Literary migration: Abraham Cahan’s The Imported Bridegroom and the alternative of American fiction – Critical Essay
In 1890, the Hebrew Federation of Labor, a fragile alliance of Jewish workers, issued a statement of aims and purposes which encapsulates the tenor of Yiddish socialist rhetoric in the United States during much of the 1890s: “There is no Jewish question in America,” the statement insisted.
The only Jewish question we recognize is the question, how to prevent
the development of such `Jewish questions.’ Only because we
alone, Yiddish-speaking citizens, can have an influence among the
Jewish immigrants; only because we speak their language and are
familiar with their lives–only because of this, are we organizing
this special Jewish body. The Yiddish language is our tool; one of
our goals is to erase all divisions between Jew and non-Jew in the
world of workers. (1)
The Federation’s statement underscores a cherished belief among almost all the Yiddish-speaking socialists who had emigrated from Russia. These intellectuals, many of whom were participants in the Russian revolutionary movement, believed, in Abraham Cahan’s words, that there was “a political meaning [to] their journey to America” (Education 204). They were not simply abandoning the Revolution, not “running away like an ordinary immigrant” (Education 204). On the contrary, America offered an end to the Jewish question and an opportunity for a universalist working class movement. In order for this vision to be realized–in order for the Jewish masses to be weaned from cultural isolation and realized as fully developed class subjects–socialist theory needed to remain pure in its content. As Irving Howe wrote, “before the charge of `nationalism,’ courageous men quailed, as their grandfathers might have quailed before charges of heresy” (291).
Throughout much of the 1890s, Abraham Cahan had quailed as much as any other Yiddish journalist. But by the end of the decade, his position on questions of nationalism had become much less firm, and his attitude toward the Yiddish socialist press had shifted accordingly. As Hutchins Hapgood explained, Cahan had become alienated by “socialism in its narrow sense” and, in response, had “turned, disgusted, to English newspapers and to realistic fiction” (Hapgood 184). (2) In February 1895, Cahan published his first story in English, and in August 1897, after helping to found the Jewish Daily Forward in April of the same year, he gave up the editorship of the newspaper in order to pursue his literary and journalistic career almost exclusively in English. (3) The narrow socialism practiced by leaders such as Philip Krantz and Daniel De Leon had prevented alliances between socialist and anarchist workers. More importantly for this article, American Yiddish socialism demanded a rigid adherence to an assimilationist viewpoint on the question of Jewish identity in the US. While Jewish socialists in Eastern Europe had already begun the formation of political parties, like the Bund and the Paole Zion, that occupied coherent positions midway between socialism and Jewish nationalism, their American counterparts held fast to the view that Jews were fated to become indistinguishable from other working Americans. (4) Whatever provisional organization of Jewish workers might be necessary, the goal of an undivided class culture remained.
Rather than compromising either his prominence as a Yiddish-speaking socialist or his wish to explore more fully the subject of Jewish identity in the US, Cahan chose to write for audiences who had never openly debated the Jewish question and who were uncertain about the racial placement of Jewish immigrants. What I claim in the following pages is that Cahan’s move into fiction in English cannot simply be explained as a literary “fall” from Yiddish: a capitulation to the conventions of American local color in order to gain credibility in a “major” literature and a “major” language. (5) The world of English fiction offered him not only the status of American authorship but an intellectual hiatus from the obligations and narrow conventions of Yiddish journalism. The point is not that the American literary market allowed him an unlimited imaginative freedom to realize his fictional worlds. Rather it offered him a greater scope in relation, very specifically, to the question of Jewish identity.
Cahan could postpone taking a position on this question because many Americans had not yet defined Jews conclusively either as full citizens or as non-citizens. According to historian John Higham, virulent anti-Semitism surfaced most powerfully in the American 1890s in three relatively marginal contexts: among patrician intellectuals like Henry Adams and Henry Cabot Lodge, among the urban lower classes, and among certain segments of the agrarian protest movement (109). For most reading Americans, however, anti-Semitism was best kept outside the public discourse, limited to the elite clubs, vacation resorts, and private schools where cultural homogeneity had always been a given. In the 1890s, the emergence of a Jewish middle class was making such homogeneity hard to maintain quietly. Yet as Higham describes the mood, the American business classes continued to distinguish exclusive social practices from openly bigoted rhetorical formulations, and the de facto segregation of Jews and gentiles in civic society from anti-Semitic governmental legislation. “[I]n the late nineteenth century a remarkably friendly attitude toward Jews still prevailed widely,” Higham explains. “[A]nti-Semitic attitudes were often covert and usually blurred by a lingering respect. Many Americans were both pro- and anti-Jewish at the same time” (101). One might say that, for many, the goal was to purge public rhetoric of anti-Semitism and to keep privileged social spaces free of all Jews. In relation to the literary representation of immigrant Jews, the unresolved question raised by this ambivalence was whether Jews had the same status as other marginal white populations or whether Jewishness like blackness constituted a racial and cultural exception.
Because Americans were themselves unsure about the status of the new immigrants, Cahan too could remain undecided about the outcome of the Jewish exodus to America. In acting as the privileged interpreter of this particular population, then, he did not simply forfeit his intellectual liberty and political integrity. More accurately, he accepted some constraints in order to rid himself of others. To achieve access to American publication networks, Cahan no doubt needed to furnish at least some of the familiar signs of local color fiction. But in English, he could also avoid foreclosing on the question of Jewish identity, allowing himself to wonder and probe how his people would turn out in an environment that was relatively free of violent persecution. Were the Jews best understood as a distinct people and therefore a separate national group within the working class? Were Jews themselves, rather than the working class in general, responsible for their own political emancipation? Was it ever prudent or necessary to form Jewish alliances across class lines, or to treat Judaism as something more than a set of religious practices? (6)
When these questions were raised in the context of European anti-Semitism, the answers pointed more clearly toward the political and cultural autonomy of the Jewish working class. What had fascinated Cahan and other Jewish socialists about America, however, was the possibility that here, for the first time, a genuine internationalism might be achieved. America, which had left its doors open to persecuted Jewry in the nineteenth century, posed the Jewish question all over again and held out the promise of eradicating it once and for all. By using the English rather than the Yiddish press as his medium of publicity, Cahan could test his early faith in America as the great emancipator of an oppressed and circumscribed European Jewry. He could more freely ponder the viability of the universalist ideal and the persistence of Jewishness in his new context. (7)
In his willingness to reconsider the outcome of the immigrant experience, Cahan took the risk of allowing the genie of Jewish separatism out of the bottle. He did so, however, in a relatively protected context, out of reach of the majority of the immigrant community. His reluctance to express his unresolved thoughts in Yiddish–to betray any such uncertainty in front of a Jewish audience while “socialism in its narrow sense” still prevailed–reflects the dominance of a particular approach toward language and political leadership among Jewish socialist intellectuals. Heavily influenced by Russian revolutionary populism, (8) these leaders struggled to subordinate the immediate means of political action to its universalist ends, the specifically Jewish medium to the socialist message. Ideally, Yiddish needed to be apprehended as a neutral vehicle, doing little more than transporting the message of secular learning, assimilation, and class struggle. As Cahan wrote in the July 1896 edition of Di Tsukunft, a highbrow monthly, “healthy propaganda in Yiddish will bring the workers to socialism and [English,] the language of the country” (qtd. in Frankel 466). Of course, in actuality, the Yiddish writing of Russian expatriates often signified the presence of a common Jewish identity, uniting people of different geographical origins, religious practices, dress codes, and linguistic variations. The means of class struggle could easily become its ends, and vice versa. Readers partial to the idea of a coherent Jewish community could easily absorb the socialist content of the Yiddish press into Jewish culture, treating the principle of internationalism not as a defining aspiration but (in contradictory fashion) as a contributing part of the common ethnic tradition. In their anxious attempt to prevent such inversions, Yiddish journalists sought to dispel from their discourse any doubt over the ultimate fate of American Jewry. The good socialist writer had to compensate for the unintended effects of the medium by purifying his message. To do anything less in Yiddish would have been to offer the Jewish masses a flawed education.
By the middle of the 1890s, however, Cahan had clear reasons to question the assimilationist conclusions of his peers. The continued persecution of Eastern European Jews reminded immigrants of the context they had fled and the kinship between their own lives and the lives of those who remained. The international socialist movement had proven itself an unreliable political ally, repeatedly avoiding any condemnation of anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish workers for fear of alienating Christian constituents. (9) Nor could the US Congress, left to its own devices, be trusted to maintain an open immigration policy. Led by Henry Cabot Lodge, patrician congressional leaders were seeking to cut down the number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, having already curtailed Chinese immigration in the 1880s and early 90s. After considering several restrictionist proposals in the first part of the decade, Congress passed a bill in 1896-97 making literacy the criterion of entry. Although Grover Cleveland vetoed it, support for the bill and others like it prompted Cahan to write an article for the Atlantic Monthly defending “The Russian Jew in America.” As long as Jews remained victimized in Europe and neglected by American officials, they needed representatives like Cahan to secure them access to political emancipation.
If a sense of obligation toward European Jews tended to encourage the formation of a transnational ethnic consciousness, so too did feelings of emotional dependence. American Jews who embraced their adopted country as a site of political freedom and economic opportunity also feared it for its capacity to deprive them of spiritual authenticity. On the Lower East Side, the antidote to the experience of loss so characteristic of the period was the importation of Old World figures to serve as replacements and souvenirs. As Cahan explained in an article on New York’s “chief rabbi,” “the refugees imported many of the celebrities of the old Ghettoes of Russia, Poland, Galicia, and Roumania. They did not rest until they had secured the best synagogue singers, the leading wedding band, and every Yiddish actor known to fame” (“The Late Rabbi Joseph” 313). One of the primary questions that puzzled Cahan in his 1898 novella The Imported Bridegroom was how, exactly, these coveted tokens of the Old World would emerge from their trial of immigration. Their situation was defined by contradiction: by a developing ethnic relation dedicated at times to its own undoing. Expected to avail themselves of all that the New World offered and yet obliged simultaneously to serve as conduits to Jewish origin, the celebrities faced bewildering pressures from their American importers.
The celebrity in question in The Imported Bridegroom is a Talmudic scholar, brought to the New World by a businessman in order to marry the businessman’s daughter. At the beginning of the novella, Asriel Stroon has become worried over the state of his soul and determined to recapture an authentic Jewish life, which he associates with the Polish town of his birth, Pravly. His daughter Flora, on the other hand, dreams of marrying “an educated American gentleman” (94) and moving uptown. Asriel journeys to Pravly, wins the Talmudic scholar for his daughter by outbidding a rival, and returns to New York certain that his own Jewish identity has been secured. Flora rejects the scholar Shaya at first, but soon recognizes his intellectual talent and begins to see him as the American doctor whom she had imagined marrying. As Shaya takes to reading secular books and visiting libraries outside the ghetto, the suspense of the story begins to hinge on the question of his destiny. Will he emerge finally as a resource for claiming cultural continuity, as Asriel wishes him to be? Or will Flora succeed in molding him into a genteel American doctor?
Cahan poses the question of Jewish identity in America by constructing his benchmark immigrant as a whimsical character, free of any governing idea about his own destiny. In Pravly, where conditions funnel him toward a career as a Talmudic scholar, he indulges in playfulness unbefitting a pious Jew, and in America, after beginning his adaptation, he expresses himself as a Jew whenever he is moved to do so. While unpacking his books,
his attention was arrested by a celebrated passage. Without changing
his posture, he proceeded to glance it over, until, completely
absorbed, he fell to humming the words, in that peculiar singsong,
accompanied by indescribable controversial gesticulations, which seem
to be as indispensable in reading Talmud as a pair of eyes. (126)
The description of Shaya studying Talmud with and through his body accommodates an audience in search of picturesque ghetto scenes. But it is significant also for the suddenness with which Shaya is “arrested,” the immediacy of his religious desire, and the absence of a life ambition to determine his expression–all of which render his picturesqueness less stable than it might otherwise be. Shaya becomes for Cahan a supremely mimetic and historically revealing character. Through him, Cahan aspires to portray, as Lukacs writes of Walter Scott, “[t]he typically human terms in which great historical trends become tangible.” (10) In other words, Shaya’s rudderless will allows the most powerful agency(s) in relation to the Jews–whether it be the distinctive religious and political experience of the European diaspora, the impact of a cosmopolitan American context, or a combination of both–to speak transparently through his actions. As Shaya goes, so go the American Jews.
Shaya’s value as a Talmudic scholar in New York provides at least some incentive for him to retain his Old World Jewishness. Asriel, his benefactor, wants nothing more than to spend his money supporting the boy in a life of study. When we first meet Asriel, he is “tugging nervously at his white beard” (95), unsure of his identity and of his place in the world to come. In order to secure the balance in his spiritual account, he must exchange what he has gained during his thirty-five years in America, namely his capital, for what he has lost, his Jewishness as an unquestionable possession. “Alas! he had been so taken up with earthly title deeds that he had given but little thought to such deeds as would entitle him to a `share in the World-to-Come'” (98). Because his own practice of Judaism generates only a dubious spiritual currency, untransportable to the next world, he purchases a more capable producer of good deeds from Pravly. In this respect, Asriel thinks not only like an employer owning the products of someone else’s labor, but like an immigrant anticipating the struggles of adaptation that he will doubtlessly face once again upon dying. Searching for the bounty that will make him native in his final home, he begins the process of adapting to the next world by attempting to repossess the Old World in the New.
The contradiction in Asriel’s scheme is that it depends both on transporting Shaya intact, outside of history, and on importing him very concretely into America. Asriel can buy the young scholar as a producer of good deeds, but he must first profit from him in America, where Shaya has as much right to remake himself as Asriel does to prepare himself for the next world. Asriel plays the fool because he fails to consider that just as he himself and his very scheme for redemption have been defined by experiences specific to business and transplantation in America, so too the spiritual prodigy will change his goals and values in response to his new context. “You are taking a precious stone with you, Reb Asriel. Hold it dear,” says the leader of the Pravly congregation (119). Precious perhaps, but, as the narrative unfolds, more clay than stone. Despite Asriel’s desire to preserve the young scholar, he himself must see to it that Shaya conforms well enough to attract Flora: “Asriel lived in the hope that when Shaya had learned some English and the ways of Flora’s circle, she would get to like him…. He provided him with a teacher, and trusted the rest to time and God” (134). Sensing that the teacher poses a threat, however, Asriel immediately reins him in, urging him not to “take [Shaya] too far into those Gentile books” (134). Although he fires the teacher soon after hiring him, he is helpless against the young scholar’s consuming desire for a modern secular education. Shaya goes “too far” in this education and becomes, in the words of a pious peddler at synagogue, “an appikoros,” an atheist.
As Asriel’s dream of spiritual recovery collapses, so too the hope of establishing his desired home in America. The story of his Americanization becomes, in fact, an account of recurring homelessness. He leaves the synagogue after learning of Shaya’s new beliefs and practices and finds himself, much like a newly arrived immigrant, entirely alienated from his surroundings:
The clamor of the street peddlers, and the whole maze of squalor and
noise through which he was now scurrying, he appeared to hear and
to view at a great distance, as if it were on the other side of a
broad river, he hurrying on his lonely way along the deserted bank
While it might be tempting to read the “bank opposite” as a metaphor for the Old World, we have by this point in the novella already witnessed Asriel’s sense of estrangement in Pravly, where “his heart [is] contracted with homesickness for America” (111). As a result of the skewed process of Americanization he undergoes, the coveted home for Asriel is neither the New World nor the Old, but rather the Old within the New, a place in Cahan’s imaginings that belongs to the category of romance and short duration.
Despite its appeal, America is an unreliable and deceitful host, as it elicits a spiritual desire to possess the past, only to seduce and transform the very object of that desire. In response, Asriel decides at the end of the novella to resettle in Palestine. “America is now treife [unkosher] to me. I can’t show my head,” he says to the pious housekeeper whom he plans to marry. “[L]et us put a [wedding] canopy and set out on our journey. I want to be born again” (158). In the minds of most Jews in the 1890s, however, the idealistic colonists in Palestine faced inevitable disappointment rather than spiritual rebirth. (11) Palestine was a primitive environment, which could not be made to sustain either the European Jewish tradition or the lifestyles of American urban dwellers, let alone Asriel’s need to have one inside the other. If he began the story worried that Jewishness adapted to the New World wasn’t portable to the next, he has discovered sadly that what seems portable to the next world isn’t viable anywhere in the New one. The combined attractions and deprivations of America have condemned him to the fate of a perpetual stranger, thwarted by all places of settlement in his quest to have new and old together and untouched by one another.
If Asriel’s ideas of a home derive from an image of his native Polish town, Flora pursues an American home that has its antecedents in the domestic spaces of the uptown bourgeoisie. The Imported Bridegroom begins, in fact, with a description of Flora reading a Dickens novel and languishing in the security of her parlor:
She sat in her rocker, in front of the parlor stove, absorbed in
Little Dorrit. Her well-groomed girlish form was enveloped in a
kindly warmth whose tender embrace tinged her interest in the
narrative with a triumphant consciousness of the snowstorm
outside…. Flora let the book rest on her lap and fixed her gaze
on the twinkling scarlet of the stove-glass. The thickening
twilight, the warmth of the apartment, and the atmosphere of the
novel blended together, and for some moments Flora felt far away
from herself. (93)
The importance of feeling “far away from herself” when she reads is entirely consistent with Flora’s dream to remove herself into a more exclusive bourgeois realm, for as Cahan informs us on the following page, Flora not only “hated the notion of marrying as the other Mott or Bayard Street girls did,” she also “craved a more refined atmosphere than her own” (94). From Cahan’s perspective, such lofty aspirations distract Flora from the material circumstances on Mott Street. Moreover, they render her unreliable as a reader of realist novels.
In his critical writings, Cahan defines realism against “the story of adventure and plot,” which he considers “the aesthetic diet of children” (“The Younger Russian Writers” 119). While romance provides only escape and frivolous pleasure, realism, through its “lifelikeness” and simplicity of expression, highlights virtues and vices, progressive and backward tendencies, so that an audience improves its understanding of the world and its capacity for meaningful action. Looking to Russian literature as his model, he views realist literature as “a criticism of life,” a mode of writing designed both to reflect life and to redirect it. (12) “[A] work of art must also be a work of education,” he writes. `Art for art’s sake’ is out of the question in [Russia], where the poem must take the place of the editorial, and where the story-teller, who does not make his fiction a criticism of life, is looked upon as something like a public officer who betrays his trust” (120).
In order to achieve such education, however, the serious storyteller required an equally serious reader, with the capacity to pay close attention to the “criticism” in the text. Flora fails in this respect, for she cares much less about the lessons in the novel she reads than she does about the scene of her own reading and the sense of imaginative flight she experiences. In Cahan’s mind, her reading practices contradict the novel she is reading. Amy Dorrit, the heroine of Little Dorrit, distinguishes herself by refusing to emulate the wealthy classes even though she has the financial means to do so. Flora Stroon, on the other hand, employs Dickens’s novel as a prop to raise her status and to distinguish herself from her peers. Cahan presents Flora to us amidst a theatrical setting of her own design, a “back parlor, which she had appropriated for a sort of boudoir” (93). Within this setting, reading becomes a stimulus for escaping the most pressing contemporary realities, for ignoring both the relevant “criticisms” of the novel and the material circumstances of her own life.
Flora is, in a sense, doubly compromised in this novel. Cahan stigmatizes her first as a social aspirant, whose version of bourgeois domesticity lacks the authenticity of an American original. Her failure to achieve the refinement she covets emerges the first time we hear her speak. When Asriel returns home after praying and fasting to commemorate the anniversary of his father’s death, Flora greets him in ungrammatical English: ‘This settles your fast, don’t it?'” (95). The shoddiness of Flora’s English discredits her pursuit of an American home and confirms her marginal status in relation to the “sophisticated” 1890s reader. But as I will argue more extensively later in this article, Cahan is not nearly so friendly to this reader–and to the writer who furnished her material–as he may first appear. Quoting directly from Cahan, Hutchins Hapgood included the following remarks in The Spirit of the Ghetto, attributing them to “an impassioned critic” (271) partial to Russian realism. (13)
Now and then, indeed, I see indications of real art in your
writers–great images, great characters, great troth–but all merely
in suggestions … You prefer an exciting plot to a great delineation
of character … I love you all. You are clever, good fellows, but
you are children, talented, to be sure, but wayward and vagrant
children in the fields of art. (271)
If the literary public sphere in America was the domain of juvenile producers and consumers, in the opening of The Imported Bridegroom such aesthetic immaturity has its origins in the ideal of bourgeois American womanhood. Curled up in her sheltered parlor, in other words, Flora stands accused not simply of imitating, but of imitating a flawed model of escapist domesticity, one that limits literature’s potential for serious social criticism.
In the 1890s, the association between American women readers and a literary realm stripped of its capacity for publicly significant commentary was in no way unique to Cahan. Giving voice to a similar belief, H. H. Boyesen, another realist of European origin, complained that “the American public, as far as the novelist is concerned, is the female half of it” (44). As a result, Boyesen explained, “[t]he strong forces which are visibly and invisibly at work in our society, fashioning our destinies as a nation, are to a great extent ignored by our novelists” (46). Such was not the case in Europe, on the other hand, for there the novel had “a breadth and dignity which it never can attain where it is constructed with a sole view to entertainment” (57). Through his depiction of Flora, Cahan, like Boyesen, suggests that a reading public intent on entertainment and imaginative flight compromises the production and reception of literature; and like Boyesen, he accounts for such a public by tracing it to the escapist aspirations of genteel (or genteel-identified) American women. In the process of becoming American ladies, Cahan implies, readers like Flora threaten to deprive the novel (a European form after all) of its capacity for real, worldly illumination.
Flora’s dream of a refined home tums on her “vague ideal” of “an educated American gentleman” (94), and at the beginning of the novel, she seems to place little weight on the ethnic background of her gentleman. The important thing is that he belong to the professional classes and that he look and talk like an American. In fact, her desire for a life indistinguishable from that of a bourgeois gentile woman casts doubt initially on the significance of her Jewishness. Early on, we learn that Asriel’s religious rigor is “unintelligible” to Flora and that “she looked on [his praying] with the sympathetic reverence of a Christian visiting a Jewish synagogue on the Day of Atonement” (96). If belonging to a culture means knowing it–if, that is, being reveals itself through familiarity and comprehension–Flora’s claim to Jewish identity appears at first in question. But Cahan does not wish to conclude, at least at this point in the novella, that the loss of religion translates into the loss of identity. Flora’s trajectory, once she meets her imported bridegroom, offsets the initial impression, giving to her “vague ideal” a kind of ethnic concreteness. What appeals to her about Shaya, it seems, is not merely his potential to become an American gentleman, but an American gentleman with Jewish origins. The doubleness of the affiliation makes all the difference to her, for it invests her imagined home with both refinement and intimacy.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the scene in which Shaya becomes part of her life romance is a scene of reading, in which Flora supervises as Shaya performs out loud in his new language:
He was in a fever of impatience to inhale the whole of the Gentile
language–definitions, spelling, pronunciation, and all–with one
desperate effort…. Presently she leaned forward to see a
mispronounced word for herself. Their heads found themselves close
together…. She had an impulse to withdraw her face, but felt
benumbed. He went on patting her, until, meeting with no resistance,
his lips touched her cheek in a gingerly kiss…. their hearts, each
conscious of the other’s beatings, throbbed wildly. (138)
On the one hand, the episode is defined by transgression and transformation, for Shaya, unbeknownst to his importer Asriel, responds simultaneously to the temptation of gentile books and the physical attraction of his female tutor. But if Shaya crosses one cultural boundary in this scene, his crossing allows Flora to honor and uphold another. The romance of reading together hinges for Flora not only on leading Shaya into her own forbidden world of secular books, but on the promise of sharing that very world with a fellow Jew. More concretely, her desire is mediated by the textual tradition they both enter and by the linguistic resemblance that they already possess. This pair can read together in English and carry on their discussions in Yiddish. Despite Flora’s inflection, which “[is] so decidedly American that to Shaya it sound[s] at once like his native tongue and the language of gentiles,” her Yiddish “[is] Yiddish enough” for him (123). From her perspective, Shaya’s Yiddish is a perfect oral complement to his ambition and aptitude in written English. Months after the couple’s engagement, “[h]e proceeded to expound, in Yiddish, what he had been reading on Acoustics, she listening to his enthusiastic popularization with docile, loving inattention” (143).
Flora’s disposition in this quotation comments tellingly on the part the young scholar has come to play in her romance, but it suggests also that something has changed in their relationship since the first scene of reading and kissing. Whereas Flora was previously the English-language tutor, here Shaya has become the teacher of Western science, very much in the way of a Yiddish newspaper intent on uplifting the uneducated through “popularization.” Shaya has clearly outgrown his initial need for a coach. More importantly, Flora’s “inattention” recalls the book resting in her lap in the opening scene of the novel, and it suggests to us a potential problem with this union. These book lovers have a very different relationship to books and language. For Shaya, Yiddish serves to promote not so much communion in the private domain, but understanding of the world. In order to profit from the critical insights provided by English-language texts, Jews translate these texts for one another and discuss them in the tongue they know best. But the goal of translation and discussion is, of course, a substantive worldly education, and in this respect, Flora proves a limited partner. Just as she pays scant attention to the lessons implied by Little Dorrit, so too she neglects the content of Shaya’s spoken Yiddish, embracing it instead as a token of his cultural resemblance to her. According to Flora’s assumptions, the semiotic significance of language as a part of the home–its capacity to provide refinement in the case of Little Dorrit, warmth and familiarity in the case of Shaya’s explanation–trumps the larger criticism it carries. Flora deprives language of its mimetic function, confining it to the site of its utterance and apprehension rather than using it as a tool to comprehend the world.
As a reader aspiring to be an American lady, then, Flora not only enfeebles the European novel, she also threatens to diminish Jewish intellectual discourse in much the same way. Yiddish in her lips and her ears becomes a language of disengagement and invisibility–not simply spoken in the Jewish home, but completely suffused and hidden by the domestic realm. It helps to define her ideal home against the complex, heterogenous reality of the American scene, and it thrives on the insularity that American domestic life offers. What emerges through the romance narrative that Flora attempts to author is the potential reciprocity between Jewish culture and the secluded space of the bourgeois American family. The former works toward distinguishing the domestic from a complex public life, while the latter provides an isolated space for preserving and containing the signs of Jewishness.
As we have already begun to see, in The Imported Bridegroom this marriage of culture and private space conflicts with the desires of the Jewish American scholar. Not only does Shaya use his Yiddish to widen the scope of his knowledge, he also chafes against the home’s exclusion of a multinational American reality. Just after the couple’s non-religious wedding at city court, Flora’s romance collapses when she finds Shaya in the attic apartment of his tutor, studying a book on Auguste Comte with a cosmopolitan reading group:
A tin can was hissing on the flat top of a little parlor stove, and
some of the company were sipping Russian tea from tumblers, each with
a slice of lemon floating in it. 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 PhD 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, all of them insatiable debaters and most of them with
university or gymnasium diplomas. The group met every Thursday to
read and discuss Harriet Martineau’s August Comte, under the
guidance of the Scotchman, who was a leading spirit in positivist
The scene is clearly modeled on events from Cahan’s own life as a bachelor and newly arrived immigrant. He reports in his autobiography:
a frequent visitor to [his] attic quarters was Edward King … a
short stout Scotchman, with jolly round face, baldheaded and
good-natured…. He would often come to my attic with two positivist
friends. On such occasions I would invite some of my Russian friends
and in my attic room we would read and talk and drink tea brewed on
my stove. King’s friends were an educated French shoemaker and a
dark-skinned Hindu university graduate. (264-66)
Cahan concludes The Imported Bridegroom, then, by seizing on a memory of transnational association, one that epitomizes “the world” brought into the home. Through the reconstituted memory, he flirts with a fascinating alternative to the nineteenth-century assumption of completely separate private and public spheres–and to the overlap between this assumption and an emergent model of ethnicity in the US. The home becomes a space for political debate and cosmopolitan congregation.
But while Shaya helps to realize this alternative space, he makes little effort to include his wife in it. Nor, for that matter, does Cahan provide any indication that Flora wishes to be included: “Overcome by the stuffy, overheated atmosphere of the misshapen apartment, [Flora] had a sense of having been kidnapped into the den of some terrible creatures, and felt like crying for help” (161). Rather than asserting herself within Shaya’s community, rather than undergoing a transformation of her own, Flora clings to her dream of a private space both genteel and recognizably Jewish, a dream that she has no chance of fulfilling given the direction in which Jewish American history (as embodied by Shaya) moves in this story. Owing at least in part to the limited aspirations that Caran has assigned to her, Flora seems relegated to the margins of history, of little consequence at all in the future of her husband’s married life: “A nightmare of desolation and jealousy choked her–jealousy of the Scotchman’s book, of the Little-Russian shirt, of the empty tea-glasses with the slices of lemon on their bottoms, of the whole excited crowd, and of Shaya’s entire future, from which she seemed excluded” (162).
Flora becomes, much like her father, displaced by the process that she herself has abetted, as Shaya finds both the options that confront him, the resurrected Old World community and the Jewish domestic one, incompatible with the reality to which he must adapt. It is tempting to say, then, that Shaya’s fate at the end of the novella is a comment on the inevitable disappearance of Jewish distinctiveness in America, that the novel gives expression to the orthodox Socialist understanding of the American exodus: Jews (in spite of their parvenu women and nostalgic old men) will make their home in America by becoming indistinguishable from other Americans, yet Shaya’s behavior in the final scene complicates this reading.
In a passage that recalls the description of Shaya engaged in Talmudic study, we learn that “he became engrossed in the reading; and only half-conscious of Flora’s presence, he sat leaning forward, his mouth wide open, his face rapt, and his fingers quietly reproducing the mental gymnastics of Comte’s system in the air” (160). The text is no longer the Talmud and the language no longer Hebrew, but Shaya’s physical engagement in his reading reminds us of his identity as a Jewish man. Modernization in the American ghetto here entails replacing the object of study but retaining the Jewish form: the gestures, the obliviousness to what is outside the text, the mouthed words. As I have previously argued, this distinction between a secular, internationalist content and a specifically Jewish mode of conveying it was central to the Yiddish-speaking Socialists. These staunch cosmopolitans justified their use of a Jewish language by treating it as a highly functional first step, to be discarded as soon as the masses were ready. In the above description, however, the visible Jewish form seems an indelible part of Shaya’s expression, one that persists in spite of the fact that it interferes with the larger project of communicating with non-Jews. While the bodily language may help Shaya apprehend what he reads, it threatens to detract from the collective interpretation of Comte’s text. Fully immersed in intellectual debate, Shaya is depicted “making a vehement gesture of despair at somebody else’s absurdities” and then “taking the book from the Scotchman’s hand … in a feverish search of what struck him as a misinterpreted passage” (161).
Cahan offers us a glimpse of a future in which Jewish forms are sustained regardless of the uneasy tension that exists between them and the internationalist goals of socialism. Moreover, the nature of the cosmopolitan community at the end of the novella ensures that Jewish manners travel into modernity even as the beliefs and rituals they once carried fall away. Cahan protects the transmission of such manners by placing Shaya in a community that, in addition to being cosmopolitan, is single-sex and non-reproductive. In other words, while Shaya goes “too far” for either Ariel or Flora, Cahan denies him access to gentile women and therefore prevents him from going all the way. The future community that Cahan seems to have in mind here attempts to reconcile cosmopolitanism and a discrete Jewish identity. Such a reconciliation rests on the idea that while Jewishness may not have a separate place to call home in America, it may continue to reside very separately in the body.
Rather than situating his story definitively as an internationalist response to the Jewish question, Cahan equivocates in the end: Shaya loses religion and refuses a Jewish domestic life but appears to avoid squandering his cultural inheritance. His identity remains insulated against a potentially corrupting desire for gentile things and people, a desire that leads him back to the tutor and into the male cosmopolitan community but not to an intermarriage. (14) The last scene suggests the possibility that Jews will reproduce with Jews and treat the secular world, its books and human representatives, as the objects of their passion. (15) But for Cahan, not even this is a final answer. Perhaps the most telling comment on Shaya’s future comes from Shaya himself: “You don’t know me yet. I tell you you don’t begin to know me” (159), he remarks to Flora. Here the young scholar might as well be speaking to the author as well. The Imported Bridegroom gives expression to Cahan’s unfinished deliberation over the possible outcomes of Jewish relocation in America.
Thus far, it would appear that Cahan gained access to American literature without restricting his meditation on Jewish American history, and, vice versa, he freely meditated on the outcome of the Jewish exodus to the US without transgressing the conventions of local color. But as his depiction of Flora reading and his comments about the childishness of the American literary public suggest, Cahan’s relationship to his English-language audiences was often vexed, and a closer look at his stories reveals a tendency to chafe against certain narrative expectations imposed upon him. Writing for American audiences allowed for a consideration of cultural identity that was more open to possibilities, more extensive in its range, than what the Yiddish socialists were encouraging. At the same time, however, these audiences held strong ideas about the urban slum, about the low status of those who lived in it and their proper place within the urban and national landscape. Such ideas were bound to conflict with Cahan’s account of Jewish historical development and with the conception he held of his own authorship.
Cahan’s discomfort with American editors and readers and their inevitable effect on his representations emerges distinctly in “Rabbi Eliezer’s Christmas,” published by Scribner’s in 1899. This story begins by satirizing two uptown women who work in a settlement house but whose interest in the slum clearly exceeds reform and uplift. Cahan reminds his readers that the “enthusiasm” of Miss Bemis “was not exclusively philanthropic. She had recently become infatuated with a literary family and had been hunting after types ever since” (661-62). Rabbi Eliezer, a former scribe who now owns a newspaper stand and a circulating library, is a perfect example of such a picturesque type, for his eyes, in the words of Miss Bemis, “seem as if they were looking out of a tomb a mile away” (661). In Miss Bemis’s view, Rabbi Eliezer is merely a souvenir of a time that has long since passed. Cahan, who clearly wishes to expose the dehumanization that informs the perceptions of reform-minded slummers, describes Miss Bemis as “tingling with compassion and with something very like the sensation of an entomologist come upon a rare insect” (664). (16)
The two women stop and talk to the former scribe-turned-bookseller. After learning that his stock of printed matter is too slim to allow him to make a decent living, they give him twenty dollars “to bring his stock up to the standard” (664). The rest of the story addresses Rabbi Eliezer’s anxiety over his acceptance of the money on Christmas Day, which he believes may compromise his Judaism. Again, Cahan and his characters wonder whether Jewishness can be diminished by one’s activities and relations. In this instance, however, it is not simply Jewishness but the autonomy of modern Jews that appears as a possible victim of America. And it is far from incidental that Rabbi Eliezer deals in the production and distribution of print, while his two patrons treat him as if he were a figure in a literary text. By accepting the twenty dollars from the two women, he enters the American literary marketplace, where characters such as himself so often get turned into curios and where writers like himself must often assert themselves in order to secure a fair share of idealism and autonomy. The twenty-dollar gift may allow him to slough off the backwardness of the Old World. But it means very little if he remains beholden to readers like Miss Bemis, who prefer that he continue to play the part of an anachronistic scribe.
It is in some sense surprising that a story with the potential to discipline literary slummers should find its way into a magazine, like Scribner’s, that catered to them. What makes the story palatable in this instance, however, are the six illustrations, none of which correspond to the verbal text immediately surrounding them. While the text begins with the caricature of the two slummers, the first picture points the reader to the middle of the story. The caption, which reads “Why should you be afraid to tell us how much?”, refers to a brief and relatively insignificant moment when the two women have already departed the scene and a group of “market-people” crowd around to inquire about the sum of the gift (Fig. 1). The picture implies that the story’s theme revolves in some way around Jewish avarice, and this impression is fortified by illustrations three through five. The final illustration, as well as the second one, treat the Rabbi as a benevolent relic from another world (Fig. 2). The last caption reads, “He went on whispering and nodding his beautiful old head” (668). Clearly, the story with the pictures and captions gives a very different impression from the one without them. In the unillustrated version, as I have argued, Rabbi Eliezer faces an Old World lifestyle that he has partially outgrown and a modern economy of literary slumming that threatens to strip him of autonomy. In the best of all future worlds, he will reject both these possibilities and become a modern subject with control over his own representation. According to the pictures, however, Rabbi Eliezer’s potential transformation entails no modernization and no adverse pressure from the literary market, only the outbreak of his own greediness. In the best of worlds, he will suppress his greed and simply nod “his beautiful old head,” accepting the charitable gift without allowing it to whet his appetite for more money and equal status.
[FIGURES 1-2 OMITTED]
“Rabbi Eliezer’s Christmas” is a stark example of a story that calls into question some of the assumptions of an American audience, only to qualify or overstrike the initial challenge to readers, in this case through the condescending illustrations. Whether or not Cahan gave his explicit consent to the illustrations, they speak to the editorial constraints under which he wrote and to a tension almost always at work in his writing. Such tension surfaces in Cahan’s fiction because the question of cultural identity was for him, at the same time, a question of historical development, progress, and modernization. In effect, he was recording what he believed was the maturation of his own people, wondering how they would turn out in a context where tradition seemed untenable. As he argues in an article on the chief rabbi of New York, most American Jews were nineteenth-century subjects, having “grown up” out of the historical period dominated by the ideas of the Talmud. The chief rabbi “remained the man of the third century he had been brought up to be, while his fellow country people … were in hourly contact with the culture of the nineteenth century. A gap was yawning between the chief rabbi and his people, one which symbolized a most interesting chapter in the history of Israel” (313). Whether Jewishness would be shed entirely or whether it would re-emerge adapted to the New World, in a form that was perhaps vaguely reminiscent of the old religious one but marked by the rupture of migration: this was the issue to ponder. What Cahan believed without doubt was that the way of life associated with Eastern European Jewry was not viable in the US, nor for that matter was any other adopted way of life which interfered with the historical development of a modernizing population.
If much of the literature categorized as local color abetted the process of national consolidation by representing, as Amy Kaplan aptly states, “rural `others’ as both a nostalgic point of origin and a measure of cosmopolitan development” (251), Cahan’s fiction, then, is anomalous. What distinguishes his work from such texts as Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs, Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman, and Mary Wilkins Freeman’s A Humble Romance is not simply the substitution of the urban for the rural other, but the clear distinction he makes between the Lower East Side and the point of origin to which Kaplan refers in the above quotation. Cahan’s fictive families and communities point to a literary negotiation, a willingness to make some concessions but not others as he reflected on the course of Jewish American history. While his characters appear marginal and unpolished in their Americanness, they do not belong to a tightly knit folk culture.
In fact, Cahan’s ghetto is characterized more by the absence of the folk culture than by its determining presence. Asriel Stroon longs for his native Pravly, but he cannot recover the town as he once knew it even when he returns there. “He looks at Pravly,” Cahan writes, “and his soul is pining for Pravly–for the one of thirty-five years ago, of which this is only a reflection” (103). Cahan’s abrupt insertion of the present tense emphasizes the futility of trying to overcome the temporal gap, for Asriel is situated quite clearly in a New World history. This history inevitably inflects and outstrips his memory, so that–as with Yekl, David Levinsky, Rabbi Eliezer, and others in Cahan’s fiction–his self, his recollections, appear estranged from the other, the object past. (17) At times, one has the sense that Asriel’s return to Pravly and his purchase of a Talmudic scholar is an American rite of passage; his attempt to appropriate his Jewish origins are motivated not by abiding ties to these origins, but by a desire to prove his spiritual legitimacy and economic potency to his peers. Thus, in attempting to trace himself back, he returns relentlessly boomerang-style to the present.
What Cahan presents to his reader is not only a collection of Jews aspiring inauthentically to be Americans (as, for instance, in the case of Flora), but of Jews whose authenticity as Jews is also unresolved and perplexing. For Cahan, modernity is the agent that makes Jewishness less certain by threatening to turn it into mere nostalgia, forcing those who claim it to prove that it is something more than a meaningless vestige. Insisting on the temporal interruption undergone by his immigrant characters, he raises the question of their Jewish cultural continuity and sets the stage for his narrative exploration of identity.
This temporal interruption was crucial to his intellectual project and to his authorial ideal. If, as I have argued, his sense of himself as a writer required a certain liberty to explore the persistence of Jewishness, it required also a distant and encompassing perspective on historical movement. In order to imagine himself as a writer of significance, Cahan needed to imagine Jewish immigrants as “major” historical people. Hutchins Hapgood, whose expose often transmits the ideas and sentiments of his guide and fellow journalist, makes this connection fairly clear when he compares Cahan to other ghetto writers and decides that “Cahan’s work is more developed and more mature as art than that of the other men, who remain essentially sketch writers” (223). Cahan, he goes on to write,
emphasiz[es] the changed character and habits of the Russian Jew in
New York, describing the conditions of immigration, and depicting
the clash between the old and the new ghetto and the way the former
insensibly changes into the latter. In this respect, Cahan presents a
great contrast to the simple Libin, who merely tells in a heartfelt
passionate way the life of the poor sweatshop Jew in the city,
without consciously taking into account the relative nature of the
This evaluation was certainly shared by Cahan himself, and it reveals both a willingness to localize the work of other Jewish writers and an anxious refusal to submit his own to the same limits. To treat his characters as premodern folk, rooted in a circumscribed place and a timeless origin, was to risk devaluing his own work. In defining his fiction as an account of historical progression, Cahan was resisting local color convention. He was affording his characters access to modernity and claiming for himself a scope commensurate with historical narration.
American audiences had granted Cahan a literary space for exploring cultural identity, but they had simultaneously complicated his quest to chronicle the progressive movement of Jewish American history. His frustration over this obstacle doubtlessly played at least some role in his return to the world of Yiddish journalism, and specifically to The Jewish Daily Forward in 1902. If he was willing to struggle with these “children in the fields of art” for a period of time, he did not wish to risk his entire career on such endeavor.
Moreover, the Yiddish Socialist press had already begun to shift course by 1902. During much of the 1890s, the only legitimate socialist position on the Jewish question had been the orthodox Marxist belief in total assimilation. But the Dreyfus Affair, which occupied the Lower East Side newspapers between the summer of 1898 and the spring of 1899, helped to bring such uniformity to an end. By 1900, the year in which the Bund established its first branch in New York, the fragile ideological coherence of Yiddish socialism had already begun to shatter. (18) To argue in Yiddish for specifically Jewish working class interests was no longer, necessarily, to offer a flawed education. Writing in 1906, Jacob Milch, a member of the old guard, lamented that “[u]ntil recently the intellectual life of the great East Side of New York was absorbed mainly in social questions of a general nature, or, to be more correct, in Socialism,” but that recent events in Europe and the new immigration had brought “a mosaic of theories and movements” to the East Side (354).
This mosaic was important to Cahan not because he was a committed nationalist but rather a pragmatist, who found something lacking in all ideologies he confronted and preferred to attach himself to movements depending on the demands of a particular historical moment. In 1903, after the Kishinev pogrom, he advocated strong alliances with wealthier Jews for the purpose of aiding immigration to the US. But between 1905 and 1907, perhaps in response to the proliferation of nationalist groups, he coaxed the Forward back toward a more cosmopolitan, class-based position. (19) As I have argued, this desire to move across an ideological spectrum, to resist any permanent positioning of the self, informs Cahan’s fiction in English. It also prevents us from treating his decision to write for American audiences as a kind of spiritual fall, a Faustian bargain with the dominant reading formation in the US. The Yiddish socialist press of the 1890s threatened to compromise Cahan’s literary project as much as the major monthly magazines that published his English-language work. Cahan accepted some of the conventions imposed upon him by the major monthlies, but he did so in order to accommodate his ongoing and unresolved meditation on Jewish identity. Furthermore, rather than capitulating to these conventions entirely, he treated modernity’s influence on the immigrants he described as a crucial part of their story.
Paying attention to the shifts in Cahan’s account of identity and to the competing views of immigrant historicity embedded in his work forces us to confront an authorial subject whose orientation toward two different public cultures is defined by revision and re-articulation of discursive positions. In relation to socialist debates on the Jewish question, Cahan never commits finally to either the assimilationist position or the belief that Jews will perpetuate their cultural identity even as they lose their religious orthodoxy. Characters like Shaya and Rabbi Eliezer do not forfeit their identity, but neither do they possess it entirely. In relation to an American audience intent on a literary tour of “the Jewish colony,” Cahan works to present Jewish immigrants as rapidly developing people, contemporary urban figures irreducible to souvenirs. He unsettles the contemporary assumption that a population’s marginality points to its parochialism and historical immaturity, and he prolongs the conversation on the nature of Jewish communal belonging within a modern national context. Restlessly moving between positions, he distinguishes himself not as a partisan but as a skeptical thinker, an ideological migrant never finally satisfied with the rightness of any available conception of Jewish subjects in community. Committed to understanding the Jewish resettlement in America, he is at the same time reluctant to plot its end.
(1.) Arbayter Tsaytung, 10 October 1890, qtd. in Levin 98. Cahan was, in fact, elected as organizer of the Hebrew Federation of Labor and more than likely played a significant part in drafting the statement. The organization survived less than a year.
(2.) Cahan met Hapgood while the two were writing for The Commercial Advertiser and its city editor Lincoln Steffens. When Hapgood set out to write his book on the spiritual and intellectual side of the Jewish quarter, he relied heavily on Cahan as a guide.
(3.) For an account of the Yiddish press in the 1890s and Cahan’s repeated disagreements with Yiddish editors and writers, see Sanders 119-45, 166-70; Marovitz 25-27, 33-41, 47; Howe 518-51; and Rischin, The Promised City 115-30 and 152-61.
(4.) Of these European groups, the Jewish Labor Bund was undoubtedly the most significant in Europe and the most closely watched among immigrants to the US. The Bund arose out of the Vilna labor movement in the mid-1890s and became a formalized political party within the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ party (RSDWP) in 1897. The party encompassed a variety of positions mixing class and national politics, some of which emphasized allegiance to the Russian revolutionary movement and others the need for Jewish self-emancipation and greater autonomy. All Bundists agreed, however, that the national question had to be resolved in the diaspora. See Frankel.
(5.) For examples of such criticism, see Taubenfeld 144-65, in which Yankel der Yankee is described as “a bolder, less constrained Yiddish version” (149) of the English story; and Harris 127-42. While Chametzky emphasizes that English, for Cahan, was a vehicle for reaching a larger audience and the only route to a literary career, he also pays careful and admirable attention to “the problem of the right balance to be struck with a potential American reading public” (54).
(6.) According to Howe, this last question was at the heart of the debate for many leftists. Internationalists argued that cultural identity consisted entirely of religious practices and beliefs, and once the latter had been lost, identity was sure to follow (768).
(7.) Jacobson looks at Cahan’s treatment of the Jewish Question in Yekl and concludes that Cahan was committed to a nationalist position: the separate organization of Jewish labor. I argue, on the other hand, that Cahan was highly ambivalent over the question of Jewish essence and that his short fiction from the 1890s reflects this ambivalence. See Jacobson 103-11. In keeping with my argument, Marovitz identifies as an aim of Cahan’s fiction in English a “double view … of people and situations,” one that “would generate purposeful ambiguity” (36). Jones demonstrates that the constant hybridity in the speech of Cahan’s characters–whether they speak an Americanized Yiddish or a Yiddishized English–points to an “ambivalent linguistic psycholog[y]” (154) as the norm for him.
(8.) For an analysis of the influence of Russian populism on the Yiddish press, see Cassedy 37-48, 77-104. The first major theorist of the Russian revolutionary movement to mix socialism with the recognition of a specifically Jewish segment of the working class was Aaron Lieberman. See Frankel 28-47 for an account of Lieberman’s career.
(9.) Cahan himself had learned this lesson painfully in 1891 at the second congress of the Socialist International. He had gone to Europe with the intention of getting a formal demonstration of support for Jewish workers and a strong rebuttal to the claim, made by Russian newspapers, that Jews were natural enemies of the working class. Rather than appearing too partial to Jewish interests, the delegates passed a weak, equivocal resolution condemning both philo- and anti-Semitism. See Levin 99-100 and Marovitz 23.
(10.) See Lukacs 35. Measured against Lukacs’ standard of “a total historical picture” (44), however, Cahan falls short. In Lukacs, “a total historical picture … must disclose artistically the connection between the spontaneous reaction of the masses and the historical consciousness of the leading personalities” (44). As the description of Shaya suggests, Cahan gives us much spontaneous response to history and almost no historical consciousness in his characters. The consciousness of “world-historical individuals” (39) lies outside the narrative, in the mind of the omniscient narrator.
(11.) See, for instance, Howe 204-208, who writes that as late as World War I, Zionism “struck most Jews as an exotic fantasy nurtured by litterateurs” (206).
(12.) For a lengthy discussion of the influence of Russian literary criticism on Cahan and his peers, see Cassedy 17-32. My own discussion of Cahan’s fiction suggests that his work was informed by more than one understanding of literature. While his theory in “The Younger Russian Writers” rests on the assumption that literature, much like political activism, should work toward the achievement of a collective goal, in his English-language fiction he often suspends judgment about what goals are the right ones for Jews in America.
(13.) Rischin also designates Cahan as the speaker of these remarks (Grandma Never Lived in America xxii).
(14.) In “The Apostate of Chego-Chegg” (1899), the story that Cahan published immediately after The Imported Bridegroom, the main character does, in fact, marry outside her faith. Building on his exploration into the identity of an atheist (Shaya), he asks, in the latter story, what happens to Jewishness in the case of an intermarriage? I discuss “The Apostate of Chego-Chegg” in a longer version of this article, currently part of a dissertation. See Grounds for Fiction 90-146.
(15.) It is worthwhile to note that the same-sex, inter-ethnic alternative to Jewish marriage is tinged with illicit romance in The Imported Bridegroom. In the scene in which Asriel discovers his prodigy’s secular lifestyle, Cahan figures that lifestyle in the language of a clandestine affair. Asriel “thrilled with a detective-like passion to catch Shaya in the act of some grave violation of Mosaic Law.” He waited at “a vantage point from which he could see the windows of the two garret rooms one of which was the supposed scene of the young man’s ungodly pursuits” (151).
(16.) For other examples of Cahan’s criticism of reform-minded slummers such as Jacob Riis, see The Rise of David Levinsky 284-85 and “The Russian Jew in America” 134. Marovitz also notes that Cahan was “satirizing here the many Gentile writers who had been venturing to the East Side seeking picturesque literary material” (106).
(17.) One of the best examples of Cahan’s insistence on the contemporaneity of his characters’ nostalgia is the story “Tzinchadzi of the Catzkills,” in which a Circassian horseman seems to emerge on the scene directly out of a narrator’s sense of boredom and repetition in the Catzkills. Tzinchadzi responds to the desires of vacationers like the narrator as much as he does to the Caucasus. As the title suggests, he is of the Catzkills, not the Caucasus.
(18.) See Levin 166 for an account of the Bund’s establishment in the US. For the response of the Yiddish papers to the Dreyfus Affair, see Frankel 467-69. On the incorporation of Jewish nationalism into the Yiddish press, see also Rischin, The Promised City 165-68.
(19.) Frankel clarifies that while The Forward may not have become “less nationally oriented” during this period, relative to the range of socialist movements it became “a standard bearer of `internationalism'” (484). He provides several telling examples of the internationalist rhetoric that appeared in the Forward (497).
Boyesen, Hjalmar Hjorth. “The American Novelist and His Public.” Literary and Social Silhouettes. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1894. 41-57.
Cahan, Abraham. “The Apostate of Chego-Chegg.” The Century Magazine 59 (November 1899): 94-104.
–. The Education of Abraham Cahan. Trans. Abraham P. Conan, Lynn Davison, and Leon Stein. 5 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969. 1926-1931.
–. “The Late Rabbi Joseph, Hebrew Patriarch of New York.” The American Monthly Review of Reviews 26 September 1902: 311-14.
–. The Imported Bridegroom. Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York. New York: Dover, 1970. 93-162.
–. “Rabbi Eliezer’s Christmas.” Scribner’s Magazine 26 (December 1899): 661-68.
–. The Rise of David Levinsky. 1917. New York: Harper and Row, 1960.
–. “The Russian Jew in America.” The Atlantic Monthly 82 (July 1898): 128-39.
–. “Tzinchadzi of the Catzkills.” The Atlantic Monthly 88 (August 1901): 221-26.
–. “The Younger Russian Writers.” The Forum 28 (September 1899): 119-28.
Cassedy, Stephen. To the Other Shore: The Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to America. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.
Chametzky, Jules. From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1977.
Frankel, Jonathan. Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.
Hapgood, Hutchins. The Spirit of the Ghetto: Studies of the Jewish Quarter of New York. 1902. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1965.
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. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984.
Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
Jacobson, Michael Frye. “`The Quintessence of the Jew’: Polemics of Nationalism and Peoplehood in Turn-of-the-Century Yiddish Fiction.” Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature. Ed. Werner Sollors. New York: New York UP, 1998. 103-11.
Jones, Gavin. Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.
Joseph, Philip. Grounds for Fiction: Making Space for Local Community in U.S. Literary Regionalism, 1885-1940. Diss. State University of New York at Buffalo, 2000.
Kaplan, Amy. “Nation, Region, and Empire.” Columbia History of the American Novel. Ed. Emory Elliott. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. 240-66.
Levin, Nora. When Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements, 1871-1917. New York: Schocken, 1977.
Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel. 1962. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983.
Marovitz, Sanford E. Abraham Cahan. New York: Twayne, 1996.
Milch, Jacob. “New Movements Amongst the Jewish Proletariat.” International Socialist Review 7.6 (1906): 354-63; 7.7 (1907): 398-407; 7.8 (1907): 480-88; 7.10 (1907): 599-607.
Rischin, Moses. Foreword. Grandma Never Lived in America: The New Journalism of Abraham Cahan. Ed. Moses Rischin. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.
–. The Promised City: New York Jews 1870-1914. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.
Sanders, Ronald. The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
Taubenfeld, Aviva. “`Only an `L”: Linguistic Borders and the Immigrant Author in Abraham Cahan’s Yekl and Yankel der Yankee.” Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature. Ed. Werner Sollors. New York: New York UP, 1998. 144-65.
Philip Joseph is assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado-Denver. He is currently at work on a book about American regionalism and its pertinence to contemporary discussions of local community and civic society. His articles have appeared in American Literature and Studies in American Fiction.
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