Processing "Alphabet City" in Abraham Cahan's Yekl. A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896)

Nicola Maurizio Strazzanti


In the quote taken from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, the Russian-American writer measures – on linguistic and phonological parameters – the ability of his semi-autobiographical protagonist to behave correctly in the adopted homeland. The short excerpt is stylistically tantamount, but at the same time momentous in the history of American ‘ethnic’ literature, with reference to the literary experiment Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) performed in his novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896). This short book mirrors an eminently transitional socio-cultural framework through the representation of a peculiar descriptive element: the immigrant’s linguistic identity in trans-Atlantic dimension. The contact between the writer’s sharp view and what he actually saw generated a book deeply influenced by the illustration of imperfection in his protagonists’ speech. Manhattan’s Lower East Side Jewish neighborhood – the ghetto Cahan wanted to describe and possibly explain to the American audience – was inhabited by immigrants whose mother-tongue, to quote Vladimir Nabokov’s citation pointed out above, sounded like “music”, but whose English represented alphabetical “murder”. Cahan’s novella is set in the critical time of mass immigration, when a couple of millions of eastern ashkenazic Jews left eastern Europe and settled in the United States (Geipel 3). The disruption of narrative language, which mirrors in almost naturalist fashion first generation immigrants’ obvious failure to use the language of mainstream society, constitutes as I see it one of the primary critical keys to understand the text. By means of a highly sophisticated articulation of racialized dialogue, Cahan fictionalizes a series of socio-cultural issues: the settlement of an eastern European community in New York City, the linguistic configuration of the Lower East Side at that time, and in general the ways in which the United States inform and deform immigrants’ attitudes towards life in an alien society. Narrative language in Yekl – far from playing the simple role of a means to constitute a literary form – should therefore be understood as an explanation for the eternal transformational practices that influence the evolution of ideology and society, especially in the multiple socio-cultural contexts that have shaped (and are still shaping) the United States – a complex issue which has recently been investigated most interestingly by Roberto Cagliero and Anna Belladelli (2013).


Jewish; Abraham Cahan; Yekl: A Tale of The New York Ghetto

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