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Anzia Yezierska’s special contribution to Jewish American literature lies in her depiction of the immigrant experience from the point of view of the Jewish woman, whose struggles to achieve autonomy, both within the family and in the larger American society she describes sympathetically and persuasively.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Russian Immigrant Finds Education the Key
Born in a mud hut in Plinsk, on the Russian-Polish border, to Bernard and Pearl Yezierska, Anzia’s family came to America in 1890. Their immigration was part of a mass arrival to the United States of people ready to work, many from southern and eastern Europe. As America’s economy was becoming more and more industrialized, both skilled and unskilled workers were needed in the newly formed factories throughout the northern U.S. At the immigrants’ portal of Ellis Island, each Yezierska family member was given a new name that was easier to pronounce and spell in America. Yezierska became Hattie Mayer.
The family settled in a tenement on the Lower East Side of New York. Yezierska’s sisters went to work in sweatshops, while the young Anzia sold paper bags to pushcart peddlers when she was not in school. The Yezierska family quickly learned that America held opportunities for an individual with an education. All the brothers were given the opportunity for schooling, which enabled them to secure stable jobs and earn their own livings, while the sisters supported their rabbi father until they married and had children. By day Yezierska worked at menial jobs and in a sweatshop, so-called because of its dangerous and unregulated factory environment. Because the Industrial Revolution was still a relatively new phenomenon in America, government regulations about proper work environments had not yet been established. For example, laws preventing child labor were not instituted until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Searching for Fulfillment
Though she worked all day, Yezierska spent her nights attending school to learn to read and write English. Three years after her arrival in America she obtained a scholarship to study domestic science at Columbia University. However, her subsequent career as a teacher of that subject was short-lived; she found herself to be temperamentally unsuited to the job of teaching. In or about 1910, she married an attorney, but after only a few months this marriage was annulled. Shortly thereafter she married Arnold Levitas, a teacher and author of textbooks, and gave birth to a daughter, Louise. However, finding domestic chores and maternal responsibilities oppressive, Yezierska left Levitas and soon after surrendered her daughter to his care. She devoted the remainder of her life to pursuing a career as a writer.
In her fiction, Yezierska repeatedly describes the attempt of a spirited Jewish female protagonist from the ghetto to bridge the chasm between the chaotic though vital immigrant milieu and the orderly but ultimately repressed world of the uptown Jews and WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Seeking to capture the essence of ghetto life and to approximate both the rhythms of her native Yiddish tongue and the fractured English of her immigrant characters, she fashioned a series of novels and short stories that delineate the metamorphosis of the immigrant girl from naive to educated young lady and her subsequent liaison with either an urbane and assimilated Jewish young man or a scholarly WASP who serves as her mentor. Several of her short stories focus on the daily experiences of middle-aged and older women from the ghetto. Writing about her own literary efforts, Yezierska said, ”Writing about the Ghetto, I found America.” To Yezierska, America was a miraculous country that afforded those immigrants possessing determination and intelligence the opportunity to ”make a person” of themselves. By becoming educated, they would be able to escape the squalor and ugliness of the ghetto; in turn, they could infuse their warmth and vitality into the sterile, restrained Anglo-Saxon culture. Frequently in her works, however, the protagonist, once she has become Americanized, finds herself suspended uncomfortably between the restrictive but colorful ghetto culture and the antiseptic uptown world for which she had once yearned.
Writing Career Focuses on Popular Immigration Issues
With the publication of her short story ”The Free Vacation House” 1915, Yezierska’s literary career was launched. In 1917 Yezierska made the acquaintance of prominent intellectual John Dewey, who is best known for his work in pragmatic philosophy and psychology. Yezierska obtained permission to audit his seminar in social and political thought at Columbia University. During the course of this year, a romantic relationship developed between the fifty-eight-year-old Dewey and Yezierska, who was then in her thirties. Included in The Poems of John Dewey (published posthumously, 1977) are several poems that he wrote to and about Yezierska in 1917 and 1918. Dewey was to serve as the prototype for the supportive though austere Anglo-Saxon male appearing again and again in her fiction, in the role of mentor and sometimes lover of the young Jewish immigrant female protagonist. When Dewey’s seminar concluded, he asked Yezierska to serve as translator for a group of graduate students who were conducting a study of the Polish community in Philadelphia. This experience is treated fictionally in Yezierska’s novel All I Could Never Be (1932). Dewey and Yezierska parted in 1918, when he left for an extended trip abroad. Recognition for her realistic fictional representation of immigrant life came to Yezierska when Edward J. O’Brien not only included her short story ”The Fat of the Land” in Best Short Stories of 1919 but also dedicated the volume to her.
The next year Yezierska published a volume of short stories about Jewish immigrant life, Hungry Hearts. With the appearance of this book, she became a celebrity, for Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn purchased the film rights to the work and with much fanfare brought her out to Hollywood. Called ”The Sweatshop Cinderella” by publicists of the day, Yezierska settled in California with the intention of pursuing her writing career there, but within the year she returned East because she discovered that when she was no longer living in the familiar milieu of New York’s Lower East Side she could not write. After her return, she began her first novel, Salome of the Tenements, which depicts the difficulties immigrants encounter in the process of becoming American. The rise of settlement houses in this period provides one of the main historical contexts for Yezierska’s novel. In particular, the novel is a critique of settlement-house education projects aimed at Americanizing immigrants by assimilating them into the so-called American melting pot, a process that replaced the customs that immigrants had brought from the Old World with those of the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture.
The short stories and sketches that subsequently appeared in Yezierska’s Children of Loneliness (1923) and in the novels Arrogant Beggar (1927) and All I Could Never Be also deal with the immigrant experience, and describe the female version of the American Dream while delineating the tensions between the values of the
Old World and the New World. Though Yezierska’s early works were on the whole favorably reviewed by the critics, those who had applauded the emotional power of her early fiction soon began to speak negatively of her unvarying style and subject matter.
Depression and Anti-Immigration Sentiment Dampen Later Career
The Great Depression years brought economic hardship to Yezierska, as they did to many other writers. The royalties from her published books were negligible, and her modest savings disappeared with the 1929 stock-market crash. Like many other unemployed writers of this era, she was fortunate to find both a job and a community through the W.P.A. Writers’ Project, a work program implemented by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to give struggling artists paying positions. The work assigned to her—cataloguing the trees in Central Park— hardly made effective use of her creative talents though. This period in her life, as well as the early years of her career, is vividly described in her autobiographical novel Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950). The novel also recounts her brief sojourn in a small New Hampshire town after a ghetto acquaintance willed her some money and thus freed her for a time from the pressing necessity of earning a living. However, realizing once again, as she had during the year she lived in Hollywood, that she could not write when she was too far removed from the familiar ghetto world of her youth, she soon returned to New York City, where she lived until her death. For many years, Yezierska’s writing grew less popular as a growing hatred for immigrants arose in mainstream America, demonstrated by the restrictive immigration laws of 1924 and culminating in the 1927 executions of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who had been convicted of murder in a trial that revealed an undercurrent of anti-immigrant prejudice.
Though she had no novels published after 1950, she continued to write short stories and book reviews. Her last published story, ”Take up Your Bed and Walk,” which describes the experience of an elderly Jewish woman, appeared in Chicago Jewish Forum in 1969, a year before her death, and has recently been republished in a volume of her collected fiction, The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection (1979), edited by Alice Kessler Harris. With the publication of this collection and the republication of Bread Givers, Yezierska’s fiction is now available to a new generation of readers.
Works in Literary Context
Over a career of more than fifty years, Yezierska was a prominent part of the vanguard in the literary treatment of the immigrant experience. As she stated in stories, essays, and interviews, Yezierska felt her mission as a writer was to ”build a bridge of understanding between the American-born and myself,” essentially to translate the experience of the Jewish ghetto for all America. Her work demonstrates not only her conviction that she could build this bridge, but also her belief in America as the promised land. Finding a common language through which to describe herself and her people was no easy task, however. While her tales express a belief in this land of opportunity, her female protagonists just as often articulate Yezierska’s feeling of being “in” America but ”not of them.” The bridge between the Old World and New often seems like an illusion, with Yezierska and her characters caught between ”worlds of difference that no words could bridge over.”
Feminism and the ”New Woman”
With the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women had gained the right to vote. In its attention to the experiences of the immigrant woman, Yezierska’s work also addresses the specific concerns of women. The stereotype of the New Woman was extremely popular, rejecting the traditional domestic sphere in favor of more public lives including both working and social involvement. While there is no evidence that Yezierska knew any of the ”New Women” who dominated the New York scene in the 1920s, such as entertainment celebrities, she certainly subscribed to similar individualistic, self-reliant ideals. Many of the female characters she created exhibit a sense of self-reliance, looking to their own individuality to find happiness rather than relying on a husband or other family member for fulfillment. Yezierka’s sister Annie also proved to be a source of inspiration. Although burdened with poverty and many children, Annie was not discouraged. Her self-reliant activities, such as organizing the women of the tenement for social change, and the vivid stories of her life provided the material for Yezierska’s stories, including her first, ”The Free Vacation House,” which focused on the problems of an immigrant wife and mother.
Works in Critical Context
When Yezierska emerged on the literary scene in the 1920s, the American public was generally interested in the immigrant experience. She was not the first voice to speak about the struggles of the Jewish immigrant. Writers such as Abraham Cahan and Israel Zangwill had already found success with stories that depict life on the East Side of New York City. The positive reception of Yezierska’s work was based on another historical factor as well. Yezierska persisted in her efforts to bring the Jewish immigrant experience to other Americans. The themes of her stories—immigrant anguish, poverty, and the cultural negotiation between the Old World and the New—were common to many immigrants in America.
Bread Givers (1925) earned Yezierska critical acclaim and respect as a mature artist. The subtitle— A Struggle Between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New—indicates the conflicts between traditions, cultures, and genders that form the theme of the novel.
In its attention to these tensions Bread Givers is perhaps Yezierska’s most autobiographical work. Women readers of the suffrage decade must certainly have been drawn to the self-reliant, proto-feminist Sara Smolinsky. Yet the novel, although widely read and admired for several years after its publication in 1925, went out of print and into obscurity with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. The end of the 1920s marked a decline of interest in Yezierska’s work. Previously praised for its realism, her style was criticized as sentimental and melodramatic. Her characters and plots were described as limited and overused. The Jewish community in particular resented her criticism of their beliefs, customs, and language. Public interest in the plight of immigrants had also declined. In 1975 Bread Givers was rediscovered by Alice Kessler Harris, who edited a new edition of the novel. This rediscovery came on the heels of the revival of the women’s movement in the United States, and the novel has found a new audience of female readers. In 1991, Elizabeth Ammons states, for instance, ”The achievement of Bread Givers stems directly from this impulse to forcibly combine clashing elements. . . . The book does not at all behave the way a nice middle-class novel should. But it works.”
- Ammons, Elizabeth. ”Slow Starvation: Hunger and Hatred in Anzia Yezierska, Ellen Glasglow, and Edith Summers” in Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, 161-182.
- Harris, Alice Kessler. Introduction. Bread Givers. New York: Braziller, 1975.
- Schoen, Carol B. Anzia Yezierska. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
- Ferraro, Thomas. ”’Working Ourselves Up’ in America: Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89.3 (1990): 547-581.
- Salvatori, Mariolina. ”Women s Work in the Novels of Immigrant Life.” MELUS 9.4 (1982): 39-58.
- Shoen, Carol B. ”Anzia Yezierska: New Light on the ‘Sweatshop Cinderella. MELUS 7.3 (1980): 3-11.
- Wilentz, Gay. ”Cultural Mediation and the Immigrant’s Daughter: Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers.” MELUS 17.3 (1991-1992): 33-41.
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