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Mary Antin is known for her autobiographical accounts of her family’s immigration to the United States. Her work provides a revealing look at the journey made by millions of Jews between 1891 and 1914. Praising her adopted home and the merits of open immigration, Antin traveled the country to spread her belief that America needed its immigrants as much as the immigrants needed America.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Prosperity to Poverty
Born June 13, 1881, to a Jewish family in Polotzk, Russia, Mary Antin grew up in the wake of Czar Alexander Ill’s infamous May Laws of 1882, anti-Jewish policies that led to the expulsion of Jews from certain areas of Russia. Because her mother had inherited a prosperous family business, Antin lived well in the early years of her life and was privileged enough to be tutored in Hebrew, Russian, German, and arithmetic. Unfortunately, illness struck the family, leaving Antin’s mother bedridden for two years. Mounting medical bills eventually led to financial ruin. The Antin family’s struggles with debt, combined with the antisemitic policies that prevailed in Russia at the time, ultimately compelled Israel, Antin’s father, to join a mass migration of Eastern European Jews headed to America at the end of the nineteenth century.
A Noble Desire to Learn
After arriving in the United States in 1891, Israel worked while his family remained in Polotzk; three years later, a Jewish benevolent society sponsored the journey of his wife and four children. The Antins lived in a series of immigrant slums in Boston, Massachusetts, where Israel enrolled three of his children in school, believing free public education to be, according to Antin in her memoir The Promised Land, ”the essence of American opportunity, the treasure that no thief could touch.” To extend Antin’s formal education in America, Israel told school officials that his daughter was eleven, not thirteen, a claim that was never challenged. Later, Antin fictionalized this event in ”The Lie” (1913), a story that emphasizes the importance of education to immigrants, as well as the necessity of American teachers to recognize the nobility of the immigrant in his desire to learn.
Although she had never been formally educated before, Antin excelled in school. She quickly learned English and completed the first five grades of school in only six months. When a teacher helped her publish one of her early essays in a primary school journal, Antin was so excited to see her work in print that she decided to become a writer. At her grammar-school graduation in 1897, Antin was presented as a model of how the American system of public education could benefit immigrants.
Important Social Contacts
Antin attracted the attention of prominent Jewish leaders in Boston, including the Hecht family, philanthropists and social reformers who encouraged the girl’s writing, and Josephine Lazarus, sister of Emma Lazarus, an American poet whose poem ”The New Colossus” (1883) is inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Through the Hechts, Antin met other people willing to promote her literary career, including Rabbi Solomon Schindler, who helped her translate the letters that she had written at age thirteen to her uncle in Russia from the original Yiddish. These letters form the basis for Antin’s book From Plotzk to Boston (1899). (”Plotzk” is an older, alternative spelling of ”Polotzk”.) At the time of the book’s publication, many Americans were opposed to immigration; Antin’s book encourages Americans to identify with immigrants and view them in positive ways.
Considering the limited possibilities of public education for most Americans at the turn of the century, Antin’s education was exceptional. During high school, Antin attended the Boston Latin Grammar School for Girls, the public preparatory school for Radcliffe University. Even when they combined their earnings, the members of the Antin family continued to live in virtual poverty. However, they were determined to provide their promising daughter with an education, even if the family suffered a little. As a result, Antin found herself caught between two social classes: the students and teachers at the Boston Latin Grammar School and the immigrant tenement districts.
Through the Natural History Club at Hale House, Antin met Amadeus Grabau, a German American graduate student at Harvard University. The two were married in Boston in 1901. When her husband took a post at Columbia University in New York, Antin enrolled at Barnard University before joining a national lecture circuit to discuss her writings. Her friendship with Josephine Lazarus deepened, and it was Lazarus who encouraged Antin to write her autobiography. When Antin gave birth to her only child in 1907, she named her Josephine Esther, after Josephine Lazarus and Esther Weltman Antin, guiding figures in Antin’s life.
Promise at the Gates
Following Lazarus’s death in 1910, Antin began the autobiography her friend had been urging her to write. Serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1911-1912 and published in book form in 1912, The Promised Land was dedicated to Lazarus. The book, which champions settlement houses, public education, and libraries as resources immigrants can use to succeed in their new environment, brought her instant fame.
When former United States President Theodore Roosevelt recruited Antin to lecture for the Progressive Party, she used her position to her advantage. In such venues as Carnegie Hall and the Tuskegee Institute, she explained what she believed to be America’s responsibilities concerning immigration. In 1914, Antin published They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration, a treatise on immigration policy that argues for open immigration and reveals the ways in which immigrants were victimized.
A Search for Spirituality
By 1918, Antin was a passionate Zionist and supported the creation of a new nation for Jews in the Middle East. Her Zionist ideology led to her separation from Grabau in 1919. Antin developed an interest in philosophy and spirituality when a physical breakdown forced her to retire from the lecture circuit. During her recovery, she met William and Agnes Gould, founders of the Gould Farm in the Adirondack Mountains, a psychiatric institute based on the belief that love can lead to spiritual wholeness. As she collected material for a book about William Gould, she studied Christianity because she thought it would help her discuss Gould’s work more thoroughly. Nevertheless, she completed only one chapter of the book.
Her last publications include ”The Soundless Trumpet” (1937), an Atlantic Monthly essay exploring mystical experiences, and ”House of One Father” (1941), an essay addressing the complexity of her own identity as a Jew and as an American. Once again, Antin praises her adopted homeland, a place where doors of opportunity open. She links Judaism to democracy, arguing that the Hebrew and American philosophical systems are essentially one. After battling cancer for the last few years of her life, Antin died in a Suffern, New York, nursing home on May 15, 1949.
Works in Literary Context
The factor that had the greatest impact on Antin’s success as a writer was her education. Had her family remained in Polotzk, Antin would have been denied a formal education, as neither Orthodox Jews nor women in Eastern Europe were permitted an education beyond learning to read the Psalms in Hebrew. In America, however, she was encouraged by her father to identify with her teachers and the school system, which dominated—but did not erase—her Jewish knowledge and practices. Because she embraced her opportunities in her new homeland, Antin experienced a nationalistic pride and patriotism previously unknown to her. As a result, her influence on immigration issues and attitudes in America was vast.
Americanization as a Theme
Written in the pre-World War I period of mass immigration and Americanization, Antin’s From Plotzk to Boston and The Promised Land came to represent not only the story of a Russian Jewish immigrant girl, but also the experience of Americanization itself. Certainly, her autobiographies capture much of the mythologized Americanization experience that is described by Philip Gleason in The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1980) as ”cosmopolitan nationalism.” When Antin was a child in Russia, the idea of nationalism represented tyranny, exclusion, and oppression. By contrast, Americanization signaled a promise of freedom and inclusion in a democracy. To Antin, becoming an American meant sharing ideals and identity with such historic Americans as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and even in the face of strong protests against immigration, she did indeed view her adopted home as a land of promise.
Works in Critical Context
Admired for her mastery of English and her descriptive, engaging style, Antin’s work was well received in both the literary and political worlds, earning the author high praise for its significance. Scholar Israel Zangwell contends that Antin’s message is a ”human document of considerable value,” for it gives a vision of the ”inner feelings of the people themselves” and the ”magic vision of free America” that lures immigrants to the United States. Likewise, Albert E. Stone writes that Antin’s work ”dramatizes the historical experience of Americanization in frankly mythic terms.” Stone concludes that Antin ”represents herself as the prototypical immigrant transformed into a new self.” Most recently, interdisciplinary scholarship has focused on issues of gender and ethnicity, leading to a renewed interest in Antin and a reassessment of her life and work.
The Promised Land The Promised Land was an immediate literary success when it was published in 1912. Drawn to Antin’s sense of nationalism for her adopted homeland, readers have compared it to the autobiographies of social reformer and immigrant Jacop Riis, patriot Benjamin Franklin, and educator Booker T. Washington. Reviewer Percy F. Bicknell, for instance, observed that Antin’s ”Americanism is as thoroughgoing as any true patriot could wish, and her enthusiasm in espousing the cause of both the immigrant and the new land to which he is hastening, is contagious.” Deeming the work ”a unique contribution to our modern literature and to our modern history,” Scholar James Craig Holte agrees that ”Mary Antin provides an example of Americanization at its best.” Because it has been so widely read and received, The Promised Land is considered to be a classic in immigrant fiction.
- Dearborn, Mary V. Pocahontas’s Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
- Holt, James Craig. The Ethnic I: A Sourcebook for Ethnic-American Autobiography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
- Nadell, Pamela A. Introduction to Prom Plotzk to Boston. New York: Marcus Wiener, 1986, pp. v-xxi.
- Stone, Albert E., ed. The American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, 1981.
- Sollors, Werner. Introduction to The Promised Land. New York: Penguin, 1997, pp. xi-1.
- Themstrom, Stephan, Ann Orlov, and Oscar Handlin, eds. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Boston: Belknap Press, 1980.
- Warner, Sam Bass. Province of Reason. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.
- Zangwill, Israel. Foreword to Prom Plotzk to Boston. Boston: Clarke, 1899, pp. 7-9.
- Bicknell, Percy F. ”How One Immigrant Girl Discovered America.” The Dial: A Semi-Monthly Journal of Literary Criticism, Discussion, and Information (June 1, 1914): vol. 56, no. 671, pp. 348-350.
- Sedgwick, Ellery. ”Mary Antin.” American Magazine 77 (March 1914): 64-65.
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