This is more or less my paper from my panel, minus all the engaging extemporaneous bits.
As a part of the larger project that I am currently working on which analyzes the rhetoric about the purposes and outcomes of Progressive Era social settlements in texts written by women I will speak today about Anzia Yezierska’s 1923 novel Salome of the Tenements. I will identify her critiques of settlement houses and progressive reform projects, and then discuss how she tried to answer the problems she presents. Lastly I will examine how Yezierska may be identifiable as an example of a New Woman or New Jewish Woman and how that might impact her analysis of the philanthropic projects that she describes.
Anzia Yezierska was a Jewish woman who emigrated to the US in her youth from a Russian Polish village in the Pale. During her young life she lived in the Lower East Side of New York, worked various jobs and earned a degree from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. After two brief marriages and giving birth to a daughter Louise, who also became her biographer, Yezierska had a love affair with John Dewey. This short-lived relationship was one of the most important experiences to influence her writing and perhaps her vision of the world.
In 1918, by Dewey’s hand, she spent the spring and summer with a few of Dewey’s Columbia University graduate students and the eccentric businessman Albert Barnes working on a poorly organized, probably ill-conceived, research project in a Russian-Polish enclave right here in Philadelphia. This time spent working with social scientists and the wealthy Albert Barnes, who underwrote the cost of the project, also informed Yezierska’s critical assessment of the work of academics and philanthropists. Yezierksa’s fiction is rather autobiographical and her autobiography is sometimes laced with fiction.
Salome of the Tenements fits this mold as well. It features many characters and plot lines that match up with her real life experiences. The main character Sonya Vrunsky’s relationship with the philanthropist John Manning bears remarkable hints of Yezierska and Dewey. Moreover Sonya’s story of a poor immigrant girl who becomes the wife of a millionaire is based on the life of her friend Rose Pastor who married wealthy philanthropist Graham Stokes. Sonya’s story begins when she meets the man of her dreams at an interview that she conducts for the newspaper for which she writes. She is determined to marry John Manning, but realizes that she must make her appearance more appealing to a man of his standing. By the use of her wiles and charms she procures three ingredients for her seduction: first Sonya gets a the famous uptown designer Jacques Hollins to make her a stunning yet simple dress, then she manipulates her landlord into repairing and repainting her tenement, and lastly she convinces the local pawnbroker to loan her $100 to redecorate her room based on the strength of her conviction that she will marry her millionaire.
Her plan is successful, in no small part due to Sonya’s exquisite sense of taste and her enthralling beauty. She becomes John Manning’s secretary at the settlement, which helps their relationship bloom. They then marry, but separate within months. The separation comes only after a disastrous downtown meets uptown wedding reception and a blackmail scheme perpetrated by the pawnbroker to whom Sonya now owes $1500. Lastly their marriage is rocked when Sonya spends time witnessing the troublesome inner workings of the Manning Settlement House.
When she leaves John, she returns to work, first as a waitress, and then lands a job where she can learn to be a clothing designer. Through her own hard work, talent and prodigious self-confidence Sonya becomes a successful designer. Whereupon Fifth Avenue designer Jacques Hollins, who began as Jaky Solomon an immigrant clothing maker from the same downtown neighborhood as Sonya, seeks her out, and he and Sonya become partners in art and love. The novel ends with Sonya and Jacques deciding to open a not-for-profit side shop as Sonya’s own settlement. There they will bring beauty to those who have the passion for it, but not the money.
In this story Yezierska’s critique of the social settlement identifies three sources from which problems arise: the philanthropist, the female social workers, and the institution. Sonya describes the insidious nature of these agents: they are purveyors of rampant classism, and oppressive and coercive practices that deny the preferences and agency of the individual. The work and philosophy of the social reform initiatives that she encounters are rife with hypocrisy. Instead of making the lives of the people better the mechanisms of progress, whether that is a person or the institution serves to lessen the quality of people’s lives. Instead of improving the quality of the food that people eat, the social settlement and social workers encourage and discipline their neighbors into eating the cheapest and most unappetizing dishes. Instead of improving the self-esteem of the young girls in the dance class after they have worked all day in the factory, the teacher moralizes and cajoles them into acceptable middle-class behavior. These programs aren’t just assimilationist, they also work to create servile subjects and instantiate a racist, classist social structure.
Yezierska’s critique of the settlement house and progressive reform in general is that they fail to improve the lives of their community members materially or emotionally and that they reify the same hierarchies that are plaguing society at large. The immigrants in her stories are not only fighting the injustices of the world but also the injustices of the reform initiatives.
Her answer to the problems that arise from social reform is to respect the preferences and agency of the individual and she seeks to do this by opening a not-for-profit shop on Grand Street that will sell beautiful high-end clothes to the girls of the Lower East Side. This is an answer to the problem that Sonya sees in the reform initiatives and charity projects of the ghetto which lack any regard to personal taste or fit when they give second-hand clothes and shoes to the needy. However, as Jacques points out to Sonya, a taste for beauty is a rare thing and is not dictated by birth or wealth. They will make clothes for everyone who loves beautiful things, but they will also make them widely available, for they are committed to art above all.
Making beautiful clothes available to those who can appreciate them regardless of means might be a radical answer to the rampant classism of the world in Yezierska’s books and stories, but it is not the real answer about how to end the detrimental forces that arise from the philanthropist’s work and the social scientists gaze. In Yezierksa’s text the real answer to how Sonya is able to transcend the constraints of her situation and resist the oppressive influences of the social reform all around her is: a lifetime of bold, self-centered, self-preserving moves, all carried off with her incredible determination, beauty, natural intelligence and talent. Sonya is an example of someone who is successful due to her own efforts and self-reliance.
Recently scholars like Charlotte Rich and Ljiljana Coklin have published texts that link Anzia Yezierska to the figure of the New Woman, which originates in late 19th century England, but is picked up in the US to describe the independent, educated woman who exemplifies the ideal of Progressive Era philosophy. This is not a perfect fit for Yezierska since the New Woman was more bourgeois. Women like Yezierska who are ethnically identified, poor, oftentimes less educated, may have held the same values of the New Woman, but were excluded from much of the privilege that her middle-class white counterpart enjoyed. In her recent book Transcending the New Woman: Mutliethnic Narratives in the Progressive Era Charlotte Rich explains that ethnic New Women were very conscious of their complicated position in regards to Progressivism, with its connections to eugenics and nativism, and the oftentimes exclusive Progressive Era feminism.
Instead, Yezierska fits the description of a New Jewish Woman. Historians Susan Glenn and Linda Gordon Kuzmak have identified the New Jewish Woman as a working-class version of the independent New Woman. As such, Yezierska is uniquely positioned to critique the progressive reform projects because she holds many of the same values about women’s power and freedom, but she is also painfully aware of the prejudices and limitations that accompany her racialized identity.
As the New Jewish Women, Yezierska’s characters undergo transformation that may not have been possible in previous generations. These characters enjoy cross-class experiences, become educated, and recognize that they have more choices. I think Sonya is a perfect example of this and I disagree with those scholars, like Natalie Friedman in her 2005 article “Marriage and the Immigrant Narrative” who claim: “Sonya can thrive only when she remains within the close quarters of her people (Jewish immigrants) and her enclave (Lower East Side)” (Friedman 178).
In Salome of the Tenements, Sonya never seems to fit within her Lower East Side community. Once she marries John Manning and lives uptown, she doesn’t easily return to her old life in the neighborhood. Sonya only finds community with Jacques Hollins, who, like her, has left the Lower East Side. As a flourishing designer he is not part of either the upper classes or the immigrant working class in which he lived in his youth. Sonya finds fulfillment by being an artist and living with her partner who, like her, remade himself in a style that suits him. Jacques Hollins worked incredibly hard to distance himself from his origins, so that he could create art as he wished – yet he isn’t of the upper classes either even though he is wealthy and is sought out by them.
In terms of the life that Jacques and Sonya live, there is no indication that they live or work downtown. Though they say that they will open a non-profit shop on Grand Street, one hardly imagines that Sonya is going to work there selling dresses. She will be in the salon designing. She calls it her “settlement,” but this is to be their non-profit side venture. A shop like theirs hires shop clerks who will act as her social workers making available to the young women styles that Sonya deems more attractive than the shoddily-made and gaudy ready-made dresses sold in the downtown shops.
Sonya is a woman who has made her own world, on her own terms. She is independent and fearless in the pursuit of her dreams whether that is marrying a millionaire or becoming a successful designer. She pursues a romantic relationship of equals and is not oriented toward a life of domestic pursuits. She is an artist, committed to a life to creating beauty. Yet she is keenly aware of how the forces for reform have distain for those who wish to rise up independently – there are compelling forces that demand conformity, but for the New Jewish Woman like Sonya conformity with a safe middle-class existence is out of the question.