Saturday, October 8, 2016

the gibberish spoken by the men - Abraham Cahan's Yekl - immigration and assimilation

Abraham Cahan was a giant of Jewish journalism and politics but he also wrote English-language fiction, most famously The Rise of David Levinsky (1917).  I just read his first novel, written twenty years earlier, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896).

Jake has been in New York for three years, working, hanging out at the “dancing academy,” spending time and money on the ladies.  Jake’s a dog.  Back in Russia, though, he was Yekl, and still is to his wife and young son.

During the three years since he had set foot on the soil… he had lived so much more than three years – so much more, in fact, than in all the twenty-two years of his previous life – that his Russian past appeared to him as a dream and his wife and child, together with his former self, fellow characters in a charming tale, which he was neither willing to banish from his memory nor able to reconcile with the actualities of his American present.  (Ch. 3)

The next chapter begins at Ellis Island.  The family is here, old world peasants, a wife in a wig, which means Yekl is somehow back, too.

Presently, however, the illusion took wing and here he was, Jake the Yankee, with this bonnetless, wigged, dowdyish little greenhorn by his side!  That she was his wife, nay that he was a married man at all, seemed incredible to him.  (Ch. 4)

The psychology of Jake / Yekl, his identity problems, is pretty interesting, as is that of his poor wife who finds herself reunited with a stranger.  Their story is even more valuable given how few stories of immigrants we have from this period.  The settings – the dancehall, the “new tenements,” the textile shops – are of high interest, too.

Yekl is of more sociological and historic than artistic interest, yes, that’s right.  Artistically, it is a second-tier William Dean Howells novel in a new setting and with more vigorous speech.  Readers allergic to dialect had better stay away:

“Shay, Mamie, give dot feller a tvisht, vill you?”

“Dot slob again?  Joe must tink if you ask me I’ll get scared, ain’t it?  Go and tell him he is too fresh,” she said with a contemptuous grimace.  Like the majority of the girls of the academy, Mamie’s English was a much nearer approach to a justification of its name than the gibberish spoken by the men.  (Ch. 2)

I thought the Yinglish, or the simulation of it, about makes the novel, but I know some readers hate that stuff.

Cahan published a novella and some short stories around this time, collected in The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories (1898), which I hope to try soon.

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