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The Student Who Wouldn’t Go Away

How a bumbling immigrant from Kiev became a literary sensation

Jennifer Weisberg
June 24, 2008

In the early 1930s, Leo Rosten was a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Chicago, living at home with his parents, his career stalled by an unfinished thesis and an academic job market only beginning to open up to Jews. In mild desperation, he took a job teaching English to adult immigrants in a night class at the Jewish People’s Institute, a settlement house on Chicago’s rough West Side. To his surprise, he found a wellspring of inspiration in his students’ malaprops and mangled English, and on the side began weaving a series of comic vignettes based on his classroom experience. Hoping to pay off some medical bills, he sent one of them to The New Yorker under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross, so as not to attract the attention of his presumably stuffy and humorless professors.

On August 22, 1936, the first of Leo Rosten’s many stories about Hyman Kaplan, the indomitable—if supremely challenged—English student, and Mr. Parkhill, his beleaguered instructor at the American Night Preparatory School, ran in The New Yorker under the title, “The Rather Baffling Case of Mr. K*a*p*l*a*n.” With its publication, “one of the great and enduring characters in English literature,” as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called Kaplan, was born.

A middle-aged immigrant from Kiev, Kaplan presents a deceptively unprepossessing appearance: “A plump, red-faced gentleman with wavy blond hair, two fountain pens in his outer pocket, and a perpetual smile . . . vague, bland, and consistent in its monotony.” Yet his ability to wage verbal warfare not only on the sensibilities of his instructor, “Mr. Pockheel” (as Kaplan pronounces “Parkhill”) but on the English language itself, is anything but bland. He advises his glass-eyed brother-in-law that if his “eye falls on a bargain, pick it up.” In Kaplan’s world, the plural forms of “library” and “cat” are, respectively, “Public library” and “Katz.” And conjugating the verb “to die” is an unsentimental exercise in compressed narrative: “Die, dead, funeral.”

When they appeared, Rosten’s stories of classroom warfare were light years away from what The New Yorker, that temple of genteel American wit, generally published; they hardly seemed part of the same universe as Robert Benchley’s tales of the small irritations of daily life or the manic and absurd wordplay of S.J. Perelman’s feuilletons. In 1938, a year after Kaplan’s debut in The New Yorker, a collection of columns was published, under the title The Education of H*y*m*a*n* K*a*p*l*a*n*, and quickly shot up The New York Times best-seller list. By this point, Kaplan’s struggles with the English language had gained such wide popularity that The Nation began its review with the following: “I hope it is not really necessary to explain that Hyman Kaplan is that member of a beginner’s class in English for Adults whose exploits have been described in the pages of The New Yorker.”

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. Evelyn Waugh, never one to issue compliments lightly, described the book as “not a work to be read and thrown away, but to be kept at the bedside and constantly resorted to,” calling its protagonist a “potent force for European-American understanding.”

Why did a book built on malaprops and crazy turns of dialect hit such a popular and critical nerve? Its resonance was so great that during World War II, it was the very first pocket-sized book issued by the military to soldiers via its Armed Services Editions. In April 1968, a musical version appeared on Broadway.

When Kaplan made his first appearance on the printed page, the American Jewish community was on the cusp of change. By the 1930s, Jews of Eastern European origin were increasingly confident, working assiduously to leave behind not just the shtetl, but the tenements and crowded streets of the Lower East Side, and to join in American life more fully. Perhaps no one could sum up their growing Americanization as well as Kaplan himself, explaining to Mr. Parkhill one day that he declined to attend his friend Jake Popper’s funeral, opting instead to “tink like Americans tink! So I tought, an’ I didn’t go. Becawss I tought of dat dip American idea, ‘Business before pleasure!’”

Rosten himself knew that transformative immigrant experience firsthand. He was born in Lodz and moved with his family to Chicago at the age of three. He grew up poor on the city’s West Side, where his family owned a small sweater-making business. Both parents were descendants of rabbinical families, and Rosten was reared to respect learning above all, his father telling him that any book he read as a child was akin to “laying down inventory.” In Rosten, inventory ran deep. He was a gifted linguist with a particular fondness for humor and the subtleties of the Yiddish insult. In addition to earning his PhD in sociology, Rosten went on to write several screenplays, including the 1941 Humphrey Bogart vehicle All Through the Night, Hollywood’s first anti-Nazi film. He also published a sociological study of the Hollywood system, worked in Washington at the Office of War Information, and wrote some forty books, primarily on language, Judaism, and humor, including the incomparable The Joys of Yiddish, published in 1968. Rosten remains best known for Joys, a seemingly simple English-Yiddish lexicon that, in many ways, is an assertion of security in identity from the American Jewish community.

But it was The Education of Hyman Kaplan that established Rosten as a keen cultural observer with an ear for the subtleties of language. Although Kaplan is the ostensible protagonist, the book ultimately—and ironically—tracks the education of his teacher, Mr. Parkhill. As the novel opens, Mr. Parkhill is a confident teacher, sure of himself and his ability to guide his students to greater competence in English. The presence of Hyman Kaplan in his classroom, however, deeply shakes him, for in spite of Kaplan’s countless mistakes, his certainty and bravado never waver. As Robert van Gelder described him in The New York Times review of the book in 1937, Kaplan is “morally indomitable, with tireless energy and exquisite sophistry . . . twisting the language of Shakespeare and Milton to his will as casually as we might twist the language of Confucius—if we knew enough about it to catch hold of it all.” Though he may start out looking the fool, Kaplan ultimately triumphs over Parkhill’s careful corrections, his own insane logic watertight.

In a practice letter addressed to his brother, Max, he signs off “with all kinds entusiasm, your animated brother,” explaining to his classroom nemesis, the pedantic and exacting Miss Mitnick, that he wrote “to mine brodder in Varsaw mit real antusiasm!” As Rosten notes, “the implication was clear: Miss Mitnick . . . let her brothers starve, indifferently, overseas.”

This awareness of a world “overseas” and “brodders in Varsaw” is a constant in the Kaplan stories, and resonates with a particular poignancy. In 1937, when Rosten was writing these pieces, the news from Europe was dire, and contemporary readers can easily guess the fate of those “brodders in Varsaw.” Though Mr. Parkhill’s students are committed to a new life in the United States, they bring their foreignness with them, through their accents, their overseas relatives, and their concerns. The classroom of the American Night Preparatory School is in many ways a bridge between two worlds, the students and teacher attempting to seek common ground between old and new.

It’s as if Rosten were analyzing his own status as an American, the balance struck somewhere between his bemused, exasperated, and unquestionably gentile alter ego, Mr. Parkhill, and Parkhill’s worst student, the decidedly foreign and—though the word is never used—unquestionably Jewish Hyman Kaplan. Parkhill’s sense of himself as a calm, benevolent dispenser of wisdom is repeatedly upset by Kaplan’s “dark and baffling logic.” Parkhill is the apotheosis of the bland American, perhaps just the type to whom Rosten himself lost many early academic jobs as a result of his Jewishness. (As Rosten told Mitchell Krauss in 1976, “I suppose I’m one of the people who benefited from anti-Semitism because when I got my degree I had been led to believe I would get a teaching post. Instead, I became a writer.”) Rosten is not Parkhill, but neither is he the Yiddish-inflected Kaplan, whose voice no doubt bears a closer resemblance to Rosten’s parents than to Rosten’s own. Rather, he is a blend of the two, much as America itself was incorporating the vibrancy and energy of its newest citizens into its culture.

And those citizens in Mr. Parkhill’s classroom were getting a true American education. There is a focus on civics and the pantheon of greats—Valt Viterman, Tom S. Jefferson, and Mocktvain, the author of Hawk L. Barry-Feen. The travails Kaplan and his peers endured at the American Night Preparatory School are part of the necessary process of muting their foreignness in order to become citizens. Yet Rosten’s stories suggest that their foreignness is to be accepted as a welcome contribution to the American character. This was not a popular sentiment among Americans in the 1930s, as Father Coughlin railed against Jews and foreigners on the radio, and as strict immigration quotas erected virtually insurmountable barriers for the vast majority of those seeking to flee Europe. Rosten is adamant that a new American is being created in Mr. Parkhill’s classroom, and that is a cause for celebration, not despair.

Who better to tell the readers of The New Yorker how their country was changing than Rosten, an immigrant who could pass as American born? In The Joys of Yiddish, Rosten plays the teacher yet again, albeit this time an overtly Jewish one, celebrating not only the pleasures of the Yiddish language, but the deep inroads Yiddish has made into American English. Mr. Parkhill is a beneficiary of that infusion, poking gentle fun at Kaplan yet all the while feeling “nourishing juices course through his veins. For the priceless spark of life, the very heart of learning, had been revived.” Here is the first of Hyman Kaplan’s great triumphs. For all his ostensible intransigence in the face of education, he has clearly learned the primary lesson of the mythology of America: that one can be and become anything one wants, unrestrained by background, religion, or, least of all, the rules of grammar.

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