9: Novella review and excerpt thereof, William Dean Howells's “New York Low Life in Fiction,” 1896.

9: Novella review and excerpt thereof, William Dean Howells's “New York Low Life in Fiction,” 1896.

William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was a prominent novelist and literary critic who promoted literary realism. In 1892, curious about the Jewish neighborhood on the Lower East Side, Howells sought out Abraham Cahan, who was at the time the editor of the Jewish socialist publication Arbeiter Zeitung (Workers' Newspaper). Cahan visited Howells's home and the famous author was surprised to find that Cahan was not only knowledgable about immigrant life, but was also well-read in realist literature. Howells encouraged Cahan to write about the Jewish immigrant experience for a broader American readership. Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto was written in response to this encouragement. 

In his review of Yekl, Howells compares the book to Stephen Crane’s first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a sharply realist work in which the life of a poor girl from the Bowery neighborhood of New York is ruined due to the drunkenness, dissolution, and dire circumstances of those around her.

The entire review is presented in this resource, and the teacher may wish to project that—the first image that appears—to give their students a glimpse at the startling headline and a sense of the way the article was laid out, with a portrait of the article-writer at its center (we get a sense of the authority of this figure from the illustration, and its caption, "America's most famous living novelist as he appears in his latest and best photograph by Cox"). However, the text in the whole review is too small to read—scroll down to actually read an enlarged excerpt of the review with the students, taken from the end of the article.

Suggested Activity: Before reading the review excerpt in this resource, have your students write their own review of Yekl. In it, ask them to describe the novel to an audience that has not read it, compare it to at least one other work that they think it is similar (or dissimilar) to, and recommend it (or not). Then, when they read the excerpt of the review by Howells, ask the students to compare it to their own. How are their perspectives on Yekl similar to or different from that of Howells? What kinds of expectations do we have of literature today, and why might they differ from those of Cahan's period? 

Also pose these questions concerning the review by Howells: why do you think Howells sees Cahan’s subject matter as "picturesque" and "outlandish"? Do you think this made potential readers hesitant to read the work, or do you think it was a selling point? Do you agree that the novel is more tragic than comic? Do you agree that it is written from an "American" point of view?

Source: William Dean Howells, "New York Low Life in Fiction" (New York: New York World, July 26, 1896), 18.