Born 1881, Polotzk, Russia; died 15 May 1949, Suffern, New York
Daughter of Israel and Esther Weltman Antin; married AmadeusWilliam Grabau, 1901
Mary Antin's father, frustrated by czarist restrictions and Jewish orthodoxy, immigrated to Boston in 1891. Antin's education progressed spectacularly in America and her teachers encouraged the prodigy; her family, despite worsening poverty, supported her continued education at the Girls' Latin School. As a member of the Natural History Club, she met and later married geologist Amadeus William Grabau, a descendant of Lutheran pastors. Moving to New York in 1901 Antin attended Teachers College, Columbia and Barnard (1901-1904), though without taking a degree. In these years Antin was introduced to transcendentalism, liberal Jewish thought, and sympathy with women's issues.
In The Promised Land (1912, reissued 1997), first serialized in the Atlantic Monthly, Antin argued against the growing clamor for restrictive immigration laws (which she later explicitly opposed in her polemical essay, "They Who Knock at Our Gates," 1914). Praising American democracy and its institutions as conducive to individual development and expression, Antin characterized her assimilation as a journey from medieval to modern thought. She included material from her girlhood narrative, From Polotzk to Boston (1899, reissued 1986), which was based on letters to her Russian uncle.
Describing conditions in Russia, the passage to America, and subsequent acculturation, Antin speaks to a gentile, native-born American audience, while reproducing her childhood emotions and psychology. Successful as a chronicler, she often fails to acknowledge or adequately analyze the problems of marginality evidenced in her autobiography. Though speaking for past generations as well as contemporary fellow immigrants, Antin views the act of narration as a "release" from her "clinging past." She deals with the disintegration of family life, threats to moral education and religious integrity in slum conditions, and assimilation; but such problems are drowned in her paean to American opportunities. With some self-irony, Antin depicts her girlhood rejection of Judaism for Americanism, but concludes she values the "living seed" of her religion when freed from its "prickly husk" of orthodoxy.
Antin's work, though not presenting incisive social criticism, provides a sensitive and idealistic chronicle of immigrant experience in the early 20th century.
Handlin, O., foreword to M. Antin's The Promised Land (1969). Lindenberg, K., "The Effects of Gender on the Americanization of Jewish Immigrants: A Case Study of Mary Antin" (honors thesis, 1995). Salz, E., "The Letters of Mary Antin: A Life Divided" (thesis, 1995).
Dictionary of American Biography, National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1892 et seq.). NAW 1607-1950 (1971).
The Independent (22 Aug. 1912). NYT (14 Apr. 1912, 18 May 1949). Outlook (June 1912). Yale Review (Oct. 1912).
—HELEN J. SCHWARTZ