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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   



9. Social
Realism


•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Henry
Adams
- Abraham Cahan
- Theodore
Dreiser
- W. E. B. Du Bois
- Sui Sin Far
- Henry James
- Sarah Morgan
Bryan Piatt
- Booker T.
Washington
- Edith Wharton
- Anzia Yezierska
- Suggested
Author
Pairings
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Abraham Cahan (c. 1860-1951)

Old Jewish Couple, Lower East Side
[3046] Lewis Hine, Old Jewish Couple, Lower East Side (1910), courtesy of the George Eastman House.

Abraham Cahan Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
As a journalist and fiction writer, Abraham Cahan explored the social, cultural, and spiritual tensions of the Eastern European Jewish immigrant experience in New York. His sensitive treatment of the dual identities of Jewishness and Americanism, and of issues of accommodation and acculturation, made him an influential spokesperson for his community.

Born into an educated, Orthodox Jewish family in a small village near Vilna, Russia, Cahan trained to become a teacher. By the time he graduated from the Vilna Teachers' Institute in 1881, he had embraced the socialist cause and had become involved in radical intellectual circles. Because of these connections, he came under suspicion for anti-Czarist activities and was forced to flee Russia for the United States. Upon arrival in America, Cahan settled in New York's Lower East Side, at that time a neighborhood inhabited mainly by immigrants, including a large population of Eastern European Jews. He soon became a leading figure in the community, lecturing on socialism, organizing labor unions, teaching English to other immigrants, and writing stories and newspaper articles in Russian, English, and Yiddish.

Cahan's writing career was varied and long. He served as co-editor of the first Yiddish-language socialist weekly paper, the Neie Tzeit, and by 1890 edited the Arbeiter Zeitung, the newspaper of the United Hebrew Trades. In 1897 Cahan helped to found the influential and widely distributed Yiddish newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward and served as its editor for almost fifty years. In the Forward, Cahan pioneered the use of conversational, Americanized Yiddish that could be easily understood by his immigrant readers. He also introduced the popular Bintl Briv column. An early, Yiddish, "Dear Abby"-style advice column, the Bintl Briv (or "Bundle of Letters") printed questions from readers and offered authoritative advice on romantic, family, and social issues.

Cahan paralleled his career as a journalist with a distinguished career as a creative writer of short stories and novels, both in Yiddish and in English. In 1895, one of Cahan's Yiddish stories was translated and published in Short Stories, where it attracted the attention of the prominent literary critic and realist writer William Dean Howells. Impressed by the story, Howells encouraged Cahan to write a longer work focusing on the Jewish immigrant experience in New York. The result, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, appeared in 1896 to great acclaim. In a front-page review of the novella for the New York World, Howells proclaimed Cahan "a new star of realism." After Yekl Cahan found himself an established part of the New York literary scene. In the decade that followed, he published a series of short stories and novels dealing primarily with the social realities of the Jewish immigrant experience. His career as a creative writer culminated with his masterpiece, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). The story of a poor Jewish immigrant who rises to become a wealthy garment producer, the novel details the costs and conflicts of pursuing material success and assimilating into American capitalist society.

In 1946, Cahan suffered a stroke that slowed his writing career and led him to give up the day-to-day management of the Daily Forward. When he died, he was recognized as both an influential leader of the Jewish American community and the foremost chronicler of the Jewish immigrant experience. His ability to mediate between cultures and to articulate the struggles and successes of Jewish Americans left an enduring legacy that has shaped the work of a long line of important twentieth-century Jewish American writers.



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