Citizenship and Ethnic Identity in Abraham Cahan’s “The Imported Bridegroom”

Marvels of Memory: Citizenship and Ethnic Identity in Abraham Cahan’s “The Imported Bridegroom”

Stephanie Foote

The final pages of Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) offer the most poignant expression of self-division in immigrant writing in late nineteenth-century America. Successful but lonely, Levinsky says, “I cannot escape from my old self. My past and my present do not comport well. David, the poor lad swinging over a Talmud volume at the Preacher’s Synagogue, seems to have more in common with my inner identity than David Levinsky, the well-known cloak-manufacturer” (530).(1) Although Levinsky’s confession that he has lost his “inner identity” is intensely personal, his rhetoric alerts readers to a familiar condition in immigrant autobiography and fiction. That is to say that while Levinsky’s language is personal, his references to a lost inner identity indicate an experience that is anything but private. Levinsky’s rhetoric of personal loss is paradoxically the signal and characteristic expression of subjectivity in immigrant fiction.

A lost interior self might paradoxically define the immigrant character’s self-understanding, especially as he or she describes the sense that a past self and a present self inhabit potentially irreconcilable languages, nations, and cultures, so that the language in which that loss is expressed seems to foreclose the character’s ability to achieve wholeness because it replicates self-division at every point. Even the brief citation from The Rise of David Levinsky is structured by polarities’ youth and age, religion and commerce, poverty and wealth, obscurity and fame. Such oppositions mimic an emblematic sense of self-division. Even more crucially, the rhetoric of self-division seems to privatize an experience that is produced socially and engages a socially-recognized form of expressing self-loss. As we can see in a case like that of David Levinsky, the conflation of a past self with an inner self creates the present immigrant self as a shadow or an image of an unreal, even a nonexistent, person.

In this essay, I want to use another Abraham Cahan text, “The Imported Bridegroom” (1898), to look at immigrant fiction’s textual stratgy of conflating a past self with a more “true” and “meaningful” interior self. I then want to look at the installation of a lost interior self as a perceived private loss. When the fragmentation of identity is schematized in this way, immigrant fiction’s strategy of conflating the inner identity and private life of characters bears a striking resemblance to other models of self-division troubling late nineteenth-century writing more generally. In particular, I will examine the resemblances between a “split” or divided ethnic identity, the process of reification in a capital economy, and the attendant rift between public actors and private selves that it produces. In pointing out how Cahan’s story participates in a general anxiety about the fragmentation of the self in a capital economy, my goal is to demonstrate that ethnic or immigrant characters suffering from a dislocation of identity that they understand as an effect of Americanization are in fact being initiated into a chronic sense of dislocation underwriting American identity at large in the nineteenth century.

In arguing that ethnic writing shares a preoccupation with other late nineteenth-century models about the place of the subject, I want to make a case that ethnic literature typifies general crises of identity and capital that literary critics like Amy Kaplan and Priscilla Wald have examined. In her study of realist writing at the end of the nineteenth century, for example, Kaplan discusses realism as “an anxious and contradictory mode which both articulates and combats the growing sense of unreality at the heart of middle-class life” (9). She argues that realist novels “construct a vision of a social whole, not just as nostalgia for lost unity or as a report of new social diversity, but as an attempt to mediate and negotiate competing claims to social reality” (11). Such a description comports with a broad anxiety over a changing social field and the position of the self within that field. Priscilla Wald discusses that anxiety in terms of the formation of personhood and national identity in the late nineteenth century, arguing that “national narratives of identity seek to harness the anxiety surrounding questions of personhood, but what they leave out resurfaces when the experiences of individuals conspicuously fail to conform to the definition of personhood offered in the narrative” (10). It is my contention that ethnic writing amplifies such concerns precisely because ethnic writing foregrounds characters’ attempts to construct a coherent self in a rapidly changing social and economic landscape.

The temporal disposition of identity for an ethnic subject resembles the spatial disposition of the reified national subject in the late nineteenth century. This reified subject confronts itself as an actor in everyday life, observing its participation in a world to which it seems to have no access that would allow it to create an “authentic” or original relation.(2) Following the logic between the general reified subject and the divided immigrant self, we might note the conjunction between immigration and capitalism: eastern European immigration to the United States was partially encouraged by the growth of capitalism, but by providing a ready labor force, the successive waves of immigration helped to solidify capital. Like the complicity of capital and immigration, the representational problem of ethnic subjectivity, the split in the self that Cahan charts in so much of his fiction, is complicit in a capital economy’s perpetual production of reified consciousness.(3) Accordingly, part of the project of this essay is to map the traditional narrative of the divided ethnic subject onto the narrative of reified consciousness. In Abraham Cahan’s “The Imported Bridegroom,” we will see an ethnic subject’s attempt to confront himself as an actor in the world of his past and the world of his present, each of which seems complete and unchangeable.

But although the characters in “The Imported Bridegroom” demonstrate how the figure of the ethnic immigrant comports with and informs larger crises in the representation of identity in the capital economy of the late nineteenth century, I will close by considering the possibilities ethnic fiction offers for renegotiating the project of alienated identity in late capitalism. Although ethnic subjects have been seen as offering a kind of antidote to an alienated identity because they are supposed more intrinsically “real” and “authentic,” such an interpretation is less an antidote to alienation than a recognizable form of fetishism, which is in its economic form also a figure of alienation. Ethnic subjects, rather than being the folk onto whom the desire for a unitary subjectivity might be exteriorized, might better be considered as the exteriorization of a deep crisis of subjectivity more generally. The economy of being a stranger in a new world must be seen as analogous to the economy of the constant production of self-estrangement endemic in late nineteenth century fiction. Readings of ethnicity as completely outside of reification only reinforce the position of a reified observer by romanticizing ethnicity as an always alien and complete object, rather than an identity itself produced and circulated in the social.

Instead, I suggest that while the ethnic character experiences self-division analogously to a general process of reification, the pressing demands of assimilation allow this character to circumvent the stasis of reification in a particularly novel way. The division between the true self/lost past self and the empty present self (the persistent feeling of doubleness the ethnic character experiences) can be reimagined as a finely calibrated negotiation between public citizenship and private culture. Particularly in the central character of Asriel Stroon in “The Imported Bridegroom” can we see the narrative of a lost interior identity, but we can also delineate a recuperated public identity through Asriel’s son-in-law Shaya. Examining how these models work together will allow us to look beyond the sorrowful and “split” ethnic self toward a revised notion of the ethnic character’s “splitness” as the condition for forging a public and communal identity.

“The Imported Bridegroom” concerns a Jewish immigrant in New York City in the 1880s. Asriel Stroon of Mott Street is a wealthy former flour distributor. Since retiring he has converted all of his wealth back into property and now lives comfortably in his well-appointed home with his only child, Flora, who is twenty years old, very pretty, and resolutely American. Asriel’s domestic happiness is interrupted when he is stricken with an intense homesickness. He becomes a pious man and returns to the Polish village of Pravly to visit the sites of his boyhood and his father’s grave. While in Pravly he meets Shaya, an Illoui, a Talmudic prodigy, and strikes a bargain with him. Shaya will come to America to marry Flora, and Asriel will finally have someone to say Kaddish for his soul on the anniversary of his death. Once in America, however, Shaya and Flora conspire to Americanize Shaya, and he forsakes the study of the Talmud to study Western philosophy. Shaya and Flora elope. Asriel is broken-hearted at the news that Shaya has become an appikoros, “an Epicurean” or “an atheist” as Cahan footnotes it. Consequently Asriel marries his housekeeper and moves to Israel. But Flora and Shaya are not completely happy together either. Although Flora, herself a very American person, succeeds in convincing Shaya to study Western ideas and to learn English, she finds that he attacks his new field with the same single-minded dedication he once applied to the Talmud. At the end of the story, Asriel and Shaya have become citizens of different countries and have translated their past identities into the idiom of their new desires. Flora alone is static; she is as removed from Shaya’s scholarly philosophical discussions as she was when he argued scripture with the elders of the Jewish ghetto.

“The Imported Bridegroom” opens on the anniversary of Asriel Stroon’s father’s death, immediately infusing the text with Asriel’s sense of yearning and nostalgia. Asriel’s sense that the present is incomplete or insufficient might be located in the opening scene, which stresses his disconnection from his daughter. Their mutual distance from one another is expressed by the varied languages the two use in conversation. Asriel comes into the house, Flora greets him in English, and he returns her salutation in Yiddish. Soon after, Asriel begins to intone a prayer in Hebrew. Even though the “words were a conglomeration of incomprehensible sounds to him” (96), he nonetheless prays fervently. Flora, to whom her father’s newfound piety is itself “unintelligible” (96), feels moved by watching him pray, and the narration pauses to describe her watching her father: “the scene was novel to her, and she looked on with the sympathetic reverence of a Christian visiting a Jewish synagogue on the Day of Atonement” (96). The phrase “was novel to her” is particularly interesting here. It denotes how little real connection Flora has with her father’s religion; she occupies not only the position of hegemonic culture watching the “exotic” customs of the Jew, but is metaphorically positioned as a Gentile. Although Flora may watch Asriel at prayer with a sense of sympathy tempered by distance, Asriel has no such relation to his daughter. At his command, Flora is forced to put away the novel she has been reading, which her father refers to as that “lump of Gentile nastiness” (96) when he arrives home.

Already, then, Cahan has constructed a father and daughter who inhabit two separate cultural and religious spheres, and for whom languages and texts signify their different daily negotiations with their ghetto world. Cahan indicates this in the competition of languages in the household, but also in the ways in which Asriel and Flora find fantasy versions of themselves in different texts. Flora, reading Little Dorrit by the fire, “felt far away from herself” (93). In that state of abstraction, Flora dreams of her future husband, of the figure she will cut as his pampered wife, and of an American identity far removed from the life she has on Mott Street. Asriel, on the other hand, chanting prayers in a language he does not understand, allows the text in which he loses himself to take him into the past, not into the future, returning in his imagination back to Pravly, his boyhood home in Poland. The very sound of his own voice uttering the words of a prayer he cannot understand connects him to his long-dead father. Cahan writes, “how smoothly it now came off, in his father’s … singsong, of which he had not thought for more than thirty years” (99).

Asriel’s recollection of his father leads him to interrogate his own identity. His longing for his father inspires in him a longing for his hometown: “in the fifty-eighth year of his life, he suddenly began to yearn and pine for it” (99). His renewed yearning, elicited and framed by a Hebrew prayer, is not only for his youth, but for his lost identity as a Jew. Although Asriel has lived in the Jewish community in New York, he realizes as he prays that “his notion of genuine Judaism was somehow inseparably associated with Pravly” (99). Asriel’s sense that “real” Judaism is the Judaism of his former home is deeply implicated in his belief that his “real” self is in Pravly as well. But when he decides to go back to Pravly, Asriel is not simply returning to his past, he is preparing his future. His recollection of his father reminds him of his own impending death; his renewed sorrow for his own father awakens anxiety about who will remember him when he is dead. Thus, Asriel’s recollection of his hometown offers him the tantalizing ability to reconcile his youth and his age, his half-remembered Jewish self and his yearning contemporary self. But as we will see, the idealized, almost timeless vision of Pravly will be crowded out by his importation of his New York customs. We will also see that the intertwined projects of memory–as tremendously personal (his father) and as completely social (Jewish culture)–construct Asriel as an always divided subject who will endlessly and everywhere lament his lack of identity with his “real” self.

Asriel’s return to Pravly demonstrates the intensity of an immigrant’s longing for the always-elsewhere space of the past, but it describes that longing through the rhetoric of late nineteenth-century commodification of memory and nostalgia. Thus, when Cahan posits a return that makes one “strange” to oneself, he is also reversing and reinscribing other popular scenes of return and memory in the late nineteenth century, particularly the drama of the estranged city dweller who returns to the pastoral region in the genre of local color.(4) Driving up to Pravly in the back of a hayrick, Asriel anticipates how he will feel when he finally sees his former home. Cahan writes:

He recalls not the place itself, but he can remember his reminiscences of

it. During his first years in America, at times when he would surrender

himself to the sweet pangs of homesickness and dwell, among other things,

on the view that had seen him off to the unknown land, his mind would

conjure up something like the effect now before his eyes. As a dream does

it comes back to him now. The very shadows of thirty-five years ago are

veiled. (101)

When he first sees the town itself, Asriel has the same sensation: “everything was the same as he had left it; and yet it all had an odd, mysterious, far-away air–like things seen in a cyclorama” (103). Asriel does not actually remember the town or the countryside itself, but only remembers his first remembrance of them. That second-order apprehension positions him as a stranger in the town whose image he used to summon up in order to combat his sense of estrangement in New York. Cahan’s description of the images of the town as like things seen in a cyclorama draws upon the most prevalent theatrical imagery .to describe foreign landscapes. It leads us to see that Asriel is indelibly shaped by a culture and era in which the plenitude of commodified images has already interrupted first-hand experience of one’s own past. Memory itself has become part of public discourse, and images can obscure as easily as reveal the object of longing. The phrase “shadows were veiled” renders this double layer of obscurity in Asriel’s consciousness.

Because his prized and privatized memory is legible to him only through commodity culture, returning to Pravly cannot satisfy Asriel. There is no “real” Pravly left for him. Standing in the middle of the square, Asriel thinks “And yet–the black year take it!–it yearns and aches, does Asriel’s heart. He looks at Pravly, and his soul is pining for Pravly–for the one of thirty-five years ago, of which this is only a reflection” (103). Because Asriel has imaginatively located his “real” or interior self in Pravly, Pravly’s frustrating absence has repercussions for his own sense of identity. First coming upon Pravly in the hayrick, Asriel thinks, “At one moment he felt as though he had strayed into the other world; at another, he was seized with doubt as to his own identity. `Who are you?’ he almost asked himself” (101). The sense of being in another world entirely, both spatially and temporally, defines the nostalgia of local color and regionalism. But in Cahan’s story, any sense that old villages are fading away in the face of the modern world, or that there can be a neat separation between the selves that occupy village world and urban world is irrelevant. The uncanny aspect of Asriel’s return is not that everything is gone or nearly gone, or that everything has changed or is on the brink of changing, but that nothing has changed except himself.

We can see this as Asriel’s sense of disorientation, of having passed into another world, recurs when he enters the town proper: “Stroon feels like Asrielke Thirteen Hairs, as his nickname had been here. Then he relapses into the Mott Street landlord, and for a moment he is an utter stranger in his birthplace” (103). Asriel really is in another world, not a romantic general past, but a grinding, changeless local past from which he needed to escape to New York. When he cannot recall his identity, he draws out the photograph of his daughter and “fell to contemplating it” (101). The contemplation of his daughter’s image, so far away from Pravly, marks a moment in which Asriel is caught between the past of Pravly and the past of New York. Both are imaged, not experienced; Pravly, as we saw, is the image of itself and the photograph of his daughter is only another commodified image of memory itself. The text’s proliferation of images seems to give him an odd proliferation of selves, each confronting one another across seemingly unbridgeable distances.

Finally, Cahan’s notation of the disorienting effect of elusive fragments of “real” memory is matched by the disorientation of the prose. Like Asriel himself, the verbs in the section of Asriel’s return to Pravly unexpectedly pop in and out of the present tense. At the moments Asriel first perceives the objects he has remembered, Cahan jars us into a delirious present, as if to show us Asriel confronting his own past in the moment of return. In the passages quoted above, we can see that Cahan is giving us a simulataneous version of longing and having (or seeing and being) all at once: “As a dream it comes,” Cahan intones. Also, Cahan mirrors Asriel’s sense of being in his own past, now his present, by showing him choosing between languages, finding his voice in words he no longer needs in New York. “`Say!’ he begins, addressing himself to the driver. But `say’ is English. `Sloukhai!’ he shouts, with delight in the Polish word” (102). Here, as in the beginning of the story, Cahan shows his readers how many different ways to construct identity are available to the immigrant. It is somewhat startling to realize that by the time we see Asriel coming upon his long-forgotten Polish, we have seen him speaking in at least four different languages. Indeed, most of the conversations in the Jewish colony in America are actually in Yiddish; only very occasionally do we see Asriel talking to an outsider to the colony. In the moments Asriel must speak English, Cahan emphasizes his regional Mott Street vernacular and marks out his “foreign” and accented pronunciation. “Dis a choych?”, Asriel asks someone outside a library. In the careful transcription of both Asriel’s accent and his ignorance about the landmarks of the mid town in New York, Cahan demonstrates that even in America, Asriel has marked out a local sense of identity; the larger world of New York can still (literally) accentuate his liminal cultural status. As Jules Chametzky has suggested more generally of Cahan’s writing, the text’s polyphony of spoken (and broken) languages might be a way to track the interconnectedness of the cultures and communities that characters cannot keep spatially or temporally separated.(5)

The nostalgia that Asriel feels for his hometown cannot hold. After Asriel has gotten over the first pangs of recognition, the text slips back into the standard simple past. In this instance, as the grammar goes, so too the narrative: the past really does become simple for Asriel in that moment. Asriel attends synagogue in Pravly and participates in a bid to read part of the Pentateuch. Even though he knows that he has bid the most, another man is allowed to read the section. The uncertainties about his own identity are erased. He protests the mix-up, “suddenly feeling himself an American citizen” (108), and only stops when he is shushed by other members of the congregation who “reminded Asriel that he was a stranger” (109). After the service, Asriel “returns” to himself.

When Asriel issued forth from the synagogue he found Pravly completely

changed. It was as if, while he was praying and battling, the little town

had undergone a trivializing process. All the poetry of thirty-five years’

separation had fled from it, leaving a heap of beggarly squalor. He felt as

though he had never been away from the place, and were tired to death of

it, and at the same time his heart was contracted with homesickness for

America … “I’ll show them who they are and who Asriel is,” he comforted

himself. (111)

Asriel’s sudden sense of complete identity, “who Asriel is,” is directly tied to his sense of being a citizen who has been wronged and who can then marshal rights to his defense. The mechanism by which he disposes of his vague and divided self is grounded in the logic of the public citizen, but it is equally grounded in commodity culture. His sense of rights is activated because he feels aggrieved in a situation of public contract in which he has bid the most for a certain commodity. The community’s insistence that although it has been sold, the scripture is not really for sale antagonizes Asriel’s sense of the rule of the market. Within this commodity matrix, his truest desire is not to go along with the culture he has been mourning (and by extension, behaving like he ought), but to show the town who he is, or in the language of reification, to master the townspeople by appearing to be American.

After Asriel recovers himself as a public personage, a citizen with rights, his remembrance of Pravly changes accordingly. He snaps out of his melancholy heartsickness for Pravly and lifts the layers of second-order memory away from the town; he can “unveil” the “very shadows of thirty-five years” earlier. Once Asriel sees Pravly as if he had never been away, the text’s previous allusions to the conditions that prompted his emigration seem more forceful. For example, when Asriel announces to his daughter in the opening of the story that he wishes to visit Poland, she responds in some alarm, “But the Russian police will arrest you for stayin’ away so long” (97). The romance of the completeness of the past that Cahan so artfully employs, he just as artfully peels away in these references. In Asriel’s impatience to leave for the bright lights, coupled with the discreetly noted historic persecution, Cahan shows his readers the traditional and historical reason for the growth of the city at the expense of the pastoral region. He reminds the reader not simply that it is not just immigrants who populate the teeming and frightening cities, but any village youth who is “tired to death” of the village. More to the point, it demonstrates to the reader that some of the immigrant colonies that seemed so picturesque in New York existed there because they could not remain at “home.”

Finally Asriel decides that he cannot stay in Pravly and prepares to remove to New York. In order to do this, he arranges a marriage between Shaya, an Illoui, “a marvel of acumen and memory” (105), and his daughter, presented via a photograph “in all the splendor of Grand Street millinery” (112). Bringing Shaya back with him, Asriel thinks, “The nearer [he], with the prodigy in tow, came to New York, the deeper did Pravly sink into the golden mist of romance, and the more real did the great American city grow in his mind. Every mile added detail to the picture, and every new bit of detail made it dearer to his heart. He was going home” (119). Shaya’s presence seems temporarily to unite Asriel’s dual senses of home, and as Asriel wished to “show” his former neighbors and friends in Pravly what he had become, he wishes to show Shaya off to his associates in New York. He cannot hear enough praise for Shaya; he considers him a rare acquisition whose learning he can display while simultaneously showcasing his own distinction in the community. “The Jews there want a young man like [Shaya], and I am glad he is going with you” (119), one character in Pravly observes. Indeed, for a while “the prodigy and his importer were the talk of the orthodox colony” (143). But as the first part of the text was about Asriel’s desire to return to the site of his former self by returning to the site of his “genuine” culture, the second part of the story is about Shaya’s ostensible loss of his “genuine” culture as he transforms himself into an American. Although Shaya is supposed to function as an empty emblem unifying Asriel’s inner self and his public self, he rejects this economy and begins to circulate in a differently schematized world of public and private identities.

Shaya immediately falls in love with his future. Like Asriel in Pravly, he has difficulty reconciling his image of the young woman, Flora, who is to be his wife, with the actual girl before him. He is obsessed with her photograph, “a blend of Talmudic and modern glory” (113), but when he meets her and hears her accented Yiddish he feels an equally odd sense of disorientation. Flora “spoke in Yiddish, but her pronunciation, particularly of the letter `r,’ was so decidedly American that to Shaya it sounded at once like his native tongue and the language of Gentiles” (123). He cannot find a model to explain or interpret her, even though he has seen her likeness and she is speaking in a kind of likeness of his own language. His relationship to her language provides an opening for him to Americanize. Again like Asriel in Pravly, he seeks access to the fascinating city by learning to speak: he is “in a fever of impatience to inhale the whole of the Gentile language … the one great impediment that seemed to stand between him and the enchanted new world that had revealed itself” (138). Soon he is able to spell and make out directions: “In less than six months he knew the city and its suburbs much better than Flora, and could tell the meaning of thousands of printed English words, although he neither knew how to use them himself nor recognized them in the speech of others” (135).

As Asriel wishes Shaya to become a living tie to his past, Flora wishes Shaya to become a living tie to her future. For Asriel, he will be his Jewish son, but for Flora he will be an American physician. Shaya’s role as what each desires marks him, in some way, as an immanent subject. Like the photographs Asriel consults to remember himself in his dislocation, Shaya becomes an image of Asriel’s past and a dream of Flora’s future.

Shaya’s whole-hearted immersion in the novel experiences of New York City leads him away from the ghetto. He goes into cafes with his tutor, is seen smoking cigarettes, and is deeply interested in the holdings of the public library. Asriel’s discovery that his illoui has become an appikoros is a blow. Asriel’s efforts to come to grips with Shaya’s transformation from prodigy to heretic resemble his effort to reconcile his past and present selves in Pravly. Shaya’s escape from his predestined role of scholar and son-in-law, though, breaks the tenuous circuit of Asriel’s existence as a pious Pravly Jew and a New York importer. Shaya’s transformation, incomplete as it may be, is signaled with the familiar language of lost self-identity: “Shaya appeared to his mind as something polluted, sacrilegious, and although this something had nothing in common with his beloved prodigy, save the name, and the young man whitened in the distance, pure and lovely as ever” (149). Although Asriel’s desire for his beloved Shaya is a desire for his lost past, Shaya, the overdetermined signifier of cultural and personal memory, slips cleanly away from his intended identity. Only the name remains to unite the pure “prodigy of memory” to the newly prodigal son-in-law, but as we have seen, proper names do not always conjure up their accustomed referents in this text. Like Flora, whose name has been translated out of the (still resonant) Yiddish “Bloome,” Shaya himself is being translated.

Asriel, like Shaya, finds a place in the imaginative future, and decides to marry again and move to Israel. Though he claims that America has disappointed him and robbed him of his treasure, he has, it must be pointed out, amassed precisely the amount of money necessary to remove himself to Israel and to reinvent himself as a Jew on his own terms because he has lived in America. In fact, it might reasonably be argued that Asriel can only afford to value his memories because he has amassed so much wealth in the new world; his return home, and not just his failure to find his desire there, is predicated on his success in America. Asriel’s lament that “all is lost” when he discovers Shaya’s desertion of his place at the synagogue is an uncanny repetition of his exclamation “all gone!” when he stands in the cemetery at Pravly. And although Asriel is disappointed, he wants to be “born again” by going to Israel, exactly as he felt “newly born” by leaving Pravly. Asriel has not, then, lost his belief that he can find a sense of self-identity; he has merely relocated it.(6)

Shaya’s joyful assumption of an urban identity in America seems like the inverse of Asriel’s mournful sense that he will never find a way to reconcile his past and present. Although Shaya promises Flora that he will become a doctor, it seems clear by the end of the text that he is less interested in medicine than in philosophy, and less interested in philosophy than in his new-found philosophy reading group. His function in the text has been as a figure who will meet a series of desires for the characters and so bring to them a sense of self-identity. He will be Asriel’s son and complete Asriel’s attempt to connect his commercial success to his existence as a Jew, a circuit that is reinforced by his “purchase” of Shaya in Pravly and by Shaya’s status as the commodity of the “imported” bridegroom. Shaya will be Flora’s husband, linking her to her fantasized existence as an American “lady.” He will be a resource for the religious community in New York, helping tailors and pushcart peddlers become Jewish students and scholars.

But Shaya’s own desires are opaque. He seems to have no self in the terms in which this story figures selfhood because he does not yearn for either a fantasized past or a present incarnation of himself. His lack of what we might call interiority is crucial here. When he watches Asriel bid for him to marry his daughter, he feels a “thrilling but absolutely disinterested relish” (113). He wishes to circulate in every world that presents itself and gives himself readily to Flora’s romance, Asriel’s yearning, and his Gentile tutor’s learned initiations. He is not so much interested in assimilation as in consumption. The text has presented his scholarly gifts as something both intrinsic to him and outside of his control. As a prodigy he seems to absorb texts and knowledge without any effort or labor. His marvelous memory seems to allow him to circulate endlessly in the present rather than the past, constructing him as the token of exchange for various figures to bring their past and present selves into equivalence, but rendering him oddly untouched by the use to which he is put. He values knowledge for itself and so slips away from his “predestined” identity as exchange value, escaping the text’s cycle of endless deferment and reification which structures Asriel and Flora.

Shaya’s escape from the dissonance of past and present selves means that his relation to various public and private spaces is not riven by a sense of estrangement. The final scene of the novel in which Shaya is studying philosophy precedes Randolph Bourne’s imaginings of the ethnic citizen’s potential flexibility in the field of higher learning in “Trans-National America.” Bourne writes, “In his new enthusiasms for continental literature, for unplumbed Russian depths, for French clarity of thought, for Teuton philosophies of power, [the immigrant] feels himself citizen of a larger world” (118). Similarly Cahan writes of Shaya’s new `university,’ “The group was made up of a middle-aged man with a handsome and intensely intellectual Scotch face, who was a laborer by day and a philosopher by night; a Swedish tailor with the face of a Catholic priest; a Zurich Ph.D. in blue eyeglasses; a young Hindoo who eked out a wretched existence by selling first-rate articles to second-rate weeklies, and several Russian Jews” (160). Shaya’s desire to comprehend the world of philosophy and to be a citizen of this transnational world of the cosmopolitan intellectual speaks also to Cahan’s seeming belief in the relative quality of ethnicity itself. In speaking the academic discourse of philosophy, the debaters have lost their discursive, if not their literal, accents.

The scene in which this odd collection of the world’s immigrants have come together to hammer out a new community is, on its surface, utopian. But it speaks to a pervasive insistence on two ideas in the text. The first is that identity is not only contingent and historical, but a matter of affiliation or association. That is to say, ethnicity is not the only way in which identity can be described in this story, and describing it as such forces the characters to confront (in painful and uncomfortable ways) the very aspects of themselves that exceed such a static designation. The second idea upon which Cahan has insisted is the very idea of text and interpretation itself. All of the events of the story have been propelled by the characters’ constant confrontation with texts: Asriel’s prayers, Flora’s novels, Shaya’s Talmud and later his philosophy. This confrontation not only signals a world outside, but it also signals a remarkable differentiation between merely private interpretation and communal interpretation. This partially explains the tragic fate of Flora, who, at the end of the story “could neither speak nor stir” (162). This literal and figurative immobility is in marked contrast to the intellectual and physical mobility of Shaya and Asriel. She, who has never left her home and does not feel affinity with any group except that of the bourgeois capitalist, will alone be unfulfilled.

It is difficult to see why it is Flora who must narratively pay the price for her father and husband’s various desires with her choked silence. The text has thus far been interested in translations, likenesses, and linguistic play. So too has it been interested in models of reading. It is replete with references to other kinds of texts, ranging from Shaya’s Talmudic volumes to his secret math textbooks. More importantly, it has used those texts to build interpretive circuits to connect what seem radically disparate worlds. Thus Shaya becomes Asriel’s interpreter, and Shaya relies on his books to show him worlds he had never dreamed of. Flora, although seen reading a Dickens novel at the beginning of the story, and even comparing Shaya’s new associates to a Dickens novel at the end of the story, seems to have no desire to interpret or to use knowledge to connect her to her own experiences. Indeed reading distances her from herself. But even as it distances her from herself, it provides her with no community with which to affiliate herself. As Susan Kress points out in her study of marriage in Cahan, for a woman “to marry is to risk absorption in the identity of another; not to marry is to risk displacement” (37), a formulation that inscribes the dangers of negotiating public and private identity within the limitations of gender and ethnicity.(7)

When Asriel Stroon, sitting in the back of a hayrick in the middle of Poland on a hot summer day, wonders not only who he is but wonders in what language to phrase that question, we are looking at the logic of ethnic subjectivity taken to its furthest extreme. “The Imported Bridegroom” bears out Deleuze and Guattari’s commentary on the intrinsically political aspects of a minor literature because it adheres to their formulation that “a whole other story is vibrating within it.” In the case of Cahan’s text, the story vibrating “within” seems to be the story of how a minor genre helps to imagine, or is an analog to, a larger crisis in the representation of the self that is as much about self-estrangement and alienation as about strangers and aliens (17).

This sense of likeness is borne out even in the language of the story; much of the rhetoric of “The Imported Bridegroom” is about likenesses that are textually produced at moments of great cultural instability. The photograph of Flora functions as a shifting sign for Asriel and Shaya, encoding for each a tension between memory and desire, past and future. Even Shaya’s function as the bearer of religious memory is mediated by the private use to which Asriel wishes to put him. Such a private use of Shaya’s knowledge, which should be a communal resource in the New York Jewish community, is clearly against the wishes of the community that Shaya is leaving behind. It is precisely his potential use for creating a stable Jewish community that reconciles his Polish family to his leaving. But more importantly, his function as cultural memory, the living repository of Talmudic knowledge, finds itself in sharp contrast to his life in the city. As a receptacle for sacred knowledge, Shaya is in possession of a communal text which can be used to bring together the community of Jews in the New World. His voracious appetite for English and his ability to recognize letters and words whose total meaning escapes him speaks to the text’s ambivalence about the changeless status of memory, or at the very least, the use-value of such changeless knowledge. Most importantly, the content of the language is as important as its form for Shaya; he takes pleasure in the recognition of foreign words even before he laments his inability to make himself understood in English. The likenesses in the text, or the images in which characters’ senses of fragmentation are charted spatially and temporally, create circuits of exchange between public and private. In those circuits of exchange, Shaya’s tenuous existence as a citizen becomes possible.

The slippage between different languages, nations, and temporalities does not doom the ethnic subject to failure nor does it always construct that subject as split. But neither does it fully place that subject in a general economy of reification. The literary inscription of two worlds and two selves allows the ethnic subject to function partially as a figure by which ideas about the meaning of culture, citizenship, and the public/private divide might be reimagined. As Bourne writes in “Trans-National America,” “What [American citizens] have achieved has been rather a cosmopolitan federation of national colonies, of foreign cultures, from whom the sting of devastating competition has been removed. America is already the world-federation in miniature, the continent where for the first time in history has been achieved that miracle of hope, the peaceful living side by side, with character substantially preserved, of the most heterogeneous people under the sun” (117). Bourne makes a concerted argument for the preservation of difference in the formation of national/cosmopolitan subjects, using the Jew specifically. He writes, “It is not the Jew who sticks proudly to the faith of his fathers and boasts of that venerable culture of his who is dangerous to America, but the Jew who has lost the Jewish fire and become a mere elementary, grasping animal” (113-14). This is not to say that all late nineteenth-century Jews were cosmopolitans; the image of Shaya trying his first bite of lemon pie, a taste he had not even dreamed might exist, shows a kind of exacting emphasis on local identity in Cahan’s story.(8)

The closing of the book, though, gives us one more component to understanding the emergence of an ethnic citizen in social, cultural, and linguistic systems usually figured as incommensurable. Flora, like Shaya, becomes a “stranger” to her father, but Shaya becomes a “stranger and an alien” to Flora as well. While the text closes for Shaya with a community of other immigrants, all dedicated to the production of new meaning from old texts, and with the metaphoric new birth of Asriel as he sets out for Zion, Flora alone is estranged. In the vacillation of the name “stranger” we can see not a disruption of the ethnic project, but an extension of it. William Boelhower has argued that “in serious ethnic fiction … the ethnic sign is not so socially fixed or predictable because its very position within the culture of the national map makes it peremptorily unstable” (104). He states that “far from being a mere archeological exercise in the quest for origins and natural bonding, serious ethnic semiosis claims the right to redefine the boundaries of ethnic interaction and the place of ethnicity in American culture” (104). Shaya floats in Asriel’s imagination like the image of his late father, the likeness of Flora, and the yearning for Pravly. Shaya is an unstable signifier, and his function as the ostensible foundation of Judaism and his actual function as the betrayer of it, render his Jewishness in this text as a purely private matter, limiting it to his role as husband to Flora. In his public, secular life, Shaya is not Jewish; he is merely ethnic as an empty sign of difference, meeting other empty ethnic signifiers in a neutral public space.

This division between public and private, and the circulation of ethnicity within and between these spheres, also returns in Randolph Bourne’s “Trans-National America.” Here, Bourne imagines a kind of “dual citizenship” (120) for ethnic citizens. His dual citizenship is not simply a political ideal; it is a way of being for the ethnic subject, an ideal mapping the figure of ethnic subjectivity onto the figure of the assimilated citizen. He argues “in our loose, free country, no constraining national purpose, no tenacious folk-tradition and folk-style hold the people to a line” (114). He goes on to suggest that ethnic citizens must preserve their cultural differences as a way of protecting themselves from “becoming a mere colorless unit in a gray mass” (“The Jew in Trans-National America,” 127). In his example, culture is analogous to the subject’s interior, and nation to his civic or “external” identity. The equation of ethnicity to nationality as inner life is to outer allows Bourne to speak, in “The Jew and Trans-National America,” of a “cultural soul” (127). This formulation accords with what Jules Chametzky has said of Cahan’s own trip home to see his parents: “Trying to understand change, putting together the fragmentation resulting from geographic, historical, spiritual dislocation experienced by living people was to become Cahan’s great subject. It was all around him and it was in him” (41, italics mine).

The question with which we end, then, is the same with which we began. When David Levinsky asks how he can make his present self and his former self “comport,” he is asking the question of the ethnic citizen, but he is asking the question from within a larger rhetoric of reification. This essay has argued that the “split” ethnic character bears a likeness to a general reified consciousness in the late nineteenth century, but that in Cahan’s fiction the category of ethnicity is returned to an ideal space of the private, in which one’s “real” self can remain intact, even as it is being mourned. This figuration intervenes in two very specific areas of literary history and ethnic writing. First, it operates as an antidote to the way immigrants functioned as a public space of the unmediated real for bourgeois readers in the nineteenth century. But most importantly, it demonstrates that ethnic writers refigured the private/public divide in late capitalism in order to represent ethnicity as a factor in, rather than the final horizon of, the negotiations between private identity and public citizenship.


(1.) Chametzky, for example, asks, “How can a David Levinsky be expected to overcome a sense of deep dislocation and alienation, how can he fill such a void and emerge integrated and whole?”. Chametzky then asserts, “Posing such questions, the book may be seen as dealing quintessentially with the immigrant experience; put that way it is also a quintessentially American book” (141). My argument differs significantly from Chametzky’s important work in that an integrated whole does not seem to me to be the absolute basis of subjectivity. In my argument, the experience of self-division is the paradoxical basis of subjectivity.

(2.) The best study of the general crisis of reification and reified consciousness in American literature is still that of Porter.

(3.) Barrish has recently argued about The Rise of David Levinsky that “Levinsky’s productions of … self-difference assist both his economic and his cultural rise” and charts his “placement of his own ethnicity into the category he has aligned with materiality … thereby producing another, `American’ dimension of himself which is propped on–yet is distinguishable from–his identity as an immigrant Jew” (643-44). My argument differs from that of Barrish in that I examine how the category of ethnicity is inscribed within, yet becomes a critique of a more general condition of reified consciousness, rather than examining how an ethnic figure’s understanding of ethnicity shifts according to a more and more finely perceived set of distinctions erected by bourgeois American standards. Thus, I look less at the position of self-difference ethnicity constructs than the way in which citizenship might mark a position of temporary self-identicalness for an ethnic subject.

(4.) William Dean Howells first understood and publicized Abraham Cahan as a regionalist writer (see Higham). Linking immigrant writing with regional writing suggests that the project of subjectivity and memory in late nineteenth century literature would allow us to read the return to the region as a variation on the yearning of the immigrant for the homeland, suggesting further a kind of defamiliarization of regionalism, that most familiar of turn-of-the-century genres.

(5.) Chametzky writes: “For obvious reasons, Cahan was fascinated by the differences among languages as well as the class and character differentiations within a language. For him, Russian was the embodiment of his intellectual life, Yiddish of the emotional, English of the fascinating and rich `other’ world, the mastery of which was a measure of one’s sophistication and status. Language, of course, is the embodiment of culture, and everywhere in Cahan’s work we see his attention of linguistic expressions of the clashes between and within cultures” (55).

(6.) For an excellent narrative of the role of Zionism in the lives of late nineteenth-century Jewish American citizens, see Sorin.

(7.) See also Harris’s essay on this point. It is also worth considering that this analysis, which looks at how a lost interior self and an empty social self are mapped onto the public/private divide in Cahan’s story, operates in a variety of ways regarding gender in the rest of Cahan’s work. For example, if we contrast the character of Gitl in “Yekl” (1896) to the character of Flora in “The Imported Bridegroom,” it becomes clear that women are not always excluded from the reconciliations of identities available to men through the circuit of citizenship, even though women are excluded as a class from the rights and obligations of citizenship. Gitl manages to obtain a divorce, Americanize herself to a degree, and ends up with a husband who is pious and who appreciates her “old world” qualities, but who seems to have no intention of returning to the old world.

(8.) For an excellent discussion of the relationship between cosmopolitanism and ethnicity, see Hollinger. Using Bourne’s work, Hollinger makes a vigorous argument for a notion of voluntary alliances and affiliations which allow citizen/subjects to preserve their ethnic difference while participating in civic nationalism. Such an argument, I have suggested, comports with the way Cahan constructed subjectivity in a remapped public/private sphere.

Works Cited

Barrish, Philip. “The Genuine Article: Ethnicity, Capital, and The Rise of David Levinsky.” American Literary History 5:4 (1993): 643-62.

Boelhower, William. Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Bourne, Randolph. “The Jew and Trans-National America.” War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays. Ed. Carl Resek. New York: Harper and Row, 1964. 12333.

–. “Trans-National America.” War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays. Ed. Carl Resek. New York: Harper and Row, 1964. 107-123.

Cahan, Abraham. The Rise of David Levinsky. 1917. New York: Penguin UP, 1993.

–. Yekl and The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto. New York: Dover, 1970.

Chametzky, Jules. From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1977.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward A Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Harris, Susan K. “Problems of Representation in Turn-of-the-Century Immigrant Fiction.” American Realism and the Canon. Ed. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1994. 127-42.

Higham, John. Send These to Me: Immigrants in Urban America. 1984. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Hollinger, David A. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Kress, Susan. “Women and Marriage in Abraham Cahan’s Fiction.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 3 (1983): 26-39.

Porter, Carolyn. Seeing and Being: The Plight of the Participant Observer in Emerson, James, Adams and Faulkner. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1981.

Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Trans. and ed. Kurt H. Wolff. New York: Free Press, 1950. 409-24.

Sorin, Gerald. A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880-1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.

Wald, Priscilla. Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Stephanie Foote is Assistant Professor of English and Critical Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her forthcoming book, Recovering Lost Ground: Reimagining Regionalism in Late Nineteenth-Century U.S. Culture, examines the invention of official cultural difference in a contested political sphere.

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