Last reviewed: June 2017
Eastern European–born Jewish American sociologist, novelist, and short-story writer
July 6 or 7, 1860
Podberezhie, Russian Empire (now Belarus); near Vilnius (now Lithuania)
August 31, 1951
New York, New York
Abraham Cahan, creator of the earliest imaginative literature dealing with the Jewish immigrant experience in the United States, also established the most successful Yiddish-language newspaper in the world. At the age of five, Cahan moved with his parents from the small town where he was born to Vilna, Lithuania, a center of Jewish learning in the Russian empire. His father taught Hebrew to boys; his mother taught Yiddish to girls. At fourteen, Cahan abandoned the study of Hebrew and sought a secular education in Russian language schools. From 1876 to 1881 he attended the Vilna Teacher Training Institute, organized by the Russian government for Jewish students. He found the curriculum boring and joined a reading group discussing forbidden anticzarist literature. The assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 set off a wave of repression, and in 1882 the police twice searched Cahan’s room looking for illegal publications. Fearing arrest and imprisonment, Cahan escaped across the Austrian border and embarked for the United States, arriving at New York on June 7, 1882.
Cahan immediately became active in radical immigrant circles; in August, 1882, he delivered the first Yiddish-language socialist speech in the United States. In 1884 he helped organize the first Jewish garment workers’ union. After a short period of doing factory work, Cahan supported himself by teaching, while writing for and editing socialist and labor periodicals. By 1883 Cahan became sufficiently proficient in English to teach at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association evening school. After passing the city’s teaching exam in 1885, he taught English to immigrants in the New York public schools, his main source of income for the next twelve years, until he was dismissed for his support of socialism. In 1886 he married Anna Bronstein; they had no children. Abraham Cahan
Portrait of Abraham Cahan.
In 1891 Cahan published, in Yiddish, his first work of fiction, “Mottke Arbel,” dealing with a successful peddler who brings the daughter of his former employer in Poland to the United States as his bride. Translated into English and published in the magazine Short Stories in 1895 as “A Providential Match,” it favorably impressed editor William Dean Howells, who encouraged Cahan to write a more ambitious study of immigrant life. Howells helped arrange the 1896 publication of Yekl, a groundbreaking novel about an immigrant Jewish garment worker’s Americanization. Yekl, repulsed by his old-fashioned European wife, divorces her and weds an Americanized young woman. Yekl received favorable reviews, establishing Cahan’s literary reputation. In 1898 Cahan collected five of his shorter works into The Imported Bridegroom, and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto. Between 1899 and 1902 he published, in major magazines, six additional English-language stories depicting immigration’s role in creating cultural dislocation. In 1905 Cahan produced a 430-page novel, The White Terror and the Red, dealing with the 1881 assassination of Alexander II and its repressive aftermath. Praised for its realistic description of the Russian underground, the novel also explored the internal conflicts Jewish revolutionaries faced when they realized that their comrades shared the anti-Semitism of the established order. Cahan published a novel in Yiddish in 1907, Rafael Naarizokh, narrating the conversion of an immigrant carpenter to socialism, and two novelettes, Neshoma Yesorah and Fanny’s Khasonim in 1913.
Cahan helped found the Jewish Daily Forward in 1897 as a socialist organ, but resigned from the editorial board after four months over doctrinal disputes. From 1897 to 1901, he worked as a reporter for the Commercial Advertiser, edited by Lincoln Steffens, who assigned Cahan to cover the police beat, interview notables, and produce human interest articles about the lower East Side, many reprinted in Grandma Never Lived in America.
In 1903 Cahan returned to the Jewish Daily Forward when he was offered total editorial control and, applying what he had learned from Steffens, rapidly transformed the paper. Cahan’s use of everyday Yiddish, including newly coined English expressions, infuriated language purists. Intellectuals complained he subverted the original purpose of the paper by replacing arid discussions of socialist doctrines with human interest features. The publication’s popular new advice column, Bintel Brief (bundle of letters), answered questions about how to adjust to life in the New World. The paper devoted a regular page to locating missing or deserting spouses and covered sensational crime and violence. When Cahan took control, the paper’s circulation was six thousand; within a few months readership tripled. In the 1920’s the paper was the largest Yiddish-language daily in the world, with a circulation of nearly 250,000 and local editions in eleven cities.
Cahan returned to the field of English literature in 1913, when McClure’s magazine asked him to submit articles explaining the commercial success of Jewish immigrants. Cahan chose to write a first-person fictionalized biography of a garment manufacturer who arrived in the United States penniless but became a millionaire. Expanded and published in 1917, The Rise of David Levinsky included many vivid scenes of Jewish life in the United States as Levinsky described his ascent and pondered the emotional cost of success. Most critics consider it Cahan’s most accomplished fictional work; some critics call it the best immigration novel ever written.
After The Rise of David Levinsky, Cahan produced no further fiction. Writing almost entirely in Yiddish, he published a five-volume autobiography, a book about Palestine, and a biography of the nineteenth century French-Jewish actress Rachel. Cahan welcomed the 1917 Russian Revolution, but by 1923, seeing even less freedom under Vladimir Ilich Lenin than under the czar, he vehemently attacked Communism. In the 1930’s his support of the American government’s New Deal led to expulsion from the Socialist Party. Cahan continued as editor of the Jewish Daily Forward until his death in 1951, although after a stroke in 1946, he relinquished active control.
Cahan’s English-language fiction did not sell well and soon went out of print. His books were not reprinted until the second half of the twentieth century, when literary critics recognized Cahan as the first of a long and distinguished line of American Jewish writers that includes Henry Roth, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow.