Anzia Yezierska was a Jewish-American writer, most popular in the 1920s, and best known for her texts on the struggles of immigrants in America. She achieved fame in the 1910s for her efforts to accurately represent the Jewish ghettos of New York, and particularly the female immigrant experience, without resorting to caricature or condescension. During her life and career, Yezierska displayed a masterful ability to reinvent herself when she deemed it necessary or useful – she was, in addition to her often troubled identification as wife and mother, a (reluctant) teacher, translator, successful author and screenwriter..In her novel Bread Givers, Yezierska draws upon her experiences to create a striking portrait of a young woman’s determination and self-belief, which alienates her from her conservative immigrant family, and yet allows her to succeed in achieving her goals of independence and happiness.
Yezierska has often been critiqued as an author who merely examines her own life through her fiction but although her life certainly informs her writing, it does not define its limitations. Her work demonstrates a desire to interrogate the immigrant experience – and particularly the experience of immigrant women – more thoroughly than merely through the lens of her own life. This article will focus on the urban Jewish woman’s experience in the novel Bread Givers, and in particular Yezierska’s use of space to delineate character progression.
Born around 1880 in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, in the Russian Empire, Yezierska immigrated with her family to New York when she was about nine years of age, where they settled in the Jewish slums of the Lower East Side in the 1890s. As an adult, Yezierska published five novels, five collections of short stories and innumerable articles. Her most famous works are the novels Bread Givers and Salome of the Tenements which both explore the difficulties of a young Jewish immigrant in New York during the early twentieth century. Yezierska’s success as a short story writer brought her to the attention of Samuel Goldwyn, and both Salome of the Tenements and a short story collection Hungry Hearts were adapted into films. Goldwyn gave her a contract of $100,000, and the press hailed her the “Sweatshop Cinderella”. However, she was frustrated by her alienation from the Jewish ghetto which had provided her with inspiration, and also by what she considered to be the insincere nature of Hollywood. Therefore she returned to live in New York in the late 1920s and remained a popular author until the Great Depression in the 1930s reduced her audience’s interest in reading about the suffering of immigrants. She continued to write until shortly before her death in her eighties, though she found it harder to publish as interest in her work had waned.
Her work remained largely unexamined until the 1980s, when scholars such as Alice Kessler-Harris, Jo Ann Boydston and Mary Dearborn took a renewed interest in Yezierska’s writing, part of a growing academic interest in female writers of the New York ghetto, and representations of the early twentieth century from feminist perspectives. As Priscilla Wald suggests in her essay ‘Of Crucibles and Grandfathers: the East Europeans’, “the comparability of her work with the particular interest in ethnicity and in women writers resulted in her reincarnation” whilst the “engaging strong female characters are not always immediately likeable, but they offer important insight into the struggle for bread and for dignity in Yiddish New York” (62). Interestingly, it would seem that contemporary reviews were quite mixed in their reception of Bread Givers. Samuel Raphaelson of The New York Tribune considered it as merely repeating “a theme of which we have grown weary- the story of a poor East Side girl who Americanized herself by sheer force” (qtd in Carol B. Schoen Anzia Yezierska 74). Schoen notes that some Jewish audiences were even less enthusiastic, and seemed to miss the careful modulation of language, and indeed the fact that English is used to carefully suggest the Yiddish of the ghettoes without parodying the speakers. Yezierska is more than simply an immigrant realist depicting her experiences of urban Jewish-America, as she is so often described, but rather “an emerging ethnic avant-garde exploring the question of cultural identity in a new and provocative manner” (Konzett, 22) who employs language and linguistic ability to further interrogate cultural differences and expectations. Contemporary reviews focused on the language in the novel, though they do not mention the progression from broken English to flowing eloquence at the close of the novel as the central character progresses in both education and self-awareness. The New York Times remarked that the novel had “a raw uncontrollable poetry”, with The New York Herald Tribune adding that “Miss Yezierska has accomplished for the Yiddish what John Synge has done for the Gaelic. She has rendered its beauty in English without losing any of the colour of the original” (qtd in Henriksen, 217). This attention to linguistic detail predates Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) which also depicts Yiddish in a lyrical manner whilst using broken language to indicate the use of poor English. Bread Givers is a novel preoccupied with language acquisition, as fluency in English is considered to correspond to Americanisation, and so Sara Smolinsky spends much of the novel fighting to access as complete an education as possible in order to leave her parents’ way of life behind.
In the course of her writing, Yezierska drew heavily on her own life experiences. However, this is not to say that she merely recounted her own life’s events. Her preoccupation with the central themes of her writing – the immigrant’s struggle for equality in America, their right to education and particularly the battle facing immigrant women – led her to write about them over and over again in short story form as well as in her novels. There is often a tendency for readers to view Yezierska’s novels as primarily autobiographical but this does a disservice to the author’s discipline: even when she struggled with other roles and identities such as mother, wife, student or teacher, Yezierska remained firm in her conviction that she was a writer and specifically a writer of the ghetto.
As suggested above, Yezierska drew heavily on her own life though she also drew upon the experiences of her sisters and friends when writing. Bread Givers is justly considered the most autobiographical of her novels, though echoes of Yezierska’s own life are evident in Salome of the Tenements as well. In Bread Givers, the primary character Sara Smolinsky watches first as her father quashes her three elder sisters’ dreams and arranges terrible marriages for them. When he attempts the same with Sara, she rebels and leaves her family’s tenement home to work and save money for her education. She eventually returns home to Hester Street as a teacher, only for her mother to die and leave Sara with a difficult decision to make: should she invite her father to live with her and her husband-to-be, or not. If her father were to live with them, it would mean a return to the world Sara struggled to escape, as her father would expect her to follow the Jewish religious calendar and to keep to the strict kosher dietary restrictions. However, Sara cannot abandon her father to live with his domineering second wife in absolute poverty, and so the novel ends with a sense of unease, as Sara does not entirely escape her father, and his traditions, which problematises the process of her Americanisation and freedom. Her often repeated desire to “make for myself a person” has led her to self-awareness as much as it has led her to familial independence until this point. This desire for personhood is repeated through much of Yezierska’s work and as Priscilla Wald discusses,
registers the extent to which the characters experience their very personhood as contingent upon the remaking that is taking place in the New World (Americanization). But by replacing the external goals – financial success, the unattainable love object – with the goal of self-expression, [Yezierska’s immigrant characters] can take pleasure in the hunger itself and in the quest to express it. For them, immigration indeed offers possibilities not available in the Old World. (63)
Sara’s quest leads her to self-determination through education and independence from her demanding family, but also to an ultimate understanding of the complex nature of her hybrid Jewish-American immigrant culture.
Bread Givers is centred on Sara Smolinsky’s struggle for respect and independence in her adoptive country as opposed to the tyranny she associates with her father, his religion and the customs of the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia. Irving Howe, who explores this conflict between generations in The Immigrant Jews of New York, suggests that for women “Jewish expectations pointed in a single direction – marriage and motherhood” (265). Howe’s observations were certainly accurate for the life that Yezierska’s family expected for her and her sisters. However, like Yezierka, Sara Smolinsky rejects such a trajectory and instead fights to create a different existence. In her efforts to create a better life for herself than the one mapped out by her father’s beliefs and traditions, Sara moves through various types of urban environment, from a shared tenement flat, to a dark and dank basement flat on her own, before moving to better accommodation whilst in college until she finally achieves the bright, clean and private home of her dreams near the end of the novel. This unceasing struggle to identify an acceptable living space mirrors Sara’s concerns with identifying a type of life and being with which she could be happy.
Throughout the majority of Bread Givers Sara Smolinsky lives in terrible conditions and struggles to find a space in which she can live her life as she wishes. In the slums there is no privacy or space, with the young Sara being obliged to move all the family’s belongings from table to floor and back several times a day in order to allow the family room to eat:
It was now time for dinner. I was throwing the rags and things from the table to the window, on the bed, over the chairs, or any place where there was room for them. So much junk we had in our house that everyone put everything on the table. It was either to eat on the floor or for me the job of cleaning off the junk pile three times a day. (8)
Sara’s claustrophobic experiences echo those of the community in general as any form of privacy in the home was virtually unknown as the “average apartment consisted of three rooms: a kitchen, a parlour, and a doorless and windowless bedroom between. The parlour became a sleeping room at night. So did the kitchen when families were unusually large” (Howe 171). The only private space in the crowded Smolinsky home is the patriarch’s room for studying and prayer. His wife and daughters are forbidden from interfering with his studies, and when the landlady dares to throw a book on the floor when demanding the overdue rent, Reb Smolinsky demands justice for this indignity in court. His victory over the Gentile landlady becomes both a signal of his importance, as well as the respect that he expects to be given to his scholarship and texts. The community revels in this victory for one of their own members, but interestingly the celebratory retellings happen in the shared public spaces of stoops, porches and the public street, rather than inside the Smolinskys’ rooms. Outside, there is both enough space to gather large groups together but also a sense of freedom which cannot be accessed within the dark and cramped tenement buildings.
Eventually, Sara decides to leave her parents’ home and moves to live in a small, dirty room on street level. But even though she is still living in squalor – in a basement room that holds a bed with broken feet, shredded sheets and a lumpy mattress – she is thankful for the privacy it affords her as she can study in peace there: “I looked at the room. A separate door to myself – a door to shut out all the noises of the world” (159). Her very act of rebellion – to leave the family home, unmarried and alone, is done in order to create a room similar to her father’s study area and so proves to be a double transgression. In the contemporary community of Jewish immigrants, respectable unmarried women did not leave the parental home to live alone – and so Sara finds it difficult to find a room to rent. Yet Sara’s mother tacitly approves of this move as she brings her a feather bed, to keep out the cold, and pickled herring to eat. This mix of traditional items in the new, independent living space depicts the beginning of what Gill Valentine describes as “the twin processes of acculturation and hybridization” (53). In her new home she is free to leave books out, have papers strewn about and to study as long into the night as she would like, without having to move items for others or to compromise her studies for the demands of others. The room, while far from ideal with neighbours above who throw their waste out the windows without concern for what or whom it may fall upon, affords Sara the privacy she longs for, though not the aesthetic pleasure of cleanliness or tidiness. Her joy over the door, with which she can shut the rest of the world out, is enough to render the room acceptable and comfortable to her. Yezierska’s interest in Emerson shines through Sara’s fierce drive for self-determination and self-reliance. Sara’s desire for these qualities offers an insight into Yezierska’s adamant belief in the need for reform of gender roles and expectations amongst the Jewish community in the New World. Her frustration with the limitations placed upon women is a constant presence in her writing, and echoes her anger when, as a child, she was obliged to leave school to work in order to support her brothers’ education and training.
Much later in the novel, when she has graduated and returned to Hester Street, Sara finds a home that is suited to her, “a sunny, airy room” (240). She revels in the solitude and peace that her new home affords her: “[i]n the morning, in the evening, when I sat down to meals, I enjoyed myself as with the grandest company. I loved the bright dishes from which I ate. I loved the shining pots and pans in which I cooked my food. I loved the broom with which I swept the floor, the scrubbing brush, the scrubbing rag, the dust cloth. The routine with which I kept clean my precious privacy, my beautiful aloneness, was all sacred to me” (204). Sara enjoys the practicalities of living alone – cleaning, cooking, and eating – as much as she enjoys the right to occupy the space alone. Her delight in having her own room calls to mind both the attic room in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and also A Room of One’s Own, which suggests that a woman must have a room of her own, and a fixed income in order to have the freedom to create, or in this case to be her own authentic person. Sara’s determination to become an authentic self is an act of creation, as the identity she constructs is one that is removed from that of her family. Sara’s occupation of a room on her own is set in contrast to the room her father had for his books and studies at the beginning of the novel where, despite the spatial constraints of the tenement flat, none of the women of the household were permitted to enter. Sara declares that she has “fought [her] way up into the sunshine of plenty” (238) and believes that she is no longer dominated by either poverty or ignorance. Sara’s desire to move from one way of life to another is reflected in her living quarters, as suggested by Elizabeth Boyle: “each space Sara inhabits marks the construction of iconic space, so that the novel builds until it itself becomes a monument to success” (1). Sara’s progress is a relatively steady one from a crowded room in a slum, to a light and airy home at the top of a building. Her home, as a teacher, is the opposite of the dark and dirty basement room she rented when she first moved out of her parents’ home, and provides evidence of how far she has progressed from the child selling squashed herring on Hester Street. However, even though Sara is pleased with her new home, this sense of optimism does not last until the end of the novel as she foresees a future in which she shares her precious privacy with her domineering father, and most likely also with the school principal and fellow Russian Jewish immigrant, Hugo Seelig.
The public street often allows for more independence and privacy than the over-crowded tenement rooms. When Reb Smolinsky successfully defies the landlord, the neighbours all gather on the street to discuss the event and to re-tell the tale to one another. The street also provides couples the space – both physically and psychologically – to court and to meet without parental interference. When Sara decides that she will become a teacher and therefore independent of her family and their expectations, she spends the night walking the streets in a joyful daze:
All night long I walked the streets, drunk with my dreams. I didn’t know how the hours flew, how or where my feet carried me, until I saw the man turning out the lights of the street lamps. Was it already morning? The silence woke up from the block. There began the rumbling of milk wagons, the clatter of bottles and cans, and the hum of opening stores, peddlers filling their pushcarts with fruit and loaves of bread. (155-156)
Sara finds space in the streets to dream and to plan her future; they are a place of hope and potential for her. As she sits, “in the stillness of the morning, [she] realised that [she] had yet never been alone since [she] was born” (165) and revels in the feeling, a state that she believes would be impossible to achieve in her crowded and noisy home or work environments. In the public street, Sara has discovered an environment that allows her to explore her potential to be something other than merely another factory worker or domestic drudge like her neighbours and sisters. This attitude is rather telling of Yezierska’s own thoughts and prejudices – although she celebrates the dignity of working for one’s living, she is also fiercely aware of the lack of respect these positions hold in American society. Yezierska’s own experiences in such work made her determined to escape the limits that the resulting exhaustion created for the workers who struggled to earn enough by which to survive. At the beginning of the novel, Sara leaves her family’s rooms in the crowded tenement and goes out onto the street to sell herring in order to support her mother’s efforts to provide for the family. She refuses to take free fish from her neighbour as she wishes to become what she calls a “real person” (10). This is her first attempt to achieve independence and it occurs on the public street. She associates independence with authenticity and individuality and therefore strives to become independent of her family and of her cultural heritage, a process of Americanisation and assimilation as much as one of self-creation.
Towards the end of the novel, the street is where Hugo Seelig first begins to court Sara by walking her home and where an averted accident brings them together:
We fell into step and for many blocks not a word passed between us. I only felt an enveloping friendliness going out of his heart to mine … And afterwards we became aware that we had gripped each other’s hands fiercely. Something in what had happened had drawn us suddenly together. We were too filled for small talk the rest of the way, and before we knew it had reached Thirtieth Street and stood before my house. (276)
The street provides emotional and physical stimulus, as well as being a vital artery of commerce and place of employment for the urban dwellers – for example, Sara’s suitor Max Goldstein made a living peddling second-hand clothes for a time, and it is on the street that Sara has her first taste of independence as a fish seller: “On the corner of the most crowded part of Hester Street I stood myself with my pail of herring” (21). This sense of space and possibility contrasts sharply with the descriptions of the cluttered and oppressive tenement rooms which are usually full of people, clothes, books and rubbish. The streets also offer relief from the strict gendering of the spaces inside the tenement flat as Sara’s mother occupies the kitchen, burdened by poverty, dirt and clutter; her sister Fania hangs clothes on the bedroom wall; while Reb Smolinsky’s books and prayers dominate the rest of the space. Interestingly, the streets for Sara provide a free space, unhindered by issues such as class or gender – she is not harassed or bothered whilst outside at any point in the novel, only when she is in enclosed spaces: the family flat, the factory washrooms or in classrooms. Sara experiences the most freedom and peace during the novel when she is outside and walking the city streets. Indoor public spaces may sometime cause her concern or frustration, but when outside, she is at her freest and most optimistic.
The depiction of the female immigrant experience in Bread Givers is grim, and according to Steven Belluscio in To Be Suddenly White, it was not unusual: “any woman struggling for self-determination and success independent of the family necessarily confronted the father’s tyranny” (Belluscio 192). Sara is permitted by society to further her own education and become a teacher to support herself because of her ethnicity, and most importantly because of her social class. As a poor Russian Jew Sara is expected to marry or to remain single and work to support her parents. She is also permitted to continue to work to support her family if her husband is a rabbi and therefore committed to spiritual learning, as her own father is. Sara’s determination to create an independent self is evident in the spaces she inhabits, but also by her constant affirmations that she must create something of herself in this new world: “won’t you be proud of me when I work myself up for a school teacher, in America? (172, my emphasis). Sara’s ambitions can only exist in America where she has the freedom to pursue an education, for as Mary Antin asserted in The Promised Land:
in the medieval position of the women of Polotzk [Antin’s village in Russia], education really had no peace. A girl was ‘finished’ when she could read her prayers in Hebrew, following the meaning by the aid of Yiddish translation especially prepared for the women. If she could sign her name in Russian, do a little figuring, and write a letter in Yiddish to the parents of her betrothed, she was wohl gelerhrent– well educated. (Antin qtd. in Call It English, 69)
The Smolinskys’ restrictive views regarding their children’s education is similar to the ones expressed by Antin, and indeed, Yezierska’s own family, as the girls were obliged to work in order to support their brothers’ education once they arrived in America. Though Sara’s family does not support her desire to become a teacher, they reluctantly accept it as an eccentricity of hers, as it is expected that she will use her wages to support their aging parents. Sara’s mother would prefer that she marry, despite the wages: “[w]hat’s a school teacher? Old maids – all of them. It’s good enough for Goyim, but not for you” (172). One obvious reason for Sara’s family’s dislike of her chosen profession lies in the fact that in order to become a teacher she would be obliged to complete high school and teacher training college and thus be unable to support the family financially. Another reason is that the independence that she shows when deciding to become a teacher is a trait that was considered unbecoming in a Jewish girl, and whose creation was blamed upon American culture (Howe 266). This desire for independence and a self-identity that would not be based completely on her father’s Talmudic studies disturbs the family. It is also clear that “[t]he road to becoming a person lay through the dangerous territory of Americanization” (Kessler Harris, qtd in Levinson ‘To Make Myself for a Person’, 5) and so the family observe this desire for privacy and self-sufficiency with suspicion.
In Bread Givers, Sara’s first serious suitor, Max Goldstein is portrayed as a stereotypically newly-wealthy Jew who has little interest in anything other than business. He says that he admires Sara for her independence of spirit and her reluctance to become involved with people in order to further her goals: “I like you the way you are better than if you fixed yourself up in the grandest style” (187). However, his admiration for her independence wanes when she is unwilling to stay out all night with him, or to marry him and move to Los Angeles. Sara, although initially flattered and intrigued by Goldstein, eventually dismisses him as merely an untrustworthy suitor. She realises that his obsession with business extends to his attempts to win a wife, and is disgusted by his arrogance and lack of respect for learning or intellectualism. Although she is eager to make an emotional connection with Goldstein, Sara understands that she is merely another business venture for him, and that by marrying him she would not be achieving her goals of carving out a niche for herself in America but simply moving from one form of drudgery to another. Sara wishes to create a space in which she can be “a real person”, one who is independent, and this would be impossible whilst married to a man for whom “a wife would only be another piece of property” (199). The dissatisfaction evident in the relationship between Sara and Goldstein resembles Yezierska’s own difficulties in her relationships with men, and indeed, the financially-minded Jewish suitor is a common character in her writing.
Near the beginning of Bread Givers, Sara declares that she wishes to marry “[a]n American-born man who is his own boss… [a]nd would let me be my own boss” (66?) who, according to Mary Esteve, would therefore be an American “laissez-faire libertarian” (183). However, Sara’s future husband Hugo Seelig is neither American born, nor very liberal, as inferred through his wish to learn Hebrew and his eager acceptance of Sara’s reluctant suggestion that her father live with them. If Sara symbolises the possibilities that America holds, and her father the limitations of European traditions and heritage, then Hugo Seelig disrupts this binary positioning of Old World versus New. This is not, however, framed as a welcome compromise but rather one with a frightening possibility that Sara’s dearly-bought freedoms and selfhood will be lost through Hugo’s negotiations with Reb Smolinsky. While Sara’s life has improved enormously by the end of the novel, she is restricted from becoming entirely independent from her family as her younger self had dreamed.
Sara’s sense of independence is challenged when she feels obliged to offer her father a home with her as she knows that if her father moves into her home, she will have to keep kosher and maintain the Sabbath according to Jewish law and tradition. As she stands in the liminal space of the landing outside her father’s rooms, Sara states that she feels the weight of past generations pressing down on her. Sara herself exists in a liminal space, existing as she does in an area between her parents’ Old World Traditions and the modern, more secular America that she sees around her. She does not practice her parents’ religion, and refuses to take part in the rituals that bind the Jewish immigrant community together; she does not tear her only good suit or sit shiva when her mother dies as Jewish law demands (290). This ostracises her from the community even further than her teaching, or unmarried status does. Hugo Seelig does not seem to suffer from the same problem even though he too is an immigrant Jew, which suggests that it may be a gender specific issue. Neither Max Goldstein nor any of Sara’s sisters’ husbands are pious, and all are deeply involved in businesses based on American society, yet Reb Smolinsky deemed all worthy husbands for his daughters. Hugo asks Reb Smolinsky to teach him Hebrew, and declares to Sara that their home will be richer with her father living in it. Sara is conflicted, for as her father states, she is “not a Jewess and not a gentile” (Yezierska 293) and knows that she cannot maintain her independence of living space as she feels the burden of caring for him on her shoulders:
My home! Must I give it up to him? But with him there, it would not be a home for me. I suddenly realized that I had come back to where I had started twenty years ago when I began my fight for freedom. But in my rebellious youth, I thought I could escape by running away. And now I realized that the shadow of the burden was always following me, and here I stopped face to face with it again. (295)
This burden of the “weight of the ages” (194) was one that she thought she had shed when living alone for the first time. She frees herself of both it and her father when she moves out and becomes as independent as it is possible for her to be (194). At the end of the novel, Sara feels obligated to offer her father a home with her, even though she knows that he will make her life more difficult. She will be forced to give up her cherished emptiness in her room, and instead have her home cluttered with her father’s holy books and his demands. Alice Kessler-Harris suggests that Sara “is saved by making her peace with her immigrant childhood and her father” (Kessler-Harris qtd in Levinson ‘To Make Myself for a Person’, 7). I believe this to be the most optimistic of readings for the ending of the text, since Sara believes that her ability to function as an assimilated American is threatened by her father’s presence in her life and home. As Melanie Levinson states, “[b]y returning [to her family] and by resuming her obligations as a daughter in the Old World sense, she is forfeiting her chance to ‘be a person’ or, perhaps more accurately, to ‘pass’ for an American” (7) and thus potentially renders her sacrifices to become an American teacher worthless. To further complicate this issue, it is worth considering that “for the immigrant protagonist, the return home is complicated by the fact that ‘home’ is itself an uncertainty, and unfamiliarity is already the condition of existence” (Wald, 59-60). Thus, not only is Sara’s past home an uncertain space but her future home is already being compromised by doubt and the insertion of traditions she had thought to escape.
Indeed, even as Yezierska describes Sara’s urge for independence, she undercuts it with guilt and self-recrimination, one symptom of which is her offer of a home to her father. Carol B. Schoen writes that the “Emerson doctrine of self-reliance is modified by the appreciation of the reality of the strength of old times” (73) and also notes that
the value of ethnic diversity, which Yezierska probably learnt from Dewey, provided intellectual support for the main character’s decision to return to her people as unlike [the central character in Salome of the Tenements] who mouths similar sentiments but indicates no real commitment to them, Sara’s actions indicate a merger of psychological and philosophical influences. Sara’s return to the Lower East Side dramatizes the notion that all get from one another the best that each strain has to offer from its own traditions and culture. (74)
Therefore, while Sara progresses a great deal in the course of the novel through becoming a teacher, and by gaining a (future) husband who respects and cares for her, she is still unable to escape her past or the remains of her parents’ traditions. This is best illustrated through the corruption of Sara’s home at the end of the novel and also through the restraint of Hugo’s hand on her arm as she lingers on the landing of the tenement building in which her father lives. As she stands on the landing of the tenement, she is still unmarried – and not yet burdened by her father’s presence in her home, with all of the traditions and expectations that he would bring – but the reader can easily predict her future frustrations and difficulties with her father despite that.
Yezierska’s skill in depicting the central characters and in capturing their essence in a few simple lines is undeniable, as is her use of English to convey the sounds of Yiddish to an English-speaking audience. However, it is her incisive utilisation of space and the difficulties in belonging that are most compelling. Yezierska’s avoidance of an unambiguously resolved ending haunts the reader, and her resistance to a simple and easy resolution to the text underscores the novel’s questions about a woman’s ability at this time to determine her own life’s course.
Anzia Yezierska first came to notice a century ago, before fading from memory and dying in obscurity. Her life informed her writing and she became an iconic immigrant writer whose celebrity faded as the public’s interest shifted from immigrants to self-preservation during the Great Depression. However, the reader must guard against the urge to view all of Yezierska’s work as autobiographical, despite the many links and similarities. Yezierska died in near-obscurity in 1970, forgotten by the public and penniless. Now, nearly a century after her first works were published, her writings are still relevant as we try to negotiate a society with deep inequalities and increasing levels of poverty. Yezierska’s demands for justice and equal rights charge her writings with an energy, and often an anger, which forces the reader to re-examine the society in which they live and consider how her themes of immigrants’ rights, poverty and educational freedom are still all too pertinent.
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