Yezierska, Anzia

views updated


Born circa 1880, Plinsk, Russian Poland; died 21 November 1970, Ontario, California

Daughter of Baruch and Pearl Yezierska; married Jacob Gordon, 1910; Arnold Levitas, 1911; children: one daughter

Anzia Yezierska was born into the poverty and orthodoxy of an East European shtetl. When her large family came to the Lower East Side of New York in the 1890s, her father clung to his life of full-time Talmudic study and the wife and children supported the family. Yezierska had little opportunity for formal education; she worked in sweatshops and laundries and learned what she could from night school English classes and borrowed books. A scholarship enabled her to attend a training program for domestic science teachers, and from 1905 to 1913 she taught cooking in an elementary school. Her determination to rise from the dirt and drudgery of poverty to "make from herself a person" led to an early break with her family, the failure of two brief marriages, and the surrender of her daughter to the father's care.

A meeting with John Dewey, then dean at Columbia Teachers College, led to a romantic involvement that Yezierska wrote about repeatedly, in disguised form, in her later fiction. Dewey wrote a number of poems to Yezierska during the years 1917 and 1918; two of these unearthed poems appear in Yezierska's books of 1932 and 1950, attributed only to the Dewey-figures "Henry Scott" and "John Morrow."

Yezierska published her first short story in 1915; in the next decade her stories appeared in respected magazines. Edward J. O'Brien praised "The Fat of the Land" as the best short story of 1919. When Hollywood bought the film rights to the short story collection Hungry Hearts and Other Stories (1920, reissued 1985) and also hired Yezierska as a salaried writer, the impoverished immigrant became overnight a wealthy celebrity.

But Yezierska could not write in materialistic Hollywood. She wrote productively in New York for a few more years, but by the time she lost her money in the Depression, she had also lost her creative inspiration. She joined the Work Projects Administration (WPA) Writers Project in the 1930s; published an autobiography in 1950 and then a few stories about old age; and was poor and forgotten long before her death in 1970.

In Hungry Hearts, 10 stories of Lower East Side life, Yezierska's immigrant characters struggle with the disillusioning America of poverty and exploitation while they search for the "real" America of their ideals. The stories, like all of her fiction, are realistic, passionate, occasionally autobiographical, sometimes formless and overwrought; their effusive language suggests the style and intonation of an immigrant speaker. Women are the chief protagonists—women whose bodies are tied to sweatshop or household drudgery but whose spirits hunger for love, beauty, and some measure of independence, self-expression, and dignity.

In Salomé of the Tenements (1922), her first novel, she exhibits more passion than craftsmanship. It explores the attraction between two of Yezierska's stock character types: the "Rus-sian Jewess," idealistic and emotional, and the rational, aloof, "born American" male. Sonya Vrunsky, poor girl of the ghetto, marries wealthy John Manning. But Sonya is not happy; she renounces her marriage and seeks to build an independent life based on her own talents.

Yezierska prefaces the short story collection Children of Loneliness (1923) with a revealing essay, "Mostly about Myself," in which she discusses her tortured efforts to write. The nine stories themselves are similar in style and substance to those of Hungry Hearts. They deal with conflicts between old-and new-world values, the insensitivity and ineptness of social service agencies, the corrupting influence of materialism, and the spiritual hunger of the poor.

Bread Givers (1925, reprinted 1975) is an autobiographical novel about a dominating, unbending Talmudic scholar and his daughter's struggle to break free of subservient roles and to forge for herself an independent, fulfilling life. It is worth rediscovering.

Arrogant Beggar (1927, reprinted 1996) mixes social criticism with sentimentality for an effect that is at once trite and moving. Adele Lindner is from a poor neighborhood on New York's East Side; her gratitude to the Hellman Home for Working Girls turns to disgust with the patronizing attitudes and policies of her rich benefactors. She denounces the home and finds true charity and a satisfying life among her own people. All I Could Never Be (1932), Yezierska's last and not very successful novel, is at least a useful companion piece to her autobiography. Its heroine is the intense and idealistic Fanya Ivanowna; in her unsuccessful but obsessive romance with an older professor, her writing career which first blossoms and then fades, and her lonely search for a meaningful life and for satisfying human contact, she lives a fictionalized version of Yezierska's own experiences.

Since Yezierska's fiction is frequently autobiographical, it is perhaps not surprising that her autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950, reprinted in 1981 and 1987), is semifictional. Autobiographical data is selectively presented and unreliable, but the book is interesting for its discussion of the bureaucratic absurdities of the WPA and for its account of Yezierska's painful attempts to come to terms with herself, her values, and her immigrant Jewish heritage, and to find some real happiness and peace.

Yezierska was not a master of style, plot development, or characterization, but the intensity of feeling and aspiration evident in her narratives often transcends the stylistic imperfections. Her work deserves consideration as one of the few chronicles of the immigrant experience from a woman's viewpoint and as an early attempt in American fiction to present the struggles of women against family, religious injunctions, and social and economic obstacles to create for themselves an independent identity.

Other Works:

The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection (1979). How I Found America: Collected Stories of Anzia Yezierska (1991). Contributor to several anthologies including: Women of Valor: The Struggle Against the Great Depression As Told in Their Own Life Stories (1990), Imagining America: Stories From the Promised Land (1991), Women's Friendships: A Collection of Short Stories (1991), Growing Up Female: Stories by Women Writers From the American Mosaic (1993), Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998), The Urban Muse: Stories on the American City (1998), and others.


Batker, C. J., Ethnic Women's Literature and Politics: The Cultural Construction of Gender in Early 20th-Century America (dissertation, 1993). Baum, C., et al., The Jewish Woman in America (1975). Bloom, H., ed., Jewish Women Fiction Writers (1998). Burstein, J., Writing Mothers, Writing Daughters: Tracing the Maternal in Stories by American Jewish Women (1996). Hendriksen, L. L., Anzia Yezierska: A Writer's Life (1991). Hendriksen, L. L., How I Found America: The Collected Stories of Anzia Yezierska (1991). Jackson, P. Beyond Gender: Constructing Women's Middle-Class Subjectivity in the Fiction of Wharton, Austin, Yezierska, and Hurston (dissertation, 1997). Konzett, D. C., Diasporic Modernisms: Displacement and Ethnicity in Anzia Yezierska, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Rhys (dissertation, 1997). Sigerman, H. M., Daughters of the Book: A Study of Gender and Ethnicity in the Lives of Three American Jewish Women (dissertation, 1993). Sullivan, R. M., Anzia Yezierska: An American Writer (dissertation, 1975).

Reference works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA, TCAS.

Other references:

Bookman (Nov. 1923). Judaism (Fall 1993). MELUS (1980). NYT (23 Nov. 1970, 6 Apr. 1978, 27 Apr. 1978, 24 Feb. 1980). Social Education (Jan. 1995). Studies in American Jewish Literature (Winter 1975, 1997, 1998).