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In Which We Begin Near the Very End
The Bronx, late 1915.
Late at night, the man the world knows as Sholem Aleichem wanders the streets, remembering. He is fifty-six but, to our eyes, looks older: almost seven years of battling tuberculosis has taken its toll, and though he has had periods of good health, he has gotten sicker and sicker while in New York. The noise and chaos of the city have never agreed with him; he has never quite managed to find his footing in its booming Yiddish literary and cultural life--not now, and not when he was last here, almost a decade ago. He misses the warmth of the Italian Riviera; he misses his friends from Russia, separated not only by distance, but by war (the United States has yet to commence hostilities, but he has seen trainloads of refugees and sailed through mine-infested waters; he is well aware of the Great War). A still greater personal tragedy, the death of his oldest son, has just devastated the family, and he has recently composed his will.
Always an insomniac by nature, given to writing late into the night, he leaves his apartment at 968 Kelly Street, right off Westchester Avenue and a block from the 163rd Street subway stop, and walks the neighborhood, a little like his beloved Dickens used to do, spending his time in the past, trying to recall his life's details for his autobiography.
From near the very beginning, he had known his life would make good copy. Twenty years earlier, he'd told his good friend, fellow writer, and sometime competitor Mordkhe Spektor that he would write a lengthy account of his first twenty years; "a man's life [is] the finest novel," he wrote him, "and mine is rich with episodes, characters and types." But life--that rich, varied life--had gotten in the way, and he had put off recording it until 1908, when a grave illness provided him, as he put it, "the privilege of meeting his majesty, the Angel of Death, face to face." Writing an autobiography and making a will were almost the same thing, he once said, and though he composed a few chapters on his sickbed in Italy, he pushed it off as his health improved, preferring, as he so often did, to concentrate on looking forward rather than back. He wrote a critic four years later that he felt so young, so vital, that he would never finish an autobiographical account; there would always be more to the story.
But other factors intervened, which we'll return to in their proper time, and in three short but eventful years that vitality had waned: the work once titled Step by Step, with its sense of movement, energy, forward progress, was being serialized in the Yiddish press under the title From the Fair. Explaining the choice of name, especially the preposition, he wrote: "A man heading for a fair is full of hope. He has no idea what bargains he will find and what he will accomplish_. . . don't bother him, he has no time. But on the way back he knows what deals he has made and what he has accomplished. He's no longer in a hurry_. . . He can assess the results of his venture."
Though he was still writing, he had, in his mind, already left the fair behind.