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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   



9. Social
Realism


•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Henry
Adams
- Abraham Cahan
- Theodore
Dreiser
- W. E. B. Du Bois
- Sui Sin Far
- Henry James
- Sarah Morgan
Bryan Piatt
- Booker T.
Washington
- Edith Wharton
- Anzia Yezierska
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Author
Pairings
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Authors: Anzia Yezierska (1880-1970)

Anonymous, Anzia Yezierska after the Birth of Her Child
[5088] Anonymous, Anzia Yezierska after the Birth of Her Child (c. 1912), courtesy of Melvin Henriksen.

Anzia Yezierska Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
In the course of a career that spanned more than fifty years, Anzia Yezierska recorded Eastern European women immigrants' struggles to find a place for themselves both within their traditional Jewish culture and within American society. Yezierska's goal as an author involved articulating Jewish women's experiences to a larger audience: she hoped her writing would "build a bridge of understanding between the American-born and myself."

Born in Plinsk, a Jewish shtetl outside Warsaw, Poland, Yezierska immigrated to New York with her large family when she was about fifteen years old. Settling in a tenement on the Lower East Side, the family attempted to live according to Old World values: Yezierska's father pursued Talmudic scholarship, his sons received an education, and his wife and daughters earned money to support the family. Like her mother and sisters Yezierska worked in sweatshops and as a domestic servant, but eventually she determined to rebel against her father's patriarchal values. In 1899 she left home to support herself and get an education.

In her pursuit of independence, Yezierska took a room on her own at the Clara de Hirsch Settlement House. A charitable institution created to help Jewish immigrant working women live on their own, the settlement house attempted to "Americanize" its tenants by replacing their traditional customs and values with those of European American culture. Thus, when the patrons of the Clara de Hirsch house awarded Yezierska a scholarship to attend Columbia University, they stipulated that she had to study domestic science so she could learn the skills of a middle-class American housewife. Although Yezierska had little interest in domestic science, she used the opportunity to gain an education at Columbia.

After finishing her program, Yezierska briefly taught domestic science, then attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she studied acting and became involved in radical socialist circles. She also began writing stories about the experiences of Eastern European immigrants, focusing on the specific challenges faced by women. Although her stories were repeatedly rejected by prominent magazines and journals, Yezierska persisted. Around this time, she began using her given name of Anzia Yezierska rather than "Hattie Mayer," the name immigration authorities at Ellis Island had given her because it was easier for most European Americans to pronounce.

In 1910, Yezierska married attorney Jacob Gordon and annulled the marriage almost immediately. She then married businessman Arnold Levitas, with whom she had a daughter, Louise, in 1912. Yezierska soon found herself stifled by the demands of domestic life, and the couple had frequent disagreements. In 1915 she left her husband and moved to California to raise her daughter alone, but soon found this plan untenable. She returned to New York, gave custody of her daughter to her former husband, and decided to live on her own as a writer. She found support for her work in her friendship with John Dewey, a Columbia professor and a respected authority on education.

Although Yezierska and Dewey were passionately devoted to one another and may have shared romantic feelings, their relationship apparently went unconsummated. His interest in and encouragement of her writing, however, proved inspirational for Yezierska. Although she had successfully published two stories in 1915, Yezierska did not achieve real fame or critical recognition until 1919, when her story "The Fat of the Land" was awarded a prize as the best story of the year. This success enabled the publication of her first book-length collection, Hungry Hearts, in 1920. Yezierska's work attracted the attention of movie producer Samuel Goldwyn, who bought the rights to her stories and gave her a contract to write screenplays in Hollywood.

In California, her sudden rise to fame and fortune earned her the moniker "sweatshop Cinderella." Although Yezierska's own semi-autobiographical work had contributed to this rags-to-riches image, she found herself uncomfortable with being touted as an example of the American Dream. Frustrated by the shallowness of Hollywood and by her own alienation from her roots, Yezierska returned to New York in the mid-1920s and continued publishing novels and stories about immigrant women struggling to establish their identities in America. Although she wrote and published well into her old age, Yezierska found little success as American readers became less interested in the immigrant experience. She died in poverty in a nursing home in California. Only recently has her critical reputation been rehabilitated by scholars interested in feminism and ethnic identity.



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