Yezierska, Anzia (c. 1881–1970)
Yezierska, Anzia (c. 1881–1970)
American-Jewish novelist whose fiction preserves the spirit, suffering and generational strife of immigrant families on New York's Lower East Side. Name variations: Anzia Mayer Gordon (1910); Anzia Mayer Levitas (1911–12); Anzia Yezierska to her family; "Hattie Mayer" to U.S. Immigration officials at Ellis Island. Born Anzia Yezierska around 1881 (she never knew her date of birth so she made one up, October 18,1883, though it was more likely 1880 or 1881) in Plotsk, Russian Poland; died in Ontario, California, on November 21, 1970; daughter of Bernard Yezierska (a Talmudic scholar) and Pearl Yezierska; educated at the Rand School, New York, and Columbia University; married Jacob Gordon (an attorney), in 1910 (divorced); married Abraham "Arnold" Levitas (a printer), in 1911 (divorced); children: one daughter, Louise Levitas Henriksen.
Emigrated at about age 11 (1892); taught school (1904–20); worked as a screenwriter (1920–21); worked as a short-story writer, novelist, and independent author (1921–70); lived mainly in New York, but spent a year in Hollywood (1920–21), a year in Wisconsin (1929–30), and a year in Vermont (1931–32).
Hungry Hearts (1920); Salome of the Tenements (1922); Children of Loneliness (1923); Bread Givers (1925); Arrogant Beggar (1927); All I Could Never Be (1932); (with introduction by W.H. Auden) Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950).
Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Yiddish Jewish Daily Forward, is the best-known American-Jewish novelist of the early 20th century. His classic The Rise of David Levinsky describes, on the basis of his firsthand experience, the anguish-laden process of assimilation to American life for Eastern European Jews. His female counterpart was Anzia Yezierska, who migrated as a child to New York City with her mother, father, and seven siblings, and went on to a distinguished career as a novelist and short-story writer. She struggled for years but became an overnight publishing sensation in 1920, enjoyed ten years of fame and fortune, then faded almost as rapidly as she had risen.
Her family came from the segregated Jewish shtetl in Russian Poland whose members were always vulnerable to the passions and prejudices of the majority population. In the 1880s, a combination of persecution and legal changes enabled Jews to emigrate and thousands did so. America was the favored destination, because it held out the prospect of economic advancement and religious liberty. The first generation of immigrants, many of them (like Yezierska's family) crowded together in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, encountered anti-immigrant prejudice at first, but as they and their children began to learn English and discover economic opportunities that had never existed in Russia, they began to think of America as their permanent home. As Yezierska wrote later, "In America you can say what you feel—you can voice your thoughts in the open streets without fear of a Cossack."
Her father was a Talmudic scholar who lived on his neighbors' charity and took pride in being poor. Unlike many immigrant men (including Cahan's fictional character, David Levin-sky), who felt the lure of American money-making too strong to resist, the Orthodox Yezierska remained committed to his old religious way of life in the new country. The burden of making a living was therefore thrown to the women and children of the house, who found that their subservient position was offset by their learning the English language and worldly ways more rapidly. Yezierska wrote later that she "worked in the sweat-shops, so many of them I have forgotten the number. And I was a laundress and a waitress in restaurants—terrible jobs that stunned me physically."
She was in constant conflict with her father, who expected her, like her sisters, to marry a husband of his choice; a situation later vividly recreated in her novel Bread Givers (1925). She was passionately enthusiastic about education as an avenue out of working-class drudgery, and studied at the Socialist Rand School, thanks to a scholarship from a group of sympathetic German-Jewish women. The German Jews, mainly Reform rather than Orthodox, had been established in America since earlier in the 19th century and were more assimilated than the Eastern European newcomers. In her late teens, she ran away from home and lived at the Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls, where she managed to win more educational funding. Living on charity, however, she found to be painful and degrading; one of her later novels, Arrogant Beggar (1927), is a bitter attack on the philanthropy of wealthy women who, according to Yezierska, were self-satisfied tyrants. Enduring the unwelcome sense of being forced to be grateful, she graduated from Teachers College of Columbia University in 1904 with a diploma in domestic science.
Domestic science was an unsuitable choice for Yezierska, who was never the domestic type. She held several teaching jobs, but worked mostly as a substitute, then tried the low-paid alternative of working for charities. Already writing stories and poems, she had a passionately romantic nature, but it did not correspond to the realities of her love-life. In her late 20s, she married twice, both times flouting her father's will and making her own choice. The first marriage, to attorney Jacob Gordon in 1910, ended in divorce within six months because she found herself unable to have sex with him. Her second, to another Jewish immigrant, Arnold Levitas, took place a few months later. In fact, she had been
planning to marry Levitas in the first place, when Gordon, one of his friends, had suddenly eclipsed him in her affections. The second time round there was a religious ceremony but no civil one, so, in the eyes of the state, they were not married. The couple had a daughter, Louise Levitas Henriksen (who would later write a fine book about her mother's life), but Anzia, always high-strung, restless, and self-centered, felt constricted by marriage and soon left Levitas. She took Louise with her on a long trip to see friends and relatives in California. Before long, however, teetering on the brink of destitution and suspected by the local authorities of being a vagrant, she was obliged to send Louise back to Levitas. He officially adopted her (to spare her the legal stigma of illegitimacy) and raised her.
From then on, Yezierska lived alone for most of her life, having frequent affairs with men but rarely able to sustain a long-lasting relationship or friendship. Louise visited her every Saturday and enjoyed the contrast between her stuffily conventional father and her bohemian mother, whose unpredictability and wild mood swings made every visit an adventure. She wrote: "Anzia was an arresting conversationalist, even abrasive, cutting through pleasantries to reach her own point of interest, forcing the other person to match her own pace in pursuit of insight, always demanding the sharpest, deepest truth. There was even generosity in the challenging way she spoke. She blazed with emotion." She would make friendships instantly, pour exhausting emotional energies into them, then feel rebuffed and turn cold if the new friend did not reciprocate with overwhelming warmth.
Yezierska coupled teaching with writing stories in English. Her first published story, after years of struggle and failure, was "The Free Vacation House," printed in Forum in 1915, and based on her sister Annie 's family. It earned her $25. In 1917, eager for higher education in philosophical rather than mundane subjects, she registered for a course at Columbia University offered by the philosopher John Dewey. He was preoccupied with the condition of Poland in the First World War and she, because of her origins, was familiar with the language. She worked for a time as a Polish translator on his study of politics and assimilation in the immigrant community of Philadelphia.
Although Dewey was 25 years older than she, they began a platonic love affair, which she later commemorated in two of her books as a symbol of the meeting of old Yankee and new immigrant elements in 20th-century America. "Now and then," she wrote, "threads of gold have spun through the darkness—links of under-standing woven by fearless souls—Gentiles and Jews—men and women who were not afraid to trust their love. … It's because he and I are of a different race that we can understand one another so profoundly, touch the innermost reaches of the soul." Most commentators on her work agree that Dewey was central to her development as a fiction writer, introducing her on the one hand to the Transcendental literary tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but encouraging her also to make the most of her immigrant experience. His philosophical pragmatism also gave her a way to hold onto a spiritual tradition while abandoning what she thought of as the excessively restrictive Orthodox Judaism of her family. She urged him to be more passionate, but, when he kissed her one evening, she froze in alarm (as she had with Gordon) and their relationship chilled. Soon afterwards, Dewey left for California and the Far East and their relationship ended, but his influence persisted in her subsequent writing. She incorporated into her novels several of the love poems he had written her, but was unable, on meeting him again in 1927, to regain his friendship and trust.
In 1919, another short story "The Fat of the Land" won a prize for the best story of the year, and inclusion in Edward O'Brien's annual anthology. It was a crucial breakthrough and led directly to her first book contract. Hungry Hearts (1920), a collection of her early stories, gained only modest sales at first. It won publicity from the Hearst newspaper columnist Frank Crane, however, to whom she introduced herself and who romanticized her in print as "an Eastside Jewess who had struggled and suffered in the desperate battle for life amid the swarms of New York." She was, he wrote, changed "from a sweatshop worker to a famous writer because she dipped her pen in her heart." Her fortunes took another leap forward when Samuel Goldwyn, one of the first great Hollywood movie moguls, bought the rights to Hungry Hearts for $10,000. Goldwyn also offered her a three-year scriptwriting contract with a weekly salary of $200. She accepted and set off in high spirits for Hollywood. In frequent press interviews, she upheld the false idea that she had moved more or less directly from sweatshop to literary celebrity, omitting mention of her 15 anguished years of teaching, writing, and study.
Hollywood, after the initial euphoria, did not work out. Although she was not entirely truthful about her own life (always exaggerating her previous lowliness), she was dismayed by the gross and cynical materialism of the movie business, and by Goldwyn's unabashed tampering with her scripts (he used a comedian to add humor to her melodramas). She also found that remoteness from the poor people of the Lower East Side, which had inspired her in the first place, made it difficult for her to write persuasively. After a year in California, she gave up the high-paying job (the money itself made her feel guilty) and returned to New York. Her next novel, Salome of the Tenements (1923), describes the rise and fall of a rich man's immigrant Jewish wife. It was based on the experiences of her friend Rose Pastor Stokes , an immigrant slumdweller who had caused a sensation a few years before by marrying a rich Anglo-Saxon settlement house worker. Salome reversed many of the conventions of Yezierska's early stories, however, making the young woman manipulative and devious rather than naive. It too was bought by Hollywood, but Yezierska had severed her connections with the film business and was not involved in turning it into a film.
A string of successes in the 1920s culminated in Yezierska's masterpiece Bread Givers (1925), the most overtly autobiographical of her novels, which describes the desperate struggle of an immigrant girl to find her own way in the face of poverty and a tyrannical father. Hollywood earnings and book royalties enabled her to live for awhile in grand style, in a plush and gilt Fifth Avenue luxury apartment building, the Grosvenor. But by the late '20s, her reputation and her sales were in decline. Arrogant Beggar (1927) got distinctly poorer reviews than Bread Givers. She began hectoring publishers for advance payment of royalties and writing angry letters, claiming that she had been deceived financially.
She lost most of her remaining money in the Wall Street crash of 1929 and gratefully accepted a year's appointment as the Zona Gale Scholar in Residence at the University of Wisconsin. Gale, a successful author who admired Yezierska, was scared by her guest's intensity. "The violence in my voice," wrote Yezierska of their meetings, "the violence of my gestures, must have opened the gulf between our different worlds. … I always felt her fear of me, her fear of my being too emotional." Always argumentative, Yezierska found it more and more difficult to agree to terms with publishers and was bitterly disappointed by the cool critical reception of her last novel, All I Could Never Be, in 1932. The mood of the Great Depression was uncongenial to Yezierska's fiction. Her great theme had been the triumphs and tragedies of immigrants in America, but the literary vogue of the Depression years switched to the lives of indigenous people, American-born farmers and workers. Its apotheosis was Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, which follows migrant "Okie" farmers from the Dust Bowl to California. Yezierska visited El Centro, California, a center of migrant farm workers' strike agitation, but did not find a way to write about it. Throughout the '30s, she made regular visits to California to stay with her sister Fannie and her well-to-do husband, but in her usual tactless way openly criticized what she saw as their complacent prosperity, even while benefiting from it.
By 1935, Yezierska was so short of money that she enrolled in the Works Progress Administration's Writers' Project, a literary offshoot of the New Deal, which gave $24 per week to destitute authors, enabling them to carry on with their writing. They had to sign in once each week and give evidence that they were actually making progress with their work. Many members of the project, including Yezierska, had leftist political sympathies and belonged to the Writers' Union, which regarded the federal government and editors in general not only as benefactors but also as potential enemies, and even contemplated striking for higher pay. Not surprisingly the whole project was disliked by right wingers and opponents of the New Deal, who regarded it as no better than a dole for literary failures (which, in a few cases, it was). The project generated so much bad publicity that in 1938 the Roosevelt administration was forced to close it down.
Yezierska, throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, lived a spartan existence in a single room in Greenwich Village, working on a memoir, the highly fictionalized autobiography which went through dozens of versions and rejections before finally appearing as Red Ribbon on a White Horse in 1950. Yezierska's breakthrough on this project was her meeting with Reinhold Niebuhr, the Union Seminary professor and renowned theologian. He read her book in manuscript, admired its passionate style, and introduced her to W.H. Auden, the British émigré poet, who also liked it and agreed to write an introduction. Even then there were problems, because Yezierska found Auden's introduction passionless and highbrow. Their editor, John Hall Wheelock, tried to smooth her ruffled feathers, warned Auden that Yezierska, now nearly 70, was "pure emotion without the bridle rein," and managed to work out some changes, to both writers' eventual satisfaction. The book won high praise from reviewers but enjoyed none of the popular success of her 1920s novels. It did give her the confidence to begin publishing again, however, and she became a steady contributor of reviews to The New York Times Book Review and other journals through the 1950s.
The women's movement of the 1960s and the ethnic self-discovery movement of the 1970s both contributed to reviving her reputation. Yezierska died at about age 89 in 1970 by which time her work was enjoying a renaissance. Her reputation has continued to rise and she is now often linked with Abraham Cahan, Mary Antin , and Henry Roth as one of the foremost Jewish immigrant writers. Several of her later stories, written after Red Ribbon, were published posthumously in a collection titled The Open Cage (1979), enabling literary scholars to recognize that her literary skill had continued to mature even when her search for commercial success had failed.
Ironically her primitive early style had been the most attractive to readers. In Red Ribbon, she defended her approach to writing:
Samuel Goldwyn said to me that to tell a good story, you must know the end before you begin it. And if you know the end, you can sum up the whole plot in a sentence. But I had always plunged into writing before I knew where it would take me. If a story was alive, it worked itself out as I wrote it.
Her language often sounds like a straight translation from Yiddish. That is as much a strength as a weakness, however, as Yezierska was surrounded by people who were turning in their own lives from Yiddish to English, and her vigorous passages of dialogue enable us, as readers today, to hear the sounds and cadence of these recent immigrants' voices. This gift for dialogue and her studies of generational conflict among immigrants are particularly useful to contemporary social historians.
Antin, Mary (1881–1949)
American immigrant from Russia who wrote the highly acclaimed The Promised Land. Born on June 13, 1881, in Polotzk (Poltzk, Polotsk), Russia; died in Suffern, New York, on May 15, 1949; educated at Teachers College and Barnard College of Columbia University; married Amadeus W. Grabau (a professor of paleontology), in October 1901; children: one daughter.
Though she did not regard herself as a literary person, Mary Antin came to prominence with her 1912 book The Promised Land. First serialized in the Atlantic Monthly, this autobiographical work dealt with the immigrant experience in America and is still used in the nation's classrooms. Antin came to the United States with her mother, sisters and brother from Polotzk, Russia, in 1894, joining her father who had immigrated in 1891. The family lived in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where Antin's father worked as a grocer. In half a school term, the 13-year-old Antin moved from first grade to fifth and had a poem published in the Boston Herald. She arrived in New York following her studies at the Girls' Latin School and attended Teachers College, Columbia, and Barnard College. Plans for her to attend Radcliffe were cut short by her 1901 marriage to a Columbia paleontology professor, Amadeus W. Grabau, with whom she settled in New York City. Antin wrote her first book about life as an immigrant, From Plotzk to Boston, in Yiddish, and in 1899 saw this work published in English translation.
Acclaim came in 1912 with The Promised Land, and from 1913 to 1918 Antin lectured about immigration. At the bidding of Theodore Roosevelt, she also spoke on behalf of the Progressive Party and campaigned against bills in Congress that restricted immigration. She would later note: "The more noisy phases of my life were forced on me by a sense of duty. … [A] combination of shock and reverence drove me into the bypath of public life: shock of the revelation, through the immense acclaim accorded The Promised Land, that Americans were so little aware of the unique spiritual mission of America; and reverence for the few who did exemplify prophetic citizenship." A nervous breakdown cut short her career as "an itinerant preacher," wrote Antin, but she was glad of "any kind of exit from what I considered a false position. I felt I had not earned the authority the public allowed me." Her book They Who Knock at Our Gates (1914) also dealt with the alien experience. Wrote Antin: "What we get in the steerage is not the refuse, but the sinew and bone of all the nations." She died in 1949 in Suffern, New York.
Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.
McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.
Yezierska's stories and novels are all emotionally exhausting, recreating vividly the painful conflict of generations in immigrant families. In Bread Givers, for example, Yezierska is careful to show that Sara Smolinsky, the heroine, who wins the reader's sympathy and support, is acting in ways that her father finds disgraceful. To American eyes, the father is a horrible tyrant and yet, in his own eyes and those of the tradition from which he comes, his is the honorable path and hers a fall from grace. She resolves to become properly educated and to make her own living as a schoolteacher rather than marrying. But even though she succeeds she wins only her father's contemptuous remark that she is a disobedient daughter, and is left with her feeling of achievement marred by the knowledge that it has been won at the expense of close family ties. The reader leaves it acutely aware that ethnic and generational conflicts left permanent, painful wounds. That reminder, along with her vivid depiction of immigrant New York, is Yezierska's legacy.
sources and suggested reading:
Burstein, Janet. Writing Mothers, Writing Daughters. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Dearborn, Mary V. Love in the Promised Land. NY: Free Press, 1988.
Glenn, Susan. Daughters of the Shtetl. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Henriksen, Louise L. Anzia Yezierska: A Writer's Life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Schoen, Carol B. Anzia Yezierska. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1982.
Westbrook, Robert. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Yezierska Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia