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

9. Social

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

Video Authors:
Edith Wharton, Anzia Yezierska

Who's Interviewed:
Judith Baskin, professor of religious studies and director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies (University of Oregon); Bruce Michelson, professor of English (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign); Kathryn Oberdeck, associate professor of history (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign); Abby Werlock, author, former president and current member of the Edith Wharton Society

Points Covered:
• Introduction to the clash of cultures and social classes that resulted from the forces of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration in America at the turn of the century. Two very different sides of the "Gilded Age," as this period was called, were visible in New York. There, a few city blocks separated wealthy socialites from starving immigrants.

• Edith Wharton, a member of wealthy New York society, chronicled the world of her exclusive social set in detail. Her realist novels and stories depict the frustration of people trapped by social conventions, often focusing on the plight of society women who were treated as commodities or ornaments to be purchased and bartered by men. Her attention to the complex psychological and emotional motivations of her characters marks her work as part of the "psychological realist" movement.

• Anzia Yezierska wrote poignantly about her experiences as a Jewish immigrant in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In her social realist fiction, she attempted to explain immigrant culture to American-born readers and to broaden the boundaries of the American dream to include immigrants, the impoverished, and women. Yezierska's stories and novels often examine the process of assimilation and acculturation, chronicling the tensions caused by immigrants' desire to be part of both the Old World and the New.

• While Wharton concentrated on psychological realism and Yezierska was more interested in social realism, both of these women writers explored the inconsistencies and inequities of American society at the turn of the century. In the process, they created complex characters who wrestled with the restraints of class and convention. Wharton and Yezierska left a lasting literary legacy in their willingness to depict realistically and to criticize American society.

• Preview the video: Preview the video: In the decades between 1890 and 1920, America was transformed into an industrial, urban, consumer society. This transformation created unprecedented opportunities for the acquisition of wealth, but also enabled the exploitation of large classes of people. Immigrants arriving in waves from eastern and southern Europe had heard stories of a land where the streets were paved with gold, but in many cases they found only poverty and inequity in America. Writers responded to the rapidly shifting class and social structure they saw around them by producing texts that realistically depicted both the problems and the promise of industrial, urban America. In many cases, their goal was to educate readers and to stimulate reform. Edith Wharton, a member of elite New York society, explored the complexity of the social forms that governed her world in carefully crafted novels and stories. Her psychologically complex characters struggle with the conflict between their desires and the authority of social convention. Anzia Yezierska focused on a completely different social milieu, chronicling the lives of poor Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York. Her stories and novels work to broaden the boundaries of the myth of the American Dream and to make it available to women, immigrants, and the poor. While Wharton and Yezierska moved in very different social worlds and had very different concerns, they both were interested in the plight of women who struggled against the constraints of class and convention.

• What to think about while watching: How do these authors challenge readers to grapple with difficult issues regarding social class, ethnic background, and gender? How do these writers react against romantic conventions and dedicate themselves to psychological and social realism? How does literary realism forward its goal of social action and reform? How do social realists broaden and transform the myth of the American Dream? How did Wharton's and Yezierska's attention to class and gender inform subsequent American fiction?

• Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 9 expands on the issues featured in the video to explore the diversity of social realist writing in America in the late nineteenth century. The curriculum materials provide background on African American, Asian American, Jewish American and European American writers who chronicle the experiences of different social classes and ethnicities, and who advocate different ideas about social reform. The unit offers contextual background to further develop the video's introduction to the historical events, economic and political issues, and literary styles that shaped social realist literature.

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