The Education of Hyman Kaplan is an almost lost creation of Leo Rosten, a book I discovered a few years ago. On the face this book is a comedy of language set among the immigrant students of an adult language school in New York. There is no doubt the Rosten has a flair for bringing out the hilarious subtleties of the English language, and the book moves so quickly it seems unfairly short. Mr. Parkhill's beginners grade classroom is the scene of countless battle and wars, where the students struggle against syntax, diction, and each other. Some of the botched quotes from Shakespeare are masterpieces in themselves. I had no idea a book of this kind could be such a riot, and never knew our language was so close to lunacy.
The hapless hero, Kaplan, provides a wonderful vehicle for Rosten to maneuver through the pitfalls and traps of the many idiomed English Language. However, behind the books' mangled metaphors, garbled grammar, and reinvented history, lies the world of the immigrant in New York City. The light-hearted episodes are interspersed with an occasional look into the difficult life of a brand new American. These chapters show the optimism and the will to succeed that Kaplan's fellow students brought with them to America. Kaplan himself is an emblem of endurance; forever doomed to stay in the beginners grade, yet never despairing of the always elusive verb tenses.
This book has only one "weakness": it does not cater to cynicism. It looks ahead, from the eyes of each of the characters, to a better time, a better place, with better pronunciation. This is a glimpse of the Dream of America that I had not seen, a different view that fascinated me. I think the strangest thing is that the book is never preachy. It is likely this is because Rosten wrote this book as a mature writer, with many other works under his belt. His tendency to constant revision has left this book a polished gem. Read, laugh, and enjoy.