Libin, a New Interpreter of East Side Life: A Sequel to Howells's Criticism and Fiction

GEKLIBENE SKITSEN1 is the title of a neat volume of some fifty sketches from East Side life in Gotham. Most of them have appeared in the columns of The Forward, the New York radical Yiddish daily, and are now collected in book form. Libin, the author of this volume, is a poor, untutored proletaire, a newsdealer by trade. He created something of a literary furore by his pen-sketches or rather snap-shots of the East Side reality. His little volume was hailed with delight in many a Jewish home throughout the country. His numerous admirers regard him as little short of a Yiddish classic, a pioneer in a new departure of realistic fiction. Thousands of intelligent readers in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and elsewhere, read and re-read his sketches, and discuss warmly their merits and their weak points. The general verdict of his readers and critics assigns to his work a permanent place in good Yiddish fiction ; and good, or even tolerable, Yiddish fiction, as well as good literature in general, the American reader must keep in mind, is a very rare article, especially in this country. A heap of rubbish is annually dumped on the Yiddish book market by a host of pensters without a shadow of literary quality about them. Amid this insipid stuff offered the Yiddish readers as an apology for tolerable fiction, Libin’s volume stands out in striking relief as something unique, refreshing, and of lasting literary worth.

This keen appreciation on the part of the Yiddish-reading public is in itself a sufficient warrant for assuming that there must be some very solid qualities in these sketches, especially if account is taken of the character of that public itself. The more progressive element of Russian Jews in large industrial centres of this country was nourished at home on the works of Russian classics, from Pouchkine to Tolstoi; Byelinski, Dobroliubov, Pìsaryov, and Shelgunòv — masters of Russian criticism — have helped not a few of these Yiddish readers to a more than average insight into true literary value. These Russian emigrants have been more or less fed on this wholesome nourishment which refined their art taste and sharpened their judgment. Nothing trashy, no printed matter below a certain literary level, will permanently appeal to them. An American of culture and of fine discrimination, should he once gain an intimate familiarity with this class of Jews, would be astonished to find how superior their literary taste is to that of many a college-bred reader of magazines. These “ ignorant foreigners, ” many of them grimy shop-hands, news-venders, or peddlers, with the marks of culture long worn off from their faces by years of fierce struggling for daily bread and a place in the world, will frequently display an unusual degree of literary, dramatic, and general art appreciation, a keen relish for a really good novel, poem, a Shakespearean or other classic play, or a symphony ; they often show an instinctive insight into what is true realism in art, — an insight that might grace with profit even an editorial sanctum, to judge by many a book review. This, then, is the character of the public which reads exclusively in Russian and in Yiddish. Its literary taste at least, if not its critical judgment, should command some respect. It will, therefore, be of interest to the American student of letters to find here an account of this literary phenomenon called Libin’s Sketches. I shall try to present a clear view of the subject matter of this book, of its literary merits, and of its author, and shall also show the significance of all this for American fiction.

What is the woof and thread of these sketches ? It is the East Side reality, a peculiar complex of material and psychical elements inseparably bound up with American economic conditions, and a vital part of the larger American reality. This complex engrafted on American life is, on its material side, a huge aggregation of shops and tenement prisons with hundreds of thousands of emigrant folk congested there. This aggregate is apparently bounded by the East River, the Bowery, and the fringe of “up-town;” it is not, however, strictly speaking, a “ghetto,” as some reportorial folk delight to dub it, since the people and the material conditions of the East Side ramify into all parts of Gotham, Williamsburg, Harlem, and other sections of Greater New York; besides, the East Side does not materially differ in aspect from similar aggregations of sweat-shops, tenements, and their inmates, in any other large industrial centre where a mixed community of emigrants more or less Americanized and of natives has grown up as a product of American industrial development. On its material side, then, the East Side is an immense industrial beehive just like any other, only more congested. It is the temporary home of the Jewish proletariat. There is a sprinkling, here and there, of the socalled “better classes: ” “intellectuals, ” professional people, embryonic “capitalists,” “bosses,” and other more or less parasitic outgrowths in a community of toilers; principally, however, the East Side is the home of the Jewish mass that knows many of the curses of modern industrialism and very few of its boons. There, as at the domicile of any other section of the “ great unwashed,” as the “overwashed” gentry delight to brand the mass of wage-toilers, is the dire poverty with its victims ground down daily to a spiritless pulp called the “submerged proletariat; ” there is the blank despair of thousands of families doomed to waste away their health and vitality; manhood, womanhood, and budding childhood are there stunted amid unspeakable misery of dingy garrets, dark holes, stifling in summer, cold in winter; there sunshine is a rare vision, where everlasting gloom reigns supreme. There are the thousands of shop-hands, dull and haggard, with the hollow cheek and the lustreless eye; they are crushed by incessant toil, and stultified by the constant din and whir of the machine and the galling lash of the boss, that implacable parvenu himself recently sprung from the ranks of toil. There is going on the fierce struggle for daily bread of a whole army of workers racked by overwork; the horrid spectre of “slack” time constantly stares in their faces. This is the East Side in its economic phase. So far it presents nothing that cannot be found in any other home of the proletariat, irrespective of race, native or foreign; the curse is here, only more intense.

Big, pathetic, soul-stirring, rich in content as the life-story of the general proletariat is, it is far behind the reality of the East Side; we have here the great tragedy of the wreck of thousands of lives, the maiming, the blighting of character, the coma of the soul. Life in the East Side, however, surpasses anything else in the wealth of psychical elements. This huge monster of sweatshops and tenement-holes with their human contents offers a mine of psychological material hardly to be found in any other variety of American life. Why is it so ? Because we deal here with a community made up of emigrants and their immediate descendants. In a community uniformly composed of native elements, that is, of people and conditions, there is something of stability in character and in habits of mind. The mental and moral make-up of such people is more or less fixed, inert. Violent changes in the psychics of individuals and groups are extremely rare at ordinary times, when the social or economic environment in which these people live is not convulsed. It is only at long intervals, after great economic or political changes, that new types, new tendencies or modifications of character appear. So it was in reconstruction times after the civil war, and after other landmarks of political, industrial, and social evolution. At times of comparative equilibrium, the real process of character-building and character-evolution in such a community is partly latent, partly disguised by outward uniformity.

It is quite different in a community made up of emigrants in various stages of assimilation with the surrounding native element. Each emigrant, torn off from quite a different economic and social environment at home, is transplanted into new conditions, economic and social, let alone the influence of a new climate and of a new habitat in general. By this violent change of surroundings, by this clash with a new environment, the emigrant undergoes a more or less violent, because sudden, psychical change. His old habits of thinking and feeling, down to his very manners and trifling allures, begin to be jarred by the new conditions and the people; the ideals he once cherished, his preferences, his sentiments, his way of looking at things, his estimates of moral worth, aesthetic standards, national predilections and bias, — in short, his whole past personality comes into collision with the new environment. As a result of this constant friction we note moral ulceration of the emigrant; his character, the character of whole groups of emigrants, begins to disintegrate. The emigrant, internally scarred, is never the same person, never his old self again. This is especially true in the case of foreigners in this country, where the clash is between older, simpler, as well as more idealistic, civilizations of Eastern Europe on the one hand, and the more complex, materialistic, industrial régime of the New World on the other. It is the clash between the contemplative, slow life, where rural conditions prevail, and the rush and turmoil of urban and industrial centres of this country. Emigrants themselves and those who have lived among them know well how true all this is. Not only ideas and habits, but deep-rooted sentiments and character have changed materially among emigrants, to such an extent that foreigners fresh from home are often startled by the immensity of the change. They do not recognize their own countrymen, their very kinsmen, in their new moral state. A shiftless fellow at home, without a bit of energy, becomes here often a wide-awake business man, full of the dash and “push ” of a native Yankee; an effeminate city lounger becomes a hardy, dare-devil Western cowboy. I have known city-bred old men, all nerves and sensibility, who knew nothing but the graces of the salon and the red tape of a government bureau, men without a grain of pluck, enterprise, or daring about them, kid-gloved gallants, who would not muster up courage enough to face a day of toil or privation, or to walk a few miles; I knew these same men to turn steady farmers away out in the Dakotas or in Kansas. The change on the emotional side, in the mode and intensity of feeling, is especially striking. Parental and filial affection, so typical of family life in Russia, and the consequent relations between children and their parents, between brothers and sisters, between young and old, — all this is here radically changed; filial affection especially is in most cases irretrievably gone. Space will not permit to cite many of the thousands of other cases of a similar kind; what is said is sufficient to show how deep and far-reaching is the psychical transformation of emigrants.

The East Side, therefore, as an emigrant community in close touch with the natives, is an inexhaustible mine of material for character-study. The social psychologist and the man of letters can trace here, step by step, how character is disintegrated and built up anew. It is a great psychological laboratory, where, amid a constantly changing environment, soul-evolution is taking place on a large scale. New types and group-characters, their origin and their various interactions, can be best studied here.

This remarkable phenomenon of psychical change is especially peculiar to the East Side, since the underlying cause, the clash between two environments, is more potent here than elsewhere ; most of the East Siders are natives of Russia. I leave it to the reader to grasp the immensity of the contrast. People are born in a vast plain, in agricultural communities, under Russia’s political régime ; these people at once settle on the Atlantic seaboard, in the heart of Yankeedom; the outcome is a violent clash; the psychical disturbance produced on these people is, therefore, the most intense.

We see, then, that the East Side, both as the home of the Jewish proletariat and as a great community of Russian emigrants, is rich in psychical content and dramatic interest to a degree that would tax the powers even of a Tolstoi, should he undertake adequately to portray this immense and complex reality.

But what makes the East Side more challenging to literary portrayal is the fact that these emigrants are Russian Jews, that is Jews, and moreover coming from Russia. They are a race with a peculiar mental and moral structure, of Oriental and Slav warp and woof, a complex nature too subtle and elusive for the ordinary methods of any fiction and especially American. The Jew, retaining some remote traces of Oriental buoyancy and vitality, has, under the influence of a few centuries of Russian landscape and of contact with Slav life, acquired many of the qualities peculiar to Slavs. He, like his Slav neighbor, is subject to long spells of depression as well as to high spirits, or serene moods. A dreamer, a visionary, often poetical, a noble idealist, full of universal sympathy ; he is just as often the reverse: dry, practical, matter of fact, patient, with a wonderful power for adapting means to ends. At times very active, energetic, developing remarkable will power, grim determination; he is at other times, like his prototype Oblomov in Gontcharof’s famous novel, a victim to paralysis of the will. He is, in fact, a bundle of contradictions most of the time. Coupled with all this is the Jew’s high degree of susceptibility and his internal life. In this regard he is essentially different from his American neighbor. The Russian Jew not only observes, perceives, or knows an external fact; he also feels it, and this intensely. He is also given to introspection and intellectual rumination. An experience, great or small, joyful or sad, tragic or comical, leaves a distinct and lasting mark upon his sensitive nature. Many a family trouble, business reverse, any sort of disappointment or vexation that will hardly affect the placid nature of the “sporty” American, will shake the Jew’s emotions and disorganize permanently his delicate mental machinery. It is this internal, contemplative life of the East Side Russian Jew, along with the complexity of his nature, this subtle psychic life of his, which is so hard to portray.

Now this immense material and psychical reality of the East Side has been waiting long for an adequate literary interpreter, but in vain. The American man of letters that should take up the work where Howells, the father of realism in American fiction, has left off, the man of a wide literary training and of keen psychologic insight, the man of broad sympathies who could understand the masses, their external and internal life, who could note and interpret new tendencies in character, new types and psychic groups, this man does n’t show up. The “ intellectuals ” of the East Side have done very little to reveal that complex life to itself and to the American world at large. The rich vein has hardly been touched. With the exception of Caban’s Jekl, a work full of irresistible humor, but touching only the comic fringe of East Side life, there has been, up to Libin, no attempt, whether in English or in Yiddish, to deal with East Side life in the manner demanded by Howells in his Criticism and Fiction. The reason for this is that the problem of literary interpretation of that complex life is too vast for the powers of one man, no matter how gifted, if he is to proceed in the conventional way of the littérateur. No story, no novel, however comprehensive, not even a series of such novels, can catch and crystallize that life; the possibilities of conventional fiction, its resources, are inadequate to the task, especially with regard to the East Side reality, because of the facts I pointed out above : the psychical instability, the liquidity of character so to say, the subtle change going on before our eyes in the psychical makeup of the East Siders. A novel or story can successfully cope with individual character more or less stable amid an environment comparatively constant. A novel, or any conventional form of fiction, in spite of all the advantages of style and of the creative power of a master, cannot render or interpret such an indefinite variable, where we have to deal with a constantly changing social environment where new economic and social classes and groups are born, new types are in process of formation, in short, where we have beginnings and tendencies. The novelist, even Tourgenyef himself, cannot pause at each stage of this constant transformation, going on in individuals and groups, and record it. A rounded-out story can properly take care of the grosser forms of character-development, as, for example, the psychic career of a Silas Lapham ; it can portray large phases of life. The artificial methods of the novel unfit it for the task of interpreting human nature by spying it out at every twist and turn of its changeful course. Such minute work is best done by a series of sketches drawn close to Nature, in her very workshop. This is what Libin attempts to do, and does it, in my opinion, not without success.

A young man without literary training, Libin came to the East Side some ten years ago. His life in a sleepy little town of White Russia, where he was born, equipped him with nothing that would in any way facilitate his future work as a snap-shot portrayer of the East Side proletariat life. His only equipment is a rare gift of observation, a native ability to note the significance, the psychical meaning of everything about him, and an insight into the human heart. For ten years he has lived himself, so to say, into East Side life, has tasted all its bitterness and its humor, has gone through the very trying school of an East Side proletaire. He is himself a product of that life, where man has to grapple daily and hourly with an implacable economic world for a chance of a wretched existence. In knocking about Gotham on his newspaper “ route, ” Libin learned the ins and outs of East Side life, and the human tragedy going on there all the time.

Unhampered by literary tradition or convention, of which he had not an inkling, he set about his work as a true realist ought to do. With the valves of his mind and heart open, he let the life he is now portraying stream in upon him in all its freshness and directness, in this way getting reality at first hand, the reality in all its psychical significance. Having so absorbed life, he goes about secreting it in the manner he had obtained it, that is, piecemeal, in episodic succession. His sketches are therefore a series of such episodes from real life, the life he not only observed, but also felt.

His little volume embodies a new departure in realistic fiction; this consists in letting the life the author has lived ooze out drop by drop. It is, seemingly, the absence, the negation of all art; and yet, as one plods through Libin’s volume, sketch after sketch, episode after episode, one feels in these artless, spontaneous attempts of an untutored, untrained mind to portray the life of the East Side some fundamental principles of a new art, a truer art than the one known to the conventional storyteller or novelist. A would-be reviewer in a Boston weekly slightingly remarked about Libin that he, Libin, “has a lot of stories to tell, but does not know how.” The naïve reviewer’s notions of what constitutes good, interpreting art did not as yet advance beyond a juvenile conception of a story. There is, in Libin’s Sketches, hardly anything approaching a story of the conventional type; neither is there any so-called style, as there is none of this in real life. The only art that really pervades all his sketches is the spontaneous, unconscious art of selection. Every sketch of his is simply a moment, a situation in that East Side life ; but that moment or situation is so chosen and so told as to be typical, highly suggestive, and to afford the reader a sort of double perspective, a twofold vista; as you read sketch after sketch, you feel back and forth, you feel what has gone before the particular moment, and you also dimly divine what must come in front in the vague beyond, extending further away into life from the point where the author left off telling. Libin leads you into the life of the proletaire, his tenement prison, his shop, his rare amusements, his picnic parties. The shop-hand, the “finisher,” the “operator,” the “peddler,” the halfAmericanized young “ swell ” of the East Side, the “missis” with all her troubles and trials, the boarder with all his vexations and comic mishaps, the little waif tramping the streets, the newsboy, the “ intellectual” with all his strivings and disappointments, his internal conflicts, and his struggles with a rude environment, the budding capitalist, the boss, — these and many other types and varieties peculiar to the East Side figure in his sketches. All these talk, and move, and feel, and struggle, strive, and succumb just as they do in that real life; they are so intensely alive when Libin, in his extremely artless manner, in his distressingly colloquial diction, in his innocent disregard of all the canons of style, sketches them with a few careless strokes, that you spurn any suggestion of associating his work with that of the glib reporter; you feel that Libin’s unconscious art of realistic interpretation of a complex reality is as remote from newspaper aping of the meaningless externals of life as the gross fibre of the reporter himself is from the delicate vein of an artist, trained or untrained.

The art of Libin, as I mentioned before, consists in his unconscious choice of typical moments in the life of the East Sider, moments extremely suggestive, a method somewhat similar to the one adopted by the Greek sculptors. Does he tell you an unpretentious tale of how the longed for picnic of Sam the cap - maker and his family, that “have not seen a green blade ” in all their cursed tenement existence, — how this picnic, after all the laborious preparations, the scrubbing and washing and fitting out of all the party, after all the wonderful financiering, saltus mortales, of scraping together the necessary funds to defray this frightful plunge into “luxury,” how this picnic fell through at the very nick of time when the whole “outfit,” after an eventful career of various mishaps and tribulations, safely reached the picnic ground, and how it all ended in the utter discomfiture of the poor capmaker, succumbing under the volleys of reproach and curse fired at him by his ferocious Sarah, and the deafening concert of his disappointed progeny, — all this is told in such a way that you have the whole past and the future of these tenement folk opened before your vision; their whole wretched existence both before and after the picnic, the whole external and internal drama of these people keeps haunting you long after you are through with this sketch. And so on through all his volume, there is the same unconscious art of drawing East Side life in its manifold manifestations by unfolding before you a typical moment, a situation in which a good deal is said because left unsaid, when a slight turn of a phrase, a suggestive incident, a bit of colloquial talk, a deft plunge into the recesses of a proletaire’s soul, reveals to you interminable vistas of his outer and inner life.

The author’s lack of style and his extreme colloquialism are such as to render an English version well-nigh impossible; English literary diction, besides, is very little adapted to portray the emotions and psychic life in general, let alone the peculiar internal world of the Jew. There is hardly a phrase in Libin’s volume that has not some emotional flavor in it, a flavor and subtle meaning often untranslatable because strange to the Anglo-Saxon mind. An English version of these sketches would rob them of their chief power, — their directness, the pathos emanating from many a word and phrase like a delicate perfume, and the subtle psychical suggestiveness which only those feel and perceive who have a more or less intimate knowledge of Jewish life and whose habits of mind and feeling are somewhat akin to the internal life of Libin’s creations. Still, some attempt may be made to introduce Libin’s work to the American public. It will then repay the American littérateur to delve into this new realistic art. He will discover there true methods; how to study life and how honestly to record it. It is high time that American fiction wake up and interpret life as it is in this country, life in its process of becoming, of transformation ; American life, the American reality with its various foreign ingredients and stratifications, this life awaits its literary interpreter.

Charles Rice.

  1. Geklibene Skitsen. By Z. LIBIN. New York: The Forward Press. 1902.