‘I Go Among The Public To Study How To Write for It.’

In His Own Words

By Abraham Cahan

Published May 19, 2010, issue of May 28, 2010.
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I wanted to know what sort of impression the new “Forverts” was making on the public; how they reacted to the various articles; what was good, what had to be changed, and what sort of other news it would be advisable to introduce.

For this purpose, at the beginning, I often spent two or three hours on the street, in barbershops, or in restaurants. That was mainly my “job” late Sunday morning. Then the barbershops are crowded, and you wait a long time before you hear “next.” So you can sit and listen to the conversations, and sometimes you can slip in a few questions yourself. In this way I spent a half hour in one place, a half hour in another.

I also used to stop at the newspaper stands and chat with the salesmen and the customers. Because for several years I hadn’t taken part in any mass meetings, and during this time many new immigrants arrived, nobody knew who I was. Sometimes somebody did recognize me, but that also wasn’t so bad.

I also used to take observatory walks with the goal of writing a special sort of cultural interest articles, which I called “In Passing.” Going through the streets, to the office or from the office, I used to note down various little scenes or characters.

Several times I got up very early to see what was going on in the Jewish neighborhood at that hour — how the stores were opened; how the market on Hester Street took shape; how poor people searched through garbage barrels; how tailors run to work at six in the morning; how an hour later new characters appear, new images, new scenes. In this way I used to put together articles that appealed to our readers — often in a deeper and more delicate way than what usually interests them in a newspaper.

One time, for example, I especially observed the poor Jewish streets in the late afternoon, when the sun goes down. A “sunset” is a nice image. Almost every poet describes it. Usually it goes together for them with fields and forests or with the sea. But there is also a magic to the sunset among the tenements. When you look from afar at the rows and rows of poor windows and fire escapes that are hung with rags, it seems as if they were dipped in gold and lightened. The impoverished everyday gives way to a poetic image from a dream.

For a culture article like that, we usually received letters from the readers. Or else I described a Jewish organ grinder without feet, who sat in a little cart that he paid somebody to push. The organ grinder plays a deep and sad Jewish tune. The women hurrying by quickly with their baskets suddenly stop, as if the tune had touched their hearts. They can’t go further. They stop, full of pity, and throw pennies onto the beggar’s plate.

Translated by Leizer Burko.






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