Academic journal article MELUS

Literary Migration: Abraham Cahan's the Imported Bridegroom and the Alternative of American Fiction

Academic journal article MELUS

Literary Migration: Abraham Cahan's the Imported Bridegroom and the Alternative of American Fiction

Article excerpt

I

In 1890, the Hebrew Federation of Labor, a fragile alliance of Jewish workers, issued a statement of aims and purposes which encapsulates the tenor of Yiddish socialist rhetoric in the United States during much of the 1890s: "There is no Jewish question in America," the statement insisted.

 
   The only Jewish question we recognize is the question, how to prevent 
   the development of such `Jewish questions.' Only because we 
   alone, Yiddish-speaking citizens, can have an influence among the 
   Jewish immigrants; only because we speak their language and are 
   familiar with their lives--only because of this, are we organizing 
   this special Jewish body. The Yiddish language is our tool; one of 
   our goals is to erase all divisions between Jew and non-Jew in the 
   world of workers. (1) 

The Federation's statement underscores a cherished belief among almost all the Yiddish-speaking socialists who had emigrated from Russia. These intellectuals, many of whom were participants in the Russian revolutionary movement, believed, in Abraham Cahan's words, that there was "a political meaning [to] their journey to America" (Education 204). They were not simply abandoning the Revolution, not "running away like an ordinary immigrant" (Education 204). On the contrary, America offered an end to the Jewish question and an opportunity for a universalist working class movement. In order for this vision to be realized--in order for the Jewish masses to be weaned from cultural isolation and realized as fully developed class subjects--socialist theory needed to remain pure in its content. As Irving Howe wrote, "before the charge of `nationalism,' courageous men quailed, as their grandfathers might have quailed before charges of heresy" (291).

Throughout much of the 1890s, Abraham Cahan had quailed as much as any other Yiddish journalist. But by the end of the decade, his position on questions of nationalism had become much less firm, and his attitude toward the Yiddish socialist press had shifted accordingly. As Hutchins Hapgood explained, Cahan had become alienated by "socialism in its narrow sense" and, in response, had "turned, disgusted, to English newspapers and to realistic fiction" (Hapgood 184). (2) In February 1895, Cahan published his first story in English, and in August 1897, after helping to found the Jewish Daily Forward in April of the same year, he gave up the editorship of the newspaper in order to pursue his literary and journalistic career almost exclusively in English. (3) The narrow socialism practiced by leaders such as Philip Krantz and Daniel De Leon had prevented alliances between socialist and anarchist workers. More importantly for this article, American Yiddish socialism demanded a rigid adherence to an assimilationist viewpoint on the question of Jewish identity in the US. While Jewish socialists in Eastern Europe had already begun the formation of political parties, like the Bund and the Paole Zion, that occupied coherent positions midway between socialism and Jewish nationalism, their American counterparts held fast to the view that Jews were fated to become indistinguishable from other working Americans. (4) Whatever provisional organization of Jewish workers might be necessary, the goal of an undivided class culture remained.

Rather than compromising either his prominence as a Yiddish-speaking socialist or his wish to explore more fully the subject of Jewish identity in the US, Cahan chose to write for audiences who had never openly debated the Jewish question and who were uncertain about the racial placement of Jewish immigrants. What I claim in the following pages is that Cahan's move into fiction in English cannot simply be explained as a literary "fall" from Yiddish: a capitulation to the conventions of American local color in order to gain credibility in a "major" literature and a "major" language. …

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