Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Abraham Cahan brings Chekhov to the Lower East Side - A nightmare of desolation and jealousy choked her

I ended 2016 with some of Chekhov’s last stories, astounding things.  Make sure your collection has both “Peasants” and “In the Ravine.”  Maybe you’ll need more than one book.  That’s fine.  Read them together, and write a blog post; it will likely be among your best.  I don’t have anything else to say about these stories, but you will.  I look forward to reading it.

I will do something easier and write about imitation Chekhov.  Abraham Cahan, the titanic Yiddish-language journalist, was a champion of Chekhov’s in the United States, long before Chekhov was translated.  Cahan’s first book of English-language fiction, Yekl, A tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) was pretty good, but he is sharper and sadder in his second, The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York (1898), and maybe one reason is that he lets himself imitate the best.

In “The Imported Bridegroom,” Flora is assimilating quickly – “She sat in her rocker, in front of the parlor stove, absorbed in Little Dorrit” – “the only girl of her circle who would read Dickens, Scott or Thackeray.”  Her father returns to Russia to visit the graves of his parents, and in a fit of piety buys his daughter a husband, a great scholar, a prodigy.  The bidding scenes are worth seeing – the bridegroom, a rare and valued specimen, is sold at auction.

Flora wants to marry a doctor, not a Talmudist; the father wants a son-in-law to say Kaddish; the prodigy is maybe not as interested in the Talmud as he first appears, not once he learns English and discovers the Astor Library.  Yes, he will study to be a doctor, and Flora gets her husband, but by the end of the story the prodigy is already moving on, now to socialism.  The ending could be from Chekhov:

A nightmare of desolation and jealousy choked her – jealousy of the Scotchman’s book, of the Little-Russian shirt, of the empty tea-glasses with the slices of lemon on their bottoms, of the whole excited crowd, and of Shaya’s entire future, from which she seemed excluded.

The short stories in the book share some of the themes – “A Providential Match,” “A Sweatshop Romance” – and settings.  Hopes are dashed; people discover they are weaker than they had realized.

In “A Ghetto Wedding,” a grindingly poor couple have a lavish wedding in the hope that they will come out ahead on the gifts.  It does not work out.  It is a painful piece of comedy.  They cannot even take a cab to their new, empty apartment.  They are almost assaulted on the street.  Only the author is still with them at the end of the story, giving them this final little gift:

A gentle breeze ran past and ahead of them, proclaiming the bride and the bridegroom.  An old tree whispered overhead its tender felicitations.

Yes, the book ends with one of Chekhov’s sentient trees, another gift from one writer to another.


  1. Thank you for the Rx:
    “Peasants” and “In the Ravine”
    I will be reading and discussing each in the not too distant future. After all, how can I not do so after reading your persuasive argument!
    Now, though, I am ready to dive into Hester Prynne's world. I wonder if Chekhov read Hawthorne. Hmmmmm.

  2. I guess hectoring is a form of argument.

    They are great stories, among the greatest, so no guilt if anyone pursue my nonsense. They do make a good pair; they would make a good subject for essays.

  3. Maybe if I read some Chekov I will unlock the secret of writing blogs again...

  4. Maybe some of the short, punchy early ones, when Chekhov was one of the all-time great hacks.