Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 41. Morris Rosenfeld

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXI. Non-English Writings I

§ 41. Morris Rosenfeld

The Jewish immigrant in America found his sorrows and sufferings voiced in the songs of one of the foremost Yiddish poets, Morris Rosenfeld, who in echoing the agonies of his brethren in the foreign land also echoed his own, for he was as much as they a victim of the infamous industrial plague known as the sweat shop. He was born in Russian Poland in 1862. His early education was religious and Talmudical with a smattering of the Polish and the German languages. In 1882 he left his native village of Boksha, in the province of Suvalki, for Amsterdam. He came to New York in 1883, left again for Russia, and in 1886 settled permanently in New York. His début in America was with a poem called The Year 1886 printed in the New Yorker Yiddische Folkszeitung. His talent was quickly recognized and his verse soon appeared in practically every Yiddish periodical. But for twelve years he was forced to support himself in the sweat shop. Only when Professor Leo Wiener brought him to the attention of the American public through a volume of his poems, transliterated and translated, was Rosenfeld able to take eager leave of the cheerless toil that had so long been his nightmare.

Rosenfeld wrote in many genres. His satires were as deadly as his lyrics were moving. Resourceful in his vocabulary, happy in his sense of rhythm, rich in his colouring, sincere in his wrath, he brought in his Ghetto poems burning accusations against the order of things that made this hell on earth possible. He immortalized the sweat shop in many songs and poems. His Die Sweat Shop, Mein Yüngele, Verzweiflung, Der Bleicher Apreitor, and A Trer auf’n Eisen are some of the most dreadful testimonies of a soul’s agony and the most damaging arraignment of social injustice. Future generations reading Rosenfeld will see in him a poet of high merit; but in his time he was more than a poet—he was the great accuser, the great champion of his fellow-slaves, the great mourner of his fellow-Jews. In his nationalistic poems he sings the sorrows of the Jew as Jew, and in these, too, one can feel the throbbing of the aching heart of the eternally persecuted people. Rosenfeld knew how to reconcile his socialist views with his nationalist tendencies. He knew how to sing for the world of the oppressed, and he found in his heart special melodies for his suffering race.