[Only a couple New England states celebrate Patriots’ Day, which officially pays tribute to the colonial Minutemen who helped begin the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord. But the holiday offers a chance to think about patriotism in America more broadly, which I’ll do this week, starting with my annual Patriots’ Day post, continuing through a series on critically patriotic texts, and leading up to an update on my new AmericanStudying book!]
On a fascinating text that explores, extols, and explodes the rags to riches narrative.
Abraham Cahan’s 1917 novel The Rise of David Levinsky is a very long book (530 pages in the edition I have at least), and so I can’t quite argue that all Americans should read it. But there’s a reason why it’s been on the syllabus for my American Novel to 1950 class since the first time I taught that course in one of my earliest semesters at Fitchburg State, and will likely remain on that syllabus for all future iterations: this is one of those rare works of classic literature that offers in equal measure reflections of its own time period and profoundly relevant commentaries for our own moment. It does so through a number of central threads and themes, including its portrayal of Jewish American immigration to the U.S. in the late 19th century and its depiction of protagonist David’s socially and psychologically complex romantic relationships with a number of important female characters (all in one way or another inspired by his equally complex relationship to his late mother, whom he literally and figuratively leaves behind in the old country of Russia). But perhaps no element of Cahan’s novel is more relevant to AmericanStudying, then and now, than its depiction of the American Dream.
As its title suggests, Rise presents a story of success, a portrayal of the rags-to-riches narrative that had by this time become very well-established in American mythology. As David narrates in the book’s opening sentences, “Sometimes, when I think of my past in a superficial, casual way, 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.” The next sentences complicate that narrative, to be sure: “And yet when I take a lok at my inner identity it 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.” But of course David does have all those things, quite precisely can have his cake while he also reflects thoughtfully on it, and thus the novel presents from its opening moments a clear and unavoidable tale of stunning success in many of the ways it has been and continues to be defined.
Abraham Cahan was a lifelong and dedicated socialist and labor activist, however; and while Rise doesn’t delve into those topics in the same overt ways as a short story of his like “A Sweatshop Romance” (1909), it nonetheless offers such critiques of the same society and success it also embodies through its protagonist. It does so in part through David’s engagements with labor unions and the working class, conflicts that David views entirely through a purposefully (for the reader) limited lens of Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism. But it also does so through David’s enduring unhappiness: the novel’s last book, “Episodes of a Lonely Life,” expands on the opening paragraph and delves deeply into why David feels so isolated and incomplete despite his massive success and wealth. Through both of those elements—the depiction of competing, more or less collective visions of American society; and the portrayal of the limits of individual accomplishment in a society driven by the less collective vision—Cahan’s novel both critiques some of the Gilded Age excesses that continued to dominate America into the 20th century and imagines alternative possibilities and paths, even if its shallowly successful protagonist cannot quite connect to those alternate ideals.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other patriotic texts you’d highlight?
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