Tracing the Rise of Abraham Cahan, From Factory Worker to Newsroom Titan
In an excerpt from Nextbook Press’s new biography, the founder of the ‘Jewish Daily Forward’ makes his way to New York
On July 7, Eisl’s Golden Rule Hall at 127 Rivington Street was packed with several hundred people listening to orators speaking in Russian, the language of the radical intellectuals. Using Yiddish to lure people to an event was acceptable, but to fire them up politically, only Russian would do. At the meeting’s end, when the floor was thrown open to members of the audience, a man who looked younger than his twenty-two years approached the podium with a “thumping heart.” Abraham Cahan had been in America for only a month, yet he was speaking in public for the first time.
When Cahan rose to speak, some people, apparently with no time for a newcomer, “started for the door.” Speaking in Russian, he declared: “We have come to seek a home in a land that is relatively free. But we must not forget the great struggle for freedom that continues in our old homeland. While we are concerned with our problems, our comrades, our heroes, our martyrs are carrying on the struggle, languishing in Russian prisons, suffering at hard labor in Siberia. There is little we can do at this distance. We can raise money to aid the sacred cause. And we must keep the memory of that struggle fresh in our minds.”
His words made him, as he himself puts it, the “hero of the day.” And he had established a pattern that would pervade all his later writings. For all the posturing of the socialists about being the wave of the future, in practice Cahan was also obsessed with an obligation to not forget the past.
Later in the evening, a friend named Mirovitch told Cahan about the propaganda society, explaining that its aim was to spread socialism among the Jewish immigrants.
“If it is for Jewish immigrants, why are the speeches in Russian and German?” Cahan asked.
“What language do you suggest? What Jew doesn’t know Russian?” his friend replied derisively.
“My father,” Cahan replied sharply.
Mirovitch, who hailed from cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, didn’t speak Yiddish and couldn’t fathom the world from which Cahan had come. “Why don’t you deliver a speech in Yiddish?” he suggested, laughing.
“Why not?” Cahan replied.
And so was born a career in which the medium of Yiddish became part of the message.
The following Friday night, the propaganda society rented a hall in the back of a German saloon on East Sixth Street. Some four hundred people crammed into it and heard what Cahan called “the first socialist speech in Yiddish to be delivered in America.” His topic was Marx’s theory of surplus value and “the inevitability of the coming of socialism.”
In advance of his next Yiddish speech, on Suffolk Street, he and his friend Bernard Weinstein handed out hundreds of Yiddish leaflets on the streets of the Lower East Side, which Cahan had printed at his own expense. This new hall was much larger, but Cahan still packed them in; some of the audience members were forced to stand. Others, including a dark-haired young woman wearing a pince-nez (at whom Cahan kept glancing) stood on tables. His talk “kindled a wave of excitement… as if the dumb had begun to speak,” Weinstein later recounted. Cahan spoke for three hours, cursing the millionaires “with elaborate Vilna curses” and shouting for workers “to march on Fifth Avenue with their tools and their axes and to seize the palaces and the riches which their labor had produced.”
Did Cahan truly envision that shirtmakers of Canal Street with their metaphorical axes would storm the upper avenues of Manhattan? Not likely. As Irving Howe explains, such speeches were “typical of the movement, with its mixture of Marxist approximations and anarchist bravado, its verbal radicalism at once innocent and empty…. Not everyone was certain as to which he really was, or what the differences amounted to, and some, like Cahan, shifted back and forth between anarchism and socialism before coming to a halt.” Cahan himself seemed aware of his ambivalence, even if he didn’t publicly acknowledge it. “It is a joke,” he wrote to an old Russian friend in 1883. “I debate, I argue, I get excited, I shriek, and in the middle of all this, I remind myself that I am a vacant vessel, an empty man without a shred of knowledge, and I begin to blush. I am ashamed of myself.”
Even as he was calling for violent marches, Cahan was being seduced by America. “The anarchists and even the socialists argued that there was no more freedom in American than in Russia,” he wrote in his memoir. “But that was just talk, I concluded.” There was no czar, “no gendarmes, no political spies.” One could say and write whatever one wanted.
And what Cahan wanted was to speak in and write English. All that work with Appleton’s English Grammar was paying off. After just a few months in New York, he began giving English lessons to other immigrants, and soon he was earning enough as a tutor to quit the factory. But remaining one linguistic step ahead of his fellow immigrants was not good enough for him; he wanted to master the new language.
In the fall of 1882 Cahan approached the principal of an elementary school on the corner of Chrystie and Hester streets, not far from where he lived, with an unusual request. In “careful but tortured English” he explained that although he had been a teacher in his old country, he wanted to be a student in the new one. The principal granted him permission, and for the next three months the twenty-two-year-old Cahan sat in on classes, joining thirteen-year-old boys in their lessons in reading, writing, and geography. He studied his fellow students as well, so as to learn their mannerisms as well as their pronunciation. It was not simply English he wanted to conquer, but American English, in all its idiomatic complexity. By winter, he had picked up enough to sail through the American daily newspapers. And soon he was speaking English with only a hint of an accent.
This essay was excerpted and adapted from The Rise of Abraham Cahan, out today from Nextbook Press.
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