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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism Anzia Yezierska (1880-1970)

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

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.

Teaching Tips

  • Yezierska was often praised for the authenticity of her representations of Yiddish-English immigrant speech. In order to appreciate her skill at reproducing dialect and “translating” the cadence and rhythm of Yiddish speech, ask your students to read some of the dialogue from “The Lost ‘Beautifulness’ ” out loud. (The verbal exchanges when Hannah Hayyeh convinces the butcher and his customers to view her newly painted kitchen might work particularly well for this activity.) How does this speech sound different from “mainstream” American English speech? How are the vocabulary and sentence structure different? What effect does the use of dialect have on our understanding of the characters in the story? A footnote to the story in The Norton Anthology of American Literature explains that Yezierska probably intended readers to understand that the characters would actually be speaking Yiddish to one another and that she has translated their speech into English. Ask students to think about the implications of this assertion. If Yezierska was intent on translating Yiddish speech, why did she retain the unique idioms and rhythms of the language rather than render it in standard American English?
  • Many of Yezierska’s works offer critiques of the hypocrisy or short-sightedness of charitable institutions and individuals. Her own experiences with charitable settlement houses and scholarships designed to enforce immigrant assimilation had convinced her that charity often leaves its recipients feeling imprisoned and disempowered. After giving students this background information, ask them to think about the figure of Mrs. Preston in “The Lost ‘Beautifulness.’ ” Why does Hannah Hayyeh grow disenchanted with Mrs. Preston’s patronage? You might point out Mrs. Preston’s rather condescending contention that Hannah Hayyeh is an “artist of laundry” and her reluctance to change the status quo of class relations. (She insists, “We can’t change the order of things overnight” and “We’re doing our best.”) Ask students how they think Yezierska intended readers to react to Mrs. Preston. Are we meant to think of her as a bad person? Or as someone who means well but is misguided? Is her character meant to offer a model or a lesson to readers who wish to offer charity to immigrants?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What motivates Hannah Hayyeh to paint her kitchen white? What sacrifices does she make in order to perform this improvement?
  2. Comprehension: Why does Hannah Hayyeh refuse Mrs. Preston’s offer to give her money to cover the rent increase? How does the scene in which Hannah Hayyeh refuses Mrs. Preston’s charity change their relationship?
  3. Comprehension: Why does Hannah Hayyeh refuse Mrs. Preston’s offer to give her money to cover the rent increase? How does the scene in which Hannah Hayyeh refuses Mrs. Preston’s charity change their relationship?
  4. Context: Examine the pictures of Lower East Side tenements featured in the archive. How do the pictures compare to Yezierska’s description of Hannah Hayyeh’s apartment? Given the tenement environment, why might Hannah Hayyeh’s quest for “beautifulness” make such an impression on her neighbors and on Mrs. Preston?
  5. Exploration: While she was studying at Columbia and the Academy of Dramatic Arts, Yezierska became interested in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy of self-reliance. How do ideals of self-reliance inflect Yezierska’s portrait of Hannah Hayyeh? In what ways might “The Lost ‘Beautifulness’ ” critique Emerson’s ideas about self-creation and personal responsibility? What were the limits of self-reliance for an impoverished immigrant woman at the turn of the twentieth century?

Selected Archive Items

[4716] Anonymous, Anzia Yezierska at Typewriter (n.d.),
courtesy of the New York Daily News.
After rising to prominence when Hollywood purchased the rights to Hungry Hearts, Anzia Yezierska refused to succumb to her image as a “Sweatshop Cinderella.” Instead she returned to New York and continued writing about the experiences of immigrant women.

[5023] Detroit Publishing Company, Mulberry Street, New York City (c. 1900),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-1584].
New York City received huge numbers of immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. In the bustling streets of the Lower East Side, Old World met New in a population that ranged from Eastern European and Russian Jews to Irish Catholics.

[5088] Anonymous, Anzia Yezierska after the Birth of Her Child (c. 1912),
courtesy of Melvin Henriksen.
Fiction writer Anzia Yezierska divorced twice and gave birth to one daughter. She developed a friendship with John Dewey, who was a lifelong proponent of educational reform and one of the most renowned philosophers of the twentieth century.

[5124] T. De Thulstrup, Home of the Poor (1883),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-75197].
This illustration shows an interior view of a crowded New York City tenement. The living conditions of the city’s poor at the turn of the twentieth century eventually sparked a wave of social reform.

[5126] Lewis Wickes Hines, Rear View of Tenement, 134 1/2 Thompson St., New York City (1912),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection [LC-USZ62-93116].
Photograph of the back of a tenement housing-complex in New York City. Like writer Theodore Dreiser, photographer Lewis Wickes Hines documented social conditions in America at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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