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In this essay I turn to Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), one of the most popular immigrant novels ever written. I argue that, like other immigrant writers of his generation, Cahan challenged the optimistic version of Americanization of the Progressive Era. First, I examine the context surrounding the publication of the novel, and argue that it stages Cahan’s response to nativism and anti-Semitism, pervasive in print culture at the turn of the century. Then I explore David Levinsky’s fashioning of his Americanized persona; Levinsky’s determination to Americanize leads to a series of unfulfilled, deferred dreams. By performing his desired new identity (to become a “true American”), and by repressing other forms of identification, Cahan’s character opens up a line of critique of Progressive Era constructions of race and ethnicity. I end with a discussion of the immigrant novel as a legitimate genre in 1917 and beyond.
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