Voice of the Ghetto

Some Thoughts on Yezierska’s Characters and Her Identity as the Voice of the Ghetto

Anzia Yezierska does not write stories that are about the average person on the East Side. Her stories are about how her characters are different from everyone else – though that is not to say they are admirably different from everyone else. Her characters do not represent the everywoman of the ghetto, despite the fact that Yezierska (through her stories) is held up as “the voice” from East Side who represents “the life” of the East Side. A central aspect to most of her later stories is that her heroines are exceptional. Though this might not hold true for her early works in which the main characters stand in rather generally for the poor immigrant mother or unmarried girl. For instance in “Free Vacation House” the mother is representative of harried, overworked, poor women who get involved with a charity project that seeks to take “needy” women and families to a house in the country for a rest. However while this opportunity might sound enticing, in fact the “Free Vacation House” is filled with rules and regulations to control the populations of guests from the city. The story makes clear the way that welfare projects humiliate and belittle those who it seeks to help. The story “Free Vacation House” was however one of her first stories.

Perhaps as her career progressed Yezierska’s characters evolve into ever more more exceptional and unique people because she is crafting them to answer different situations or problems. Carol Shoen, in Anzia Yezierska (1982) claims that Yezierksa breaks from the crafting of heroines to a anti-heroine in her 1923 novel Salome of the Tenements because Yezierska is responding to and countering the persona that was crafted for her by the media as she began to have broad success.

In Salome of the Tenements Yezierska describes Sonya as special: “Every now and then the Ghetto gives birth to an embryonic virtuoso” (17). This is interesting because if Yezierska is hailed as a writer for an entire group of people, then her characters unique qualities, like an unquenchable thrist for knowledge or beauty creates a problemmatic relationship between the reader and those that these books are touted to represent. This one of the problems of setting up a writer as a “voice for X people,” not a problem in that writer’s work.

The question of the unique nature of her characters may also be a issue of good writing. Characters that aren’t exceptional might be flat and too generic to be interesting. Though Maggie in Stephen Crane’s 1893 story Maggie: A Girl of the Streets seems more representative and less uniquely full formed and it is a broadly read and appreciated story. In reflection I find myself thinking that in Crane’s narrative it is not Maggie that is the story, but the place in its totality that is the heart of the story. Maggie is such a tragic representation of the place. Perhaps this is one of the struggles for Yezierska, to make characters that did justice to the place and the people, capturing their exceptionalism and not just their tragedy.

Thus, it seems like we enter into something of a paradox: writers who are identified as a member of an ethnic or racial group get saddled with the label of  “the voice of the people” but they may just want to write good books that require them create unique and complex characters, interesting situations, and which then may not be representative or is only representative of individual experiences and a narrow breadth of experience. While the reading public develops and erroneous  belief that the fictional lives represent reality. This then fulfills the outside reader’s desire for the picturesque and reifies the attitudes about the other as being a certain way, for instance that everyone on the East Side is driven with a desire to succeed or is committed to finding beauty amidst the poverty and grime of the neighborhood. This might be an interesting aspect to explore in conjunction with Carrie Tirado Bramen’s work on the urban picturesque.

One thought on “Voice of the Ghetto

  1. I think my ideas in this posting are being refined after reading Charlotte Rich’s 2009 book, Transcending the New Woman: Multiethnic Narratives in the Progressive Era. I think perhaps Yezierska is a voice for a generation, but that generation is one of New Jewish Women. These are women who see themselves as much more empowered and have different aspirations as compared to their mothers and grandmothers.

    Thus, I think my comparison to Maggie is not relevant. Maggie and Sonya are women of different generations, who respond to the world differently. Moreover, the depictions of these women have been crafted by writers who occupy incredibly different positions, at different moments in time.

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