Jewish writing in America is hardly one of the newer immigrant literatures. It goes all the way back to the 1890s, when William Dean Howells, then the reigning dean of American letters, hailed the emergence of Jewish immigrant writing in the work of Abraham Cahan. Cahan, the founding editor of the Yiddish-language newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward, went on to publish The Rise of David Levinsky ( 1917), a novel that established some of the main themes of subsequent Jewish-American writing. David Levinsky is about a poor East European immigrant who becomes a wealthy garment manufacturer but worries that acculturation and material success have cost more than they are worth emotionally and spiritually. The Price, the title of a 1968 play by a later Jewish writer, Arthur Miller, sums up a major preoccupation of Jewish writing from the time of Cahan to our own. The question of Jewish-American identity, which is more broadly the question of the fate of Jewishness in America, has continued to be the grand theme of this body of work.
Since Cahan, that worry has often been expressed in Jewish writing that is confessedly or obliquely autobiographical. At first, Jewish writers were limited to autobiographical material because American anti-Semitism excluded them from the wider life of America. They had little access to the social institutions and milieux that provided the setting and subjects of older-stock American writers. For example, no Jewish writer of the 1920s could have written a mainstream novel about the price of success in America like Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby ( 1925).