The Promised Land

views updated


Mary Antin's (1881–1949) autobiography, The Promised Land (1912), was published as American fears concerning masses of immigrants entering the country were reaching a climax. In 1911 the Dillingham Commission issued a report to Congress that argued that immigrants entering the country from southern and eastern Europe were not as racially or culturally desirable as ones who entered from northern and western Europe. Against the commission's recommendation that immigration be restricted, Antin celebrated both the immigrant experience and the transformation being wrought in America by eastern European immigrants such as herself. Although she did not conceal the hardships of the immigrant experience, her example seemed to suggest that America could lift any willing person up and make him or her one with the country.

Excerpts of The Promised Land had first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, and the book became something of a sensation when it was published. Readers responded enthusiastically to Antin's assurance that the American dream did work and that even an immigrant Jewish girl from Poland could become a well-adjusted, patriotic American. Offering herself as an example of what was happening for millions of immigrants, Antin conveyed a hopeful message for the country's future. Her story describes how a girl born in a small, backward Jewish village on the edge of Russia becomes a prize-winning American author. She presents herself as an exemplary, but still typical, product of the U.S. public school system, proof that American institutions were absorbing its millions of immigrants and transforming them to create a better nation. One contemporary reviewer said that Antin's work "will do much to dissolve the gentle cynicism we take toward our so-called democracy," providing "encouragement as to our inherent possibilities." For many, her life became a perfect example of how democratic institutions, and especially the public school, were working to renew America without changing its essential character.

For others, however, Antin's story obscured the dark side of the immigrant's American dream. According to this view, Antin is not the bold and optimistic immigrant who overcomes all obstacles to become a happy American but a Jew who had to sacrifice her cultural heritage in order to be accepted as an American. The educator Horace M. Kallen, who favored what he called cultural pluralism rather than melting-pot notions of American identity, describes The Promised Land "as the climax of the wave of gratulatory exhibition," the work of a "successful and happy" product of "the melting pot," who is more "self-consciously flatteringly American than the Americans" (p. 86).


Antin's story is more complicated than Kallen's formulation suggests—indeed its lesson was that she could be neither American nor Jewish without being both "American" and "Jewish." The writer Randolph S. Bourne recognized the complexity of Antin's story in his important 1916 essay "Trans-National America," published in the Atlantic Monthly. Bourne argued that in The Promised Land Antin does not merely adapt herself to America but also absorbs the America who reads her into her story. By positioning her assimilated audience so that they would identify with her story, Antin challenged what the notion of "assimilation" is conventionally understood to mean. Indeed, to the mixed dismay and approval of her audience, Antin wanted to convey not merely that "she" was one of "you," but that "you," whomever that you in her audience may have been, were also one with "her."

Antin signals her audience to the complexity of her Americanization in her introduction to the book, where she announces that her story is one of discarded selves:

I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over. Is it not time to write my life's story? I am just as much out of the way as if I were dead, for I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell. . . . I could speak in the third person and not feel that I was masquerading. . . . for she, and not I, is my real heroine. My life I still have to live; her life ended when mine began. (P. 1)

Throughout her autobiography Antin's narrative is driven by her recognition of her own "otherness," and the discrepancy that exists between the self of the story and the self that tells it. She creates the distance between her authorial self and her third-person self, between her Americanization and her prior "otherness," only so that she may collapse it. Antin's story of her Americanization is also the dramatization of her own otherness. Antin structures her autobiography so that its first half is concerned exclusively with her "as if" dead other, the little girl Mashke, who grew up in a Polish village called Polotzk in the outer Russian territories. During the time Antin lived there, "the Pale," as this area was known, contained more than 90 percent of Russia's Jews. Identity in Polotzk was rigidly either/or. As Antin says over and over, "one was a Jew, leading a righteous life; or one was a gentile, existing to harass the Jews, while making a living off Jewish enterprise" (p. 98). At once a Jew confined to the Pale and a woman constrained by the patriarchal Jewish law, Antin's identity was defined only in terms of race and gender. Antin therefore occupied a sort of double identity, each one a form of repression to Mashke who knew in her heart that "a greater life [d]awned in me" (p. 72). "Can this be I?"Antin asks at the outset of her story (p. 65). As a Russian Jew, this question intimates the bewilderment with which her inner life confronts the facts of her outer life; as an American, it reflects her ability to refashion the seemingly immutable principles of race and gender into an identity that embraces the self's capacity to be transformed.

Ultimately, the contrast between her experience in America and her life in the Pale enabled Antin to recognize and express the nearly buried inner conflicts she experienced in Polotzk. Her autobiography implies that were she an American-born child, she could simply deny her parents, their heritage, and run away from home. This is the action taken by the protagonist in Bread Givers: A Struggle between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New (1925), a novel by the Polish immigrant writer Anzia Yezierska (c. 1883–1970). To make this break in Polotzk, however, would have required Mashke to transgress a sacrosanct boundary: she would have to become gentile. Indulging such fantasies is futile since even escape from the Pale would still leave her to be known as a Jew and then either to be returned home or killed. If these thoughts are not available to the young Mashke, then they frame the perspective of the mature Antin who writes to transform her heroine into the American, Mary. Addressing her fellow Americans, Antin knows that her heroine requires a material host for her spiritual rebellion. In this respect, Antin encourages her audience to participate in the creation of herself as an American.

Antin acknowledges that some readers might be skeptical of her transformation from Russian Jew into assimilated American. She writes: "it is doubtful that the conversion of the Jew to any alien belief is ever thoroughly accomplished" (p. 195). Here Antin is concerned with cultural rather than religious difference. As if to ally her audience, she divides Judaism into "kernel" and "husk," suggesting that one may "drop" the kernel and retain the husk. In other words, cultural identity is voluntary: one can choose to be American. Antin never apologizes for her choice—indeed she celebrates it—but her joy in throwing off a repressive past to become American provokes some readers to wonder if she has betrayed her cultural identity. While some may argue that Antin sacrificed her Jewishness for a hollow Americanness, actually what she did was more complex. She rejected claims of pure cultural identity to reveal how malleable identity—even ethnic identity—is. Antin recognizes that the very existence of immigrants like her transformed the identity of those whom she had joined. More subtly, Antin invites her audience to accept her story and therefore partake of this recognition. Insofar as the audience accepts the American claims of this irreducibly "Jewish" woman, the American identity of both Antin and her audience has been complicated and altered.


Antin suggests her story, and others like it, prove how the American commitment to freedom and equality is more than just words. She frequently refers to the awe with which she holds the Declaration of Independence because it applies not only to 1776 but to those like herself who revolt against their life's circumstances and choose to embrace America. Praising the public school as a version of the declaration come to life, she tells her audience that "you born Americans" should be happy to hear her story because "it is the story of the growth of your country; of the flocking of your brothers and sister from the far ends of the earth to the flag you love" (p. 175). Antin frames her audience as her judge as she submits to them her fundamental situation of "otherness": the immigrant who is no longer a foreigner but not yet an American. Yet she also undermines her audience's authority by implying that their collaboration in her story reveals the extent to which they participate in the process that is her transformation.

Antin's shrewd manipulation of her audience so that they embrace their story as her story can be seen in the poem she writes for school about George Washington. This poem would eventually win her an award from the city of Boston—it would begin her career as a kind of public intellectual. She prefaces her account of the poem's success by relating how as an immigrant child she fell in love with the tales of Washington that were written by Parson Mason Locke Weems (1759–1825). She gives this image of Washington the devotion she could never give a rabbi. "Never had I prayed, never had I chanted the songs of David, never had I called upon the Most Holy, in such utter reverence and worship as I repeated the simple sentences of my child's story of the patriot." Having her poem read aloud gives her the opportunity to tell her classmates "what George Washington had done for their country—for our country—for me" (p. 181).

Here the situation remembered in the classroom predicts the relationship she creates in her autobiography: the poem that her assimilated classmates hear with rapture is a version of the life she now shares with her American audience. Her point is that Antin and her readers are united in that they are all fellow citizens bound by their commitment to a shared American history. As is true in The Promised Land itself, she has a double relationship with her audience. On the one hand, she acknowledges that "there ran a special note through my poem" that only the other Jewish students could fully understand since her poem expresses the grateful appreciation of the "weary Hebrew children" who have found a haven in America (p. 183). In other words, Antin cannot sing her American song without inflecting it with her Jewish history. On the other hand, Antin also knows that her poem's performance is not complete until she impresses students such as Lizzie McDee, a native-born American. The knowledge of Lizzie's approbation excites Antin because, as she says, her rival first "knew her as a vain boastful, curly-headed little Jew." This recognition—from immigrant to American—is the point Antin wanted her "born Americans" to stumble upon when they joined her teachers and her classmates in praising her story, her Americanization. Accept my universal story as part of yours, she seems to say, and you must accept that your identity has been transformed too. The point is not that Antin renounces her Jewish identity, though she is free to do so. In becoming "American," Antin nonetheless preserves and reinvents her Jewish identity within an American context.

The concluding lines to The Promised Land nicely express the manner in which Antin makes her identity one with that of America. Her language, appropriately, recalls Whitman. She suggests that not only is she the embodiment of America's future but also the fulfillment of its past. In this way Antin is both the culmination of American history and its owner.

No! it is not that I belong to the past, but that the past belongs to me. America is the youngest of the nations, and inherits all that went before it in history. And I am the youngest of America's children, and into my hands is given all her priceless heritage, to the last white star espied through the telescope, to the last great thought of the philosopher. Mine is the whole majestic past, and mine is the shining future.

Antin, The Promised Land, p. 286.

See alsoAssimilation; Immigration; Jews


Primary Works

Antin, Mary. From Plotzk to Boston. Boston: W. B. Clarke, 1899.

Antin, Mary. The Promised Land. 1912. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Antin, Mary. They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914.

Secondary Works

Avery, Evelyn. "Oh My 'Mishpocha!' Some Jewish Women Writers from Antin to Kaplan View the Family." Studies in American Jewish Literature 5 (1986): 44–53.

Boelhower, William. "The Making of Ethnic Autobiography in the United States." In American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, edited by John Paul Eakin, pp. 123–141. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Bourne, Randolph. The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911–1918. New York: Urizen, 1977.

Girgus, Sam B. The New Covenant: Jewish Writers and the American Idea. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Guttman, Allen. The Jewish Writer in America: Assimilation and the Crisis of Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Handlin, Oscar. Introduction to The Promised Land, by Mary Antin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.

Handlin, Oscar. The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1951.

Harap, Louis. Creative Awakening: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-century American Literature, 1900–1940s. New York: Greenwood Press, 1959.

Higham, John. Send These to Me: Immigrants in Urban America. 1975. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Kallen, Horace. Culture and Democracy in the United States. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1924.

Kramer, Michael P. "Assimilation in The Promised Land: Mary Antin and the Jewish Origins of the American Self." Prooftexts 18, no. 2 (1998): 121–148.

Parrish, Timothy. "Whose Americanization?: Self and Other in Mary Antin's The Promised Land." Studies in American Jewish Literature 13 New Voices in an Old Tradition (1994): 27–38.

Proefriedt, William A. "The Education of Mary Antin." The Journal of Ethnic Studies 17, no. 4 (winter 1990): 81–100.

Rubin, Steven J. "Style and Meaning in Mary Antin's The Promised Land: A Reevaluation." Studies in American Jewish Literature 5 (1986): 35–43.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Sollors, Werner. Introduction to The Promised Land, by Mary Antin. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Tuerk, Richard. "The Youngest of America's Children in The Promised Land." Studies in American Jewish Fiction 5 (1986): 29–34.

Timothy Parrish

About this article

The Promised Land

Updated About content Print Article