Borsszem Jankó (Tom Thumb). Budapest, 17 March 1907. A humor publication founded and in its early years edited by Adolf Ágai. (General Research Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

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Ágai, Adolf

(1836–1916), writer, journalist, editor, and humorist. Adolf Ágai established his literary reputation in Budapest during the 1870s and 1880s, where he was the pioneer of a new kind of popular urban culture implicitly associated with the city’s assimilated Jewish lower-middle classes. Ágai was born in the west Hungarian town of Jánoshalma into a Polish Jewish family whose language remained Yiddish, even though his father had changed the family name from Rosenzweig to the more Hungarian-sounding Ágai in 1848.

Ágai came of age in the heady atmosphere of mid-century Hungarian liberalism, whose ideals he embraced while at secondary school in Pest and later in Nagykőrös. Among his teachers in Nagykőrös was the renowned national poet, János Arany, who remained for Ágai an exemplary moral and intellectual figure throughout his life. In 1882, in the midst of rising political antisemitism, Ágai paid tribute to his former teacher in a transparently autobiographical short story, which recounted how Arany had publicly defended his Jewish student from the physical abuse of Hungarian classmates.

Ágai continued his studies at the faculty of medicine, which offered ambitious Jewish students one of the few avenues for further education at the time. He received his medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1862 and moved back to Budapest to immerse himself in the semibohemian life of the professional writer and journalist. His lighthearted, witty, and informal articles, which transplanted the Viennese feuilleton to Budapest, were an immediate hit with his middle-class, mostly Jewish readers. Ágai’s new style of journalism became the hallmark of a truly modern urban popular culture that he promoted throughout his long career as writer, editor, and translator.

In 1868, Ágai founded what was to become the major humor magazine of the age, Borsszem Jankó (Tom Thumb). Between 1870 and 1879, he also edited the urban weekly Magyarország és a Nagyvilág (Hungary and the World) and in 1871 he established a children’s magazine, Kis lap (Little Magazine). His essays and short stories, celebrating the urban scene and an increasingly cosmopolitan Budapest lifestyle, were published in numerous collections such as Porzó tárcalevelei (The Feuilleton of Porzo; 1879), Por és hamu (Dust and Ashes; 1892), and Utazás Pestről Budapestre (Travel from Pest to Budapest; 1908).

Ágai’s most lasting contributions to Hungarian Jewish culture were unquestionably his parodies of Jewish social types that he helped create and propagate on the pages of the Borsszem Jankó for more than 40 years in both text and illustration. Ágai’s Jewish figures gave voice to the increasingly complex social landscape of Jewish life in Budapest. He also often explored and confronted the universalist ideals of the political and religious establishment. In place of official visions of rational, ethical, and patriotic Hungarian Jews, Ágai’s caricatures redirected attention to the nonnormative world of everyday life and experience, where the paradoxes and anomalies of Jewish emancipation and assimilation were acted out. His Jewish types appear problematic to some contemporary readers, as they seem to closely echo familiar antisemitic stereotypes of the time. While some have argued that they were symptoms of Jewish self-hatred, others have pointed out that they could equally be seen as a modern example of Jewish humor showing a particularly complex reaction to the pressures of Jewish assimilation in a postliberal world.

Suggested Reading

Géza Buzinkay, Borsszem Jankó és társai: Magyar élclapok és karikatúráik a XIX. század második felében (Budapest, 1983); Mary Gluck, “The Budapest Flâneur: Urban Modernity, Popular Culture, and the ‘Jewish Question’ in Fin-de-Siècle Hungary,” Jewish Social Studies 10.3 (2004): 1–22; Endre Sós, A Nagyváros irói (Budapest, 1946); Lenke Steiner, Ágai Adolf (Budapest, 1933).