Cahan and Howells

In our discussion of Whitman earlier this term, we talked about the way in which Ralph Waldo Emerson served as an inspiration and mentor for the young poet in the years before and just after the publication of Leaves of Grass. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman is reputed to have said, “and Emerson brought me to a boil.”

Abraham Cahan

Abraham Cahan also had a mentor: the novelist William Dean Howells. Cahan  had come to the United States in 1881 in order to avoid being arrested as a revolutionary in the aftermath of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. A dedicated socialist, Cahan sought to interpret U.S. culture to his fellow immigrants. He had become a fan of Howell’s writing during the 1880s, when Howells was writing a series of novels that addressed the problems of class difference and poverty; in 1889, Cahan delivered a lecture on “Realism” before the New York Labor Lyceum, in which he presented Tolstoy and Howells as practitioners of realism in literature.

Cahan was a “walking delegate,” a union representative seeking to organize sweat-shop workers, and Howells sought him out as part of his research for his Utopian novel A Traveler from Altruria (1892-93). Howells encouraged Cahan to write fiction and sought to help him have his first novel, Yekl, published. Howells’s own publisher rejected the book, saying that “the life of an East-Side Jew wouldn’t interest the American reader.”

One editor wrote to Howells that “our readers want to have a novel about richly-dressed cavaliers and women, about love which begins in the fields while they are playing golf. How can a novel about a Jewish immigrant, a blacksmith who became a tailor here, and whose wife is ignorant interest them?” Cahan later recalled in his autobiography that Howells comforted him by saying that “even though he had the biggest name, cheap trashy novels sold better than Howells’s best works was discouraged, and reviews of his writings showed that the critics had a quite primitive view of literature.” Cahan translated Yekl into Yiddish, and it was published in 1895 in the Arbeiter Zeitung. Howells made a final attempt, submitting the manuscript to D. Appleton, who accepted it. Yekl was published during the summer of 1896, and Howells reviewed it for the New York World.

William Dean Howells

Howells’s review was titled “New York Low Life in Fiction” and paired Cahan’s novel with Stephen Crane’s latest novel, George’s Mother. Printed between the byline and the text was a special sub-headline: “The Great Novelist Hails Abraham Cahan, the Author of ‘Yekl,’ as a New Star of Realism, and Says that He and Stephen Crane Have Drawn the Truest Pictures of East Side Life.” Howells praises Cahan as “a writer of foreign birth who will do honor to American letters, as Boyesen did,” but his review replicates the distinction between “Americans” and Jews that ran through the various editorial rejection letters that Cahan had received. Cahan is a “Russian,” and because “romanticism is not considered literature in Russia, his story is, of course, intensely realistic” just as Crane’s are. Yet, although “the artistic principle which moves both writers is the same,” Howells implies that Cahan’s writing is more poweful because “the picturesque, outlandish material with which Mr. Cahan deals makes a stronger appeal to the reader’s fancy.” Howells adds, “He has more humor than the American, too, whose spare laughter is apt to be grim, while the Russian cannot hide the relish of the comic incidents of his story.” Implicit in Howell’s review is a kind of cultural essentialism, in which many of Cahan’s strengths as a writer are the result of “the far and rich perceptions of his Hebraic race”; Cahan’s English is “marvelous” because it has the “simplicity and purity” of “a man born to write Russian.”

Howell’s praised Cahan’s next book, The Imported Bridgegroom and Other Stories (1898), equally enthusiastically, and he begins his review by asserting that Cahan is a regionalist writer:

Abraham Cahan’s last book, bears the same topographical relation to the East Side of New York that Miss Wilkins’ bears to New England, or Miss Nicholas’ to Indiana, or Miss Bell’s to the South, or Mr. Gray’s to Western New York. No American fiction of the year merits recognition more than this Russian’s stories of Yiddish life, which are so entirely of our time and place, and so foreign to our race and civilization.

Once again, Cahan’s subject is represented as un-American, and much of its interest lies precisely in the fact that it is un-American, that it is “so foreign to our race and civilization.” Like Chesnutt with his conjure stories, Cahan is being praised for treating an “outlandish” subject realistically. The comparison to regionalist writers, who are typically bringing stories about provincial life to the attention of a metropolitan audience, suggests that there is something provincial about the Lower East Side, even though it lies in the heart of one of the oldest districts of the metropolis. Indeed, Howells concludes the review by wondering whether Cahan will ever tackle a truly American subject: “It will be interesting to see whether Mr. Cahan will pass beyond his present environment out into the larger American world , or will master our life as he has mastered our language.”

Cahan would write only one more literary fiction in English, his 1917 novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, which tells the story of the Americanization of a Jewish businessman and was inspired by Howells’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1884). Howells called the book an “artistic triumph,” though privately he felt that the book was “too sensual.”

Previously: On Yekl and baseball