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). 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” 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.
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.