(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In 1913, in response to a request from the popular McClure’s magazine for articles describing the success of East European immigrants in the U.S. garment trade, Abraham Cahan, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward and also a successful English-language novelist, wrote several short stories instead. Subsequently published as a novel, these pieces of fiction permitted Cahan to explore problematic aspects of the process of Americanization, produce vignettes of immigrant Jewish life, and describe the development of a major American industry.

The Rise of David Levinsky purports to be a memoir written thirty years after young David Levinsky arrived in the United States in 1885 with four cents in his pocket. Now the owner of a leading cloak-and-suit factory, he has accumulated more than two million dollars, but he is not a happy man. The novel is divided into fourteen books, each of which consists of several chapters.

The first four books, approximately one-sixth of the total pages, deal with Levinsky’s life in Russia. Orphaned at the age of three, he grew up desperately poor in the small Russian town of Antomir. Encouraged by his mother, he entered a Yeshiva as a scholarship student at the age of thirteen and studied the Talmud for the next seven years. One Easter, on the way home from the synagogue, David was beaten by a group of young boys. His mother, rushing out to confront his attackers, was killed by a Gentile mob. David lost his enthusiasm for study and, aided by Matilda Minsker, a secular-minded young woman who was attracted to him, decided to join the Jewish exodus from Russia to America.

Books 5, 6, and 7 describe Levinsky’s early years in New York City. Finding his way to the Lower East Side, he attempts to sleep in a synagogue, as he had in Antomir, but he discovers this is forbidden in America. He is befriended by a pious old Jew who buys Levinsky some American-style clothes,...

(The entire section is 798 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Chametzky, Jules. From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977. This critical study of Cahan’s fiction in Yiddish and English devotes a chapter to David Levinsky, calling it a masterpiece of immigration literature.

Girgus, Sam B. The New Covenant: Jewish Writers and the American Idea. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Analyzes David Levinsky as a study of the negative aspects of the American Dream that encourage conformity, materialism, and dehumanization.

Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. An outstanding sociocultural history of the East European Jewish migration to America during the years 1880-1924, containing many references to Cahan.

Marovitz, Sanford E. Abraham Cahan. New York: Twayne, 1996. A biography of Cahan stressing his English-language fiction. Chapter 6 provides a perceptive analysis of David Levinsky.

Sanders, Ronald. The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation. New York: Harper and Row, 1969. Sanders organizes a description of the social, cultural, and political life of the Lower East Side around a biography of Cahan.