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From the Publisher"It is one of the best fictional studies of Jewish character available in English, and at the same time an intimate and sophisticated account of American business culture."
Sometimes, when I think of my past in a superficial, casual way, the metamorphosis I have gone through strikes me as nothing short of a miracle. I was born and reared in the lowest depths of poverty and I arrived in America in 1851 with four cents in my pocket. I am now 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. And yet when I take a look at my inner identity it impresses me as being precisely the same as it was thirty or forty years ago. My present station, power, the amount of worldly happiness at my command, and the rest of it, seem to be devoid of significance.
When I was young I used to think that middle-aged people recalled their youth as something seen through a haze. I know better now. Life is much shorter than I imagined it to be. The last years that I spent in my native land and my first years in America come back to me with the distinctness of yesterday. Indeed, I have a better recollection of many a trifle of my childhood days than I have of some important things that occurred to me recently. I have a good memory for faces, but I am apt to recognize people I have not seen for a quarter of a century more readily than I do some I used to know only a few years ago.
I love to brood over my youth. The dearest days in one's life are those that seem very far and very near at once. My wretched boyhood appeals to me as a sick child does to its mother.
I was born in Antomir, in the Northwestern Region, Russia, in 1865. All I remember of my father is his tawny beard, a huge yellow apple he once gave me at the gate of an orchard where he was employed as watchman, and the candle which burned at his head as his body lay under a white shroud on the floor. I was less than three years old when he died, so my mother would carry me to the synagogue in her arms to have somebody say the Prayer for the Dead with me. I was unable fully to realize the meaning of the ceremony, of course, but its solemnity and pathos were not altogether lost upon me. There is a streak of sadness in the blood of my race. Very likely it is of Oriental origin. If it is, it has been amply nourished by many centuries of persecution.
Left to her own resources, my mother strove to support herself and me by peddling pea mush or doing odds and ends of jobs. She had to struggle hard for our scanty livelihood and her trials and loneliness came home to me at an early period.
I was her all in all, though she never poured over me those torrents of senseless rhapsody which I heard other Jewish mothers shower over their children. The only words of endearment I often heard from her were, "My little bean" and, "My comfort." Sometimes, when she seemed to be crushed by the miseries of her life, she would call me, "My poor little orphan." Otherwise it was, "Come here, my comfort," "Are you hungry, my little bean"or, "You are a silly little dear, my comfort." These words of hers and the sonorous contralto in which they were uttered are ever alive in my heart, like the Flame Everlasting in a synagogue.
"Mamma, why do you never beat me like other mammas do?" I once asked her.
She laughed, kissed me, and said, "Because God has punished you hard enough as it is, poor orphan mine."
I scarcely remembered my father, yet I missed him keenly. I was ever awake to the fact that other little boys had fathers and that I was a melancholy exception; that most married women had husbands, while my mother had to bear her burden unaided. In my dim childish way I knew that there was a great blank in our family nest, that it was a widow's nest; and the feeling of it seemed to color all my other feelings.
When I was a little older and would no longer sleep with my mother, a rusty old coat of my deceased father's served me as a quilt. At night, before falling asleep, I would pull it over my head, shut my eyes tight, and evoke a flow of fantastic shapes, bright, beautifully tinted, and incessantly changing form and color. While the play of these figures and hues was going on before me I would see all sorts of bizarre visions, which at times seemed to have something to do with my father's spirit.
"Is papa in heaven now? Is he through with hell?" I once inquired of my mother.
Some things or ideas would assume queer forms in my mind. God, for example, appealed to me as a beardless man wearing a quilted silk cap; holiness was something burning, forbidding, something connected with fire while a day had the form of an oblong box.
I was a great dreamer of day dreams. One of my pastimes was to imagine a host of tiny soldiers each the size of my little finger, "but alive and real." These I would drill as I saw officers do their men in front of the barracks some distance from our home. Or else I would take to marching up and down the room with mother's rolling-pin for a rifle, grunting, ferociously, in Russian: "Left one! Left one! Left one!" in the double capacity of a Russian soldier and of David fighting Goliath.
1. The novel opens with David Levinsky?s declaration that ?the metamorphosis I have gone through strikes me as nothing short of a miracle.? What motivates the narrator?s transformation from devoted Talmudic scholar to passionate student to his final incarnation as a driven businessman? What additional themes contribute to Levinsky?s dramatic metamorphosis?
2. How would you characterize the differences between the Orthodox Jews and westernized Jews of Antomir? Later, when the story moves to America, how does Cahan contrast Eastern European Jews with German Jews? And what may be gleaned from Cahan?s depiction of the relationship between turn-of-the-century Jews and gentiles?
3. ?The United States lured me not merely as a land of milk and honey, but also, and perhaps chiefly, as one of mystery, of fantastic experiences, of marvelous transformations,? recalls David Levinsky. Drawing on the novel?s vivid depiction of Jewish immigrants from all levels of society, which of them share the narrator?s rosy view of America? Does David Levinsky retain his deep enthusiasm for the United States, or do his feelings shift over the course of the novel?
4. The Rise of David Levinsky has been hailed as an important novel of American business. How does Levinsky?s enthusiasm for social Darwinism and ?the theory of the Struggle for Existence and the Survival of the Fittest? affect his business practices? Considering Cahan?s depiction of the conflicts between Capital and Labor, what might you infer about the author?s own views on the subject? Is his portrayal evenhanded?
5. In examining Abraham Cahan?s portrayal of women and marriage, the scholar Susan Kress notes that the author ?avoids stereotyped portraits, frequently expresses the woman?s perspective, and creates a series of memorable female characters.? Do you agree?
6. According to the literary critic Sanford Marovitz, ?[Levinsky?s] ideal Woman, a union of Mother, Wife, Harlot, and Princess . . . floats ever-present in the recesses of his mind, an impossible dream that can nowhere find substantiation in the light of common day.? Is this a satisfying explanation for Levinsky?s ultimate failure to find a suitable romantic partner? Discuss.
7. At the end of the story, Levinsky declares, ?I cannot escape from my old self. My past and my present do not comport well. David, the poor lad swinging over a Talmud volume at the Preacher?s Synagogue, seems to have more in common with my inner identity than David Levinsky, the well-known cloak-manufacturer.? What has the narrator sacrificed in order to attain financial success in America?
Posted April 5, 2003
This book is the story of a Jewish immigrant's effort to make it in America. And one of its strengths is that it shows the price in denial of heritage and tradition which is involved in this. This book also gives a picture of a time and a world which is gone . It also is a key document in understanding the rise of Jewish writing in America. And all who wish to understand Bellow,Malamud, Roth and others would do well to read this work.
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