The Rise of Abra­ham Cahan

  • Review
By – October 7, 2013

Although Abra­ham Cahan strode like a giant across the stages of world Jew­ry, jour­nal­ism, social­ist pol­i­tics, and labor union ascen­den­cy through the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, author Lip­sky makes it quite clear that Cahan was a man first shaped by the cir­cum­scribed Jew­ish life into which he was born in small-town, nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Russia.

The sto­ry of his unfore­see­able remak­ing in New York, a sto­ry drawn in part from Cahan’s own mem­oirs and the par­al­lels to the title char­ac­ter in his clas­sic immi­grant nov­el The Rise of David Levin­sky, is told with an eye at once crit­i­cal and warm­ly respectful.

Seth Lip­sky, for­mer edi­tor of the Eng­lish lan­guage edi­tion of The For­ward (Forverts), which Cahan brought to promi­nence in a three-part career filled with both tur­moil and amaz­ing suc­cess, empha­sizes sev­er­al main aspects of his subject’s achievement.

First and fore­most, he details Cahan’s career as a self-edu­cat­ed, ambi­tious jour­nal­ist who brought what was at first a neigh­bor­hood news­pa­per to world­wide stature and a dai­ly cir­cu­la­tion that peaked at 250,000. That career includ­ed staff, free­lance, and guest assign­ments at many oth­er impor­tant news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. For decades, Cahan’s name was every­where, not only in the Yid­dish lan­guage press but also in the high­er reach­es of main­stream journalism.

Cahan’s place in the trans­plan­ta­tion of Euro­pean Social­ism to Amer­i­can soil as well as his promi­nence on the inter­na­tion­al scene as an advo­cate of social­ist gov­ern­ment also receives detailed atten­tion, as does his ear­ly dis­ap­point­ment in the dic­ta­to­r­i­al Com­mu­nist enter­prise against which he became a loud and influ­en­tial voice.

At one time, like many oth­er social­ists and free-thinkers, Cahan had lit­tle sym­pa­thy for the Zion­ist cause. Lip­sky care­ful­ly and con­vinc­ing­ly traces Cahan’s grad­ual tran­si­tion to respect and then sup­port for the Zion­ist position.

Final­ly, Lip­sky makes the case for Cahan as a major lit­er­ary fig­ure — a man of great sym­pa­thet­ic imag­i­na­tion and skill. This splen­did blend of char­ac­ter study and cul­tur­al his­to­ry is a pow­er­ful addi­tion to the Jew­ish Encoun­ters” series. Acknowl­edg­ments, index, notes.

Relat­ed Content: 

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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