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.

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.