Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In fulfilling the commission from McClure’s, Cahan used his fictional manufacturer to show how, in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s, Russian Jews replaced German Jews at the head of the cloak-and-suit trade. Levinsky, always short of cash during his early years, learned to use unethical subterfuges to postpone payment of his bills. He could undercut major firms on prices because the Orthodox East European Jewish tailors he hired were willing to work longer hours for lower wages in return for not having to work on Saturday. Concentrating his clothing line on a few successful designs, frequently illegally copied from those of established manufacturers, Levinsky achieved an economy of operation that permitted him to sell stylish goods at low prices, a process that made fashionable clothes readily available to the majority of American women.

Critics have favorably compared the social realism of Cahan’s works with that of Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser. When he turned his McClure’s short stories into a longer work, with far greater depth of characterization and scope of social observation, Cahan created the first major novel portraying the Jewish experience in America. In effect, he also created a new literary genre within which there have been many followers. Such acclaimed writers as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow have continued to explore themes first articulated by Cahan.