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

9. Social

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Activities: Author Activities

Anzia Yezierska - Teaching Tips

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  • 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?

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