say, Ibsen, he nevertheless avoids stereotyped portraits, frequently expresses the woman's perspective, and creates a series of memorable female...
(The entire section is 5499 words.)
SOURCE: "A Convert to America: Sex, Self, and Ideology in Abraham Cahan," in The New Covenant: Jewish Writers and the American Idea, The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 64-91.
[In the following essay, Girgus examines Cahan's portrayal of the perversion of the American ideal in The Rise of David Levinsky.]
The world of European Jewry that sent forth waves of mass immigration to America has been described and dramatized in many tales and stories. This is the world of Heinrich Heine, Sholem Aleichem, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. It is a world of the ghetto and the schlemiel and of emancipation movements that had to look to the New World for examples of how to treat Jews with freedom and equality. With all its mystery, vitality, and richness, it is also a world of terror and ambiguity, of the loveless Jew, and of the wasted pariah who existed on the margins of society Who better tells the story than the baptized Heine in "The Rabbi of Bacherach"? In this story Heine summarizes the history of the oppression of Jews in Europe: the Great Persecutions during the Crusades, the catastrophes at the time of the Great Plague, the rage of the rabble, the Flagellants, the blood libels, and the wafer desecration charges. Thus he weaves history into the story with a detailed account of a Passover service that devotedly renders the beauty of Jewish religious practice, customs, and belief. Throughout the story...
(The entire section is 11708 words.)
SOURCE: "Levinsky and the Language of Acquisition," in The Monological Jew: A Literary Study, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1988, pp. 84-92.
[In the following essay, Dembo discusses Cahan's use of language and dialogue in The Rise of David Levinsky.]
What does the rise in The Rise of David Levinsky actually mean? We know what it means in The Rise of Silas Lapham by that author whom Abraham Cahan admired as a realist, William Dean Howells, but the question of Cahan's attitude toward his hero is more complex and more fraught with ambiguity. Even though Levinsky is in many ways a projection of his creator and often serves as his spokesman, the novel is far from being autobiographical. For one thing, the author was a life-long socialist, the character a business tycoon, portrayed as having, whatever his faults, a great deal of sensitivity and insight.
Why has Cahan chosen, in his one important novel, to omit the struggles of the Jewish socialist movement in America, in which he himself played no mean part, and instead to concentrate on the personal problems of a single, bourgeois man—to take as his central concern not the class struggle in the period of rapid industrialization after the Civil War but the vicissitudes in the life of an ambitious but essentially nonpolitical Russian immigrant? His reading of Plekhanov, Marx, and Engels, not to mention his personal...
(The entire section is 2965 words.)
SOURCE: "Abraham Cahan: Realism and the Early Stories," in MJS: Annual VII, edited by Joseph C. Landis, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1990, pp. 5-18.
[In the following essay, Walden discusses Cahan's influence on Jewish-American culture in the early twentieth century and its reflection in his early stories.]
Almost from his first days in America, Abraham Cahan was determined to be a man of letters. He had been influenced by pre-Marxian socialists, by Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done? and by Nekrassov's Who Lives Well in Russia?, so it's not surprising that he was concerned at first solely with the social component of literature. Literature had to be didactic, it had to point a lesson, it had to instruct. Thus when he discovered Herbert Spencer, and when he translated Marx, Darwin, and Spencer for Di Zukunft, he felt he had stumbled on a key to the philosophical materialism that gripped him.
Gradually, turning from politics and social behavior to literature, Cahan had to move from a literary understanding of sciences toward an aesthetics theory and then work out a philosophical synthesis of Marxism and Darwinism. The values of socialism for Cahan were becoming ethical and philosophical-spiritual, rather than programmatic. As part of the Yiddish-language radical press corps, Cahan had become an integral part of the cultural, social, and moral leadership of the East-European Jewish...
(The entire section is 5658 words.)
Marovitz, Sanford E., and Lewis Fried. "Abraham Cahan (1860-1951): An Annotated Bibliography." American Literary Realism 3, No. 3 (Summer 1970): 197-224.
Works by and about Cahan in English, with author index.
Richards, Bernard G. "Introduction: Abraham Cahan Cast in a New Role." In Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto, by Abraham Cahan, pp. iii-viii. New York: Dover Publications, 1970.
Short survey of Cahan's literary career.
Sanders, Ronald. The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation. New York: Harper and Row, 1969, 477 p.
Discusses Cahan's activities as a writer, editor, and political activist.
Carlin, M. M. "The Rise of David Levinsky." UCT Studies in English, No. 9 (September 1979): 54-70.
Praises the stylistic and thematic strengths of Cahan's novel.
Fine, David M. "Abraham Cahan, Stephen Crane, and the Romantic Tenement Tale of the Nineties." American Studies 14, No. 1 (Spring 1973): 94-107.
Discusses Cahan's novels and stories of Jewish ghetto life in the context of turn-of-the-century American literary realism.
Greenspan, Ezra. "Westward the Course of History." In The...
(The entire section is 541 words.)