Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Rise of David Levinsky - nothing short of a miracle - devoid of significance

Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) is an immigrant rags-to-riches novel.  Levinsky comes to America “with four cents in my pocket,” an orphan, and by the end is “worth more than two  million dollars and recognized as one of the two or three leading men in the cloak-and-suit trade in the United States.”  His memoir, though, is about his “inner identity,” which has not changed.  On the one hand, he has gone through changes that are “nothing short of a miracle;” on the other they are “devoid of significance.”  All of these quotations are from the novel’s first paragraph.  I have never read a Horatio Alger novel, but I assume that Cahan differentiates himself from one in a few lines.

Cahan’s novel is dated in a couple of ways.  His character explains a lot about Judaism and his culture:

A Talmudic education was until recent years practically the only kind of  education a Jewish boy of old-fashioned parents received.  I spent seven  years at it, not counting the several years of Talmud which I had had at the  various cheders.

What is the Talmud?  (Book II, “Enter Satan,” Ch. 1)

And then he explains what the Talmud is.  Not that we do not still need novels, or whatever, that tell gentiles what the Talmud is, but I think there are many more books with this educational aspect than were available in 1917.

Second, there are a number of scenes, especially early in the novel when Levinsky arrives in America, describing Jewish New York, mostly the Lower East Side, that are a delight but are in some sense now historical.  There are now many descriptions of the time and place.  We have translations from Yiddish writers now, for example, the plays of Jacob Gordin or Sholem Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son or poets like Moishe Leib Halpern – or literary histories like Ruth Wisse’s Little Love in Big Manhattan, about those poets – making Cahan’s Jewish New York more familiar.

The art of the novel lies in its voice, which curiously means in its simulation of artlessness.  Cahan’s short stories from twenty years earlier, the AmericanizedChekhov of The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York (1898) were more artful in their language, detail, and imagery.  But why would David Levinsky, who runs a garment factory, write as well as Abraham Cahan?  Levinsky is intelligent and educated, however narrowly, but he does not write as if he has made his living by writing for forty years.

A late section set in the Catskills is an exception, with Levinsky finding a more poetic, metaphorical style, but that is because he is in love.  His tone when writing about his business is entirely different.  Much of the art of the novel is in how Cahan matches Levinsky’s rhetorical mode to his psychological state at any given time.

Levinsky is not exactly an unreliable narrator, in that he is never dishonest and never seems to deliberately hide anything, but there are plenty of times where he seems to have trouble hearing himself.  The novel is a clever exercise in readerly sympathy.  In his business practices,  especially, Levinsky is pretty ruthless, without much investigation of his own ethics.  In business, in sales, in relations with his employees, anything goes.  He can be self-pitying, a braggart, a bit of a schlemiel with women.  He is kind of annoying.  He is an artful character, but some of that artfulness is conceptual.

Readers like me will enjoy how his life is ruined, or saved, or anyways permanently changed when he is given a copy of Dombey and Son and has to rearrange his job, his life, everything, so that he has time to read it.

D. G. Myers’s review fills in some of my gaps.


  1. Dickens can change lives? Hmmmm. Well, given my reading schedule, I might find out if that’s true.

  2. I don't know in Cahan means the Dickens episode to be a warning about too much reading or an incentive. I also don't know how much weight to put on Dickens specifically, but in a novella from 20 years earlier, he has a character immersed in Little Dorritt, so I guess Cahan means Dickens, dang it.

    For David Levinsky, Dickens first impoverishes him but eventually makes him a millionaire. I don't know how often that really happens. Not too often.