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Papers of Abraham Cahan

 Collection
Identifier: RG 1139

Scope and Content Note

The Papers of Abraham Cahan are divided into two sections because YIVO acquired the two parts at different times and from different sources. Part I was formed from Cahan’s professional correspondence, mainly from the 1930s and 1940s, found in the papers of Mendel Osherowitch, an editor of the Forward, and from 1920s and 1930s professional correspondence, manuscripts sent to the Forward, notes, and other documents of Cahan’s found in the papers of Ephim H. Jeshurin, the Forward’s treasurer and Cahan’s biographer.

Part I consists of correspondence, telegrams, manuscripts, notes, clippings, photographs, and carbon copies. The material was divided into five series according to the type of document except for Series I: Personal Materials, which contains a variety of documents. Part I reflects Cahan’s position as the editor-in-chief of the world’s largest Yiddish newspaper. The correspondence deals mainly with writers’ wages and assignments and reveals the great extent to which Cahan was involved in the running of the newspaper and also in shaping the actual content of the articles and stories. To a lesser degree, the correspondence reflects Cahan as a leading socialist and as an author. Some important correspondents include David Bergelson, Sholem Asch, I.J. Singer, Zalman Shneur, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and H.L. Mencken. There is also correspondence between Sholem Asch and Jacob Dinesohn. How these letters found their way into the papers is unknown.

Part II of the Abraham Cahan Papers was taken from materials in the Jewish Labor Bund Archives, which YIVO Acquired in 1990. It is believed that these papers were retrieved by Bund archivist Hillel Kempinski after the Forward disbanded its downtown office on East Broadway in 1974, although this cannot be substantiated. Part II of the collection consists of correspondence, telegrams, manuscripts, speeches, condolences, publications, articles, newspaper clippings, plaques, scrapbooks, obituaries, and photos.

YIVO staff divided Part II into eleven series, which have been added onto the five series in Part I so as to form Series VI through Series XVI. In comparison to Part I of the collection, Part II holds a considerably larger portion of the Forward office letters, particularly from the 1930s and 1940s and offers a complex picture of the daily life and involvements of the editorial staff including Cahan himself. From this correspondence, one can obtain information on the relationships between Cahan and the newspaper’s readers, between Cahan and socialist and trade union leaders in the United States and Europe and between Cahan and aspiring writers. Part II contains information about the influences under which Yiddish journalists developed their political and literary strategies, the ways female journalists were treated and about the interaction between Yiddish journalists in the United States and those in Europe.

The strength of both parts of the collection resides in the coverage of Cahan’s ideas and activities in the 1930s and 1940s, during the last decades of his life, particularly as he related to world events such as the weakening of Yiddish culture in the United States, the fracturing of the Jewish socialist movement, the Second World War, and the establishment of the State of Israel.

Some important correspondents include Raphael Abramovitch, Jacob Adler, Marc Chagall, Clarence Darrow, Celia Dropkin, Ossip Dymow, Hutchins Hapgood, Max Nordau, Abba Hillel Silver, Baruch Vladeck, Chaim Weizmann, and Stephen Wise, some of whom are represented in the correspondence series in Part I and in Part II.

The Abraham Cahan Papers are limited in various ways. They mainly deal with the last two decades of his life, although the preceding seven decades were his most creative ones. They primarily document portions of his public life and fail to provide materials, like diaries or personal correspondence, which are private. Furthermore, even taken together, Part I and Part II are not the complete collection since, no doubt, a substantial portion of the materials disappeared when the Forward closed its office on East Broadway in 1974. The papers constitute only a fraction of Cahan’s total archive, whose fate is unknown. Yet they offer an invaluable insight into the history of Yiddish literature, the Yiddish press and the American socialist and labor movements.

Dates

  • 1890-1987
  • Majority of material found within 1920-1951

Language of Materials

The collection is in English, Yiddish, German, Russian, Polish, French, and Italian.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to the public. Permission to publish part or parts of the collection must be obtained in writing from the YIVO Archives.

Use Restrictions

There may be some restrictions on the use of the collection. For more information, contact:

YIVO Archives, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011

email: archives@yivo.cjh.org

Biographical / Historical

Abraham Cahan was born in Podberezha, near Vilna, on July 6, 1860. The grandson of a rabbi, and the only son of a Hebrew teacher, in his earliest years he was sent to kheyder and yeshiva. Attracted to secular subjects, especially the Russian language, in 1878 he enrolled in the Jewish Teacher’s Institute of Vilna, a government Jewish school designed to Russify Jewish youth, where he became involved with an underground revolutionary group. In 1882, after the assassination Tzar Alexander II and the subsequent pogroms, Cahan, fearful of arrest, fled Russia for the United States.

In America, Cahan settled in New York City, where he found work in a small factory. In his first year in America, 1882, Cahan became involved with American Jewish socialism and trade unionism and also first joined with other Russian and German Jewish worker-intellectuals to organize immigrant Jewish laborers. It was Cahan’s idea to hold meetings and conduct speeches in Yiddish. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Cahan played a leading role in various anarchist and social democratic groups. In the early 1890s, he went abroad three times, twice as the sole representative of the Jewish labor movement at the second and third congresses of the Second Socialist International. In 1901, he was one of the supporters of Eugene V. Debs, who founded the Socialist Party of America and after whom the Forward Association’s radio station, WEVD, was named.

In addition to his political activism, Cahan was a professional writer. He began this career, in Russian, in the journal Russkii Yevrey in 1882. After only a few years of studying English he published stories in the New York Sun and the New York Press, his novel Yekl was published in the Sunday New York World and several of his articles and stories were published in the Commercial Advertiser. The publication of his novels The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories, The White Terror and the Red and The Rise of David Levinsky brought him a great deal of acclaim from the English-language literati. While Cahan thought of Yiddish more as a tool for organizing and educating the immigrant workers than as a literary language, he began writing in Yiddish in the 1890s and became the editor of several of the earliest Yiddish newspapers in New York, among them Di Arbeter Tzaytung (1891-1896) and Tzukunft (1893-1897). He was one of the founders of the Jewish Daily Forward (Forverts) in 1897, and was its first editor, and then its editor-in-chief from 1903 until his death in 1951.

At its peak, from the early 1900s through the 1930s, the Forward was the largest and most influential Yiddish newspaper in the world and the largest non-English newspaper in the United States. To attract and hold this large and consistent readership, the Forward editors used such innovative strategies as personally signed articles by a staff of experienced journalists, human-interest stories, sensational exposes, coverage of popular music, art, theater, and fashion, and the popular advice column, A Bintl Brief. Because the Forward maintained such a large circulation and paid its writers well, it attracted some of the best Yiddish authors of the period, including Zalman Shneur, I.J. Singer, Sholem Asch, David Bergelson, Avrom Reisen, and Morris Rosenfeld, among others. Cahan, however, often alienated Yiddish writers with his harsh criticism and personal feuds. Particularly famous are Cahan’s clashes with the playwright Jacob Gordin and with Sholem Asch over Asch’s Christian novels, some of which is represented in this collection. Like its editor, the Forward supported the ideologies and activities of the Jewish, American and international socialist and trade union movements. Writers, Cahan among them, debated the ideological issues, among them the differences and relative merits of Socialism versus Communism and Diaspora Nationalism versus Zionism. As editor-in-chief of such a large and successful newspaper, as well as a successful and well-respected novelist and short story writer, Cahan corresponded with many important and influential people in several languages, some of whom are represented in these papers. Abraham Cahan died in New York City in 1951 at the age of 91.

Extent

10 Linear Feet

Abstract

This collection contains correspondence between Abraham Cahan and many important literary and political figures, as well as Yiddish manuscripts sent to Cahan for consideration in the Forward and notes and drafts of Cahan’s own writings. There are also several articles written about Cahan, before and after his death. These materials serve to illustrate both Cahan’s importance in the literary and publishing fields as well as his involvement in the American socialist and labor movements.

Arrangement

The collection is divided into two parts reflecting their different provenances. The series numbers, box numbers and folder numbers run through the two parts, so that the first folder in Part II is from Series VI, box 8 and folder 220, rather than beginning over again at Series I, box 1, folder 1. Because the two parts were originally processed separately, and under separate organizations, there is some overlap between series. Part II begins with Series VI: Correspondence, Yiddish, which is the same type of material as Series III: Correspondence, Yiddish, often from the same correspondents, although there does not appear to be an overlap in actual materials. It was decided not to combine overlapping series in order to maintain provenance. Thus, researchers looking for specific correspondents will need to look in multiple series.

Yiddish materials are arranged according to the Hebrew alphabet, mainly by correspondent or author’s last name. Titles of written works have been transliterated with a translation following in parentheses. Some Hebrew letters do not have an exact correspondent in the English alphabet, such as the Ch, Tz or Sh letters, while others have multiple correspondents, such as the A/O and I/J/Y letters. Yiddish names have been transliterated according to YIVO standards except when the individual is known in English by another spelling. Additionally, if the name appeared in Latin letters anywhere within the folder, that spelling was used rather than a standard transliteration. The languages of correspondence that is not in Yiddish are generally in parentheses following the listing of the material. Part I of the collection has been microfilmed and so any misfiling, such as the filing of Urke Nachalnik’s correspondence within the A/O folder rather than within the N folder, has been maintained to correspond with the microfilm. The microfilm information for the first part of the collection consists of the reel number and the frame number of the first frame for each folder. Materials in Part II, although not microfilmed, were also left as they were found. Thus, there is an article in Series XI: Writings about Abe Cahan, Yiddish that is in English and one that is in Russian. When there are multiple correspondents or several types of material in a single folder, the information is divided by semi-colons, both in the folder title and in the folder scope notes. Thus, the title of a folder of correspondence from several people will be the correspondents' names separated by semi-colons and the folder scope note will have information about the folder contents divided by author and separated by semi-colons. In a folder of manuscripts, when there are several authors, for each of whom there are multiple works, the folder title will be the authors' names divided by semi-colons and the scope note will contain the manuscript titles divided by author and separated by commas for each individual author's works and semi-colons between the authors.

The collection has been divided into 16 series, some of which have been further divided into subseries.
  1. Series I: Personal Materials, 1897-1950
  2. Series II: Forward Manuscripts, 1932-1940
  3. Subseries 1: Yiddish, 1934-1940
  4. Subseries 2: English, 1937-1938
  5. Subseries 3: Russian, 1932
  6. Subseries 4: German, undated
  7. Series III: Correspondence, Yiddish, 1908-1947
  8. Series IV: Correspondence, Non-Yiddish, 1902-1947
  9. Series V: Miscellaneous, 1925-1951
  10. Series VI: Correspondence, Yiddish, 1916-1951
  11. Series VII: Correspondence, Non-Yiddish, 1914-1950
  12. Series VIII: Correspondence between Abe Cahan and Hillel Rogoff, 1929-1944
  13. Series IX: Forward Manuscripts, Yiddish, 1938
  14. Series X: Abe Cahan’s Writings, 1890-1950
  15. Subseries 1: Yiddish, 1890-1950
  16. Subseries 2: Non-Yiddish, 1903-1942
  17. Series XI: Writings about Abe Cahan, Yiddish, 1910-1950
  18. Subseries 1: Books and Pamphlets, 1910-1941
  19. Subseries 2: Manuscripts, undated
  20. Subseries 3: Newspaper Clippings, 1910-1950
  21. Series XII: Celebrating Cahan’s Career, 1917-1950
  22. Series XIII: Personal Materials, 1932-1947
  23. Series XIV: Photographs, undated
  24. Series XV: Obituaries, 1951
  25. Series XVI: Posthumous Works about Abe Cahan, 1950-1987
  26. Subseries 1: Yiddish, 1951-1987
  27. Subseries 2: Non-Yiddish, 1950-1987

Acquisition Information

Part I was formed in 1983 from the Cahan materials in the papers of Mendel Osherowitch and the papers of Ephim H. Jeshurin. Part II was separated from the Bund Archives in 1990, when those archives became a part of the YIVO collection.

Related Material

YIVO and the American Jewish Historical Society have many books by and about Abraham Cahan, including Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom, The Rise of David Levinsky, Cahan’s 5-volume autobiography Bleter fun mayn lebn,, the English translation The Education of Abraham Cahan, and many others, as well as many books about Socialism and trade unionism. In addition, the YIVO Archives contains collections of several of Cahan’s most prominent correspondents, and the archives of the Bund, of Mendel Osherowitch and of Ephim H. Jeshurin, the three original sources from which the Cahan Papers were gathered.

Separated Material

Oversized materials have been moved to flat storage files.

Processing information

Itzek Gottesman processed Part I of the papers in 1983. Cecile E. Kuznitz prepared the microfilm edition of Part I in 1990. Lola Shafran, Dovid Myer and Eleanor Golobic processed Part II of the papers when they were under the auspices of the Bund. Norma Fain Pratt processed Part II of the papers at YIVO in 2000. Additional processing was completed in 2008.
Title
Guide to the Papers of Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) 1890-1987 RG 1139
Status
In Progress
Author
Processed by Itzek Gottesman, Lola Shafran, Dovid Myer, Eleanor Golobic, and Norma Fain Pratt. Additional processing by Rachel S. Harrison
Date
©2009
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin
Language of description note
Description is in English.
Sponsor
Part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation

Repository Details

Part of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Repository

Contact:
15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States