Foreign Language Press and Social Progress

Robert E. Park
Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago

    There are something like forty-three or forty-four languages and dialects spoken by immigrants in the United States. This fact is important because among immigrant people mother-tongue, rather than country of birth, is the basis of association and organization. The world-war has emphasized the fact that old political boundaries of Europe did not include homogeneous peoples. It has revealed the fact that within these political boundaries Europe was organized on the basis of languages, and of the memories and traditions which these languages have preserved. It is significant also that when other bonds broke language and tradition held. The nations, which in the break-up of Europe gained their independence, were all language groups, not nationalities.

    In America, as in Europe, it is language and tradition rather than political allegiance that united the immigrant populations. People who speak the same language find it convenient to live together. Our great cities, as we discover upon close examination, are mosaics of little language colonies, cultural enclaves, each maintaining its separate existence within the wider circle of the city's cosmopolitan life. Each of these little communities is certain to have some sort of mutual aid

(494) society, very likely a church and a school, possibly a theater, but almost invariably a press.

    It seems almost certain that there are more foreign language papers in America in proportion to the foreign population than there are in Europe in proportion to the native populations. It is certainly true that a very large proportion of the immigrant population read newspapers in America who did not read them in their home country. An article published in the Russkeye Slove, based upon information obtained in response to a questionnaire, indicates that even among those who were able to read only about 3 per cent were habitual readers at home.

    Peasants and laborers constitute more than go per cent of all the Russian immigrants in the United States. A great majority of them felt no need for periodicals or for theatrical performances in their old country. According to the census of 1910, there are 38.4 per cent illiterates among the Russians above fourteen years of age. But even those who are able to read rarely saw newspapers in Russia, and theaters were out of their reach. The Russian Village, from which the majority of immigrants came, had no press and no theater.

    Out of the three hundred and twelve correspondents only sixteen have regularly read newspapers in Russia; ten others used from time to time to read newspapers in the "volost," the village administrative center; twelve were subscribers to weekly magazines.

    In America all of them are subscribers or readers of Russian newspapers. Two hundred of them are theater-goers, and all are visiting the "movies."

    Twenty-five per cent of them also read the American newspapers published in the English language. But some mention the fact that they "understand only one word out of five." Others, buying an American daily, just glance over the headlines. "These are easy to understand and you know all the news," writes one of the correspondents.

    Most immigrants have been peasants at home. They are likely to be laborers here, participating more or less in all the turbulent cosmopolitan life of our modern industrial cities. In the little, isolated peasant villages from which they came, life was, and is still, relatively fixed and settled. Under such conditions custom and tradition provided for all, the exigencies of daily life. Conduct was based on face to to face relationships, that is to say, speech and neighborly gossip. In America, where there are vast distances and no traditions, where the population is mobile and everything is in process, the peasant discards his habits and acquires `,`ideas.". In America, above all, the immigrant organizes. These organizations are the embodiment of his new needs and his new ideas. He becomes a socialist or a nationalist, or a member of a fraternal organization, and reads a paper, because practically every immigrant organization publishes some sort of a paper.

    There are other explanations for the popularity of the foreign language press. One reason why immigrants are eager to read their own language in this country is that they have not been permitted to do so in their own. Sometimes they have not learned to read before they come here; have not been permitted to do so. Sometimes the journals they might have read were not interesting or not intelligible. Frequently these journals did not exist.

    In Lithuania, German Poland, Ukrainia, Slovakia, and Hungary the languages of the native peoples were interdicted. There were in these countries schools and a press,

(495) but they were conducted in the language of the dominant race, i.e., German, Russian, Hungarian. The result was that the peasant, who got his education in an alien tongue, never got enough to enable him to read. Besides it is very hard to learn to read in an alien tongue unless you have already learned to read your mother-tongue.

    Another reason the immigrant did not read at home was that he could not understand the papers even when they were published in his own language. The papers were, in fact, not addressed to the common man.

    A recent writer has called attention, however, to the fact that not only does the average American not speak the English of the books, but he probably does not understand more than two-thirds of what comes from the lips of the average political orator or clergyman.

    The reason that the ordinary man does not fully understand the "higlibrow" when he is discoursing may be due to the fact that the matter under discussion is itself abstruse. In that case it is even possible that the highbrow does not fully understand it himself. In most instances, however, failure to comprehend is due to the fact that the average man and the academic person do not speak the same language, and no one fully comprehends any form of speech that he does not habitually use. What is interesting and significant in this connection is the fact that, however wide the divergence between the written and the spoken language may be in America, these divergences are considerably less in this country than in any other part of the world.

    In no other country is so much effort and ingenuity expended in perfecting the art, not merely of printing, but of publication and publicity. Not only is the language of the press simpler, more direct and incisive, closer to the language of the street, but the distinction between the written and the spoken speech is steadily decreasing in spite of the fact that "the typical literary product of the country is still a refined essay in the Atlantic Monthly."

    The evidence of this is the enormous circulation of such journals as the Saturday Evening Post, and the fact that the number of daily newspapers is decreasing at the same time that circulations are steadily increasing.

    In countries where the intellectuals constituted, as they did in Russia, a separate caste, the schools, even where they did exist, did not create a reading habit in the masses of the people, because all the journals were addressed to the highbrow. The American newspaper, with its local news, personal gossip, and its human interest anecdotes, is not the foreigner's conception of journalism.

    It is the American's interest in local news that justifies; perhaps, the characterization of America as a "nation of villagers." As a people, it seems we are not interested in ideas but in gossip.

    That was undoubtedly the meaning of the cautious observation of a member of the Jewish intelligentsia, whom Hutchins Hapgood met in a Ghetto café. In The Spirit of the Ghetto (p. 282) he writes:    .

In Russia a few men, really cultivated and intellectual, give the tone and everybody follows them. In this country the public gives the tone and the playwright and the literary man simply expresses the public.

    In America, however, it becomes necessary for the editors to make some concessions to the intelligence of the immigrant.

    The peasant is sentimental; the editors print poetry for him in the vernacular. They fill the paper with cheap fiction and write loud-sounding editorials, double

(496) leaded, so that they will be easily read. Sometimes they compromise by writing in the literary language on the editorial pages, discussing the conventional themes, while the rest of the paper is made up of hasty translations from the American newspapers written in jargon, made up of words from the vernacular interspersed with American idioms and American words with foreign endings.

    Sometimes the publisher is himself an ignorant man, or at least not an intellectual who looks upon his paper, as the American publisher does, as an advertising medium, which prints news merely to get circulation. It is said that one of the most successful Chinese editors in America cannot read the editorials in his own paper because he does not understand the literary language. Some of the most successful foreign language papers are published by men who do not make any pretensions to education and are Ι regarded by the writers they employ as ignoramuses. These men know their public, however, and insist on printing in the paper what their subscribers are interested in and able to read. When the writers for the press despise both their employers and their public, as they sometimes do, not much can be expected from the newspaper which they succeed in producing.

    The effect of this general lowering of the tone of the foreign language papers has been to create a public in this country composed of people who in their home country would have read little or nothing at all. All of the foreign languages have contributed to establish reading habits in the immigrant. It is the socialist press, however, that has taught him to think.

    The most interesting of the foreign language papers in America are Yiddish. In the Yiddish press the foreign language newspaper may be said to have achieved form. All the tendencies and all the motives which other divisions of the immigrant press exhibit imperfectly, are here outstanding and manifest. No other press has attained so complete a simplification of the racial language, nor created so large a reading public. No other foreign language press has succeeded in reflecting so much of the intimate life of the people which it represents or reacted so powerfully upon the opinion, thought, and aspiration of the public, for which it exists. This is particularly true of the Yiddish daily newspapers in New York City.

    The Jewish socialists were the first among the Jewish immigrants to conceive the idea of a press that would reach and interest the masses of the people. Among the immigrants who sought refuge in America in the early eighties were a number of Jewish students who had participated in the revolutionary agitation that preceded the assassination of Czar Alexander II, in March, 1881. It had been the program of the revolutionists to educate the masses of the people, "to go in among the people" as they termed it, and so prepare them for the international revolution which they, after the manner of millennialists everywhere, believed was impending.

    Although there was at this time a popular literature in Yiddish among the Jews in Russia, political discussion was in Russian. There were sermons in Yiddish but no one had ever heard a political speech in the language of the people. The masses of the Jewish immigrants knew nothing of socialism or the labor movement, just as they knew nothing of modern science or modern political thought. All these high matters were the special concern of a few intellectuals who had been permitted to attend a Russian university. William M. Leiserson has said:

On July 27, 1882, occurred the first public meeting of the Russian refugees. For the first time they had an opportunity to enjoy freedom of speech, and on this sweltering day 500 of them jammed to the walls the little Golden Rule Hall on Rivington Streets The speeches were in Russian and German, and


many could not understand either of these languages, but they were none the less enthusiastic. Schevitz, editor of the German Volkszeitung, Nelke, a German anarchist, sod A. Cahan, one of the Russian students addressed the meeting.

It was Cahan at this meeting who first suggested the idea of using the Yiddish jargon to propagate socialism among the Jews. The suggestion was ridiculed. Who was there that could make speeches in Yiddish? Cahan volunteered to do it; and the following week in the anarchists' hall on Sixth Street the first Yiddish speech was delivered. After that many Jewish meetings were held, but for a long time Cahan continued to be the only Yiddish speaker.

The meetings of the "Propaganda Verein" were marked by the greatest enthusiasm. The right of free assemblage was a new experience to most of the Jews; but still more new and strange were the speeches in the mother tongue. The doctrines of socialism which formerly the educated alone could understand were now to be made comprehensible to the ordinary immigrant. A cry went up among the students: "In the mother tongue must we agitate among the Jews." And for a few months there was great activity in the "Propaganda Verein."

    It was not, as it turned out, an easy matter to carry on a political propaganda in the language of a people who had had no political experience. There were no words iii Yiddish in which to express the formulas of Marxian socialism. The scholastic discussions of the Russian students did not hold the interest of the common people, eager as they were for the knowledge which the new doctrines promised them.

    P. Wiernik, in his History of the Jews in America (p. 303, 5922), writes:

In nor respect the Hebrew and the Yiddish writers were struggling with the same difficulty—that of making themselves understood by the largest possible number of readers. The method prevailing in Russia, of writing as hard or using as high a language as possible so that the highly intelligent reader—the title to which every reader of a newspaper there at that time laid claim—should take pride in being able to understand the contents, would not attract readers here as it does where scarcity of printed matter makes the public accept with eagerness whatever is offered. But the Hebrew writer came here with a style that may be termed aristocratic, and the Yiddish writer, who had to begin everything anew, had hardly any style. It was all easy as far as the work of the agitator was concerned; denunciations and accusations are always easily understood, and this alone is one of the reasons of their popularity. But when it came to the parts where the writer wanted to describe or to explain, especially in the scientific. or semi-scientific articles which a public that had no systematic schooling so eagerly devoured, the language of most of the writers was inadequate and easily misunderstood.

It was not until the appearance of the Forward, however, and not until Abraham Cahan returned from his five years' apprenticeship upon an American daily paper that the Jewish socialists succeeded in creating a newspaper that the masses of the Jewish people, and even women, would read. The Forward, under Abraham Cahan, may be said to be modelled on the Yellow Journal of the period. It was, however, less a copy than an application of methods. The Jewish Forward is unquestionably American, but it is unquestionably unique. Its immediate and remarkable popularity was an indication that the Jewish daily press had finally arrived.

    Forward was born at a Socialist ball fifteen years ago, when Cahan and others passed the hat around to start a Yiddish socialist daily and collected $800. A en-operative publishing company, the Forward Association, was formed almost on the spot. This Association pledged itself to publish the paper and to devote whatever profit accrued to the furthering of socialism and of Forward. Today Forward and its building bring many thousands of dollars a year profit, not a cent of which goes as dividends to anyone or for any other than these purposes. ,But as late as ten years ago the Forward was not only deep in debt, but also dying.

    Its board of managers in despair appealed to Cahan to come and take hold. At that time Cahan was making a name for himself as special writer on the Sun, the Evening Post, the Commercial Advertiser, and other papers. His stories of Jewish life

(498) were appearing in the first-class magazines. His novel of East Side life, Yeki, had been acclaimed by William Dean Howells and other critics on both sides of the Atlantic as a masterly bit of realism. His White Terror and Red and his Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories were bringing him a widening English-reading public. But at the call from his comrades he went back to the East Side and threw himself into the task of reviving the dying Yiddish daily.

    He found the circulation barely six thousand, the columns full of abstract economic controversy, the tone bitter, and an exaggerated air of the "highbrow" even for the East Side, where Tolstoy, Spencer, Darwin, and similar literature can be bought on pushcarts. Worst of all, it was written in a highly intellectualized, Germanized Yiddish, which only the "intelligentsia" can understand fully.

    Cahan at once changed its language to the colloquial, Americanized Yiddish spoken in the street, the shops, the factories, and the homes of the people it desired to reach. "And if you wont the public to read this paper and to assimilate Socialism," he told his staff, "you've got to write of things of everyday life, in terms of what they see and feel and find all about them."

    So he banished the long abstract essays on economic determinism and the class struggle and presented these things in the form of short actual stories and news from the shop, the street, the market, and the home. The East Side began to read about itself in the news columns of Forward. It found its homely everyday problems discussed trenchantly yet sympathetically on the editorial page by Cahan, and read advice to the lovelorn in a department conducted by Rose Pastor, who afterward added Stokes to her name.

    The New York Evening Post, in its issue of July 27, 1912, said:

Within eight weeks after Cahan had taken hold of Forward its circulation trebled. Within two or three years it began to pay a profit; and now (1912) it has a daily circulation of over 530,000 a day.

    It is not possible to estimate the changes which the appearance of a genuinely popular press has had upon the life of the Jewish immigrant. Jewish scholars had been sitting for centuries in the synagogues, by the light of sacred candles, poring over the past, brooding over the inner life of the race. Upon this spectacle the common man looked with awe and reverence. The popular press turned the eyes of the Jews outward upon the world. The press was a window on life. The new press was, to be sure, socialistic, but more interesting to the masses of the people than political philosophy was the information it gave them about life, about the physical universe and the world of human nature about them. There had arisen, at this time, a school of writers who devoted themselves to writing popular science in the language of the people. There were a number of these popular writers. Abraham Cahan was one. J. Rombro, who wrote under the name of Philip Kranz, was another. Rombro, like Cahan, was a Russian fugitive. In London he met Morris Winchefsky, the Yiddish poet and writer. Winchefsky, who was at that time editing The Polish Jew, the first socialist Yiddish paper to be published in England, asked him to write a description of the riots against the Jews in Russia. "It was a hard job for me," he wrote to Leo Wiener, "and it took me a long time to do it. I never thought of writing in the Jewish jargon, but fate ordered otherwise, and, contrary to all my aspirations, I am now nothing more than a poor jargon journalist." To which the author of the History of Yiddish Literature adds this comment:

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From Leo Wiener's History of Yiddish Literature (pp. 223-24, 1899), I quote:

The author's evil plight has, however, been the people's gain, for to his untiring activity is due no small amount of the enlightenment that they have received in the last ten years.

    The most picturesque figure among the popular writers in Yiddish is Shaikevitch, the man who popularized the "heften." The "heften" were unsigned novels, popular stories, that had an immense vogue until the daily papers began publishing them serially. The competition of daily papers, which sometimes published as many as five or six stories at a time, destroyed the vogue of the "heften."

    Shaikevitch, in an interview with Hutchins Hapgood, said this of his own work:

My works are partly pictures of the life of the Jews in the Russian villages of fifty years ago, and partly novels about the old history of the Jews. Fifty years ago the Jews were more fanatical than they are now. They did nothing but study the Talmud, pray and fast, wear long beards and wigs and leek like monkeys. I satirized all this in my novels. I tried to teach the ignorant Jews that they were ridiculous, that they ought to take hold of modern, practical life and give up oil that was merely formal and absurd in the old customs. I taught them that a pious man might be a hypocrite, and that it is better to do geed than to pray. My works had a great effect in modernizing and educating the ignorant Jews. In my stories I pictured how the Jewish boy might go out from his little village into the wide, gentile world, and make something of himself. In the last twenty-five years, the Jews, owing to my books, have lost a great deal of their fanaticism. At that time they had nothing but my books to read, and so my. satire had a great effect.[1]

    Through the medium of the popular press the learning which had been the privilege of the few became the common possession of the many. The intellectual ferment, which this new contact with modern science produced,' was scattered broadcast and under the influence of the new ideas and the unrest which it created, the whole structure of Jewish life crumbled. The younger generation, particularly the more ardent and intellectual among them, went over to socialism en masse. Socialism gave the common man a point of view from which he could, at any rate, think about actual life. It made the sweatshop an intellectual problem.

    Under the same influences socialism itself changed. It ceased to be a mere political doctrine and became a criticism of life. The socialist press ceased to be the mere organ of the doctrinaires, nod became an instrument of general culture. All the intimate, human, and practical problems of life found a place in its columns. It founded a new literature and a new culture, based on the life of the common man.

    A fact in regard to the immigrant, which is not generally understood, is that there exists in certain parts of Europe, as a result of the suppression of the folk languages and because of some rather drastic efforts at naturalization, what has been characterized as an "artificial illiteracy." With the growth of socialism and of nationalism, the two political movements which immigrant peoples are able to understand, there has been an intellectual awakening of the masses of the people. There is in all the back areas of Europe, as a matter of fact, a genuine renaissance, a widespread desire to know and to participate in the conscious life of the world from which they have hitherto been shut out. This new and vivid interest n life—modern life, science, and even literature—has been intensified by the new, strange, confusing but stimulating encounters with the American environment, the organization of the great industries, and the vast and cosmopolitan life of modern cities. It is to this interest that the foreign language press, and particularly the socialistic, communistic, and I.W.W.

(500) press, appeals. But after all the worst that can be said in regard to the great majority of the so-called radical immigrant papers is, that while they aim at being edifying, they succeed in being dull. This is not true of the whole radical press, it is not true of the Yiddish papers. It is far from true of the Forward, the most successful and important of them all. But the Forward has long since ceased to be a purely radical paper and has become, more completely than any other paper in this country, a form of literature and a transcript of life.


  1. Hutchins Hapgood, The Spirit of the Ghetto, chapter x, "Odd Characters," pp. 274-75.

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