The need to assimilate: Searching for an american identity in Abraham Cahan's "The Rise of David Levinsky" and James Weldon Johnson's "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man"

Seminar Paper, 2005

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3



I. Introduction

II. Assimilation and Passing: Two Different Strategies in the Search for an American Identity

III. Assimilation in Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky

IV. Passing in James W. Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

V. Conclusion

VI. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Around World War One, two American authors from different minority backgrounds published their seemingly unlike novels. In 1912, the African American diplomat and writer James Weldon Johnson[1] published his narrative The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man anonymously[2], and in 1917, the Jewish American editor and journalist Abraham Cahan put out his novel The Rise of David Levinsky under his own name. Despite all differences obvious between the authors Cahan and Johnson, between their protagonists David Levinsky and the Ex-Colored Man, both novels nevertheless describe at their core the need to assimilate, the search for an American identity and the costs of assimilation.

In their quest for an American identity, both protagonists, the former Orthodox Jew from Russia and the anonymous, light-skinned African American, chose to escape white Anglo-Saxon Protestant hostility towards their minority status by assimilating respectively by passing as far as possible into the dominant culture of white American society. As William M. Phillips, Jr., observed, the first two decades of the new century were a time in which the African American community as well as the Jewish American community “could perceive easily the barely disguised sinister attitude toward them regarding the essentiality, the fundamental characteristics, of American society. A sense of fear, of marginality, even alienation, from American society became an integral part of the existential reality of living in the Unites States for both the Jewish and the African American communities.”[3] The need to assimilate derives from the fear of marginalization and the hostility shown towards minority groups in America. It is precisely this threatening attitude in combination with a longing to take part in the dominant culture of American society that finally forces Cahan’s and Johnson’s characters to assimilate respectively to pass entirely.

Despite their minority backgrounds, both protagonists manage to enter the dominant culture at last. But even though both men live up to a life of financial and social success at the end of the novels, their narratives are not simply average American success-stories, but rather tragic tales on the high costs of assimilation. Levinsky and the Ex-Colored Man live the classical American dream from “rags to riches”, but in the end, both must nevertheless realize that wealth and a high social status alone do not guarantee true inner happiness. The conclusion seems bitter: one’s marginality and minority status must be overcome in order to take part in the “American success story”. But even though ethnic and racial backgrounds can be denied and essential parts of one’s own identity can be ignored, full assimilation can never be achieved.

Both men conclude that, after all, they still carry their heritage along, which will always mark their identity as that of a different minority group, as that of marginal men, being trapped between two cultures. In spite of all attempts to shed off their original ethnic and racial backgrounds, both main characters nevertheless fail in the end to “overcome” their roots and upbringings. Thus, Levinsky concludes “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.”[4] Cahan’s and Johnson’s characters fail, and must fail, in their attempt to fully extinct their ethnic and racial heritage. As a result feelings of lack and remorse haunt both of them as the Ex-Colored Man reveals at the end of his life-story, “and yet, I sometimes open a little box in which I still keep my fast yellowing manuscripts, the only tangible remnants of a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent, I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”[5]

In the end, the Ex-Colored Man passes permanently and becomes “an ordinarily successful white man who has made a little money.” Yet, remnants of his past always remain, and he is constantly “possessed by a strange longing for [his] mother’s people.”[6] And also Cahan makes his protagonist draw the bitter conclusion that “there are cases when success is a tragedy”, and forces Levinsky to admit that he “often long[s] for a heart-to-heart talk with some of the people of [his] birthplace.”[7] The successful economic and social rise of David Levinsky and the Ex-Colored Man cannot be separated from the tragic personal failure to find their true identity and inner happiness. In their novels, Cahan and Johnson thus voice the dreadful loss of individual identity that full assimilation and passing ask for.

II. Assimilation and Passing: Two Different Strategies in the Search for an American Identity

Cahan’s and Johnson’s novels are both first-person narratives, which are composed as autobiographical chronicles of their protagonists’ lives. Both aged narrators record the story of their life for recollection, justification, and as a form of confession. But despite all similarities between the two novels and the main characters’ quest for an American identity, fundamental differences should be stated before a comparison can be drawn.

As Judith A. Rosenberg strongly emphasized in her dissertation on Cahan’s and Johnson’s novels “[a]ssimilation and passing are not equivalent terms.”[8] Rosenberg made clear that “[a]ssimilation is a term that has been used to describe the social transformation of people of non-black races or ethnic groups. Though passing and assimilation share some of the same properties, passing occurs with particular reference to race. […] To be black and try to pass as white incurs greater risks of misunderstanding, danger, and violence, than it does to be white and try to assimilate into another white sub-culture”[9]

It is significant to make this differentiation, for both strategies reveal at the same time the distinct hierarchical organization of racial and ethnic groups within the American social structure, in which “the Jewish American community occupied, or was accorded, a superior status location, while the African American minority community occupied, or was accorded, an inferior location.”[10]“Jews, after all, were white people,” Murray Friedman stressed, “and while they faced restrictions and a degree of social prejudice, they never confronted the kinds of obstacles and barriers to progress that blacks did in this society.”[11] As white people, Jewish Americans thus “had meaningful choices – assimilation, pluralism, separatism, or nationalism – in answering questions of identity and order”[12], while the African American minority group had little choices to find an American identity equal to those of the white majority. Opportunities of assimilation were thus restricted for African Americans and passing was obviously not a strategy available for all of them.

III. Assimilation in Abraham Cahan’s “The Rise of David Levinsky”

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”[13] In her sonnet “The New Colossus”, Emma Lazarus, an American-born Sephardic Jew, expressed the hopes and high expectations that many immigrants felt towards their new homeland America. This was especially true for the East European Jews, who fled anti-Semitism and pogroms, after the Russian Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. His son, Alexander III, reenacted anti-Jewish laws which further restricted privileges for Jews. As a result, about 1.3 million Jews emigrated from Russia between 1881 and 1914, of which 85 percent came to the “Golden Land”[14], allegorically represented by the Statue of Liberty.

Abraham Cahan’s protagonist, the Orthodox Talmudist David Levinsky, to whom the United States lured “not merely as a land of milk and honey, but also, and perhaps chiefly, as one of mystery, of fantastic experiences, of marvelous transformations”[15], is among the early immigrants of the Jewish immigration wave. Being born and raised in Antomir[16], in Northwest Russia, the twenty-year-old orphan, who lost his father early on and whose mother is brutally killed by Gentiles, arrives at New York City in 1885. The assimilation of Levinsky from “a green one”[17] to a successful American cloak-manufacturer over a course of twenty-five years is described as a process of diminishing his foreign heritage in favor of American features and characteristics.

In the beginning, his new American identity is mainly created through a change of his outer appearance. Interestingly, it is yet another Orthodox Talmud scholar, Mr. Even, who urges Levinsky for a change and also pays for his transformation. “He spent a considerable sum on me. As we passed from block to block he kept saying, ‘Now you won’t look green,’ or, ‘That will make you look American.’”[18] Levinsky even shaves off his side-locks, the ultimate sign for Jewish Orthodoxy. The result is overwhelming, because “[i]t was as though the hair-cut and the American clothes had changed my identity.”[19] Paradoxically and regardless of his initiative attempts to Americanize Levinsky, it is as well Mr. Even who strongly urges him at their departure not to “neglect [his] religion nor [his] Talmud.”[20] Mr. Even makes him promise and despite Levinsky’s oath to himself to “be more pious than ever, […], even if America is a godless country”[21], it is a false promise, because Levinsky’s secularization had already started shortly after his mother’s violent death when “his communions with God [became] quite rare”[22] and “the word America first caught [his] fancy.”[23]


[1] In 1913 Johnson changed his middle-name from William to Weldon.

[2] The novel was republished in 1927 at the height of the Harlem Renaissance under Johnson’s name.

[3] William M. Phillips, Jr., An Unillustrious Alliance: The African American and Jewish American Communities, Greenwood Press, Westport CT, 1991, pp. 24-25.

[4] Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., New York, 1960, p. 530.

[5] James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), The X-Press – Black Classics, London, 1998, p. 179.

[6] Ibid., pp. 178-179.

[7] Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), New York, 1960, p. 529.

[8] Judith A. Rosenberg, Assimilation and Metaphor: A Study of American Identity in the Fiction of Edith Wharton, James Weldon Johnson, and Abraham Cahan, Dissertation, Brandeis University, Waltham, 1992, p. 108.

[9] Ibid., p. 107 and 108.

[10] William M. Phillips, Jr., An Unillustrious Alliance, Westport CT, 1991, p. 28

[11] Murray Friedman, What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance, The Free Press/Simon & Schuster Inc., New York, 1995, p. 10.

[12] William M. Phillips, Jr., An Unillustrious Alliance, Westport CT, 1991, p. 25.

[13] Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus” (1883), Jewish American Literature – A Norton Anthology, Jules Chametzky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein (Eds), W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2001, p. 106. The sonnet is inscribed on a bronze tablet displayed inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty since 1903.

[14] Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, The Golden Land: The Story of Jewish Immigration to America, Harmony Books/Crown Publishing Group, New York, 2002.

[15] Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), New York, 1960, p. 61.

[16] To my knowledge, Antomir does not exist, but there is a place called Antopol (today White Russia), which had a Jewish shtetl. Cahan was born only 150 miles from Antopol near Vilna (today Lithuania).

[17]“’Poor fellow! he is a green one,’ these people seemed to say. ‘We are not, of course. We are Americanized.’” Ibid., 94.

[18] Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), New York, 1960, p.101.

[19] Ibid., p. 101. Shortly after, Levinsky even shaves off his beard in need to further assimilate: “What actually decided me to commit so heinous a sin was a remark dropped by one of the peddlers that my down-covered face made me look like a ‘green one’.” Ibid., p. 111. Shaving is a sin against Jewish law “[y]e shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” The Book of Leviticus 19, 27, May 26, 2005, ><.

[20] Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), New York, 1960, p. 102.

[21] Ibid., p. 103.

[22] Ibid., p. 56.

[23] Ibid., p. 59.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The need to assimilate: Searching for an american identity in Abraham Cahan's "The Rise of David Levinsky" and James Weldon Johnson's "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man"
Free University of Berlin  (John-F.-Kennedy Institut )
‘The Subaltern Speaks’: Minority Literature in the USA
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ISBN (Book)
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Searching, Abraham, Cahan, Rise, David, Levinsky, James, Weldon, Johnson, Autobiography, Ex-Colored, Subaltern, Speaks’, Minority, Literature
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Sonja Longolius (Author), 2005, The need to assimilate: Searching for an american identity in Abraham Cahan's "The Rise of David Levinsky" and James Weldon Johnson's "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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