The Rise of David Levinsky

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When Abraham Cahan began drafting the narrative that ultimately became his most important novel, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), he had neither the idea nor the intention of writing another long work of fiction. Cahan was principally a journalist with the Yiddish press; he edited the Socialist Labor Party's Arbeter tsaytung and Tsukunft through the mid-1890s, and he was a founding editor of the Jewish daily Forwerts, or Forward; under his direction for nearly fifty years, the Forward became the most widely read Yiddish newspaper in the world. He was also a major influence in the development of organized labor on New York's Lower East Side, almost from the time he arrived in that city from Russia in 1882 as a committed socialist, having fled from the tsar's police at twenty-two because of his leftist leanings. Thirty years later his wide reputation as an influential socialist, Jewish leader, and journalist, in support of organized labor, was firm. He had also gained stature as a writer of fiction in English and had spent about four years (late 1897 through 1901) as a reporter for the New York Commercial Advertiser, then under the city editorship of Lincoln Steffens. In 1912 Burton J. Hendrick, associate editor of McClure's Magazine, a monthly known for its muckraking exposés of corruption and chicanery in industry at the turn of the century, invited Cahan to compose a short series of two articles on the success of the Jewish immigrant in the garment trade. Cahan immediately accepted the offer. He did not expect the series to take much time, and he thought that informing readers how successfully the Jewish immigrants had established themselves in a major American industry—clothing manufacturing and trade in the United States had been dominated by Jews since at least 1880—would prove beneficial not only to them but to the American public as well.

Initially he intended to write expository articles, specifically to convey information about Jews in the garment trade, but he immediately oriented his material toward fiction by creating a first-person narrator. His first article was so successful that readers wanted more, and he agreed to extend the two-part series to four sections under the title "The Autobiography of an American Jew: The Rise of David Levinsky," published from April through July 1913.

A literary realist devoted to presenting real life in fiction, Cahan drew the subtitle of his series from The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells, the most influential advocate for realism in the United States late in the preceding century. Howells was at the height of his influence when he befriended Cahan in 1895 and supported the aspiring Jewish author with a highly favorable review of his first novel in English, Yekl, A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896). By then, Cahan had read with great admiration nearly all of Howells's earlier fiction; inspired by the Dean's realism, he was determined to reveal the truth of East Side life as he knew it, with all its grimness and suffering. To do this, however, he had to transcend Howells's ideas that morality is universal and decency has bounds outside of which respectable fiction cannot go. To fulfill his own ethic as an author and present a true picture of life in the tenement district, Cahan understood that he might have to create figures of dubious character and depict the sordid ghetto environment naturalistically. Thus he risked offending many readers, Jewish and Gentile alike, with his series, but he felt he could not do otherwise.

What Cahan did not know, however, and perhaps never fully realized, is that he was being set up by Hendrick and McClure's to make Jews in business fit the stereotype of shrewd, manipulative schemers whose sole aim was to acquire wealth and power. Jules Chametzky gives an illuminating account of this editorial duplicity in his introduction to the Penguin edition (1993) of The Rise of David Levinsky and points to the way that the repugnance of Cahan's narrator was dramatized in effect by the grotesque depictions of Jews in illustrations accompanying the text.


For the title of his novel, Cahan used only the subtitle of his McClure's series. On the surface The Rise of David Levinsky covers the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century and the first fifteen of the twentieth. The novel combines a naturalistic exposition of Jewish immigrant life on New York's Lower East Side with a history of the burgeoning American garment industry, including its development and operation from the lowest echelon of workers to the owners, with dramatic views of the persistent labor unrest that agitates it. But on a more subtle level, it is simultaneously a study of the depressed, hypocritical, alienated narrator, Levinsky, who relates the story of his life from his grim childhood in Antomir, a Russian shtetl, to his middle years as a wealthy industrialist in New York City.

No longer simply a device by which the development of a major industry is exposed, Levinsky is a fully realized character in the novel, with a principal role not only in the evolution of the garment trade but also in the lives of the numerous secondary and tertiary figures, nearly all of whom in one way or another are involved with it. The characters are highly individualized, and they reappear in different contexts from time to time like motifs in a large musical composition; whenever they return they bring with them echoes of their past associations with Levinsky, all of which adds to the depth and drama of their scenes.

One by one they illustrate the two primary components of Levinsky's narrative: his rise in an industrial community comprised predominantly of East European Jewish immigrants like himself and the psychological peculiarities he exposes during the course of relating his candid autobiography. For example, Naphtali, his free-thinking companion at the yeshiva in Antomir, is an alter-ego who helps Levinsky break with his past. Reb Bender, his benign teacher, ineffectually counsels him at the yeshiva. Matilda, a young divorcee, tempts the naive Talmud student Levinsky to seduce her, then ridicules him, gives him money to emigrate, and finally, years later, when she visits America as an ardent socialist, contemptuously dismisses him as a union-hating millionaire. Argentine Rachael, the shrewd prostitute from Antomir, sells her favors to Levinsky and educates him about East Side politics. Gussie, an unattractive coworker he seduces in an attempt to gain her savings, later contributes part of her wages to support a strike and rejects his invitation to work in his factory. Mrs. Chaikin, the cautious, shrewish wife of his first designer, tries to outwit Levinsky and fails. "Maximum Max" Margolis, a street peddler, teaches Levinsky the ropes, assuring him that any woman can be won with the right effort and thus inadvertently sets up the seduction of his own lovely wife, Dora, despite her earnest resistance to Levinsky's overbearing solicitations. After having his way with her, however, Levinsky cannot persuade Dora to become his mistress; the moving scene in Stuyvesant Park that leads to her break with him is worthy of comparison with James. Themes alone do not make a novel; these figures and numerous other characters in a succession of dramatic scenes constitute the texture that vitalizes the themes and brings the fiction to life.

Yet as both narrator and participant, Levinsky is the axis on which the whole massive novel turns. Having made his fortune through extraordinary chutzpah and exploitation, he finds life meaningless. Responsible to no one, he has everything to share but no one with whom to share it. Structurally Levinsky's state of mind is of particular interest, because he confesses on the opening page that despite his wealth and power his life still "seems devoid of significance" (p. 3). By beginning his autobiography at the end, after the action has occurred, he leaves readers to learn not how well the poor young immigrant fares after his arrival in America but why, with all his money, he is so despondent. As the novel progresses and Levinsky's life story unfolds, the perceptive reader gradually apprehends that the industrialist's emotional and moral limitations helped him rise financially while they continue to undermine the possibility of his spiritual fulfillment. The essential question, never answered, is whether or not he realizes even as he begins his account that the apparent lack of significance in his life is attributable wholly to his own shortcomings.


The nearly half a century between 1880 and 1924 brought an influx of some 2.5 million Jewish immigrants into the United States, predominantly from eastern Europe, and most of them remained in New York. In 1915 the Jewish population of New York City was nearly a million and a half, roughly 28 percent of the total, and a disproportionate percentage of the immigrants were crowded into the tenements of the Lower East Side.

The twenty-year-old David Levinsky arrives at Castle Garden in 1885, two years younger than Cahan when he immigrated at twenty-two. When Levinsky commences his autobiography, however, he is fifty-two, precisely Cahan's age as he began to draft his series of articles for McClure's. Like Cahan, after being admitted to the country, Levinsky remains on the Lower East Side where he, too, must learn English while struggling to earn a living, going so far as to attend public-school English classes with the children. For Levinsky, people who speak English as a native language are superior by birth, and he is as determined to become fluent as Cahan himself had become. These similarities and numerous others between the author and his eponymous hero have led such critics as Louis Harap to consider Levinsky as Cahan's surrogate, reviewing his own past and views. But the essential differences between the author and his creation are far more significant than such correspondences in circumstances and events.

Having arrived at Castle Garden with little money, Cahan had gained a position of great influence by the time he wrote Levinsky, yet unlike his narrator, he neither sought nor acquired riches. Instead, he aspired to improve the lives of other eastern European immigrant Jews by promoting Americanization in advice columns in the Forward and pressing hard for labor reform. Cahan's benevolent personal aims, however, are not evident in his narrator. Instead, Levinsky illustrates how financial success can be managed without initial capital or serious moral scruples, with the aid of shrewdness, exploitation, and luck.

Typically, he begins his career in the United States with a few unsatisfactory odd jobs before he becomes a modestly successful peddler by hawking and bargaining while he observes what goes on around him. Advised by an acquaintance to learn how to operate a sewing machine for more lucrative earnings, Levinsky becomes adept with a Singer and quickly finds a position with a contractor working fifteen-hour days; then he joins a union. Dissatisfied with the first shop, he moves to one owned by the Manheimer brothers. Meanwhile he gives private English lessons to supplement his earnings; the wealthy manufacturer he tutors, Meyer Nodleman, becomes Levinsky's benefactor when he opens his own factory.

During each stage of his rise in fortune, Levinsky takes advantage of the gullibility or limitations of others, as he borrows with dubious security, writes checks with inadequate backing, secretly copies new fashion designs from competitors, supports the union initially only to undermine it later, and so forth. Simultaneously, he learns more about business and people from fellow workers in shops and on the streets; from drummers on trains when he travels to hawk his own merchandise; and from managers and owners. Having been told that he has a "credit face," he takes advantage of his appearance of honesty to gain people's trust. "We are all actors, more or less" (p. 194), he confesses, thus justifying his hypocrisy in his own eyes. With every person Levinsky meets and each new position he gains in his ascension to wealth, Cahan exhibits another aspect of East Side life, seedy elements included.

The paragraph below, which begins The Rise of David Levinsky, exhibits in a few lines much of the thematic substance of Cahan's novel. Levinsky himself is the autobiographical narrator who exposes in these few lines his material status and spiritual vacuity, his rise to wealth and fame that ironically has left him alienated and alone. The questions he implicitly asks here are how did he become so wealthy, and what has caused his despondency? Through the course of the novel, he explains his answer to the first in great and candid detail, but it remains dubious that he himself has ever determined an answer to the second.

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 1885—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.

Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky, p. 3.

Historically on the edge of the red-light district, the Lower East Side was notorious for prostitution. After his first visit to a prostitute, Levinsky persistently succumbs to his passions. He returns repetitively to Argentine Rachael, who sells him sex and counsels him on how the local police and politicians operate. A clever businesswoman, Argentine Rachael becomes Levinsky's confidante, thereby abetting his social and economic ascent.

Not all those with whom Levinsky associates are Jewish, of course, but most are, particularly in his early years on the streets and in the sweatshops. By living among the immigrants before achieving his wealth, Levinsky has no serious problems with anti-Semitism, which was present in the United States only in a subdued form until the years of mass east European migration, when it steadily increased. In 1924, only seven years after Levinsky was published, an anti-immigration bill was passed by Congress and signed by the president.


Readers of The Rise of David Levinsky interested chiefly in the history of American business and labor, Jewish immigration, or New York's Lower East Side late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth will find Cahan's novel instructive. Readers who peruse the novel on a deeper level will find it no less engaging for its humanistic and literary values. In his psychological portrait of Levinsky, Cahan has created an ambiguous autobiographer whose ambivalence throughout the novel may be traced to roots deep in his past. His narrative is divided into fourteen sections, only one of which, "On the Road," describing his experiences while traveling to sell his merchandise, even implies a business interest. The other titles refer specifically to Levinsky's personal life. That is one reason his candid and realistic self-portrait equals his grand sociohistorical panorama in importance to the novel.

At age fifty-two the millionaire industrialist cannot understand why he remains unfulfilled. Having discovered Herbert Spencer's theory of Social Darwinism, in which only the fittest can survive in a life based on competition, Levinsky operates accordingly. When he deceives someone and gains by it, he justifies his action on the grounds of survival of the fittest; for him, Spencer's theory has become a way of life, replacing the sound moral behavior he learned from his mother and his teachers at the yeshiva back in Antomir. People who treat him with respect are either patronized, exploited, or brushed aside and neglected. He dreams of love, marriage, and children, a family he can call his own, but although he seeks a wife through the marriage market and nearly finds one in Fanny Kaplan, he never weds. To a large extent his alienation and failure with women may be explained by the way as a child and adolescent he dotes on his mother, who impulsively sacrifices her life for him. Although he is over eighteen at the time, his chief concern over her death is that she has abandoned him to fare for himself; this traumatic incident occurs about a year before he departs for America.

His father died many years earlier, leaving little David as the man of the family. Throughout his boyhood and youth, he is attracted to girls as sex objects, and he allows himself to be exploited by them because their attention satisfies his vanity. From the local heder, David advances to a yeshiva, where he studies to become learned in Jewish thought. But sexual fantasies squelch his interest in Talmud, an interest that he has forced on himself from the beginning. When an opportunity comes to emigrate, he takes advantage of it and sails to America, where his life as an immigrant commences. Unlike his perception of most immigrants, however, he undergoes no essential transformation in the United States, no "second birth" (p. 93), because the seeds of change germinated long before he left Antomir.

From the first few days after his arrival in America until he starts to achieve success in the garment manufactory, by which time his dubious interest in Talmud has completely atrophied, he expresses a strong desire to continue his education by attending college but not to study anything in particular. With the approach of financial success his dream of college gives way to his desire for wealth and his longing for an ideal woman, a combination of his mother and some of the girls and women he has known or seen.

Each new woman he meets is an object of seduction or wishful thinking but not love—until he becomes infatuated with Anna Tevkin, whom he first sees playing tennis at the Rigi Kulm House, a posh Jewish hotel in the Catskills where fashionable vulgarity prevails among those guests whom Cahan called "olraytniks" (from "all right"). Levinsky has stopped at the Rigi Kulm overnight to avoid riding on the Sabbath while on his way to visit his fiancée and her family at their summer cottage in the mountains; he feels that violating the Hebrew restriction against Sabbath travel might offend his future father-in-law. But he is captivated when he notices Anna, the appealing young daughter of a poet whose romantic love story is known to him. Her image, enhanced in his ever-active imagination by her parents' romance, proves fatal to his engagement. His attraction to Anna becomes an obsession that leads him to lose nearly all he owns when he over-invests in a real-estate boom to gain favor with Anna's father. The aging Russian poet, brilliantly portrayed with his New York houseful of radicals and eccentrics, is as obsessed with real estate as Levinsky is with his daughter. Appalled by Levinsky's chutzpah when he proposes for the second time, Anna dismisses him with finality. When the real-estate boom collapses and Levinsky regains financial stability with the aid of a Gentile with whom he's done business, he seems to relinquish his romantic dream; he remains a despondent millionaire longing for a past that never was and a future that appears beyond his reach.


Cahan's novel was generally praised by the critics for its realism, although it drew complaints about the unfavorable portrait of its Jewish protagonist. Some readers considered it borderline anti-Semitism—an understandable response because Levinsky has few if any redeeming features. Others found it altogether detestable, but whether they were criticizing the novel or its East Side content is subject to question. Harper & Brothers sold about eight thousand copies of Levinsky in 1917 and 1918, a respectable sales figure for the time; the novel was republished ten years later by Grosset and Dunlap (1928), who kept it in print for another decade.


The Rise of David Levinsky has deservedly been praised as one of the best immigration novels published in America. Written by a Jewish immigrant with a strong commitment to his people and his adoptive country alike, it authentically depicts how an industry grew in the United States, making some people wealthy but keeping a multitude of others destitute through exploitation. Yet it also reveals the impact of organized labor—a popular force toward which Cahan was greatly sympathetic—when the abuses became more severe than the laborers were willing to bear. For Cahan, life in the ghetto was not entirely grim despite the constant struggle of its inhabitants to survive and eventually progress. Although Levinsky, the narrator, is central, many of the secondary and tertiary characters represent such struggles on a more typical level. All of the major figures in the novel, and most of the minor ones, are Jewish, yet Cahan depicted a remarkable variety of characters on the Lower East Side and individualized them all, thereby enhancing the authenticity of his narrative.

One of the novel's cardinal achievements is the complex portrait of its eponymous narrator. Levinsky presents himself as objectively as possible from his own limited perspective. He exposes his eccentricities; his bewilderment over his chronically despondent state of mind; his constant self-justification based on his reading of Herbert Spencer; his exploitation of anyone in a position to provide him with what he needs, male or female, worker or financier, friend or competitor. He is far more honest with readers than with himself or any of acquaintances, for he enables readers to apprehend what he cannot see reflectively.

The Rise of David Levinsky was Cahan's final novel and a stunning achievement. The novel represents the garment trade in all its complexity, both feeding off and depending on the hands of millions of struggling immigrants, who drive themselves day by day to earn a wretched living in the Jewish ghettos. Simultaneously, the narrator exposes himself as shrewd, exploitative, and laden with emotional and psychological burdens. The greater depth and increased length of The Rise of David Levinsky gives it the literary stature that the original serialized "autobiography" lacks. Ironically, Cahan wrote his grandest novel almost as an afterthought, in order to fill out the story he had begun a few years earlier in four magazine articles. Had the offer from McClure's not come, The Rise of David Levinsky would never have been written. This serendipitous sequence appears to confirm the significant role of luck in real life and thereby justify its place in realistic and naturalistic fiction, however unlikely it may seem to skeptical readers.

See alsoAssimilation; Immigration; Jews; Labor; New York; Realism; Success


Primary Works

Cahan, Abraham. "The Autobiography of an American Jew: The Rise of David Levinsky." Illustrated by Jay Hambridge. McClure's Magazine, April 1913, pp. 92–106; May 1913, pp. 73–85; June 1913, pp. 131–132; 134, 138, 141–142; 145, 147–148; 151–152; July 1913, pp. 116–128.

Cahan, Abraham. The Rise of David Levinsky. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1917.

Howells, William Dean. Criticism and Fiction. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891.

Secondary Works

Chametzky, Jules. From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.

Chametzky, Jules. Introduction and Notes. In The Rise of David Levinsky, by Abraham Cahan. 1917. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Harap, Louis. The Image of the Jew in American Literature from Early Republic to Mass Immigration. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974.

Higham, John. Introduction. In The Rise of David Levinsky. 1917. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960.

Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976.

Marovitz, Sanford E. Abraham Cahan. New York: Twayne/Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996.

Pollock, Theodore Marvin. "The Solitary Clarinetist: A Critical Biography of Abraham Cahan, 1860–1917." Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1959.

Sanders, Ronald. The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Sanford E. Marovitz