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Abraham Cahan

Abraham Cahan Essay - Critical Essays

Cahan, Abraham

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Isaac Rosenfeld (essay date 1952)

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 1885—with four cents in my pocket. I am now worth more than two million dollars and recognized as one of the two or three leading men in the cloak-and-suit trade in the United States. And yet … my inner identity … impresses me as being precisely the same as it was thirty or forty years ago. My present station, power, the amount of worldly happiness at my command, and the rest of it, seem to be devoid of significance.

I have set in italics what I take to be the key sentences. These express Levinsky's uniquely Jewish character, as they refer to the poor days of his childhood and early youth ("my inner identity") when, supported by his mother, he devoted himself to the study of the Jewish Law. Nothing in a man's life could be more purely Jewish, and his constant longing, through all his later years, for the conditions of his past confirms him in an unchanging spirit. But the remarkable thing about this theme, as the late Abraham Cahan developed it, is that it is, at the same time, an exemplary treatment of one of the dominant myths of American capitalism—that the millionaire finds nothing but emptiness at the top of the heap. It is not by accident that Cahan, for forty years and until his death the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, and identified all his life with Jewish affairs and the Yiddish language, wrote this novel in English (it has only recently been translated into Yiddish). He was writing an American novel par excellence in the very center of the Jewish genre.

It seems to me that certain conclusions about the relation between Jewish and American character should be implicit in the fact that so singularly Jewish a theme can so readily be assimilated to an American one. I am not suggesting that Jewish and American character are identical, for the Levinsky who arrived in New York with four cents in his pocket was as unlike an American as anyone could possibly be; but there is a complementary relation between the two which, so far as I know, no other novel has brought out so clearly.

David Levinsky was born in the Russian town of Antomir in 1865. His father died when David was three, and he lived with his mother in one corner of a basement room that was occupied by three other families. "The bulk of the population [of Antomir]," writes Cahan, "lived on less than … twenty-five cents … a day, and that was difficult to earn. A hunk of rye bread and a bit of herring or cheese constituted a meal. [With] a quarter of a copeck (an eighth of a cent) … one purchased a few crumbs of pot cheese or some boiled water for tea.… Children had to nag their mothers for a piece of bread." But Levinsky's mother, who "peddled pea mush [and did] odds and ends of jobs," was kind to him and indulgent, "because God has punished you hard enough as it is, poor orphan mine."

At the usual early age, Levinsky was sent to cheder, where he was made to feel very keenly the disadvantages of poverty, as his teachers risked nothing in punishing a poor boy. His mother would intervene for him (this impulse was to prove fatal) and fought with many a melamed for laying hands on her David. In spite of the humiliations and hardships, she maintained him in cheder, and after his Bar Mitzvah sent him to Yeshiva (Talmudic seminary) at an even greater sacrifice, as it meant he would not be in a position to relieve her distress by learning a trade. She was determined that he devote his life to God, and he showed great aptitude for holy study. He soon distinguished himself as a student, but his sexual instincts began to distract his mind. His contacts with women, as was the case with all Yeshiva students, were extremely limited. It was considered "an offense to good Judaism" for a pious man to seek feminine company, attend dances, dress in worldly fashion, or in any other way to behave as a "Gentile." Naturally, these restraints only multiplied Levinsky's temptations. He would do penance, undergo a period of religious exaltation, and again fall into sin (in his mind).

The next great event in his life was the death of his mother. Levinsky, in earlocks and black caftan, was attacked by Gentile boys on his way from Yeshiva. When he came home bruised and bleeding, his mother, against his entreaties and those of their friends and neighbors, ran to the Gentile quarter to avenge him. This was the last time he saw her alive. She was brought back with a broken head.

It is a credit to Cahan's economy as a writer and to his grasp of character that at this point, in the sixty-odd pages which I have summarized, he has already drawn so convincing a picture of Levinsky, including all essential details, that Levinsky's subsequent adventures in the old country and America, his further encounters with poverty and with women, the rest of his intellectual development, and his ultimate transformation into a millionaire, have all been fully prepared. I will therefore cut off the exposition and attempt some generalizations which may serve the understanding of the whole of Levinsky's character and perhaps help explain how the old-world Yeshiva student is essentially an American in ethos.

Levinsky's character was formed by hunger. The individual experiences of his life—poverty, squalor, orphanage, years of religious study and sexual restraint, the self-sacrificing love of his mother and her violent death—all these experiences contain, as their common element, a core of permanent dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction expresses itself in two ways: first, as a yearning for fulfillment, where it operates to win for him all the goods and values he has been deprived of—wealth, dignity, a "father principle" as well as a substitute for his father (as shown in his passionate attachment to Red Sender, with whom he studied at the Yeshiva), the pleasures of intellectual liberty that attend his break with Orthodoxy, the pleasures of sex, and unrestrained access to the society of women, though he goes among them mainly to find a substitute for his mother. (These are the positive "Americanizing" tendencies of his discontent.) At the same time, dissatisfaction has become an organic habit, a...

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David Singer (essay date 1967)

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...

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Sanford E. Marovitz (essay date 1968)

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,...

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Dan Vogel (essay date 1973)

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...

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Louis Harap (essay date 1974)

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...

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Jules Chametzky (essay date 1975)

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...

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Bonnie Lyons (essay date 1978)

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...

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Sanford E. Marovitz (essay date 1982)

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...

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David Engel (essay date 1982)

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 lifeincluding the differing cultures of Europe and Americaas 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...

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Susan Kress (essay date 1983)

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...

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Sam B. Girgus (essay date 1984)

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...

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L. S. Dembo (essay date 1988)

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...

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Daniel Walden (essay date 1990)

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...

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