Friday, December 27, 2019
December 27, 2019: Wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves: Remember Abraham Cahan
[For this year’s installment in my annual series of holiday wishes for those mischievous AmericanStudies Elves, I’ll be expressing wishes for figures from American history whom we should better remember. Share your nominees in comments and happy holidays!]
On the important advice a prolific author, journalist, and activist might offer us all.
Once again, I’ve written a good bit previously in this space about the Russian Jewish immigrant editor and journalist, creative writer, and socialist and labor activist Abraham Cahan, and so wanted to use this first paragraph to highlight those posts so you can check them out if you’re able.
Welcome back! Clearly Cahan left his mark on American literature, culture, and society in numerous ways, but one of the most longstanding and likely influential (if its influences were more personal and so somewhat difficult to quantify) was with his “Bintel Brief” column. Written for the Jewish Daily Forward (Forverts), the Yiddish-language newspaper Cahan founded and edited for many years, the “Brief” featured letters from readers asking for advice, as well as Cahan’s thoughtful and wise responses to those letters and requests. The questions spanned a huge range of topics, from those more specific to Jewish and/or immigrant American communities to more universal subjects (such as parenting and romance). What did not change, however, was the depth and quality of Cahan’s responses—while his overall career featured many more stages and sides than is the case for more dedicated advice columnists like the sisters Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, I would nonetheless put Cahan right alongside them as a model of this difficult skill of public advice-giving.
So if Cahan were still doling out great advice in this early 21st century moment, what might he have to say about our collective situation and struggles? (To be clear, Elves, my main wish is that we better remember and read his work, so that we can take his multi-layered lessons as directly as possible. But I’m gonna attempt to speak for him for a moment here nonetheless.) To my mind, one of his main emphases would be that we still desperately need more self-reflection on and analyses of our national narratives and myths. As I wrote in this post, Cahan’s masterpiece, the 1917 novel The Rise of David Levinsky, provides such reflections and analyses for narratives like “rags to riches,” the “self-made man,” and the American Dream; that it does so not through direct authorial commentary but rather through the complex, contradictory psychology and emotions of its title character and first-person narrator, only strengthens its modeling of those skills of reflection and analysis. Moreover, David’s status as a first-generation Russian Jewish immigrant also allows for reflection and analysis (from his audience as much as from him) of other national myths, including those that emphasize “Anglo,” “Christian,” or other homogeneous origins of American identity. All subjects on which much more reflection is needed here in late 2019.
December Recap this weekend,
PS. Figures (or stories, histories, texts, etc.) you wish we’d better remember?