One evening in 1892, William Dean Howells received a caller at his house on East 17th Street. A former editor of The Atlantic Monthly, where he’d championed the work of his friend Mark Twain, as well as a celebrated poet, novelist and critic, Howells was the American literary establishment made flesh. His visitor was Abraham Cahan, editor of the Arbeiter Zeitung, an obscure Yiddish weekly named after the Chicago-based German anarchist paper whose staff had recently furnished four of the eight defendants in the Haymarket bombing trial. Although Cahan’s own literary efforts had so far mostly been limited to his columns “The Proletarian Preacher” and “The Hester Street Reporter,” he was thrilled to be invited to meet the author of The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes. Howells, who maintained a lively interest in the Lower East Side, was in turn astonished to learn that the man he’d sought out as a local informant—what today would be called a “fixer”—had read all of his work.
The following year, Cahan published excerpts of Howells’s utopian satire A Traveler From Altruria in the Arbeiter Zeitung and, with his mentor’s encouragement, completed his own first novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. Though Cahan’s manuscript was rejected by Harper’s and McClure’s—whose editor told Cahan, “Someone who reads your novel is likely to think there are no other kinds of people in America than Jews”—Howells persisted, sending it to his own editor, who’d already struck gold with Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane, another Howells discovery. He then wrote a rave review of both authors in the New York World, hailing Cahan as a new star of realism “who will do honor to American letters.”
Yet there was also an element of condescension in Howells’s praise. Reviewing the Lithuanian-born author’s next book, The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories (1898), he wondered whether Cahan would ever “pass beyond his present environment out into the larger American world, or will master our life as he mastered our language.” The answer came two decades later. The Rise of David Levinsky—note the hat tip in the title—blends elements of Cahan’s own childhood in Vilna, Talmudic training, youthful involvement with the Russian revolutionary underground and flight to America with his fictional alter-ego’s relentless climb to the top of the garment industry. Deemed an “artistic triumph” by Howells, the novel’s unsparing anatomy of bare-knuckles capitalism among the “cloak and suit” trade was more than some readers could stomach. The Nation’s anonymous reviewer, describing Levinsky as “a sneaking, malodorous animal [whose] fumblings with friendship and love are nauseating,” sniffed that if Cahan “has determined to paint that type of Jew who raises the gorge of all decent human beings, he has succeeded.” But most critics agreed with those nimble dialecticians at The New York Times Book Review, who (in a front-page review) announced: “In this story of ‘The Rise’ of one individual is pictured the development of an entire class.”
Today, both Cahan and his antihero are largely forgotten. Martin Amis recently informed the readers of the same Times Book Review that “Jewish-American literature…began with Saul Bellow, circa 1950.” Unlike those of us whose ancestors landed at Castle Garden or Ellis Island, Amis may not have been subject to parental recitations of “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, the nineteenth-century poet who probably qualifies as the mother of Jewish-American literature. But neither the ghetto pastorals of Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930) and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) nor Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952) are imaginable without Abraham Cahan, who if he had accomplished nothing beyond bringing David Levinsky into the world would still be worth remembering.