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Tuesday, June 4, 2019

June 4, 2019: Jewish American Journeys: Abraham Cahan

[On June 1, 1916, Louis Brandeis was confirmed to the Supreme Court, becoming the first Jewish American Justice. So this week I’ll highlight the American stories of Brandeis and four other exemplary Jewish Americans, leading up to a special weekend tribute to one of our best Jewish Studies scholars!]
On the pioneering Jewish American author who crossed numerous genre and social boundaries.

There are a lot of compelling reasons to tear down the walls that, for much of the 20th century at least (and I would say still frustratingly frequently in the 21st century), were erected between different academic majors and scholarly disciplines: literature, history, journalism, political science, and so on. At the broadest levels, the simple reality is that American culture and society and identity comprises an interconnected mixture of all those areas, and many others besides; so if the concept of AmericanStudies means anything, it certainly means a methodology and understanding that brings those distinct disciplines into conversation with each other. Yet there’s also a more specific and perhaps even more salient argument against such disciplinary divisions: many if not most individual authors (like most individuals period) don’t adhere to them in their careers and lives; and the more we try to force those authors into one category or another, the more we elide the diversity and depth, and thus the real value, of their works and voices.

An exemplary case in this point is that of Abraham Cahan (1860-1951). I first encountered Cahan through his fiction, generally considered the first works of Jewish American fiction (at least the first published in English); and particularly through his epic masterpiece of immigration and Jewish American life, the New York ghetto, the shifting meanings of the Talmud and other Jewish traditions in the Old and New Worlds, and the worlds of sweatshops and the garment industry, The Rise of David Levinksy (1917). If Cahan were only remembered for such works, or even solely for Rise, I believe he’d still be well-remembered: the novel is both an incredibly detailed and compelling realistic portrayal of those and many other social themes and topics and a complex psychological depiction of its title character; David’s perhaps unreliable first-person narration thus serves both as our guide through these social experiences and worlds and as a central subject in its own right, one we have to analyze as well as hear. The book thus serves as a great transitional text between the realist and modernist eras in American fiction, as well as a powerful social document and primary source; in and of itself it allows us to cross disciplines, to consider aspects of history and politics, economics and religion, ethnicity and assimilation, and many others as well as its literary elements and details.

Yet Cahan did not limit his engagement with those questions to his fictional works, and likewise no reading of him is complete if it remains so circumscribed. For example, Cahan served for more than forty years (1903-1946) as the editor of the Yiddish-language daily newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward (Forverts), and as part of that role he himself wrote an advice column he called A Bintel Brief; without any doubt the sum total of words he produced for that column far outstrips even the 800-page Rise, and in the course of those columns he covered a far greater range of topics and questions, and of course his perspective and writing evolved and deepened far more than they could in any individual novel. There is at least one more hugely prominent genre in Cahan’s career: while the Forward’s politics were explicitly radical (it was founded by the same Jewish socialist organizations to which Cahan belonged from very early after his immigration to America in 1881), the Bintel Brief tended to address topics other than political ones; so was in numerous other publications and pamphlets, including the Socialist Labor Party of America’s Yiddish-language paper, Arbeiter Zeitung (Workers’ News), that Cahan produced his voluminous radical texts. And that’s to say nothing of the five-volume autobiography he wrote in Yiddish (with the first three volumes translated into English) in his later years.
From a purely literary critical perspective, being aware of—and ideally reading at least excerpts from—these other works greatly informs an analysis of Cahan’s fiction, makes clear both the differences in his styles and goals across these genres and the social and political contexts in which he was always working. But from an AmericanStudies—and an American—perspective, such awareness is even more key; it’s in his full range of efforts that Cahan can illuminate so fully a plethora of national themes, from immigration and ethnicity to labor and reform, from multilingualism to early 20th century urbanization. Cahan, like America, knew no disciplinary boundaries—and neither, ultimately, should we. Next journey tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Jewish Americans you’d highlight?

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