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.

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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.

The Wings of the Phoenix: Yezierska’s “Wings”

Anzia Yezierska’s 1920 short story “Wings” features a cross-class relationship between a young immigrant woman and a young sociology professor. This relationship highlights how these two people, unlikely to meet, share some intimate moments, and effect one another. Though, John Barnes, the professor seems to leave the interaction unchanged and unenlightened.

Anzia Yezierska

Whereas the experience changes the life of Shenah Pessah, a Russian Jewish immigrant, completely and in the next story in the story collection Hungry Hearts puts Shenah’s new understanding of the world into practice. She dramatically turns her back on the world she knew and the obligations that she had in order to be her own woman, making money and eschewing marriage.

Shenah Pessah lives in a dreary basement flat in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, works as a janitor and takes care of her demanding and cruel uncle. Yet all the while she longs for something to release the emotions that she feels are trapped inside her. This story describes how that happens, but Shenah pays a dear price for her liberation.

The story begins with her longing for love as she is surrounded by young lovers and married folks with children all crowding the street outside her street-level window. It is interesting that Yezierska begins her story this way because her much of her writing reveals a particularly negative view of marriage. This is most clearly described in Louise Levitas Henriksen’s biography of her mother when she describes a manuscript that Yezierska was working on entitled “The Supported Wife” in which she rails against marriage as disempowering; moreover, in “Hunger” which is a continuation of Shenah Pessah’s story, she takes a job at a sweatshop specifically to avoid marriage. However, in “Wings” the longing for romantic love functions in two ways. First it heightens the horror for the reader when in the end the educated college professor who has captivated Shenah simply dismisses her. Second it stands in for liberation from the darkness of the world in which she lives.

In her role as the janitor of a tenement building, Shenah meets an exciting young man who inquires about a room that is for let. She observes that he is as if “the god of her innermost longings had suddenly taken shape in human form and lifted her in mid-air” (3). She asks him if he is a teacher or a writer and when he acknowledges that he is indeed a teacher she exclaims with “wistful worship in her eyes” that she knew immediately that he was “some kind of somebody” (5). This is an interesting encounter because in it Yezierska is highlighting Shenah’s recognition and valorization of the young professor’s high class standing. The young man, university professor John Barnes is not unaffected by this meeting, in fact he is “drawn by the struggling soul of her that cried aloud to him from her eyes” (4). This is another moment in the story where Yezierska cultivates the “tragic immigrant” identity for Shenah. When Shenah explains to John that she does not have a home here or in Russia, that she is more or less without family or any familial roots in the community, he has a physical reaction to her confession:

‘Russia?’ he repeated with quickened attention. So he was in their midst, the people he had come to study. The girl with her hungry eyes and intense eagerness now held a new interest for him.
John Barnes, the youngest instructor of sociology in his university, congratulated himself at his good fortune in encountering such a splendid type for his research. He was preparing his thesis on the ‘Educational Problems of the Russian Jews,’ and in order to get into closer touch with his subject, he had determined to live on the East Side during his spring and summer vacation (5).

This passage is so rich because his immediate reaction is like a scientist-explorer searching for some elusive species and he has finally found her. Moreover, Yezierska’s description makes it sound rather calculating and even ominous. However his scientific objectivity is tested by her sad story. “‘You poor child!’ broke from the heart of the man, the scientific inquisition of the sociologist momentarily swept away by his human sympathy” (6-7). Key to this passage is that he only loses his distant, emotionless demeanor momentarily. He has no realization about Shenah’s humanity beyond the recognition that she is representative of the “social type” that struggles with problems like getting an education.

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On Social Settlements, Relationships and Marriage: Breaking It Down

For this project I initially thought that I would write one chapter about how marriage in Progressive Era America was effected by social settlements, half devoted to how settlement houses fostered cross-class relationships, with a particular focus on Yezeriska’s Salome of the Tenements and the other half devoted to how women were able to avoid heterosexual marriage and domestic obligations through their participation in settlement house work.

The settlement house offered women much of the coverage of marriage but without all the duties and obligations of marriage and raising a family. There must have been a breadth of experience for women in the settlement house, some institutions offering more autonomy and personal expression than others, while others were directed in a heavy-handed and paternalistic manner. I am curious if there is any correlation between the social settlements that were organized and run by women and those that were organized and supervised by men. Moreover I wonder if there are patterns of difference between different social settlements based on their individual missions. For instance Henry Street Settlement began (as I understand it from my limited research) after Lillian Wald had done a visiting nurse stint in the Lower East Side just after she was done with nursing school and saw that there was a rather profound need. Thus, HSS was begun as an institution that would take young women fresh from nursing school and send them into the local neighborhood to tend to the welfare of the local families. That kind of a project might need more direction and structure than Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr’s rather amorphous project in which they leased a ramshackle mansion and threw open the doors, asking their neighbors what they need. It seems to me that the leadership at Hull-House allowed their residents and neighborhood participants a lot of leeway in determining the needs of the community and then crafting a plan of action to meet those needs. This seems to be the kind of environment that would grant more agency to the young women who worked in it.

Thus for the chapter focused on “Settlement House Spinsters” I will want to look at Addams’s “The Subjective Necessity of the Settlement House” and also other articles on the young women who arrived took up residence in the social settlement. Moreover I think that some research on Florence Kelley might be useful since she left a heterosexual marriage and had three kids and was able to live a vibrant and professionally fulfilling life at Hull-House. Beyond that I will need to look at materials that address marriage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That might offer some insight into what women were trying to avoid by seeking the coverage of the social settlement.  I know there is plenty of research about women’s colleges during the Progressive Era, including material about the different women’s schools, how they prepared the women for their lives after college. I believe that Bryn Mawr was particularly focused on turning out women who had a social mission, but that this lead to great frustration for many women, who upon graduation found that there was little for them to do. It is important to keep in mind that this situation is all wrapped up in issues of class, because poor women worked and raised children and had little choice about it. There wasn’t the middle-class ennui for them, though that claim might not hold water. There was dissatisfaction, but was related to different causes.

In Louise Levitas Henriksen’s biography of her mother she writes about her mother’s complaints about the unfairness of the gendered household situation. Yezierska wrote particularly about the excruciating experience of being a woman who had once worked and then is forced into the home upon marriage and childbearing – to be the supported woman. However, Yezierska’s situation suggests a certain amount of money and privilege. Yezierska had only one child and could even afford to hire her nieces to help her around the house. She lived in what seems was a much larger apartment than her sister Annie. Whereas Annie had many children and her husband didn’t make much money. Her apartment was described a cramped and squalid – that is much different that the situation that Anzia Yezierska is describing in her true-confessions notes about “The Supported Wife.” While this is an interesting topic, it might not be that pertinent to my focus on just how the settlement house offered women an alternative to marriage.

The other chapter that could emerge from this work about the way in which social settlements and reform initiatives allowed for cross-class relationships has already begun to take shape in my previous blog post: “On Being a Specimen and Picturesque: Anzia Yezierska and the Modern Gaze.” While this post is more focused on the larger social phenomenon of the immigrant woman in the world of the social settlement and as she is interpreted by the modernizing forces of society that sought to interpollate the Southern and Eastern European immigrants into the new national identity, there are hints of how these phenomena played out in one-on-one romantic relationships. However, I think that is a post ripe with ideas that need to be explored further; it deserves a follow-up. A good place to start would be Carrie Tirado Bramen’s article and her bibliography. Moreover, my reading about Yezierska and my reading of her work is yielding a lot of material about her critique of social settlements, reform initiatives and social science. I think some of that material may be very appropriate for the introduction or conclusion of my dissertation.

In order to focus on the cross-class relationships in and around the settlement house I need to look more closely to Yezierska’s writing directly and her depiction of these relationships in texts such as novels Salome of the Tenements, and Arrogant Beggar, and short stories “Wings,” “The Miracle,” “To the Stars,”and “Children of Loneliness.” Another source that might be both academically fruitful and very interesting are the newspaper articles about Rose Pastor and Graham Stokes’s courtship and marriage. According to Yezierska’s biographer (and daughter) Louise Levitas Henriksen after Yezierska had spent Thanksgiving 1917 with Pastor Stokes she was committed to writing a story that captured some of what she had heard her friend tell her about the Pastor-Stokes marriage. In newspapers and magazines at the time of the wedding, the Pastor-Stokes relationship was presented as a Cinderella story – Pastor, dirty and laboring amid tenement squalor, finds her Prince Charming in a fortuitous encounter with a rich philanthropist. I will be curious to see how the newspapers spun that story.

It is not surprising that each of these topics is worthy of their own entire text. But my arch nemesis is a bunch of shiny balls of intellectual tin foil that beckon to be batted around.

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).

Mulberry Street, New York

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.

Women’s Enslavement: Yezierska on Marriage and Children

Initially I expected that I would focus my Anzia Yezierska research on cross-class relationships, but while reading Louise Levitas Henriksen’s biography of her mother today I came upon some juicy passages on marriage and having children. Clearly Yezierska had a fraught relationship with marriage and family and felt she was much more suited for a bohemian artist’s life without the shackles of domestic duties. Her daughter’s book is replete with descriptions of her spotty housekeeping and distracted and self-centered parenting.

After a very brief marriage to lawyer Jacob Gordon in 1910, (Yezierska left him the night after her marriage) she rekindled her relationship with Arnold Levitas. Gordon’s suit for separation from Yezierska six months after their wedding made the papers due in part to Yezierska’s rather unusual ideas about marriage, unusual as judged by the standards of the time. She states in the newspaper report in the New York American (May 23, 1911) that she had believed marriage was an “ideal state of perfected friendship, of flawless mental companionship” and “the work of propagating the race can be carried on by those whose convictions are in accord with natural lines upon this subject” (qtd. in Henriksen 37). Apparently she had married a man she admired greatly but was not sexually attracted to him. Curiously this article earned Yezierska a flurry of letters from people across the country praising her statement about the power of the platonic marriage.

In July of 1911 Yezierska married Levitas in a religious ceremony, but never had a civil ceremony because the annulment of her marriage to Gordon was not final.  Yezierska was about 30 at the time. In May 1912 gave birth to Louise during a lengthy stay at her sister Fannie’s house in Los Angeles. Louise’s father would ultimately adopt her to make her “legitimate.” According to Henriksen, almost immediately upon returning to New York and life with Levitas Yezierska began taking notes for a “true-confessions-style” piece entitled “The Supported Wife.” Yezierska writes:

Women who have known the independence of earning their own livings before marriage . . . feel most poignantly the humiliations they have to live through while being ‘supported.’ If there was some way out, they would all rush back to the offices, shops or factories. But they cannot go back . . . . By the time they realize the full meaning of being ‘supported,’ they have a baby or two to care for. A baby is like the ball and chain of the prisoner that keeps him bound to his cell. (qtd. in Henriksen 58)

A man can always put on his hat and go, I said bitterly to myself. But a woman with a baby– The massed social pressure of the entire world is against the mother who wants to get away from her place of bondage. . . . They do not have to use dogs . . . to hound the slave back to [her] master, they simply make it impossible for her to leave her baby anywhere (qtd. in Henriksen 58).

Henriksen suggests that many of Yezierska’s insights about marriage, money, and oppression come from her reflections about the marriage of her older sister Annie as “a poor man’s wife” (qtd. in Henriksen 60). After Louise was born Yezierska would often visit her sister Annie to commiserate about the drudgery and the inequality of their situations. Annie lived downtown on the Lower East Side in a crowded apartment with her husband and six children (six children at that time–more children were on the way), where she was also active in reform projects and local organizing. An experience Annie had with a social welfare agency was the original inspiration for Yezierska’s first published story “The Free Vacation House.”

By the time that Louise was four Yezierska and Levitas’s relationship was at its end. At this point Yezierska had already left once without advance word for more than a month to stay with her sister Fannie in California (this time without Louise), and then after spending nine more desperate months living with Arnold Levitas in the Bronx she moved out, coming back a few days later, during the workday, to retrieve her daughter from the nursemaid. Sometime soon after that Yezierska took Louse to California. Levitas learned that Yezierska had taken Louise and moved to California from a letter he received from a friend of his wife. In California she lived with her sister Fannie near Los Angeles, and then moved to San Francisco to pursue a relationship with poet Hugo Seelig. Seelig rebuffed her advances and Yezierska was devastated. In late October 1916 Yezierska’s sister Fannie took Louise back to New York to live with her father and paternal grandmother. After the age of four Louise lived primarily with her father, but visited her mother and seemed to maintain a close relationship with her especially in adulthood.

In December 1917, now back in New York and casting about for fulfilling work, Anzia Yezierska marched into the office of Columbia University Professor John Dewey with the intention of getting him to help her find a job in the public school system. Dewey had recently given a speech in which he decried the unjust firing of three teachers and she challenged him to put his words into action. She however had never liked the teaching positions that she had as a cooking teacher and didn’t really want another one, but she didn’t want the other jobs she could get either. In the end Dewey did not help her get a teaching job, but instead ended up giving her first typewriter to her, giving her a job with his Philadelphia project, and becoming the great love of her life. Their relationship lasted less than a year, but when it ended she threw herself into four years of self-imposed exile during which she wrote and enjoyed seeing one story after another in publication.

At this point Yezierska was free of the shackles of marriage and motherhood. She was no longer a “supported woman” but a working artist who made her own living, paid her own rent, and was free. Though life for Yezierska was never easy, even during her most successful years in the 1920s. She was an intense, intemperate, albeit charismatic woman who was driven to work and create at the expense of those around her.

Henriksen, Louise Levitas. Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life. New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 1988

Yezierska’s “Children of Loneliness”: Love, Loneliness, and Social Critique

Anzia Yezierska’s story “Children of Loneliness” wrestles with themes common to her work: the cultural and familial alienation that the children of immigrants endure both from the communities in which they were raised and from the community in which they were educated. This directly engages with Yezierska’s on-going critique of academics and social reformers in urban settlement houses and universities. Moreover, “Children of Loneliness” explores cross-class romantic relationships, and identifies the unique isolation of a generation of adult children of immigrants.

This story, published in 1923, has a tripartite structure in which Rachel Ravinsky a Polish, Jewish immigrant arrives at series of understandings based on time spent with her parents, by herself, and lastly with her college beau. In Part I Rachel has returned home to Essex Street after graduation from Cornell. After years at college, Rachel has become assimilated into white, middle-class America and she is ashamed of her parents’ behavior and the squalor in which they live. In Part II Rachel is living in a rooming house in clean, modern simplicity. She works and has severed her relationship with her parents. In a moment of loneliness she returns to her family’s tenement apartment. From a nearby rooftop she observes her parents through the window. She is repulsed by her father’s devout religious practice, while simultaneously feeling a melancholic nostalgia for him and his Old World Judaism. Her mother enters the filthy apartment and begins making dinner for Rachel’s father; from this vantage point she sees her mother as both harshly judging and enormously self-sacrificing. While she had intended to see her parents, she leaves without speaking with them.

Returning to her rooming house,  Rachel meets her college suitor, Frank Baker in the dining room for dinner in Part III. Over dinner Frank enthusiastically regales Rachel with the work he is doing at a Lower East Side social settlement. Frank, who holds a graduate degree in Sociology, tells her in glowing terms about how much he has learned about the real lives of “the other half” (238). He describes the beauty of the lives of these immigrants as evidenced by the devotion and self-sacrifice of the parents and children to one another. This leads the couple to debate whether the family of a Jewish scholar Frank had recently visited is sacrificing and going hungry because they are devoted and value the father’s religious work or because he is a “lazy old do-nothing” who feeds off the work of his wife and children (238). Rachel silently derides Frank as a sightseer in her community, too self-absorbed to understand her in the “real world.”

Rachel returns to her spartan room, declining an invitation from Frank to hit the town. She is done with him and his kind. She reflects on her loneliness: “I have broken away from the old world; I am through with it. It’s already behind me. I must face this loneliness till I get to a new world. Frank Baker can’t help me; I must hope for no help from the outside. I’m alone till I get there” (240). At this moment of despair Rachel realizes and finds solace in the fact that while she is lonely, she is not alone. She is a child of loneliness, one of millions of immigrant children who are between two worlds.

In this story Yezierska identifies the pain of an entire generation, which may in fact offer insight into the “real life” of the immigrant communities. It is Yezierska’s story that does what the Frank Bakers of the world cannot. Anzia Yezierska had some experience with real life Frank Bakers.

During the summer of 1918 Anzia (Yezierska) Levitas lived and worked in Philadelphia with four Columbia graduate students (who would all eventually become academic powerhouses in their own right) and Albert C. Barnes, a wealthy and eccentric businessman who bankrolled a rather disorganized research project to test John Dewey’s ideas about democracy and education. Barnes’s intention was to enter a Polish enclave in Philadelphia where the community had resisted being assimilated into American culture and practices. Barnes’s hope was that their research would yield information that would help make programs of assimilation more effective. The graduate students that worked in Philadelphia each had their own projects and motivations for working with the Polish community which were not necessarily in line with Barnes’s vision. Moreover, Dewey’s graduate students had never been trained to do field research, so the project(s) went poorly and yielded little toward their intended aims. Mrs. Arnold Levitas (Anzia Yezierska) joined the venture at the beginning in an advisory role, as a translator, and as a researcher into the lives of women and families. Barnes, who many identify as anti-semitic, was leery about whether Yezierska was suited for the Philadelphia project or not (Deerborn, Henriksen, Martin). Likely after reading Yezierska’s earliest stories, like “Soap and Water and The Immigrant” Barnes was concerned that she would not be supportive of a project that sought to assimilate the Polish community more efficiently.

Barnes’s assessments of the team members were incisive and critical, though of Mrs. Levitas he remarked that she is: “an artist and, as Santayana says, to criticize her would be of the same degree of irrationality as to criticize the color of a child’s eyes” (Martin 285). Thus, Yezierska’s stories and novels are her contribution to the quest to understand immigrant communities like the one she was raised in in downtown Manhattan or the one she lived and worked in in Philadelphia. In a review of Salome of the Tenements was published in the February 1923 issue of the Literary Digest International Book Review, James Harvey Robinson, a former Columbia University History professor and Dewey colleague, and founder of the New School for Social Research, observed that Yezierska had succeeded where social scientists had failed.

There is a great gulf fixt between the so-called sciences of human relations and the overwhelmng facts. I wish that every sociologist and social psychologist and miscellaneous moralizer might read ‘Salome of the Tenements’ — might not only read it, but put it in his pipe and smoke it, until its wild fumes so beclouded his facile, pompous generalizations and academic abstractions that he would never again suspect them of answering any degree to the actual heartburnings of the creatures which he pretends to explain. (qtd. in Henriksen 181)

And in a letter that Yezierska wrote to William Lyons Phelps, critic, scholar, and Yale professor she recounts the experience of working with these “scientists” in Philadelphia:

The ‘scientific approach’ of these sociology professors seemed to me so unreal, so lacking in heart and feeling. . . . At the end of the study, it seemed to me they knew less bout the Poles than when they began. When they started out, they knew they didn’t know, but after a few months investigation they had cut the Poles into little sections, which they pigeon-holed and tabulated into [sic] sociological terms. They began turning out reports that seemed to bring out to me the deep, unutterable gulf between the professors who were analyzing the Poles and the Poles who were being analyzed. (qtd. in Dearborn 125)

In “Children of Loneliness” Yezierska likens the reform-minded academic to a sightseer who does not (perhaps cannot) become part of the community in which they work. The academic doesn’t have the capacity for a complicated understanding of what they see because they are blinded by a romantic vision of the beauty of immigrant culture. Yezierska depicts Baker’s observations as naïve and reductive.

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Wilde’s Salomé and Yezierska’s Salome of the Tenements

Last year when I read Salome of the Tenements (1923) for the first time I did some cursory research about the story of Salome and was delighted to discover that between 1891 and 1923 the story of Salome was frequently on the stage and screen thanks to Oscar Wilde’s reworking of the biblical tale. This seemed meaningful in light of the Yezierska’s references to Salome and so, for what will likely only be a footnote in the end, I have begun doing some research about Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé. In 1891 Wilde released his play Salomé, which was originally written in French and was translated into English three years later.

I have discovered that the play was produced by the Washington Square Players during a two-week engagement in the spring of 1918, though I have not done any research to determine other times and places that the play was produced in New York City between 1894 and 1923.  On October 6, 1918 a silent film version of the film was released starring Theda Bara and G. Raymond Nye and produced by William Fox.  This film is considered lost at this point.

On December 31, 1922 another silent film version premiered in New York City this one starred and was produced by Alla Nazimova (Salomé). Mitchell Lewis (Herod) and Rose Dione (Herodias) also starred in the film and it was directed by Charles Bryant and Natacha Rambova.

Alla Navimova in Salomé, 1922. (From NYPL)

It was officially released on Feburary 15, 1923, but apparently because it was such a scandalous production the producers couldn’t get any movie studios to distribute it. This 1923 version of Salomé is apparently considered one of America’s first art film. It was re-released in 2001 on DVD with Lot in Sodom (1933). Salomé is replete with transgressive images of incest, homosexual desire, fluid gender performances, aggressive female desire, and some rather non-transgressive depictions of ethnicity, race, and disability.

In American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations, Marcia Landy describes Nazimova’s Salomé as a character of paradox and willfulness wrapped in spectacular costumes, much like Yezierska’s Sonya Vronsky (106). I need to reread Salome of the Tenements again just to look for more ways that the Salomé story plays out in Yezierska’s novel, but my instinct suggests it is not a coincidence that Yezierska titled her book Salome of the Tenements, and yet she rarely references the biblical Salomé other than at the outset of the novel and in the title. Moreover, the relative popularity of Wilde’s version in the years preceding Yezierska’s novel seems a potentially interesting influence on the text. This seems a point of confluence that I have not seen explored anywhere, but is worth further examination.

Parallels in the two include the aggressive and wily pursuit of the powerful man by the headstrong young woman and then the betrayal of the established male, named John, by the young, willful, extravagantly adorned young woman. The first chapter of the book is entitled “Salome Meets Her Saint,” in it, like the first scene of Wilde’s play the young Salomé (Sonya) encounters Jokanaan/John the Baptist (the Saint/John Manning) and determines that she must have him. In what might be called a heavy handed allusion Yezierska writes of protagonist Sonya Vrunsky’s interview with millionaire philanthropist John Manning with direct references to Manning as a prophet and a saint. Sonya exclaims: “Your words–they’ll burn into the hearts of the people like the fire of a new religion. Never before did a born American talk out to them so prophetically–what it means to be America” (Yezierska 1).

Moreover, if one takes Yezierska’s story to relate to her relationship with John Dewey which occurred during the spring and summer of 1918, (many scholars have already made this link in regards to her later works), then the female character’s persistent desire for the man she has spurned is an obviously parallel. Wilde’s play closes with a scene of Salomé kissing the disembodied head of John the Baptist. In an amusingly analogous historical moment John Dewey was presented with a bust of himself in May 1927, which was installed at the Henry Street Settlement and for which Anzia Yezierska donated $25. At that time Yezierska sent a note along to Dewey because, according to Jay Martin, she knew that Dewey’s wife Alice had died (352).

In Yezierska’s novel, Sonya Vrunsky serves up the settlement house, social reform, and the powerful gentile reformers on a silver platter. More exploration of this topic will likely follow.

Selected Bibliography

Landy, Marcia. 1923-Movies and the Changing Body. American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations. Ed. Lucy Fischer. Rutgers: Rutgers U P, 2009, 105-108.

Martin, Jay. The Education of John Dewey: A Biography. New York: Columbia U P, 2002.

Yezierska, Anzia. Salome of the Tenements. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1923.