(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.