Yezierska’s “Children of Loneliness”: Love, Loneliness, and Social Critique
Anzia Yezierska’s story “Children of Loneliness” wrestles with themes common to her work: the cultural and familial alienation that the children of immigrants endure both from the communities in which they were raised and from the community in which they were educated. This directly engages with Yezierska’s on-going critique of academics and social reformers in urban settlement houses and universities. Moreover, “Children of Loneliness” explores cross-class romantic relationships, and identifies the unique isolation of a generation of adult children of immigrants.
This story, published in 1923, has a tripartite structure in which Rachel Ravinsky a Polish, Jewish immigrant arrives at series of understandings based on time spent with her parents, by herself, and lastly with her college beau. In Part I Rachel has returned home to Essex Street after graduation from Cornell. After years at college, Rachel has become assimilated into white, middle-class America and she is ashamed of her parents’ behavior and the squalor in which they live. In Part II Rachel is living in a rooming house in clean, modern simplicity. She works and has severed her relationship with her parents. In a moment of loneliness she returns to her family’s tenement apartment. From a nearby rooftop she observes her parents through the window. She is repulsed by her father’s devout religious practice, while simultaneously feeling a melancholic nostalgia for him and his Old World Judaism. Her mother enters the filthy apartment and begins making dinner for Rachel’s father; from this vantage point she sees her mother as both harshly judging and enormously self-sacrificing. While she had intended to see her parents, she leaves without speaking with them.
Returning to her rooming house, Rachel meets her college suitor, Frank Baker in the dining room for dinner in Part III. Over dinner Frank enthusiastically regales Rachel with the work he is doing at a Lower East Side social settlement. Frank, who holds a graduate degree in Sociology, tells her in glowing terms about how much he has learned about the real lives of “the other half” (238). He describes the beauty of the lives of these immigrants as evidenced by the devotion and self-sacrifice of the parents and children to one another. This leads the couple to debate whether the family of a Jewish scholar Frank had recently visited is sacrificing and going hungry because they are devoted and value the father’s religious work or because he is a “lazy old do-nothing” who feeds off the work of his wife and children (238). Rachel silently derides Frank as a sightseer in her community, too self-absorbed to understand her in the “real world.”
Rachel returns to her spartan room, declining an invitation from Frank to hit the town. She is done with him and his kind. She reflects on her loneliness: “I have broken away from the old world; I am through with it. It’s already behind me. I must face this loneliness till I get to a new world. Frank Baker can’t help me; I must hope for no help from the outside. I’m alone till I get there” (240). At this moment of despair Rachel realizes and finds solace in the fact that while she is lonely, she is not alone. She is a child of loneliness, one of millions of immigrant children who are between two worlds.
In this story Yezierska identifies the pain of an entire generation, which may in fact offer insight into the “real life” of the immigrant communities. It is Yezierska’s story that does what the Frank Bakers of the world cannot. Anzia Yezierska had some experience with real life Frank Bakers.
During the summer of 1918 Anzia (Yezierska) Levitas lived and worked in Philadelphia with four Columbia graduate students (who would all eventually become academic powerhouses in their own right) and Albert C. Barnes, a wealthy and eccentric businessman who bankrolled a rather disorganized research project to test John Dewey’s ideas about democracy and education. Barnes’s intention was to enter a Polish enclave in Philadelphia where the community had resisted being assimilated into American culture and practices. Barnes’s hope was that their research would yield information that would help make programs of assimilation more effective. The graduate students that worked in Philadelphia each had their own projects and motivations for working with the Polish community which were not necessarily in line with Barnes’s vision. Moreover, Dewey’s graduate students had never been trained to do field research, so the project(s) went poorly and yielded little toward their intended aims. Mrs. Arnold Levitas (Anzia Yezierska) joined the venture at the beginning in an advisory role, as a translator, and as a researcher into the lives of women and families. Barnes, who many identify as anti-semitic, was leery about whether Yezierska was suited for the Philadelphia project or not (Deerborn, Henriksen, Martin). Likely after reading Yezierska’s earliest stories, like “Soap and Water and The Immigrant” Barnes was concerned that she would not be supportive of a project that sought to assimilate the Polish community more efficiently.
Barnes’s assessments of the team members were incisive and critical, though of Mrs. Levitas he remarked that she is: “an artist and, as Santayana says, to criticize her would be of the same degree of irrationality as to criticize the color of a child’s eyes” (Martin 285). Thus, Yezierska’s stories and novels are her contribution to the quest to understand immigrant communities like the one she was raised in in downtown Manhattan or the one she lived and worked in in Philadelphia. In a review of Salome of the Tenements was published in the February 1923 issue of the Literary Digest International Book Review, James Harvey Robinson, a former Columbia University History professor and Dewey colleague, and founder of the New School for Social Research, observed that Yezierska had succeeded where social scientists had failed.
There is a great gulf fixt between the so-called sciences of human relations and the overwhelmng facts. I wish that every sociologist and social psychologist and miscellaneous moralizer might read ‘Salome of the Tenements’ — might not only read it, but put it in his pipe and smoke it, until its wild fumes so beclouded his facile, pompous generalizations and academic abstractions that he would never again suspect them of answering any degree to the actual heartburnings of the creatures which he pretends to explain. (qtd. in Henriksen 181)
And in a letter that Yezierska wrote to William Lyons Phelps, critic, scholar, and Yale professor she recounts the experience of working with these “scientists” in Philadelphia:
The ‘scientific approach’ of these sociology professors seemed to me so unreal, so lacking in heart and feeling. . . . At the end of the study, it seemed to me they knew less bout the Poles than when they began. When they started out, they knew they didn’t know, but after a few months investigation they had cut the Poles into little sections, which they pigeon-holed and tabulated into [sic] sociological terms. They began turning out reports that seemed to bring out to me the deep, unutterable gulf between the professors who were analyzing the Poles and the Poles who were being analyzed. (qtd. in Dearborn 125)
In “Children of Loneliness” Yezierska likens the reform-minded academic to a sightseer who does not (perhaps cannot) become part of the community in which they work. The academic doesn’t have the capacity for a complicated understanding of what they see because they are blinded by a romantic vision of the beauty of immigrant culture. Yezierska depicts Baker’s observations as naïve and reductive.
However Yezierska’s story is more complicated that this simple condemnation. Rachel has complicated feelings about her parents; she is touched by the beauty of her father’s prayers and the enormity of her mother’s self-sacrifice. Yet Rachel shuts Frank out instead of trying to convey the true complexity of her experience to him, even though a portion of her revelation on the rooftop is consistent with Frank’s own observations. Rachel is like Yezierska’s characters Sara Smolinsky in Bread Givers (1925) and Sonya Vrunsky (1923) in Salome of the Tenements; she is difficult, intelligent and strong, but not emotionally open.
Over and over again in Yezierska’s fiction she shows that cross-class romantic relationships are so fraught as to be impossible. In Yezierska’s texts reform initiatives and educational institutions are the locations where cross-class romance blooms. This is due to the reality that it is in such places that cross-class contact occur and perhaps it is also because the people who work and train in such places are most open to learning about the other. However, the cultural differences and ideological predispositions held by the characters ultimately lead the headstrong young women to spurn her well-heeled or highly educated gentile lovers. In “Children of Loneliness” Rachel’s final observation suggests that a community of her peers can only be found among the grown children of immigrants who are educated and become bi-cultural like her.
This assertion is borne out in Yezierska’s other stories, for instance in Salome of the Tenements Sonya returns to her immigrant community to pursue her passion as a fashion designer, making clothes that honor the culture that she was raised in and respects after leaving her rich gentile husband. In Bread Givers, Sara Smolinsky, unlike her sisters who marry Jewish men, toys with an attraction to a gentile college professor, but in the end marries a Polish American man, albeit a Christian, who understands and respects her feelings of obligation to her very difficult father.
Dearborn, Mary V. Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey. New York: The Free Press, 1988.
Henriksen, Louise Levitas. Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life. New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 1988.
Martin, Jay. The Education of John Dewey: A Biography. New York: Columbia U P, 2002.
Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers: A Novel. (1925) New York: Persea Books, 1975.
— “Children of Loneliness”. Almost Touching the Skies: Women’s Coming of Age Stories. (1923) Ed. Florence Howe and Jean Casella. New York: The Feminist Press, 2000. 227-40.
— Salome of the Tenements. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1923.