Feb 12, 2024
A Provincial Newspaper and Other Stories by Miriam Karpilove, translated and with an introduction by Jessica Kirzane (Syracuse University Press, 2023). 296 pages. $26.95
In her lifetime, Miriam Karpilove (1888-1956) wrote thousands of pages of short stories, novels, and plays, most of which appeared in various Yiddish-language New York newspapers. Her serialized novels and short stories feature women protagonists, a decision that made her both widely read and largely dismissed as insignificant. In spite of her remarkable literary productivity, her work has received little critical attention. That is, before Jessica Kirzane became taken with her. Kirzane has recently published translations of Karpilove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl and Judith, which have joined translations of other so-called women’s literature from Yiddish in garnering attention from both within and beyond academic circles.
The titular novella is the longest of the collection. In it, the narrator, an early-career woman journalist, agrees to move to Boston to work for an upstart paper, The Pathfinder. The pay is terrible, and she loves New York, but she loves the idea of having domain over her own page as the editor of the women’s page. The men are ineffectual, useless, or awful: the boss Mr. Rat only wants money and has no appreciation for intellectual content or journalistic integrity, the chief editor Mr. Kahm meekly follows Rat, and the managing editor Mr. Sohn is spineless. She is clearly the most talented and the best known among the staff, and yet she cannot even get a desk in the office. Eventually, she resigns in annoyance and moves back to New York. The journalist sardonically relates Rat’s bumbling arrogance, the foundational sexism of the workplace, and the capitalist rat race that Yiddish newspapers embraced. The tale is, by turns, humorous, frustrating, and relatable for anyone who has ever worked in an office.
The other stories in the collection offer fewer humorous moments, but they display the same penetrating observance. In “Like the Young Folks Do,” fifty-nine year old Mrs. Laikin cringes when the other women her age twitter about finding a romantic match. They seem flighty and their lives cheap. Karpilove writes her character Laikin with a light touch, eschewing long descriptions of rumination or brooding in favor of the sensible air of a woman who feels the gravity of both self-knowledge and dignity. “Old Sarah” narrates a woman moving into an old age home at the behest of her children after her second husband died. The detached narrative voice paints Sarah’s grief, loneliness, and poise all in three pages. “Man and Radio” dramatizes the gendered imbalance of relationships as well as the particular social pressure on women to be married, all through the tale of a divorced woman and her radio. Some of the characters, however, are flat. The men in “A Provincial Newspaper” are little more than one-dimensional placeholders. Yet I must admit I felt rather charmed by a series of stories in which the cardboard characters were men, and the vibrant main characters were women.
Kirzane treats Karpilove with a critical kind of love. She treats Karpilove’s writing with the utmost care, rendering her sentences prickly and sparkly and full of attitude. The narrator of “A Provincial Newspaper” has the beguiling tone of a cynic only half-resigned to her professional lot in life. At one point, she says of the newspaper: “Supposedly for the sake of these ragamuffins, these dear rowdy youths, they started publishing some things in the Pathfinder in English, too. The youths should be able to appreciate something in their own paper!” (85).
Yet Kirzane does not shy away from Karpilove’s missteps. Some of the stories are Orientalist, and some are racist. Narrators call Arabs “lazy” and dirty, compare them to animals, and suggest their poverty is their own doing. With no critique internal to the stories, it is difficult to conclude that Karpilove herself did not also hold some of these views. Kirzane writes:
“It is important to note Karpilove’s racism in the text particularly because she sees herself as outside of the ideologically strident voices calling for the exclusive use of Jewish labor over Arab labor,” which Karpilove illustrates in her own description of her three years in Palestine through an incident in which she reports (in a rather self-congratulatory way) having argued against the ideology of Jewish labor (21).
Why translate them? Karpilove’s intended audience was often newspaper readers, and she wrote for them rather than aspiring to high literary styles or forms. Her writing is not some sort of moral example, either from the past—in spite of the way that newspapers had often marketed women’s pages—or as a model for the future. These stories have not previously appeared in English, but that alone cannot be sufficient reason to take the time and care of translating them.
In my view, the most compelling reasons for translation relate to literary history: first, Karpilove’s work shows us a host of women characters with a variety of experiences. The women in A Provincial Newspaper and Other Stories are complex, multifaceted characters, and they do not uniformly fixate on love. They work, they have children, they are single, they are old, they are young, they have interior lives, they are involved in romance, or they aren’t. Karpilove writes stories of her time, and they showcase all sorts of possibilities—some good, others miserable, and most a realistic mix of the two—for women’s lives. When Yiddish newspapers published countless short stories and serialized novels depicting women in these diverse and complex ways, readers of all genders saw these possibilities. Second, it adds to the growing evidence that Yiddish women writers did not confine themselves to poetry or memoir, and when they wrote fiction, it was not all romantic, sentimental, or vacuous, no matter how often readers, students, and even scholars express surprise when they encounter that fiction. A Provincial Newspaper and Other Stories suggests it’s time to learn the lesson that there were lively Yiddish women novelists and short story writers and tone down the surprise.