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The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan

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business, which has a certain moral effect on their relations with
my house. For a similar purpose I am a shareholder in the large
mail-order houses that buy cloaks and suits of me. I hold shares of
some department stores also, but of late I have grown somewhat
shy of this kind of investment, the future of a department store
being as uncertain as the future of the neighborhood in which it is
located. Mail-order houses, on the other hand, have the whole
country before them, and their overwhelming growth during past
years was one of the conspicuous phenomena in the business life
of the nation. I love to watch their operations spread over the map,
and I love to watch the growth of American cities, the shifting of
their shopping centers, the consequent vicissitudes, the decline of
some houses, the rise of others. American Jews of German origin
are playing a foremost part in the retail business of the country,
large or small, and our people, Russian and Galician Jews, also are
making themselves felt in it, being, in many cases, in partnership
with Gentiles or with their own coreligionists of German descent.
The king of the great mail-order business, a man with an annual
income of many millions, is the son of a Polish Jew. He is one of
the two richest Jews in America, having built up his vast fortune
in ten or fifteen years. As I have said before, I know hundreds, if
not thousands, of merchants, Jews and Gentiles, throughout this
country and Canada, so I like to keep track of their careers

This, too, is good sport

Of course, it is essential to study the business map in the interests
of my own establishment, but I find intellectual excitement in it as
well, and, after all, I am essentially an intellectual man, I think

There are retailers in various sections of the country whom I have
helped financially--former buyers, for example, who went into
business on their own hook with my assistance. This is good
business, for while these merchants must be left free to buy in the
open market, they naturally give my house precedence. But here
again I must say in fairness to myself that business interest is not
the only motive that induces me to do them these favors.

Indeed, in some cases I do it without even expecting to get my
money back.

It gives me moral satisfaction, for which money is no measure of


AM I happy? There are moments when I am overwhelmed by a
sense of my success and ease. I become aware that thousands of
things which had formerly been forbidden fruit to me are at my
command now. I distinctly recall that crushing sense of being
debarred from everything, and then I feel as though the whole
world were mine. One day I paused in front of an old East Side
restaurant that I had often passed in my days of need and despair.
The feeling of desolation and envy with which I used to peek in its
windows came back to me. It gave me pangs of self-pity for my
past and a thrilling sense of my present power. The prices that had
once been prohibitive seemed so wretchedly low now. On another
occasion I came across a Canal Street merchant of whom I used to
buy goods for my push-cart. I said to myself: "There was a time
when I used to implore this man for ten dollars' worth of goods,
when I regarded him as all-powerful and feared him. Now he
would be happy to shake hands with me."

I recalled other people whom I used to fear and before whom I
used to humiliate myself because of my poverty. I thought of the
time when I had already entered the cloak business, but was
struggling and squirming and constantly racking my brains for
some way of raising a hundred dollars; when I would cringe with
a certain East Side banker and vainly beg him to extend a small
note of mine, and come away in a sickening state of despair

At this moment, as these memories were filing by me, I felt as
though now there were nobody in the world who could inspire me
with awe or render me a service

And yet in all such instances I feel a peculiar yearning for the very
days when the doors of that restaurant were closed to me and
when the Canal Street merchant was a magnate of commerce in
my estimation. Somehow, encounters of this kind leave me
dejected. The gloomiest past is dearer than the brightest present.
In my case there seems to be a special reason for feeling this way.
My sense of triumph is coupled with a brooding sense of
emptiness and insignificance, of my lack of anything like a great,
deep interest

I am lonely. Amid the pandemonium of my six hundred
sewing-machines and the jingle of gold which they pour into my
lap I feel the deadly silence of solitude

I spend at least one evening a week at the Benders. I am fond of
their children and I feel pleasantly at home at their house. I am a
frequent caller at the Nodelmans', and enjoy their hospitality even
more than that of the Benders. I go to the opera, to the theaters,
and to concerts, and never alone. There are merry suppers, and
some orgies in which I take part, but when I go home I suffer a
gnawing aftermath of loneliness and desolation

I have a fine summer home, with servants, automobiles, and
horses. I share it with the Bender family and we often have
visitors from the city, but, no matter how large and gay the crowd
may be, the country makes me sad

I know bachelors who are thoroughly reconciled to their solitude
and even enjoy it. I am not.

No, I am not happy

In the city I occupy a luxurious suite of rooms in a high-class hotel
and keep an excellent chauffeur and valet. I give myself every
comfort that money can buy. But there is one thing which I crave
and which money cannot buy--happiness.

Many a pretty girl is setting her cap at me, but I know that it is
only my dollars they want to marry. Nor do I care for any of them,
while the woman to whom my heart is calling--Anna--is married
to another man

I dream of marrying some day. I dread to think of dying a lonely

Sometimes I have a spell of morbid amativeness and seem to be
falling in love with woman after woman. There are periods when I
can scarcely pass a woman in the street without scanning her face
and figure. When I see the crowds returning from work in the
cloak-and-waist district I often pause to watch the groups of girls
as they walk apart from the men. Their keeping together, as if they
formed a separate world full of its own interests and secrets,
makes a peculiar appeal to me

Once, in Florida, I thought I was falling in love with a rich Jewish
girl whose face had a bashful expression of a peculiar type. There
are different sorts of bashfulness. This girl had the bashfulness of
sin, as I put it to myself. She looked as if her mind harbored illicit
thoughts which she was trying to conceal. Her blushes seemed to
be full of sex and her eyes full of secrets. She was not a pretty girl
at all, but her "guilty look" disturbed me as long as we were
stopping in the same place

But through all these ephemeral infatuations and interests I am in
love with Anna

From time to time I decide to make a "sensible" marriage, and
study this woman or that as a possible candidate, but so far
nothing has come of it

There was one woman whom I might have married if she had not
been a Gentile--one of the very few who lived in the family hotel
in which I had my apartments. At first I set her down for an
adventuress seeking the acquaintance of rich Jews for some
sinister purpose. But I was mistaken. She was a woman of high
character. Moreover, she and her aged mother, with whom she
lived, had settled in that hotel long before it came to be patronized
by our people. She was a widow of over forty, with a good,
intellectual face, well read in the better sense of the term, and no
fool. Many of our people in the hotel danced attendance upon her
because she was a Gentile woman, but all of them were really
fond of her. The great point was that she seemed to have a sincere
liking for our people. This and the peculiar way her shoulders
would shake when she laughed was, in fact, what first drew me to
her. We grew chummy and I spent many an hour in her company

In my soliloquies I often speculated and theorized on the question
of proposing to her. I saw clearly that it would be a mistake. It
was not the faith of my fathers that was in the way. It was that
medieval prejudice against our people which makes so many
marriages between Jew and Gentile a failure. It frightened me

One evening we sat chatting in the bright lobby of the hotel,
discussing human nature, and she telling me something of the
good novels she had read.

After a brief pause I said: "I enjoy these talks immensely. I don't
think there is another person with whom I so love to talk of
human beings."

She bowed with a smile that shone of something more than mere
appreciation of the compliment. And then I uttered in the simplest
possible accents: "It's really a pity that there is the chasm of race
between us. Otherwise I don't see why we couldn't be happy

I was in an adventurous mood and ready, even eager, to marry her.
But her answer was a laugh, as if she took it for a joke; and,
though I seemed to sense intimacy and encouragement in that
laugh, it gave me pause. I felt on the brink of a fatal blunder, and I
escaped before it was too late.

"But then," I hastened to add, "real happiness in a case like this is
perhaps not the rule, but the exception. That chasm continues to
yawn throughout the couple's married life, I suppose."

"That's an interesting point of view," she said, a non-committal
smile on her lips

She tactfully forbore to take up the discussion, and I soon dropped
the subject. We remained friends

It was this woman who got me interested in good, modern fiction.
The books she selected for me interested me greatly. Then it was
that the remarks I had heard from Moissey Tevkin came to my
mind. They were illuminating

Most of the people at my hotel are German-American Jews. I
know other Jews of this class. I contribute to their charity
institutions. Though an atheist, I belong to one of their
synagogues. Nor can I plead the special feeling which had partly
accounted for my visits at the synagogue of the Sons of Antomir
while I was engaged to Kaplan's daughter. I am a member of that
synagogue chiefly because it is a fashionable synagogue. I often
convict myself of currying favor with the German Jews. But then
German-American Jews curry favor with Portuguese-American
Jews, just as we all curry favor with Gentiles and as American
Gentiles curry favor with the aristocracy of Europe

I often long for a heart-to-heart talk with some of the people of my
birthplace. I have tried to revive my old friendships with some of
them, but they are mostly poor and my prosperity stands between
us in many ways

Sometimes when I am alone in my beautiful apartments, brooding
over these things and nursing my loneliness, I say to myself:
"There are cases when success is a tragedy."

There are moments when I regret my whole career, when my very
success seems to be a mistake

I think that I was born for a life of intellectual interest. I was
certainly brought up for one. The day when that accident turned
my mind from college to business seems to be the most
unfortunate day in my life. I think that I should be much happier
as a scientist or writer, perhaps. I should then be in my natural
element, and if I were doomed to loneliness I should have
comforts to which I am now a stranger. That's the way I feel every
time I pass the abandoned old building of the City College

The business world contains plenty of successful men who have no

Why, then, should I ascribe my triumph to special ability? I should
probably have made a much better college professor than a
cloak-manufacturer, and should probably be a happier man, too. I
know people who have made much more money than I and whom
I consider my inferiors in every respect

Many of our immigrants have distinguished themselves in science,
music, or art, and these I envy far more than I do a billionaire. As
an example of the successes achieved by Russian Jews in America
in the last quarter of a century it is often pointed out that the man
who has built the greatest sky-scrapers in the country, including
the Woolworth Building, is a Russian Jew who came here a
penniless boy. I cannot boast such distinction, but then I have
helped build up one of the great industries of the United States,
and this also is something to be proud of. But I should readily
change places with the Russian Jew, a former Talmud student like
myself, who is the greatest physiologist in the New World, or with
the Russian Jew who holds the foremost place among American
song-writers and whose soulful compositions are sung in almost
every English-speaking house in the world. I love music to
madness. I yearn for the world of great singers, violinists, pianists.
Several of the greatest of them are of my race and country, and I
have met them, but all my acquaintance with them has brought me
is a sense of being looked down upon as a money-bag striving to
play the Maścenas. I had a similar experience with a sculptor,
also one of our immigrants, an East Side boy who had met with
sensational success in Paris and London. I had him make my bust.
His demeanor toward me was all that could have been desired.
We even cracked Yiddish jokes together and he hummed bits of
synagogue music over his work, but I never left his studio without
feeling cheap and wretched

When I think of these things, when I am in this sort of mood, I pity
myself for a victim of circumstances

At the height of my business success I feel that if I had my life to
live over again I should never think of a business career

I don't seem to be able to get accustomed to my luxurious life. I am
always more or less conscious of my good clothes, of the high
quality of my office furniture, of the power I wield over the men
in my pay. As I have said in another connection, I still have a
lurking fear of restaurant waiters

I can never forget the days of my misery. 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

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