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Authors: Abraham Cahan

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The Rise of David Levinsky

Table of Contents
Abraham Cahan was born in a village near Vilna, Lithuania, in 1860 into an Orthodox Jewish family. He learned Russian and became a teacher in a secular Jewish school as well as a member of a revolutionary study circle. He fled Russia for the United States in 1882 after the assassination of Czar Alexander II. During the 1880s and 90s he taught English, was active in radical politics, helped organize the first Jewish trade unions, and wrote for newspapers and journals in three languages. In 1897 he helped found the Jewish
Daily Forward,
the great Yiddish-language social democratic newspaper, which he edited from 1902 until his death in 1951. He wrote fiction in English for twenty-five years (and some in Yiddish), from his first published story in 1892 to his last and best-known work,
The Rise of David Levinsky,
in 1917. He wrote numerous short stories, including “The Imported Bridegroom,” and two other novels, Yekl:
A Tale of the New York Ghetto
(1896) and The White Terror and the Red:
A Novel of Revolutionary Russia
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928, Jules Chametzky earned a B.A. at Brooklyn College and his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. He has taught English and Humanities at Minnesota, Boston University, and, since 1958, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He has been a visiting professor and Fulbright Professor of American literature at half a dozen European universities. He is the author of
From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan
(1977) and
Our Decentralized Literature: Cultural Mediations in Jewish and Southern Writers
(1986). He is editor of
The Massachusetts Review
and director emeritus of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities at the University of Massachusetts. He and his wife, Anne Halley, have three sons.
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First published in the United States of America
by Harper & Brothers 1917
This edition with an introduction and notes
by Jules Chametzky published in Penguin Books 1993
Introduction and notes copyright
Jules Chametzky, 1993
All rights reserved
Cahan, Abraham, 1860-1951.
The rise of David Levinsky/ Abraham Cahan; edited with an
introduction by Jules Chametzky.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
eISBN : 978-1-440-67423-5
I. Chametzky, Jules. II. Title.
PS3505.A254R57 1993
813’.4—dc20 92-34783
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In the fifth and final volume of his autobiography,
Bleter fun Mein Leben
(“Pages from My Life”), published between 1926 and 1931, Abraham Cahan recalled the origin of
The Rise of David Levinsky
in the years 1912 and 1913.
He had just completed recounting the details and problems of a major tailors’ strike in New York’s garment industry at the time, a strike supported by the
Jewish Daily Forward,
the great Yiddish socialist newspaper Cahan had helped to found in 1897 and had been editing with great success since 1903. The Forward’s role in a controversial settlement of the strike had been severely criticized by some of the strikers—who had broken windows at the newspaper’s offices as a consequence—and the more radical Yiddish press. Cahan justified the positions he took and in retrospect felt vindicated by the history of the union and the garment industry since those events. Nevertheless, it was a period of great stress and great exertion for him and his comrades at the paper, as well as in the garment workers’ unions he had also helped to found.
During a meeting in his office to plan the fiftieth-birthday celebration of the Yiddish working-class poet Morris Rosenfeld, whose work frequently appeared in the
the stomach pains that had plagued Cahan intermittently for years became acute. He informed his comrades that he would have to forgo chairing the celebration. Shortly thereafter he was rushed from a specialist’s office to Presbyterian Hospital on Madison Avenue and there operated on for a duodenal ulcer. All of this took place in March 1913; the announcement of his release from the hospital appeared in the
of April 1. The four parts of his “Autobiography of an American Jew,” subtitled “The Rise of David Levinsky,” began appearing monthly in
McClure’s Magazine
that same April.
In the chapter of his autobiography titled “The Base
in Yiddish) of the Rise of David Levinsky,” he specifically tied together the memory of the strike, the operation, and the origin of
David Levinsky.
He recalled that a few months before he had been approached by an editor of
with the proposal that he write a couple of short pieces for the magazine (presumably on the subject of Jewish successes in American businesses, following similar pieces on other immigrant groups). Cahan replied that “he was very busy with the Forward,” but that “stirring around in his thoughts was the idea for a series in English in which the central figure would remain the same—a certain type of Jewish immigrant and how he became rich in America, what type of person he is, how he came to his occupation, how he worked his way up, what kind of life he lives outside his business, and so on.” The editor enthusiastically commissioned two sketches. When Cahan gave him the first one, some time before he entered the hospital, the editors at
were so pleased they asked for a third and fourth. Cahan discussed illustrations for the second number with the artist in his hospital room, but the third part was written during a few weeks of convalescence in Lakewood, New Jersey; the final episode was done back in New York City. The final two pieces chronicle Levinsky’s rise to success (the earlier deal with his miserable childhood in Europe and difficult beginnings in New York), and his subsequent failures in love, and his loneliness. “Such is the tragedy of my success,” he laments at the end. One senses a certain exuberance and satisfaction in all this, as Cahan passes moral judgment on his wealthy garment manufacturer. The two pieces were composed while Cahan was experiencing a sense of rebirth—free of pain for the first time in years and feeling, he says, fifteen years younger after his successful operation.

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