“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!
On August 22, 1936, the New Yorker published a story about Hyman Kaplan, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant taking English classes at night, and Mr. Parkhill, his instructor. “The Rather Baffling Case of Mr. K*a*p*l*a*n” was an instant success and would be the first of many such columns published by Leo Rosten—under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross—about the unlikely pair’s classroom struggles and the wider cultural chasms represented.
Rosten, born in Lodz in 1908 to parents that soon transplanted the family to Chicago, conceived of the Kaplan character while teaching a very similar English class as a doctoral student. (He is cited in Michael Wex’s study of “chutzpah” today in Tablet Magazine.) What made the stories (and the subsequent collected volume) so compelling, Jennifer Weisberg argued in 2008, were the unavoidable realities they addressed. As Kaplan and Parkhill butt heads over the construction and use of the English language, the challenges of assimilation for immigrants are revealed, one tiny syllable at a time. Where better to examine the tensions between old and new than at a language school, where those very concerns get articulated nightly?
With just enough realism, the stories’ dialect-driven comedy opened a window onto a world that was foreign to many of the magazine’s readers, populated as it was with Mitnicks and Blooms and cutters in dress factories. Rosten’s ear for the subtleties of Yiddish-inflected English enabled him to create, in Kaplan, a fount of uniquely creative spelling, wordplay, and cringe-worthy diction. Beyond the jokes, however, each installment worked to sustain an ongoing meditation on the immigrant experience, attentive in equal measure to the cross-fertilizing influences America and its immigrants exerted on one another.
Read The Student Who Wouldn’t Go Away, by Jennifer Weisberg