In This Article Abraham Cahan

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Bibliographies
  • Historical Context

American Literature Abraham Cahan
by
Richard Pressman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0071

Introduction

Abraham Cahan (b. 1860–d. 1951) was born in a village in Lithuania, then part of tsarist Russia but now part of Belarus. He was raised, however, in Vilnius, the main city of Lithuania, in a traditional Jewish family. Although originally expected to become a rabbi, Cahan trained to teach in a Russian-language school for Jews. During this time, he became involved in radical activity to overthrow the tsar. From this point on, he would always think of himself as a socialist. With the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, Cahan was forced to flee, arriving in 1882 at the age of twenty-one, in New York, which would remain his home. Following a brief stint in the working class, he became a journalist in the budding Yiddish journalism field. In 1897, he would become the editor and arbiter of the most successful Yiddish newspaper, the Forward, which he would edit continuously, with some early hiatuses, until 1946. The paper was founded as a nonsectarian, pro-socialist, pro-labor newspaper, which it would essentially remain, though steadily softening its position. Meanwhile, Cahan began to write fiction in Yiddish by way of exemplum, however, primarily to teach socialism. Then, having quickly mastered English, he released his first English-language short story in 1895 and, in 1896, his first novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, which W. D. Howells had encouraged him to write. This was followed in 1898 by The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto. In 1905, he would produce his third book of fiction, The White Terror and the Red, concerning the rise of radicalism in tsarist Russia in the 1870s and for which he drew on his own experience. This is his only work set outside of metropolitan New York. While the rest of his work in English can be described as realist, this novel, although having strong elements of realism in its analysis of politics in tsarist Russia, was too dependent on sentimental plot devices to be well regarded. But in 1917 he would produce The Rise of David Levinsky, a minor classic and one of the best immigrant novels. Thereafter, he would write no more fiction, but would focus entirely on running the Forward, which, in the 1920s, would reach a circulation of nearly 250,000. Thereafter, the paper began to slowly decline, as Yiddish became less important in Jewish life. It was, however, an essential tool for millions of Jewish immigrants in learning to assimilate to a culture far different from their own in eastern Europe. The newspaper survives as a weekly in English and a monthly in Yiddish. Beyond journalism, Cahan’s fiction can be credited with creating the model for subsequent Jewish American fiction of the 20th century, that of the alienated first- or second-generation immigrant Jew in Anglo-American society, the person struggling between assimilation and disappointment. As such, Cahan is generally considered the father of Jewish American fiction.

General Overviews

Listed here are three book-length studies: Pollock 1959 is a groundbreaking dissertation; Chametzky 1977, which emphasizes Cahan’s use of language primarily in his fiction (versus his journalism); and Marovitz 1996, which pays more attention to how the journalism led to the fiction. These are good, relatively brief studies. A full, but not book-length study is Harap 2003.

  • Chametzky, Jules. From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this first published study, all novels and major short stories are discussed: Cahan’s pioneering exploration of immigrant life, his ability to mediate between various languages and cultures, his development as a realist, and the effect of American life on his characters. Cahan’s search for coherence as a Jewish American foreshadows later Jewish American writing. The book concentrates on Cahan’s fiction; as a result, the analysis dates to 1917, when Cahan published his last fiction.

  • Harap, Louis. “Fiction in English by Abraham Cahan.” In The Image of the Jew in American Literature: From the Early Republic to Mass Immigration. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Extensive biography, including quotations from people who knew Cahan, and discussion of all of Cahan’s English-language fiction, with the contemporary reception. Full discussion of The White Terror and the Red. Harap views Levinsky as a thinly disguised Cahan, in whom Cahan’s conflict between fidelity to his social and intellectual integrity is expressed, along with criticizing the increasingly “vulgar” journalism of the Forward, and connections to the development of the garment industry are noted.

  • Marovitz, Sanford E. Abraham Cahan. New York: Twayne, 1996.

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    Much like Chametzky 1977, Marovitz’s study offers a comprehensive treatment of the career, emphasizing the fiction over the journalism, but discussing the journalism as it affected the development of the fiction. Included is discussion of Cahan’s Yiddish fiction, which paved the way for the English-language fiction. The analysis is culturally centered, working from the hypothesis that the fiction expresses the immigrant’s sense of alienation from both the past and the present.

  • Pollock, Theodore Marvin. “The Solitary Clarinetist: A Critical Biography of Abraham Cahan, 1860–1917.” PhD diss., Columbia University, 1959.

    E-mail Citation »

    Perhaps the first dissertation written on Cahan and likely the first biographical work, this detailed study remains a valuable resource for historical and biographical information. Pollock suggests that there are four Cahans: (1) the literary realist, (2) the influential journalist, (3) the man who Americanizes and assimilates immigrant Jews, and (4) the outspoken and influential socialist.

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