The subject of today’s lecture in Writing New York is Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novel Yekl. We read it not only as a example of early twentieth-century ethnic realism, but also an example of the novel of manners. It’s part of a unit that includes more predictable titles like James’s Washington Square and Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, as well as Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie, which, like Yekl, is rarely included in the genre.
Sarah Wilson’s essay for our Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City, which is entitled “Beaufort’s Bastards: New York Novels of Manners,” also takes this approach. Wilson argues that
a significant proportion of turn-of-the-century New York novels expand the populations understood to be “mappable” by novels of manners: novels by William Dean Howells, Abraham Cahan, and Paul Laurence Dunbar bring into the tradition classes and cultures, races and ethnicities (and even literary genres, such as naturalism) not usually associated with manners literature as traditionally conceived. These novels share their preoccupation with manners with a polyglot host of other turn-of-the-century New York texts, reflecting the allure of manners–their diversity, even their exoticism–for chroniclers of a cosmopolitan society.
The title of Wilson’s essay comes from the final dinner party scene in The Age of Innocence, when one snobbish character remarks, “If things go on at this pace, . . . we shall see our children fighting for invitations to swindlers’ houses, and marrying Beaufort’s bastards.” Julius Beaufort is an example of “new money,” whose origins are mysterious (read: possibly Jewish) and whose conduct is regarded as boorish — though the novel’s characters are more than happy to attend his annual Opera ball. Wilson argues that for The Age of Innocence, as for the New York novel of manners more generally, “marrying Beaufort’s bastards” is a good thing, a sign of cosmopolitan change.
Cahan’s novel offers a useful example of the conflict between descent and consent that the critic Werner Sollors has described as a “central drama in American culture.” In Beyond Ethnicity, Sollors describes descent relations as “hereditary” and “ancestral,” in contrast to consent relations, which are “contractual” and “self-made.” Sollors continues:
Descent relations are those defined by anthropologists as relations of “substance” (by blood or nature); consent relations describes those of “law” or “marriage.” Descent language emphasizes our positions as heirs, our hereditary qualities, liabilities and entitlements; consent language stresses are abilities as mature free agents and “architects” of our fates to choose our spouses, our destinies, our political systems.
Yekl is about one man’s effort to transform himself from the Old World “Yekl” to the New World “Jake,” to Americanize himself. When his wife Gitl, arrives at Ellis Island, with their young son, complications ensue.