Social Settlements, Bacteria, and Horror

Francis Stevens’ 1919 horror story “Unseen – Unfeared” brings together a number of my personal interests. “Francis Stevens” is  the pen name of writer, Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1883-1948). Since I am teaching Literature of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which too often seems dominated by male writers, I am on the lookout for stories written by women. So, I am happy to find that Bennett/Stevens has a whole corpus of dark fantasy stories.

Secondly, this story takes place in NYC’s Lower East Side, making me feel right at home. The story begins near the seaport. After a late dinner, the protagonist, a journalist, decides to walk home through the LES streets; he usually enjoys walking the neighborhood because it is “fascinating” and “foreign.” However, this evening the neighborhood seems preternaturally menacing. Feeling a little woozy, the main character pops into a tenement apartment-turned-museum of the “Great Unseen.”

Via lamplight projection the apparent proprietor of the strange exhibit displays images of microscopic monsters and the main character becomes even more depressed and frightened. Lest I spoil the story, I will skip to what I find interesting about this tale.

I know there are other weird tales from this period that use bacteria and magnified images to invoke dread in the reader. In fact Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, an American classic though not part of the weird genre, includes an unsettling description of the miasma that exists in the Lower East Side tenements.

It would be very interesting to examine how the rise of bacteriology and the invention of the microscope gave rise to stories about monsters of the unseen world. Monsters in the microscope.

Scientific advances changed theories about the origins of sickness. Before, disease was divinely–or demonically–caused, but by the end of the nineteenth century scientists established germ theory. This transition provides fertile ground for the writer who wishs to horrify the reader with the realities that live unseen on or about our person. An author might ask: what if germ theory did not preclude demonic origins of disease? What if germs had a malign source? The microscopic entities in Bennett/Stevens’s story are depicted as demonic . . . and foreign.

Disease, according to germ theory, is transmitted locally, through touch, proximity, exchange of fluids, etc. Therefore places with the most disease are easily depicted as the most frightening to occupy. Place and population can become implicated in the frightening narrative. The almost invisible horrors in “Unseen – Unfeared” become linked to the immigrant population of the Lower East Side through a reference to public hygiene education. The building housing the “Great Unseen” exhibition is also used by the local social settlement to educate the local population:

next door to Doctor Holt’s the second floor have been thrown together into a lecture room, where at certain hours a young man employed by settlement workers displayed upon a screen stereopticon views of various deadly bacilli, the germs of diseases appropriate to dirt and indifference. He knew, too, that Doctor Holt himself had helped the educational effort along by providing some really wonderful lantern slides, done by microphotography. (131)

Here the link between xenophobia (the fear of the foreign) and mysophobia or bacilliphobia (the fear of germs or contamination) is made. The story can function as a nativist work that feeds the fears of the “true American” or as a parody–poking fun at the paranoid hallucinations of a self-proclaimed streetwise journalist.

 

 

 

Through a Mirror Darkly: Children with Disabilities in American Policy, 1912-1960

Here is a link to Through a Mirror Darkly: Children with Disabilities in American Policy, 1912-1960. It’s an interesting presentation by Walter O. Schalick, III, MD, PhD about the history of policies (medical and political) pertaining to disabled children. This broadly historical, and entertaining, presentation would be a perfect compliment to the Julia Lathrop video that I linked to previously. Dr. Schalick opens with the Ashley X case study and then turns back the clock to the 19th century and charts forward to more or less present day, though his title only promises to cover to 1960.

This video would have been the perfect introduction to the course I taught on bioethics and disability a while back.

“Why Study a Syphilis Novel?”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Medicine at Austin College

“Why Study A Syphilis Novel?: Eugenics and the New Domestic Ideology in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Crux (1911)”

Randi Tanglen, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Austin College, Sherman, Texas

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

imgres

Yesterday afternoon Randi Tanglen, an Assistant Professor of English at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, discussed Charlotte Perkins Gilman, medicine, eugenic practices of nation building, and Gilman’s 1911 novel The Crux in a lecture that coincides with the college’s exhibition of “The Literature of Prescription”. Gilman is perhaps best known for her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), which shed light on the detrimental effects of the rest cure treatment for neurasthenic women. Tanglen contextualized her lecture about the lesser known novel by beginning with “The Yellow Wallpaper” which is familiar to a wide and general audience.

Professor Tanglen explored the way in which Gilman is a troubling subject for scholars and feminists. Gilman was rediscovered and recovered by literary scholars in the 1970s as a feminist foremother, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” was quickly added to course syllabi and American literature anthologies. However, Gilman’s commitment to eugenic practices and her blatant racism make her canonization as an American feminist writer problemmatic, to say the least.

In yesterday’s lecture, Tanglen presented The Crux as a novel that demands that white women take up their duty as the morally and racially superior members of the race to regenerate the nation. However, in order to do this, the novel suggests, some social changes must take place. For instance, women must stop competing with one another in a marriage game that pits woman against woman for the honor to marry, not the best man, but whatever man is available. According to Gilman, the dynamic needs to be turned on its head–men should be competing for women–and women should be able to choose from a field of men, in order to secure the best possible mate in order to make strong, healthy, racially superior American babies. The Crux, more a lecture than a novel, admonishes male doctors for maintaining a veil of secrecy which protects men from having their sexual fitness made public. Women need to be educated about the realities of sexually transmitted diseases so that they can choose a healthy, clean mate and fulfill their nation-building destiny.

Professor Tanglen’s lecture is part of her an on-going project in which she explores the influence of the elder Catherine Beecher on her great-niece Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In particular, Tanglen links Beecher’s advocacy of Christian womanhood and motherhood in the service of millenialism in the U.S. to Gilman’s advocacy of motherhood in the service of American racial and cultural development.

The traveling exhibition, “The Literature of Prescription”, that is currently being displayed at Austin College will be there for the rest of the month. The National Library of Medicine on Gilman is a rich site, especially for students. Focusing on Gilman and “The Yellow Wallpaper” the exhibition does not, however, explore the very troubling racial implications of the Gilman corpus.

An American Tragedy: Birth Control and Abortion Protest Novel?

Note: This post contains a number of Proquest links. You will need to use your university proxy or have a Proquest log-in to view some of the links.

I recently read Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) and I was struck by the fact that it read like a protest novel–not against the oppressive nature of capitalism and its attendant poverty and class-based social alienation–but as a protest novel about the deadly results of limited access to birth control and abortion. Of course, the murder that Clyde Griffiths commits in the novel is inexcusable. Clyde is obviously the main character of Dreiser’s novel, but one could argue that the book is equally about the plight of Roberta Alden. Roberta is really the tragic figure in the text. Thus, it leads the reader to question what the social context that leads to her demise?  How many murders, cases of manslaughter, or suicides have been committed with an unwanted pregnancy as the precipitating cause? Dreiser forces us to ask: how many women die because they are pregnant?

In 1906 Grace Brown was the victim of murder at the hands of Chester Gillette. That’s one. Dreiser based An American Tragedy on the real-life story of Gillette and Brown. Gillette died in the electric chair in 1908 for the murder of the pregnant Grace Brown.

Chester Gillette and Grace Brown. (From Herkimer County Historical Society)

A quick survey of newspaper articles from the period of the Gillette-Brown case turns up many articles in which restricted access to birth control or dangerous, illegal abortions appear to be a key factor in the death of a young woman. For instance, this story from 1871, when Alice Augusta Bowlsby died during an abortion in New York City. The “doctor” hid her dead body in a trunk and tried to send it to Chicago on a train.

Or this sad story from 1896 of a young Nanette Archibald who took her own life in New Jersey. While the cause for her distress was not officially determined, the suicide note sounds suspiciously like that of a pregnant girl with nowhere to turn: “I find out my terrible mistake and attempt to take my life by ending all my miseries. I have troubles that no one save one knows anything about”. Or this 1895 story about the murder trial of David Hannigan who is accused of killing Solomon Mann, his sister’s boyfriend. Mann, according to the New York Times article, “betrayed” Hannigan’s sister and counseled her to get a “criminal operation” from which she died. Mr. Hannigan first attempted to kill Mr. Mann two months earlier, when he was with Mr. Mann and his dying sister in her room. In March of 1895, Mr. Hannigan succeeded when he shot Mr. Mann dead on Forty-second Street.

When I conducted a cursory examination of literary scholarship on An American Tragedy and protest novels, I didn’t find anything. Obviously, I will continue to look for scholarship on this topic, but regardless, I think Dreiser’s novel might be an interesting addition to a course on the protest novel. If I were to teach it, I would want to contextualize An American Tragedy in the world of the 1920s when it was written, as opposed to the turn of the century when Chester Gillette murdered Grace Brown. While I don’t know a lot about the accessibility of birth control and abortions during that time, I know that my grandmother scared me straight with stories from her youth in the 1920s. In Nana’s tales from her youth plenty of high school girls (some of those girls were the “old ladies” who figured prominently in my childhood) became pregnant and had back-alley abortions that left them sterile. Or they married men they didn’t love and lived unhappily, or were thrown out of high school and then sent away by their parents, only to return with a new baby “brother” or “sister” that their parents raised as their own.

I just found a book that I hope to begin reading soon entitled: Making Marriage Modern: Women’s Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II (2009) by Christina Simmons. Perhaps this book will shed some light on the topic for me.

Sadly, one of the things that my rifling through newspapers and the internet turned up is that murder is one of, if not the, leading cause of death for pregnant women in this very day. As in the Gillette-Brown case, it is still perpetrated most commonly by the men who are responsible for the pregnancy.

We haven’t come very far.

A Question to the Reader: calling this novel a birth control and abortion protest novel just doesn’t seem right. It suggests a position in protest to birth control and abortion. What would be the correct description for this novel, if one were to frame it as a protest novel in the way that I am discussing?

Uptown Girl in the Social Settlement: Richard Harding Davis’s “Eleanore Cuyler”

In 1892, Richard Harding Davis published the book Van Bibber, and others, which includes a rather cynical depiction of an uptown woman’s experience in social settlement work. The woman, Eleanore Cuyler, is depicted as a social work dilettante, who enjoys the dramatic and showy moments of her good works, like when she presents legislation about kindergartens. Before entering settlement work Eleanore imagines herself visiting prisoners and nursing the ill, bringing solace and health to the needy.

Davis was a writer, war correspondent,  journalist, and the son of Rebecca Harding Davis, who wrote the novella Life in the Iron Mills (1861).

Richard Harding Davis (From PBS.org)

Van Bibber, and others includes the story “Eleanore Cuyler” about an uptown woman from high society who is dedicated to her freedom as a single woman of means and refuses to marry or even commit to any of her suitors. When her dearest friend Wainwright asks her to marry him, she is forced to decide: except his offer and turn her back on her freedom or reject him and remain independent. She rejects his proposal and Wainwright, leaves for work in the London theater. After some time casting about in a melancholy state, Eleanore determines to throw herself into work in the College Settlement on New York’s Lower East Side, against the advice of her mother and doctor.[1] Eleanore feels “mentally tired” and decides that she needs a “change of air and environment, and unselfish work for the good of others, and less thought of herself” (Davis 104). She leaves her posh home uptown to live in the College Settlement, but the more romantic work of “a Father Damien[2] or a Florence Nightingale” goes to women who are “wiser” and whose pleasant and practical demeanor baffle her. Eleanore had envisioned herself visiting prisoners and nursing the ill, but the women who run the settlement have seen many would-be social workers come and go; therefore, Eleanore is relegated to less heroic tasks, like reading the Bible in German to an elderly woman and helping with a summer vacation program for working-girls out on Long Island.

Upon working there for some time, Eleanore is not only ashamed at how tiny her contribution feels to the work of the College Settlement, but she is also ashamed of the amount of excitement her presence generates when she visits her former neighborhood and society friends. “The good she did now, it was humiliating to acknowledge, was in no way proportionate to that which her influence had wrought among the people of her own class” (Davis 107). Her life on the east side is exciting and exotic to the men and women of her uptown community. Continue reading

Jane Addams and Life after College

Jane Addams offers an answer to the question “what is there after college?” for the young woman at the turn of the last century. Addams spoke about the topic often and wrote about it directly in the texts: “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” (1892/1893), and “Filial Relations” (1902).

Jane Addams, 1900

These texts sought to change the limited cultural and familial roles of middle-class women and bring more bright, energetic women out of the stifling confines of nineteenth-century gender roles and into the vibrant and messy world of the immigrant communities of Chicago.

While these two texts differ slightly in their focus, both were written as much to address the parents of young people who are working in, or wanted to work in, social settlements as the young women themselves (Tichi 102). “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” was delivered as a speech at the School of Applied Ethics, a six-week summer program organized by the Society for Ethical Culture in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was not only well received when it was delivered with its companion speech, “The Objective Value of a Social Settlement,” but both speeches were subsequently published broadly. “Filial Relations” was published in the book Democracy and Social Ethics alongside chapters entitled “Charitable Efforts” and “Political Reform.” This text reflects Addams’s commitment to a larger ethical outlook and the need to include everyone in the democratic life of the nation.

What will become evident is that the suggestions made in these texts and speeches led many women to break from their families and form affiliative attachments with the women (and men) with whom they worked. This outcome is only barely suggested in Addams’s writings, but the reality of the separation was borne out in the lives of the women who resided and worked at Hull-House. It would have been unwise to discuss the strength of the relationships that women could form in a collegial and collaborative environment in these arguments, though today the quality and strength of relationships between unrelated adults is seen as a marker of maturity and individuation. In Addams’s world, however, the focus, at least for the lives of women was on a woman’s relationships and commitments to her family first.

The text “Filial Relations” in particular appears to have been written to parents of middle-class women, which is a rhetorical strategy she uses in hopes of liberating young women from the limitations of domestic life. Addams begins by establishing that the bulk of people do not “share the effort toward a higher social morality,” but are content to express a general conservatism, which takes as its standards the well-worn roles and cultural expectations of the past. Those who hold those notions of social conservatism judge harshly anyone who deviates from these behaviors or viewpoints. There is a logic in this, Addams observes, because these practices are proven and offer stability to the community. Yet in this age of expanding democracy, new relationships are being tested. In order to fulfill the higher call that our flourishing democratic ideals and social relations demand, some will need to (and want to) reorient their energies from the family and themselves to a loftier social goal. Thus, Addams has laid forth the changing social and political landscape of America and identified the reasonable intentions of individuals who feel no call to reform and service and adhere to traditional roles and behaviors in an attempt to win over the skeptics to her work (76-77). Continue reading

What Makes a Settlement House? Blogging SSAWW 2009

After our panel presentations yesterday, Voices from the Settlement House an interesting question was posed by University of California, San Diego professor Nicole Tonkovich about whether or not settlement houses were exclusively an urban phenomenon. The discussion that evolved during the Q&A period and then after lunch showed that this not a easily answerable . . . .

Sarah Lock, a professor from Weatherford College, who presented on the panel, offered a really nice explanation about other contemporary (Progressive Era, 1880-1920) institutions that fulfilled same functions but in different locales. “Settlement houses”or “social settlements” bearing that specific moniker do seem to be largely urban, most likely because of the concentration of money and people that are needed to offer the breadth of resources to a mass of people. Moreover the social settlement is also a institution in space, a building or a series of buildings, not just a collection of services.

However, as Lock pointed out, there are examples of other organizations that offered many of the same programs that were associated with African American schools in the south, thus they are not exactly urban (or in the north) but they are institutional in organization and had a community of people to serve and from which to draw resources. I suggested that some of the work that was conducted at or by asocial settlement did on occasions get taken up by women’s groups, thus extending the borders of one institution across the nation. The example I was thinking about was when a group of women at Hull House were reforming child labor practices and in an effort to document incidences of child labor they sent out a call to women’s groups across the country asking them to begin documenting incidents that they saw firsthand in their own communities of children working. This call was met by women who were awakened to the reality of child labor in their communities and then their results were brought into the larger work of the activists based in the urban (northern) social settlement.

Another question that arose from this conversation was posed over lunch by Judith Ranta. Ranta works on women and girls who labored in the New England textile mills and she delivered the third paper on our panel. Her paper discussed Jennie Collins (1828-1887) and Boffins’ Bower, which was an institution that helped find work for women and offered a myriad of much-needed services to the poorest women of Boston. Over our Chinese food, Ranta asked if we thought Boffin’s Bower was a settlement house. Obviously, I thought it fit enough to include her paper on the panel, but when we started to discuss it many questions about category distinctions arose.

Boffin’s Bower was established in Boston’s East Side in the 1870’s, many years before Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr opened Hull House. Boffin’s Bower was started by Jennie Collins who was not a college-educated reformer, but who already lived in the southside neighborhood in which she established her organization.

Ranta noted that the wealthy women of Boston who engaged in philanthropy were suspicious of Collins and Boffins’ Bower. However, these same philanthropically-minded women did, a few years later, give money to the college-educated women who arrived in Boston to do reform work. Ranta’s work on Collins is fascinating, and she has edited and written an introduction for a new addition of Nature’s Aristocracy: A Plea for the Oppressed (1871) by Jennie Collins that will be released in May 2010 by University of Nebraska Press.

Some of the questions that we identified that might be pertinent to the question of what distinguishes a settlement house from something else might include:

Is a social settlement defined by the fact that educated middle-class women (and men) establish it or provide the services to the neighbors?

Does it need to be located in an urban environment? Is there something particular about social settlements that mean they are defined by the structure that they take in relation to the surrounding neighborhood?

Are there types of services that are included in a number of social settlements that can be used to define them?

I imagine that there are other questions that I will come upon that will flesh out this discussion, but these are my initial thoughts. None of us could think of any texts that have defined settlement houses or taken on this question. Obviously social settlements began in England, so perhaps looking to the origin of the name and the institution there would be a place to start. I imagine that in the U.S. the use of the term social settlement or settlement house began after Addams and Starr returned from London, which is why Jennie Collins didn’t call Boffins’ Bower a settlement house. Of course other American reformers may have imported the term as well.

Perhaps another place to look for information about the question of locale and the kinds of work that was done in social settlements might be on the little bit of scholarship that links the black missions of the south to the settlement houses of the north.[1] I think it is significant to this relationship that Victoria Earle Matthews, named her settlement the White Rose Mission. Matthews was a African American journalist, who’d been born into slavery and eventually move to New York City and opened a social settlement after the death of her teenage son.

[1] See Luker, Ralph E. “Missions, Institutional Churches, and Settlement Houses: The Black Experience, 1885-1910.” The Journal of Negro History 69.3/4 (1984): 101-13. I haven’t yet found any more recent work that addresses this issue.

Salome of the Tenements Serves the Settlement on a Silver Platter – Blogging SSAWW 2009

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.

John Dewey

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.

Continue reading

Settlement House Spinsters

While I am just about to set forth on my trip to Philadelphia for the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) conference, I am also thinking pretty seriously about the paper that I will present at the Pacific and Ancient Modern Language Association (PAMLA) conference in San Francisco two and a half weeks from now. At the PAMLA conference I will be presenting on a panel about Marriage in Nineteenth Century America.

My paper: “Settlement House Spinsters: How Settlement Houses Saved Women from Marriage” pretty much starts at the premise that marriage is something that women should be saved from, especially in the nineteenth century. I am interested in examining the ways that settlement houses offered women an alternative to heterosexual marriage, child-rearing, and domestic duties.

This paper is focused more on white middle-class women than much of the other research I have done thus far. In part this is because I am focusing on the women who worked in the social settlement, not those who lived in the neighborhood and in part this is because I will be focused on the community at Hull-House.

Hull-House and the writings of Jane Addams are at the core of this paper. At this point I plan to look at the rhetoric that she is using in two articles/speeches: “The Subjective Necessity for Settlement Houses” (1892) and “Filial Relations” (1902). I examine how Jane Addams crafts her arguments which state that young, middle-class men and women (only women in the case of “Filial Relations”) have been educated to value work that helps others; that many young people have a natural desire and inclination dedicate their time and energy to making the world a better place and righting injustices in the world, but nineteenth century middle-class society is often uncomfortable with their children leaving the comfort of their sheltered worlds, committing themselves to this kind of work and living in the poorest neighborhoods of the cities.

Moreover, Addams argues young, educated, middle-class women especially are in a bind because they have been trained to be socially committed but they have very few options when they are done with school. Young women can become wives and mothers and precious little else. Addams suggests that we should begin to think about the good it will do to allow young women to embark on work in settlement houses after college.

Working in the settlement house also offers certain benefits for young women who don’t wish to marry, but want to be out of their parents’ homes and doing something useful. For instance, there is a broad array of work that is available for the women to do. These women have useful skills, passionate social concerns, and are eager to apply themselves in places where they are needed. Also many women were interested in seeing the world outside of the cloistered worlds of home and school that they in which have been trapped for most of their lives. Also, for women who are uninterested in marriage altogether perhaps because they are not interested in heterosexual monogamy or desire to live in a women-centered communal living situation social settlements allow them the freedom to do this, under the coverage of an institution, but not in a traditional marriage. The social settlement allows these women a place for autonomy and independence.

For background I looking at books about the history of marriage in America, like Hendrik Hartog’s Man and Wife in America: A History and Nancy Cott’s Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. I am limiting this paper to Hull-House for the sake of focus. I will also check out Eleanor Stebner’s 1997 dissertation The Women of Hull House: A Study in Spirituality, Vocation, and Friendship and literature on the lives of women like Addams, Julia Lathrop, and Florence Kelley in order to augment my analysis of Addams’s writing with historical context, biographical examples, and hopefully find some critical connections between the philosophies at work in social settlements, women’s rights groups, the nineteenth-century American family, and an evolving national identity.

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.

"Cinderella Story of A Servant Girl," Anzia Yezierska, (From Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March, 5, 1921)

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.