YOYSEF (JOSEPH) BOVSHOVER (September 30, 1873-December 25, 1915)
Born in Lubavitsh, Mohilev fistrict, Byelorussia, into a family of cantors and scholars on his mother’s side and businessmen on his father’s side. He studied in religious schools and with his father, a scholar, who wanted him to become a rabbi, but he had no desire to remain in his father’s domain, and he then left for Riga where he worked for several years in a grain shop. He quickly picked up German, and he began to read the German classics to the point where he could recite Heine by heart. In October 1891, he emigrated to the United States, brought over by his brothers who had made their way there years before. In the new world, he became a furrier in a sweatshop; he quickly learned the trade and did his job well, but he was not long for work in a sweatshop. He became involved in the anarchist movement, began writing revolutionary poems, and read them aloud before the workers in their shops. That made it impossible for him to continue working as a factory worker, and one of his brothers bought for him a grocery store, but he evinced no commercial aptitude and quickly wasted everything that had been invested in the store. His brothers thus brought him into their business, but this too proved short-lived for him. So, he became a private teacher of German, but did this as well without success. His mind was entirely caught up in writing poetry.
He published his first poems in the social democratic Arbayter-tsaytung (Workers’ newspaper) in New York under the pen name of M. Turbov. His first poem was “Kapitals a korban” (Capital’s victim) on July 8, 1892; in his writings, this poem is titled “Afn shterbe-bet” (On the death-bed). The image is that of a laborer who, due to hunger and need, was dying before his time. The daily sufferings of work constituted the principal theme of the majority of the poems that he composed in these years. Arbayter-tsaytung also published his first work of prose, “Kapitals karbones” (Capital’s victims), in September 1892. The influence of Morris Rozenfeld, Morris Vintshevski (Winchevsky), and Dovid Edelshtadt run through his early writings. Little by little Edelshtadt’s influence superseded others’ in Bovshover’s work, but this lasted only until 1894 when he set out on a new path. The years 1894-1895 were a turning point in his life, and not only in his writing. He lived in great poverty, and could not adapt to any more stable pursuit. In the summer of 1895 he received from friends work in a Brooklyn furrier shop, but on the very first day of work Bovshover disappeared and only later was he found in New Haven, where he worked several hours each day in a clothing store, which offered him a place to sleep with an additional couple of dollars (A. Rodash, in Fraye arbeter shtime [Free voice of labor], January 3, 1936). At noontime, “he used to help out in a restaurant and in return receive a meal and twenty-five cents.” His third “job” was delivering newspapers every morning. In New Haven, he learned to write English with fluency. Back in New York in 1896, he found a job looking after a doctor’s office. In his free time, he wrote a great deal both in Yiddish and in English. He was by this point completely free of Edelshtadt’s influence and wrote such playful poems as: “Fest-lider” (Poems of affirmation), “Lust-lider” (Poems of joy), “Libe-lider” (Poems of love), “Dikhtung-lust” (Joy of poetry), “Friling-lust” (Joy of spring), “Di meydls libe-lid” (The girl’s love poem), “Der dikhter als gast” (The poet as guest), and the like. Under the impact of English-language poets—in particular, Walt Whitman—at the same time he found his way to writing long, revolutionary poems, such as: “Tsum folk” (To the people), “A gezang tsum folk” (A song to the people), and “Revolutsyon” (Revolution). That era coincided with a short period in which Bovshover wrote in English using the pseudonym “Basil Dahl.” On March 7, 1896 the anarchist periodical Liberty published his poem, “To the Toilers” (an English translation of his Yiddish poem, “Tsum folk”), with Benjamin Tucker, the editor, offering an enthusiastic evaluation of Bovshover’s poetry and with a call to Anglophone critics to give the young author their recognition. Tucker’s extravagant praise just confused the young writer. His English-language poems did not appeared in Liberty after 1896—all in all, eleven poems (eight of them were later translated by A. Plotnik into Yiddish, and they appeared in Shtern [Stars], Minsk, March 1936).
In the 1898-1899 period, a crisis occurred in Bovshover’s mood. He became terribly embittered. His new poems—“Dos lebn” (Life), “Di fridns-polme” (Freedom’s palm tree), and the like—were full of despair. In 1898-1899 he contributed to Harkavy’s Der nayer gayst (The new spirit), in which he published his sketch, Oys dem togbukh fun a froy (From the diary of a woman) and, more importantly, his translation (in verse) of Shakespeare’s drama, The Merchant of Venice, as Shaylok oder der koyfman fun venedig (Shylock, or the merchant from Venice). The translation caused quite a stir among the more intelligent readers. Bovshover also wrote a short biography of Shakespeare and a critical preface to the play. In 1899 he wrote an essay entitled “Vegn poezye” (On poetry), with poetic examples drawn from Goethe, Heine, Milton, and Petrarch, as well as critical biographies of Heinrich Heine (with a selection of the poet’s aphorisms), Ralph Waldo Emerson (with translations of two of his poems and excerpts from his essays), Walt Whitman (with citations from his writings), and Edwin Markham. With the last of these, he translated the author’s poem, “The Man with the Hoe” as Der man mitn ridl (published by Fraye gezelshaft, 1899). Thanks to his translation of The Merchant of Venice, he found an entrance into the Yiddish theater. The actor Jacob Adler staged Bovshover’s translation, and Bovshover outlined for him plans for the theatrical staging of Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe (Cabals and love)—based on Yankev Gordin’s earlier adaptation entitled Reyzele—and of Hauptmann’s Fuhrmann Henschel (Wagoneer Henschel)—based on M. Katz’s adaptation entitled Gedalye der balagole. He also planned to translate Goethe’s Faust, as he had already, it appears, translated portions of the work, but the Faust translation is absent from the published collections of Bovshover’s writings. In October 1899, after a five-year interruption, Fraye arbeter shtime published poetry by Bovshover entitled “Naye un alte lider” (New and old poems)—“they ring strange to me, those workingman’s poems, which I sang and will sing again.” Severe concerns about making a living and innate egocentrism brought about in him a mental illness. He became melancholic. “Friends clearly understood,” explained Maks N. Meysel (Fraye arbeter shtime, January 3, 1936), “what was happening to Bovshover, but none of them had the heart to commit him to an institution, and the one who finally did it remains unknown till this day.” Bovshover lived for almost fifteen years in the institution (in Poughkeepsie, New York). He died on December 25, 1915. His brothers informed no one of his death. Only in February 1916 did it become publicly known. Bovshover’s talent was not properly appreciated until years after his death, and his name was remembered in connection with the three proletarian poets (Winchevsky, Edelshtadt, and Rozenfeld).
Bovshover’s books include: Poetishe verk (Poetic works) (London, 1903), 96 pp.; Lider un gedikhte (Songs and poems) (London, 1907), 64 pp.; Bilder un gedanken (Pictures and ideas) (London, 1907), 64 pp.; Gezamlte shriftn, poezye un proze (Collected writings, poetry and prose) (New York, 1911), reprint in 1916, 347 pp.; Geklibene lider (Collected poems) (Petrograd, 1918), 32 pp.; Geklibene lider (Moscow-Kharkov-Minsk, 1931), 190 pp.; as Basil Dahl, To the Toilers and Other Verses, eleven poems written in English by Bovshover and sixteen translated by Rose Freeman-Ishill (New Jersey, 1928), 57 pp.; Shaylok (“Shaylok, oder der koyfman fun venedig”) (New York: Yehudah Katsenelbogen), 116 pp.; Shaylok (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1911-1912); Lider (Poems) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1930), 120 pp.; Lider un dertseylungen (Poems and stories) (Kiev: Ukrainian state publishers for national minorities, 1939), 86 pp. His nwork also was included in Mut (Courage) (Moscow, 1920); and Zamlung (Collection) (Kharkov, 1925). In addition to the above: three unknown poems by Bovshover were published by Kalman Marmor in Yidishe kultur (Jewish culture) (New York) (April 1940).
Sources: Mikhl Kohn, ed., Geklibene shriftn fun y. bovshover (Collected writings of Y. Bovshover) (New York, 1911), pp. 3-27; Sh. Yanovski, in Tsukunft (March 1916); Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1, pp. 193-96, includes a bibliography; Y. Entin, Yidishe poetn (Yiddish poets), vol. 2 (New York, 1927), pp. 259-66; Forverts (New York) (February 8, 1916); Z. Zilbertsvayg, Teater-leksikon, vol. 1 (New York, 1931), p. 116, with a bibliography; Sh. Agurski, ed., Geklibene lider fun y. bovshover (Moscow, 1931), pp. 3-42; Fraye arbeter shtime (January 3, 1936) including articles by Dr. Mikhl Kohn, A. Rudash, Maks N. Mayzel, A. Almi, and Avrom Reyzen; V. Eybrams [William Abrams], in Signal (New York) (February 1936); Moyshe Shtarkman, in Hemshekh (New York) (1939), pp. 222-24; Algemayne entsiklopedye (General encyclopedia), vol. 4 (New York, 1944), pp. 61-62, includes a bibliography; Kalman Marmor, Yoysef Bovshover (New York, 1952), 80 pp.; Itsik Manger, Noente geshtaltn (Proximate images) (Warsaw, 1938), pp. 173-81; A. Shulman, Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in amerike (History of Yiddish literature in America) (New York, 1943); B. Y. Byalostotski, “Fir zenen zey geven” (There were four of them), in Dovid edelshtadt gedenk-bukh (Dovid Edelshtadt memorial volume) (New York, 1953), pp. 477, passim.