Between Cultures and Continents: Abraham Cahan's The White Terror and the Red

Margarita Marinova, University of Texas, Austin

At the height of his career, the Russian-Jewish immigrant Abraham Cahan described himself as "the best foreign language editor in the United States," an "important" American novelist, and a former "feature writer" for various Russian language newspapers. Clearly, he chose to underscore the compatibility, rather than the inherent tensions between the different linguistic masks he had to wear interchangeably. However, in reality such a masterful juggling of national affiliations was far from unproblematic, and certainly extremely political. The constant negotiation of ethnicity, the precarious balancing between the position of outsider/insider to different cultures, depended on one's knowledge and understanding of specific historical moments. For the scores of minor (to borrow Deleuze and Guattari's famous term) writers who tried to find their way into the literary world of their adoptive country, the problem at hand was also predominantly a linguistic one.

In my paper, I propose to explore Cahan's construction of his own identity through his fictional writing. I've chosen his novel The White Terror and the Red as my main focus of attention, as the subject matter and publication history of this virtually unknown work offer the modern reader a perfect example of a site which pulls together the diverse cultural experiences of a particular type of an East European immigrant. Written in English by a Jewish intellectual who was advertised by his American publishers as a Russian writer, the book foregrounds issues of ethnic, class and gender relations in ways that would have been foremost in the minds of its contemporary readers. Subtitled "A Novel of Revolutionary Russia," this deceptively simple on its plot level Bildungsroman actually manages to cross over both time and space: its synchronic approach to the described events purposefully conflates past and contemporary historical moments (the Jewish pogroms of 1881 and 1902), while at the same time, through the question of anti-Jewish attitudes abroad and at home, bringing together Tsarist Russia and turn-of-the-century homophobic America.