Last reviewed: June 2017
Polish-born Jewish American novelist
Płońsk, Poland, Russian Empire (now in Poland)
November 21, 1970
Anzia Yezierska, novelist and short-story writer, is generally acclaimed as a founding mother of Jewish American immigrant literature and Jewish feminism. Born into poverty in Russian Poland, Yezierska immigrated with her parents in the 1890’s to the Jewish ghetto on the lower East Side of New York. The daughter of a Talmudic scholar, Yezierska helped support the family with various menial tasks in sweatshops, laundries, and private homes. She was determined to move up in the world, however, and attended night school to learn English. A scholarship enabled her to graduate from Columbia University Teachers College with certification in domestic science.
Yezierska’s first marriage in 1910 was annulled almost immediately. Married to Arnold Levitas the following year, she insisted on a religious rather than a legally binding civil ceremony. A daughter, Louise, was born ten months later. Yezierska soon quit the marriage, but unable to support herself and a child, she returned Louise to her father, maintaining close contact with her throughout life. Sketch of the author Anzia Yezierska accompanying an article in the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 5th, 1921.
Sketch of the author Anzia Yezierska accompanying an article in the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 5th, 1921.
Picture of Anzia Yezierska with an article in the Lima News of July 3rd, 1922.
While struggling to support herself through substitute teaching, Yezierska published her first story, “The Free Vacation House,” in 1915. The story centers on the humiliating effects of charity on the poor. When Yezierska showed it and other writings to John Dewey, with whom she was romantically involved for a short period, 1917 to 1918, he encouraged her to give up teaching and pursue writing. Yezierska heeded Dewey’s advice and enjoyed almost immediate success. In 1919 the anthologist Edward O’Brien selected “The Fat of the Land” as the best short story of the year. The main character, Hannah Breinah, is an immigrant who spends her life chasing the American Dream, only to find that wealth, once attained, does not bring the happiness she anticipated.
The publisher Houghton Mifflin offered Yezierska a contract for her first collection of short stories, Hungry Hearts, and its publication in 1920 led to wide critical acclaim but limited sales. Always a self-promoter, Yezierska marched into the office of Frank Crane, a columnist for the Hearst newspapers, and provided him with an embellished version of her rise to authorship despite little education or knowledge of writing. Crane’s subsequent story helped bring Yezierska widespread recognition, increased sales, and ten thousand dollars from Samuel Goldwyn for the film rights to the book.
In Hungry Hearts Yezierska effectively records the immigrant’s longing for acceptance in American society. She focuses primarily on the struggle of a woman to achieve independence in the face of a patriarchal society, orthodox religious beliefs, and economic difficulties. Her style is often unpolished and effusive, but it is honest and direct and reflects an excellent ear for immigrant dialect.
In her first novel, Salome of the Tenements, Yezierska continued her depiction of the Jewish immigrant experience and was even more financially successful. She was suddenly the embodiment of the American Dream, the Cinderella from the sweatshop. Critical reception of the novel was mixed, however, and publication that same year (1923) of a collection of highly uneven stories titled Children of Loneliness produced mostly negative reactions from critics who had begun to tire of her obsessive repetition of theme and sentimental excesses.
Yezierska’s subsequent autobiographical novel, Bread Givers, was better received and is still generally regarded as her best work. The subtitle, A Struggle Between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New, emphasizes the theme, but the novel ends ambiguously with the heroine, Sara Smolinsky, apparently becoming a dutiful daughter after all. Yezierska’s next two novels, Arrogant Beggar and All I Could Never Be, also center on the immigrant experience. Although they are clearly inferior as literary works, the latter is interesting for its fictional account of her relationship with Dewey.
Yezierska’s fame vanished as rapidly as it came, and once again she struggled for economic survival, working on the Works Progress Administration’s Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. She spent much of her time during the late 1930’s and the 1940’s writing and trying to find a publisher for her autobiography Red Ribbon on a White Horse. W. H. Auden’s agreement to write an introduction was undoubtedly influential in persuading Scribner’s to publish the work. Although Yezierska presented the work as autobiography, the mixture of fiction and autobiography makes it similar in content and form to her earlier autobiographical fiction. It received favorable reviews and continues to elicit praise but did not sell well.
Yezierska spent the last two decades of her life writing reviews and other short pieces. In her fiction she continued to write about the struggle of the underprivileged or mistreated woman. Her last story, “Take Up Your Bed and Walk,” published a year before her death, deals with the problems of aging.
Less than a decade after her death, the forgotten Yezierska was rediscovered. Doctoral candidates began studying her life and work; feminist and ethnic critics lauded her contributions; and biographies, critical studies, and reprints of her work made Yezierska again accessible to the general public. She is now highly regarded as a major chronicler of Jewish immigrant life in the early twentieth century United States.