Picturesque Specimens

On Being a Specimen and Picturesque: Yezierska and the Modern Gaze

Anzia Yezierska’s condemnations of science and progressive reform explore power and class and her critiques became much more pointed after her work on the Philadelphia project. In All That I Could Never Be (1932) she chronicles her work on the Philadelphia project in the Polish enclaves that John Dewey helped organize in 1918.  Mary V. Dearborn in her book Love in a Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey (1988) suggests that Yezierska likely would have agreed with the more recent criticisms that such projects were paternalistic, but that Yezierska’s relationship to the project was very complicated because she was occupying two positions which were in tension. First she exemplified the object of study, while she was also the scientist, entering the community and interviewing the women. She was allied to the position of power through her relationship with the famous public intellectual John Dewey and through her own college education and burgeoning writing career. It seems that this period of conflict had a huge impact on Yezierska and left its mark on everything she wrote thereafter. (Dearborn 124)

Moreover, consistent with Yezierska’s unbending critique of the lack of human empathy exhibited by social scientists and reform workers is the Dewey-like character’s her 1920 story “Wings” enthusiastic interest in Shenah Pessah, a Russian Jewish immigrant not unlike Yezierska. He is interested in Shenah as a collector or scientist in a specimen to studied and cataloged (Dearborn 126, Yezierska 9).[1] This critique of social scientists and reformers treating their subjects and populations as specimens for collection and study is interesting in the way that it resonates with the work of eugenicists who were also participating in their own national reform projects and whose philosophies were deeply intertwined progress in many forms. One need only think of Francis Galton’s categorized photo arrays depicting representatives of different races or ethnicities to imagine this scientific zeal at its most impersonal.

Under the scientist’s gaze Anzia Yezierska fit the “picturesque immigrant” type. By 1918 she had learned that as a “picturesque immigrant” she was a valuable specimen to the media with their ready-to-be-titillated middle-class readers. By the late nineteenth century, the appeal of the immigrant story was clear with the popularity of Jacob Riis’s lectures and photo exhibits that later published How the Other Half Lives (1890); this interest continued into the twentieth century with books like Hutchins Hapgood’s The Spirit of the Ghetto (1902) and Robert Hunter’s Poverty (1904).

From the way that the media picked up her story (and persona, both real and fictionalized) she knew that it wasn’t just the message that people were interested in, but the messenger. Plenty of books had been written by well-educated, middle-class men, but a book by a woman who’d worked her way out of the immigrants ghetto of the Lower East Side was something else.

Moreover, from John Dewey she had learned she was a valuable specimen worthy of study by social scientists.

Anzia Yezierska was seemingly willing to use this hunger for the “Sweatshop Cinderella”[2] to her own benefit. Many times she wrote her own life story for magazines with apparently exaggerated details that fit the heart-rending immigrant story. She played up the stereotypical aspects of the immigrant story to get published and to see her work promoted. Yezierska was single-mindedly focused on making a living at her writing and not in the classroom, settlement house, restaurant, or as some man’s wife and she was often extremely poor.

Yet, she was not unaware of the imbalance in problems inherent with this view of the immigrant. Yezierska’s works cast the immigrant (and herself) as a specimen or collectible for the social scientist/reformer in a way that offers an incisive critique. The immigrant is viewed as exotic and picturesque and in her representation of this she offers a clear condemnation of unequal power relations and, at least implicitly, of class. In “Children of Loneliness(1923) sociologist Frank Baker declares to Rachel Ravinsky that the Lower East Side and the immigrant families he is meeting are “so picturesque!” Moreover his time spent with these impoverished immigrant families is motivated by his desire to get “a new angle on the social types of your East Side” (238).  Rachel dismisses Frank as a tourist in her world incapable of deep understanding. Yet that condemnation doesn’t rectify the imbalance of power or change her situation in any way.

Yezierska’s writing is replete with descriptions of the cold, in control Anglo Saxon and the wild, hot, emotional Oriental/Jewess/immigrant. Many of these scenarios include a heroine who wants to acquire the demeanor of the educated, higher status, controlled, gentile man. The outcome of this struggle between desires varies in her stories, though in her later stories the young woman often realizes the folly in this and returns to embrace her real “self,” whatever that may be.

Another link that can be made in this discussion of Yezierska’s appraisal of the science gaze and its problemmatic treatment of the immigrant is to examine the complex use of the word “picturesque.” Frank Baker in “Children of Loneliness” exclaims that that the neighborhood that Rachel comes from is “so picturesque!” Picturesque describe places or things that were pleasurable and extraordinary but not necessary high-brow in the pleasure that they deliver. At the turn-of-the-century picturesque Manhattan was considered “charming” or “quaint” thanks to the profound heterogenity of its neighborhoods and citizens. (Bramen)

Carrie Tirado Bramen suggests that in contrast to the nativist fear of the other that permeated sensationalist fiction the “urban picturesque” offers a way to understand the city in which the peculiar aspects of the modern world are viewed as spectacular or charming instead of frightening. “It offered a much needed aesthetic vocabulary for middle-class inhabitants of the city who did not resist otherness but actively pursued it” (446). In “The Urban Picturesque and the Spectacle of Americanization” Bramen links the “picturesque” to Herbert Spencer’s notion of progress where heterogenity is a sign of movement toward a better future and is “played into a triumphalist narrative of national development. In New York City the future is found in the teeming, mixed communities of immigrants to the city. Moreover, “at the most fundamental level, the urban picturesque afforded a new way of apprehending urban space by making inequality and immigrant diversity expected elements of modernity” (Bramen 445).

Anzia Yezierska and her heroines become synecdochic representations of this rich diversity and naturalized inequality. The men who fall in love with these women see them as modern or at least perceive their own romantic interest in the exotic immigrant as modern. This is the case in “The Miracle” as the WASP professor identifies the foreign born heroine as the future of America. While she declares her desire to learn from him how to be a cool and emotionless American he urges her to remain emotional and free from worldly constraints, because that is where civilization is and should be headed.

The local practices and accents of the many cultures living in the metropolis were incorporated in to the identity of the modern American city as a “part of a general attempt to nationalize the transnational as distinctively American. The urban picturesque was an important vehicle for transforming immigrants from social threats to cultural resources, as signs not only of an urban identity but also of a national one” (Bramen 446). Braman notes that the urban picturesque is limited to certain groups; for example, this incorporation did not extend to the black neighborhoods. This process to transition people from threats to resources which cut blackness out of the collective vision in turn sought to highlight the charm and beauty of Southern and Eastern Europeans.

Anzia Yezierska was the “picturesque immigrant” for the media and the scientists. Intelligent, educated, and a tireless worker she was easily portrayed as a uniquely American social resource. Yet, her relationship with that identity was fraught. She decried being categorized and studied, though that very relationship with publishers, movie studios, and social scientists provided her with success and fame. From within the confines of this intimate set of relations Yezierska was a unique witness to this facet of Progressive Era America her oeuvre leveled well-informed criticism at the very people who turned their tantalized gazes on her.

1. That observation is originally made in Yezierska’s 1920 short story “Wings” in which she describes university sociologist John Barnes’s (who is a striking match for John Dewey) excitement over meeting Shenah Pessah, who perfectly fits the type of subject he will be examining in his research project “Educational Problems with the Russian Jews” and with whom he makes a romantic connection. His excitement was “. . . the enthusiasm of the scientist for the specimen of his experimentation — of the sculptor for the clay that would take form under his touch” (Hungry Hearts 9).

2. Sweatshop Cinderella is how Hollywood packaged Yezierska when her first book was being produced as a silent film. While lots of magazines had also run stories about her that depicted her in just such a fashion, “Sweatshop Cinderella” was the work of movie studio publicists.

Selected Bibliography

Dearborn, Mary V. Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey. New York: Free Press, 1988.

Bramen, Carrie Tirado. “The Urban Picturesque and the Spectacle of Americanization.” American Quarterly. 52.3 (2000): 444-77.

3 thoughts on “Picturesque Specimens

  1. As a careful reader of Dewey’s work, Dearborn’s accusations against and Yezierska’s literary characterization of Dewey ring extremely false, here. Science is not, for Dewey, aimed at or even largely preoccupied with the collection of specimens. This sounds more like the ideas about science that Dewey criticized in works like The Quest for Certainty and Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. Science is aimed at solving problems, and social science is especially concerned with solving social problems. Further, Dewey’s democratic ideal leads him to characterize social problems in a participative, pluralistic way. Paternalism would be seen as a barrier to effective inquiry, not its aim. Like Jane Addams, Dewey thinks that a good to be a good has to be shared with all the members of a community.

    Of course, that’s not to say that Dewey always met his ideals in his personal life or his political activism.

  2. There are two points I would like to make about this:
    1. I believe that some of what is identified as critiques of John Dewey may in fact be critiques of the array of people that Yezierska came in contact with who were social researchers or reformers. Now while working on the project in Philadelphia Yezierska worked alongside a handful of graduate students who you have mentioned elsewhere were not part of Dewey’s core group of students. Moreover, while in Philadelphia and while sitting in on Dewey’s seminar at Columbia during 1918 Yezierska was in close contact with Albert Barnes, a rather eccentric man of means, who may have been enamored with Dewey, but didn’t always share Dewey’s values. For instance, while Dewey was not an advocate of Americanization in any way, Barnes invested large sums of money toward research to which he hoped would lead to more effective methods of Americanization. As you have also said elsewhere Dewey has a long history of relationships with cranks. So, I think that when we attribute all of Yezierska’s depictions of despicable philanthropists/reformers/professors to her relationship with one man I think we are oversimplifying the situation. Yezierska may very well be constructing composite characters in her work post-1918 that reflect her experience with a number of people, who all fit one or another of these character types.

    2. I think that we are using the term “science” differently. The science of Dewey was a set of practices that resulted in verifiable results. Science in this conception exists outside of values, but my guess is that Dewey was committed to using science to make life better for everyone. He may have had a social agenda in his scientific research, but he believed his social mission was democratic and pluralistic – or I bet that you would read him in this way.

    On the other hand I, and I think many scholars, use science to include a set of social practices that occur in and around the location of scientific research. Social practices that are informed by power, money, gender bias, racism, etc. For instance a blind medical study on a group of subjects that share similar characteristics is scientific, but the Tuskegee Syphilis Trials (also “science”) were racist and immoral.

    I will think about how to clarify this in the future, though you are right the distinction goes unmarked – though I find it hard to think that any science is devoid of values or influenced by contextual factors. Perhaps that “science” is only theoretical.

  3. I don’t think science, for Dewey or for me, stands outside of values or context. However, I guess I would say that the values that enter into science aren’t necessarily racist, immoral, hegemonic, etc. Indeed, Dewey argued that science had to be more explicitly moral in its aims and practices. Figuring out exactly the role of values, politics, etc. in science is the point of my class right now.

    Here’s another try at the difference: whereas Dewey and I might have a normative ideal of science in mind, you might be talking about the actual practices at some historical period. Even then, I think it’s important not to overgeneralize. There was a diversity of practices at that time, and we can make a lot of judgments of “better” and “worst.” I guess I’m saying, whatever negative attributions Yerzierska is making about “science,” it’s important not to treat them as essential to science as such.

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