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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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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