Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Rise of David Levinsky

Originally published by Jewish Ideas Daily in May 2010. Revised and expanded.

In American literature, Leslie Fiedler once quipped, nothing succeeds like failure. But among American Jewish writers, something like the reverse is closer to the truth: nothing fails so miserably as success. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than in The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the first classic of Jewish fiction in America.

Written by Abraham Cahan, editor of the Yiddish daily Forward from 1903 to 1946, The Rise of David Levinsky adopts the rags-to-riches formula of Horatio Alger’s wildly popular books for boys, but with a twist. David Levinsky comes to America a penniless immigrant and rises to success as a cloak-and-suit manufacturer “worth more than two million dollars”—only to find his life empty and insignificant. He fails to complete his education, fails to marry, fails to create a home for himself in his new land. He advances in the garment trade only through his “personation” of more successful men; deep inside, in the privacy of his soul, he experiences himself as a fraud.

How did this happen? The novel opens in the Russian “Pale of Settlement,” and its early pages conjure the atmosphere of poverty, violence, and zeal for learning that characterized the lives of Jews there. Much of this ground had been covered by Ezra Brudno’s earlier novel The Fugitive, but Cahan’s treatment is livelier and more exacting. Indeed, early reviewers praised the Russia section as perhaps the best part of the novel.

When his mother dies at the hands of antisemites, David is thrown upon charity. He distinguishes himself as a student of Talmud—Cahan may have been the first to propose that talmudic study explains why “our people represent a high percentage of mental vigor”—and a rich benefactor rewards him with free room and board. He promptly falls in love with the daughter of the house, who wants something better for him than Talmud. She raises the money to send him to America, where he hopes to become an educated man.

Once in the Promised Land, David takes work in a sewing shop to earn money for college, but his life is changed forever—he is “led astray,” he later says—when he accidentally spills a bottle of milk on a pile of silk coats. Abused by his boss, David plots revenge by stealing the company’s designer, whose “Americanized copies of French models had found special favor with the buyer of a certain large department store,” and starting up a garment business.

To get a drop on the competition, David lets his skilled tailors take Saturdays off instead of Sundays. In gratitude, the Sabbath-observant Jews are willing to work for lower pay. Such “cheap labor,” which he candidly admits is his “chief excuse for being” as a clothing manufacturer, gives him “an advantage over the princes of the trade.” When the Cloakmakers’ Union goes on strike, David makes a pretense of joining the industry-wide lockout but clandestinely permits his tailors to keep working, picking up the orders that other manufacturers have left unfilled. “What was a great calamity to the trade in general,” he reflects, “seemed to be a source of overwhelming prosperity to me.”

Thus David Levinsky’s rise, accomplished by cheating the competition and exploiting labor. Small wonder he will conclude his life story by declaring that, for all the “thrilling sense of my present power” when compared with his “days of need and despair,” nevertheless his “sense of triumph is coupled with a brooding sense of emptiness and insignificance,” and the “lack of anything like a great, deep interest.”

Although the book purports to be Levinsky’s autobiography, Cahan is at his best when he instructs his narrator to step back from his own story and become a street-level observer of Jewish immigrants, reporting the strange customs they adopt in turn-of-the-century New York. He transcribes, for example, the “uncouth language” of the Jewish pushcart man firing a “volley of obscenities at a departing housewife who had priced something on his cart without buying it.” He narrates the comic struggles of native Yiddish speakers in night school, butchering English in a hopeless effort to master “real Yankee utterance.” Newly wealthy Jews who parade their munificence in synagogue before their former Russian neighbors; unhappy Jewish housewives who dream of romance and squirm with guilt; affluent Jewish vacationers in the Catskills who rise to their feet at the American national anthem, “offering thanksgiving to the flag under which they were eating this good dinner, wearing these expensive clothes”; Yiddish writers “of two opposing schools” who quarrel at the top of their voices in a Bohemian café: through portraits like these Cahan’s book delivers a continually fascinating first-hand report of a lost place and time. The Rise of David Levinsky has been called the first Yiddish novel in America, even though it was written and published in English. It would be more accurate to call it the first Russian novel in America. Cahan adapts the tradition of Turgenev’s and Tolstoy’s realism to the American Jewish scene.

In the end, however, Cahan’s novel is driven less by sharp-eyed realism or a keen novelistic imagination than by a fixed idea, and is the poorer for it. Although he himself was an entrepreneur, building up the Forward to a circulation of 275,000 at its peak, Cahan neither understood nor appreciated business success. That starting a business and getting it to succeed requires not just hard work and luck but courage and real talent—“aptitudes,” in the words of the economist Joseph Schumpeter, “present in only a small fraction of the population”—is entirely alien to Cahan’s philosophy. He could not believe that, for a businessman like David Levinsky, the garment trade might itself be a “great, deep interest.” A lifelong socialist, Cahan was committed to the view that by definition any capitalist venture was exploitative, a means of legalized theft. His novel is a socialist roman à these, relentlessly pursuing its set-in-concrete ideological theme that private ownership destroys the soul.

On thematic grounds, The Rise of David Levinsky is barely distinguishable from Elias Tobenkin’s Witte Arrives, which preceded it by a year. But as Ruth R. Wisse has written, Cahan’s novel served as the model for many later works of American Jewish literature “in which the hero’s emotional sterility is the predictable price for his financial satiety.” Levinsky is a familiar type of Jewish success story, embarrassed if not made ashamed by his “satiety.” What the novel shows is that, if antisemitism is the socialism of fools, the long Jewish love affair with radical politics has been the socialism of shlimils.

David Levinsky’s inner failure earns neither the novelist’s nor the reader’s imaginative sympathy. Instead, what arouses that sympathy, and redeems the novel, are the loud streets teeming with the Jews whom Levinsky has left behind—many of them, no doubt, consoling themselves with fantasies of socialist revolution. Perhaps better than any other book, The Rise of David Levinsky depicts a Jewish world in which the losers are more successful and emotionally alive than the winners, on the page if not in life.