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The Jewish Immigrant Experience in Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers and Mary Antin's The Promised Land

Magisterarbeit 2006 79 Seiten


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definitions and Theoretical Considerations
2.1. The Concept of Ethnicity
2.1.1. Ethnicity and Ethnic Identity
2.1.2. Ethnicity in American Society
2.2. Ethnic Writing
2.2.1. The Role of Ethnicity in American Literature – What is Ethnic Writing?
2.2.2. Jewish-American Literature
2.3. To Write Your Life Story – Autobiographical Writing
2.3.1. What is Autobiography?
2.3.2. The Construction of Authenticity
2.4. Autobiography in Ethnic Contexts – An Attempt to define Immigrant Autobiography

3. Reading Mary Antin’s The Promised Land as Immigrant Autobiography
3.1. One-Way Assimilation – From the Old World shtetl Girl to the New England Woman
3.2. The Story Behind the Immigrant Classic

4. Anzia Yezierksa’s Bread Givers
4.1. Difficulties and Struggles in the Process of Assimilation
4.2. The Father-Daughter-Relationship as a Reflection of the Immigrant Dilemma

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over. Is it not time to write my life’s story? […] It is because I understand my history, in its larger outlines, to be typical of many, that I consider it worth recording. My life is a concrete illustration of a multitude of statistical facts. […] I am only one of many whose fate it has been to live a page of modern history. We are the strands of the cable that binds the Old World to the New (Antin, PL[1] 3-5)[2].

I suddenly realized that I had come back to where I had started twenty years ago when I began my fight for freedom. […] And now I realized that the shadow of the burden was always following me, and here I stood face to face with it again. […] But I felt the shadow still there, over me. It wasn’t just my father, but the generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me (Yezierska, BG 295-7)[3].

These are two quotations by two immigrant women – both experiencing an incisive and complete change in their young lives through the immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States of America at the end of the nineteenth century. This thesis investigates their individual immigrant experience that they claim to be representative of the lives of many.

Immigration has always exerted a great influence on American life. Towards the turn to the 20th century, the United States was confronted with the largest stage of immigration ithe nation’s history. From 1890 on, a total of twenty million people entered the country until the 1920s (cf. Di Pietro, Ifkovic 6). Immigrants at the time were mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe; the largest groups were formed by Italians, Hebrews, Polish, Germans and English (cf. Gabbacia 140). On the one hand, the rapidly developing “economic expansion” (139) in the US required human labor; on the other hand, life in Europe was determined by famine and epidemics as well as political and religious persecution, to outline briefly the most important reasons for this big wave of migration.

The conflict between the immigrants’ expectations of a better life in the New World and the actual living conditions as well as the political climate the immigrants had to face in the United States has been treated in literature in many ways. The examination of cultural or ethnic identity and the process of assimilation, in this case Americanization, and its effects are very important issues in immigration literature as well. In this thesis, I am going to concentrate on the literary treatment of the Jewish immigrant experience. This is a matter of particular interest because, as Judith Baskin states in the introduction to the study Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing (1994), the wave of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries established “an unprecedented number of Jewish women [who] began to write creatively from the raw material of their own experiences and feelings” (17). More specifically, Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe “gave rise to a new genre of Jewish literature: Jewish women’s autobiography” (Zierler 1). In a general way, it can be said that “most of these autobiographies tend to be concerned in some way with the relationship between life in the European Old World and the North American New” (Tuerk, “Columbus” 114). To narrow the topic of my thesis down, I will focus on the two authors in the field of Eastern European Jewish women writing whom I already quoted above: Anzia Yezierska and Mary Antin. In the course of my studies on American literature, I have already written a paper on Antin and Yezierska which motivates my current interest.

Mary Antin published short stories, essays, and her books The Promised Land (1912) and They Who Knock at Our Gates (1914). Anzia Yezierska’s literary production resulted in collections of short stories entitled Hungry Hearts (1920) and Children of Loneliness (1923) as well as the partly autobiographical novels Salome of the Tenements (1922), Bread Givers (1925), Arrogant Beggar (1927), All I Could Never Be (1932), and Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950). Due to restricted time and place, I will turn my attention to Yezierska’s semi-autobiographical novel Bread Givers and Mary Antin’s autobiography The Promised Land. The choice of just these books is rooted in the fact that The Promised Land illustratively demonstrates the immigrant’s complete assimilation in opposition to Bread Givers, a text that also reflects the dilemmas and struggles immigrants at the time had to face.

The purpose of this thesis is to show that both authors act as literary agents of ethnicity. As Mary Dearborn points out, the immigrant writer embarks on a “strategy of mediation, the attempt to build a bridge between her world and that of the native-born American” (Dearborn, “Yezierska” 113). This strategy of engaging in the East-to-West dialogue is implemented in immigrant autobiography. One of the most striking aspects is that both authors’ aim to act as mediators between the old world and the new is most effectively achieved by using the autobiographical genre. The authors claim their texts and personal immigrant experience to be representative and insist on being representative of others. Thus, they see the value or usefulness of their texts in the representativeness of their personal experience. The relevance of authenticity that is constructed in immigrant autobiography has to be evaluated as high with regard to its reception.

The author’s personal involvement is applied as a means to communicate between the two worlds, to improve the relationship between immigrant and host country, to draw the attention to problems and insufficient conditions the immigrants had to deal with, and, not least, to enhance the reader’s empathy. In order to show the different perspectives both women had on their personal immigrant experience, I will draw a comparison between both writers’ styles of embarking on this strategy of mediation. Above all, the thesis will only to a lesser extent concentrate on similarities and resemblances. To a greater extent, it will focus on the striking discrepancies between the two authors’ texts. Whereas Antin’s text reflects the seemingly optimistic assimilation with the American culture, Yezierska’s immigrant experience is more complex resulting in a text which is prone to negativity in order to demonstrate the struggles and problems immigrants in the United States were confronted with.

In the following, I’m going to give a detailed overview of the thesis’ structure. The text is mainly composed of two parts. Since the expression Jewish ethnic or immigrant autobiography raises several questions, in the first part of the thesis, I will focus on theoretical considerations about the terms ethnicity and autobiography in order to provide an overview of the elementary terminology. I will try to define the major terms and aspects the thesis deals with to establish a basis for the subsequent literary analyses. What should be established at the very outset is that we are dealing here with a presentation of current debates rather than clear-cut definitions.

The following questions will be discussed in the theoretical part: Firstly, what is meant by ethnicity or ethnic identity at all? What role does the concept of ethnicity play in American culture? What is American identity? I’m going to present the debates about ethnicity in the last decades between the so-called essentialist and constructivist attitudes the latter of which is more convincing to me, as the discussion will show. Thus, I will show that ethnicity or ethnic identity cannot be regarded as stable and eternal units but are always subject to change and constant development.

Secondly, what actually is immigrant or ethnic literature ? Is it possible to determine the essential characteristics of a piece of ethnic or immigrant writing ? Is immigration literature American? How can Jewish-American literature be defined? Again, we are going to see how constructivist views prove to be more persuasive.

Thirdly, I want to point out the most important features of autobiographical writing. The aim is to become acquainted with the current debate on autobiography and to show its functions and effects. Another crucial aspect to look at in the definition part is the term authenticity: What is essential for the construction of authenticity ? In the conclusion of this chapter, I’m going to have a look at life writing in ethnic contexts and try to define the term immigrant autobiography. This first part is meant to give an overview of the crucial definitions and theoretical discussions in order to serve as a fundament for my following argument[4]. As I said, I’m going to put constructivist views in juxtaposition with more essentialist attitudes whereas the former will be proven more convincing for me, as much in the debate on ethnicity as on autobiography and authenticity.

After having discussed the central problems of ethnic or immigrant autobiography, in the subsequent and second part of the thesis, I will read and compare the two texts by Mary Antin and Anzia Yezierska. In order to draw upon the aforementioned considerations, the question is discussed how The Promised Land and Bread Givers display the different attitudes immigrants had toward their ethnic status. We will see how Antin and Yezierska treat their personal immigrant experience in their texts. An interesting similarity between both writers is that they insist on being representative of their fellow immigrants, in other words, they consider their immigrant experience to be representative of the entire Jewish immigrant experience. Yet, there are numerous and striking discrepancies and incongruities between Antin and Yezierska.

To start with The Promised Land, in the third chapter, I will have a look at the – at first sight – affirmative and optimistic attitude towards assimilation and Americanization that can be found in Mary Antin’s text. I will deal with the question of how Mary Antin takes her life story as a starting point to construct her identity. However, there are also ambivalences in Antin’s story that I will focus on. The story behind the celebration of Americanization shows that Antin also had to face problems and struggles in the process of Americanization. On the surface, Antin advocates Americanization and aspires to complete assimilation into the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture. Beneath the surface of the immigrant classic, a story of an immigrant’s fear and problems can revealed.

In chapter four, we will see how Anzia Yezierska deals with her immigrant experience and how this is treated in her semi-autobiographical novel Bread Givers. I will analyze the more negativity-prone perspective Yezierska had on her immigration experience – in contrast to the seemingly overall optimistic Mary Antin – and how Yezierska treats her experience in her text. An important aspect I will focus on is the father-daughter-relationship in Bread Givers. The relationship between Reb and Sara Smolinsky represents the cultural conflict immigrants at the time were in. Whereas the protagonist’s father, a tyrannical Talmudic scholar, epitomizes the Old World Jewish traditions, Sara embodies the rejection of the Old World culture and the search for an American identity. I will show that this transformation is not, as it is in Antin, ‘smooth’ and without any problems. In contrast to Antin, Yezierska displays a different level of assimilation by trying to maintain ties to her ethnic past. Furthermore, as in the literary analysis of Antin’s text, I will focus on the literary devices Yezierska chooses to make use of. By applying devices from the literary mode of melodrama, she borrows stylistic devices from the New World culture.

2. Definitions and Theoretical Considerations

The following chapter gives an overview of the most important terms of the thesis. By trying to provide a definition of the central meaning of the terms ethnicity, ethnic writing, autobiography, authenticity and immigrant autobiography, I want to establish the fundament for the following argument. As it is rather unlikely that it is possible to provide clear-cut definitions of these terms, I’m going to outline the major aspects evolving from current debates instead.

2.1. The Concept of Ethnicity

The overall and general topic this thesis deals with is the concept of ethnicity. But what actually is meant by ethnicity ? What constitutes ethnic identity ? So first of all, in the following the concept of ethnicity will be presented, then, I will pay special attention to the role that ethnicity plays in the United States. Subsequently, the role of literature in this context is examined: What is ethnic or immigrant writing ?

2.1.1. Ethnicity and Ethnic Identity

As an introduction to this part, let us have a look at how the Oxford Dictionary defines the term ethnic: it is an adjective relating to a group of people having a common national or cultural tradition. Furthermore, the term refers to origin by birth rather than by present nationality (cf. Crowther 378). The noun ethnicity [5] was derived from the adjective ethnic. The deeper and more complex underlying meaning of this term will be defined in the following. The presentation of the subsequent debate around the concept of ethnicity follows Werner Sollors, who is ‘ Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot’ Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Sollors). Sollors is the leading critic in the discussion around ethnicity who has given the debate new impetus since the 1970s.

First of all, we have to keep in mind that the term ethnicity always refers to a relationship and not to a “thing-in-itself”, as Sollors demonstrates (“Ethnicity” 288)[6]. Therefore, it is impossible to determine what the term ethnicity as such means, because “ethnicity is typically based on a contrast” (288). Ethnicity is used in order to differentiate between human beings, Sollors explains and compares the term to categories like “age” or “class”: “If all human beings belonged to one and the same ethnic group we would not need such terms as ‘ethnicity’, though we might then stress other ways of differentiating ourselves such as age, sex, class, place of birth, or sign of the zodiac” (288). What should be kept in mind here is that ethnicity is an abstract category to differentiate between groups of human beings having a common cultural tradition.

The term itself originally derives from the Greek word ethnos which has an ambivalent meaning: On the one hand, it means “people in general” and on the other, it has a dissociative sense meaning “other people” (cf. 288). This dissociative character, a term coined by ethno-psychoanalyst Georges Devereux[7], implies that “[e]thnic, racial, or national identifications rest on antithesis […]” (288). This antithesis exists “between individuals (of the nonethnically conceived in-group) and ethnic collectivities (in the out-groups)”, Sollors adds (288). In other words, ethnicity as a category to differentiate between people implies that people belong and are perceived as belonging by others to an ethnic group (cf. Sollors, Invention xi). The emphasis is on the fact that “any ‘ethnic’ system rel[ies] on an opposition to something ‘non-ethnic’” (xiv). This indicates a point that is very important to mention: in the time period I’m focusing on in this thesis, that is the last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century, there seems to be a subliminal negative connotation to the term ethnic because if you denominate a group of people as ethnic group, you refer to yourself as being non-ethnic and thus being part of the majority. At the same time, this devaluates the members of an ethnic group as the other ones, the marginal ones, or the minority. A further aspect worth mentioning is the reciprocity that becomes visible here. Because people are perceived as members of ethnic groups, there has to be someone who perceives this and who is a member of another or a non-ethnic group. In my opinion, this reciprocity is also reflected in the fact that in times of migration, not only the immigrant ethnic identity is subject to changes but also the identity of the host country’s inhabitants. Ethnic groups and non-ethnic groups or, in other words, groups of people in general are therefore always subject to reciprocal influence.

With regard to the etymological development and dissemination of the term ethnicity, Sollors notes that since the times of the American and French Revolutions, ethnicity began to spread “with particular intensity […] and remained a powerful force in political history ever since” (“Ethnicity” 289). Historical processes like modernization and the evolving urbanization “weakened specific forms of familial, vocational and local belonging.” Therefore, people began to commit themselves “to more abstract forms of generalizing identifications such as ethnic and national ones” (289). Sollors explains that the European aristocratic order was based on directly related families but at the times of the American and the French Revolutions, it was replaced by various national bourgeois systems, “which relied on the more imaginary ways of connectedness that the new technologies provided” (Invention xii). This resulted in the increasingly spreading idea that national or ethnic belonging mattered a great deal to people (xii). But it is also important to remark that the ethnic group one feels belonging to is “not necessarily coterminous with a national boundary or equal to a specific race” (Di Pietro, Ifkovic 11). It is rather emotion than reason (cf. 11).

In general, one can say that a people’s culture is based on traditional songs, fairy tales and folk beliefs which Sollors calls “the original ethnic […] subsoil of the common people’s art forms” (“Ethnicity” 290). Since these art forms sometimes “may culminate in the highest artistic achievements”, they can become a whole people’s legacy. Sollors explains that

[a]s a result of this legacy ‘ethnicity’ as a term for literary study largely evokes the accumulation of cultural bits that demonstrate the original creativity, emotive cohesion, and temporal depth of a particular collectivity, especially in a situation of emergence – be it from obscurity, suppression, embattlement, dependence, diaspora, or previous membership in a larger grouping (290).

Let me briefly explain what Sollors is saying here. In literary studies, the term ethnicity includes everything that a specific people’s culture is composed of and that shows this people’s creativity and their emotional relationship to their culture. Especially in times of crises, be it, for example, in a state of war or in a situation of diaspora, people’s culture, their specific ethnicity, can become essential and serve as a kind of feeling of togetherness.

In the introduction to his highly influential work The Invention of Ethnicity, Sollors emphasizes that the word “invention” has gained significance in the last decades by becoming “a central term for our understanding of the universe” in many disciplines. Sollors presumes a “general cultural constructedness of the modern world” that results from the “interpretation of previously ‘essentialist’ categories as ‘inventions’” (x). These essentialist categories include e.g. childhood, gender, history, biography and so on. “What were the givens in intellectual pursuits until very recently have now become the problematic issues”, as Sollors puts it (x). In a next step, he transfers these thoughts to categories like ethnicity, nationalism, and race, and says that those “can indeed be meaningfully discussed as ‘inventions’”, too. To give a clear-cut explanation why the category ethnicity can be described as ‘invention’, Sollors refers to the political scientist Benedict Anderson: The emergence of new hierarchies resulting from the American and French Revolutions asked for new ways of connectedness as I have mentioned above, and “communities needed to create a sense of cohesion” (qtd. in Invention xii).[8] This gave rise to “a mediated form of cohesion that depended […] on literacy and ‘national’ (and ethnic) literature” (xii). Sollors again quotes Anderson who termed this sense of cohesion ‘reverberation’. Anderson stresses that “[c]ommunities by reverberation relied […] on texts and on words; and in this sense, they were ‘invented’ communities” (qtd. in xii). As Donna Gabbacia puts it, ethnic groups are imagined by both insiders and outsiders to possess an ethnic culture (7). What we can assume from this is that ethnicity is, to some degree, a cultural construction, an invented or imagined community.

“By calling ethnicity […] an ‘invention’, one signals an interpretation in a modern and postmodern context”, Sollors remarks (xiii). Indeed, Sollors criticizes conventional ways of examining ethnicity because they rested on certain premises presuming that ethnic groups have always existed as stable, natural, real, static, and eternal units. Traditionally it was assumed that “assimilation [was] the foe of ethnicity” since “conflicts generally seem[ed] to emerge from the world outside of the particular ethnic group investigated” (xiv). By arguing that these premises resulted in an isolationist, group-by-group approach, Sollors opposes these traditional manners of looking at ethnicity that, however, still dominate in the mainstream discourse. Instead, he proposes looking at ethnic groups as constantly changing. In his opinion, ethnicity is not so much an ancient and engrained force from history. Ethnicity should rather be seen as a “modern and modernizing feature of a contrasting strategy that may be shared far beyond the boundaries within which it is claimed”. Above all, ethnicity does not emerge as a static and eternal factor but as the result of interactions. Sollors puts emphasis on the “awareness of the modernity and transethnic interchangeability” in the concept of ethnicity (xv) . In my opinion, to reinforce Sollors’ thoughts, the term “transethnic interchangeability” means that the characteristics of ethnic groups are not the same eternally but are subject to change and are constantly developing, for example by migration and mutual or reciprocal influence between ethnic groups.

Therefore, to rephrase Sollors’ considerations with the words of Di Pietro and Ifkovic, a major difficulty of defining ethnicity is to slip into stereotypes by insisting on uniformity of behavior and beliefs in order to define the dimensions of an ethnic identity (cf. 11): “While some groups conform neatly to an ethnicity based on historical and cultural tradition, other groups define their ethnicity according to less concrete criteria – isolation, alienation, and so forth” (11).

Let me summarize the crucial results of the preceding discussion: Ethnicity is a category to differentiate between groups of people. These groups are denominated as ethnic if its members are related by origin and, which is more important, if its members have a common cultural tradition. Thus, ethnic groups can also be described as cultural communities. In addition to that, it is also possible to designate a group of people as ethnic for reasons of emotion. The group is then related by a sense of cohesion. Ethnicity is always based on contrast and cannot be defined as a ‘thing-in-itself’. From this it follows that the term ethnic is only applicable if there is something non-ethnic as well. The concept of ethnicity implies that people belong and are perceived by others as belonging to an ethnic group. In this context, it is very important to bear in mind that ethnic groups are not static or eternal units but are subject to change and constant development. Ethnic belonging has mattered to people not until after the American and French Revolutions due to the fact that aristocratic hierarchies were replaced by emerging new ones that demanded alternative ways of connectedness, another sense of cohesion. According to this, a people’s culture, its specific ethnicity, can serve as a feeling of togetherness. In this context, the sense of cohesion of a people can be described as reverberation or possibly the legacy of a people. Towards the turn of the twentieth century, ethnicity – being different – was considered negative per se in contrast to nowadays when emphasizing ethnic roots has become fashionable. All this constitutes the concept of ethnicity.

Ethnic identity can therefore be defined as a person’s choice of ethnic group affiliation, i.e. the ethnic group a person identifies with. This ethnic group affiliation can also result from the categorization by others.

2.1.2. Ethnicity in American Society

In American culture, the concept of ethnicity is, of course, of crucial importance: “[T]he experience of migration,” Mary Dearborn points out, “[is] the central feature of American identity” (Pocahontas 3) because being American always implies immigrant ancestry since every American descends from immigrant forefathers – apart from the Native Americans. Ethnicity and diversity are “too obvious to ignore in the USA” (Gabbacia 6). Nevertheless, the concept of ethnicity has long been disregarded as a crucial feature of American identity and has only gained more importance in recent years, as Dearborn notes (cf. 6).

American identity features an inherent dualism rooted in the fact that the national identity Americans partake of is “a communally determined and accepted sense of self”; at the same time, “as Americans and ethnics all, [they] define [themselves] ancestrally” (3). Dearborn assigns to this underlying tension in American identity the reason for “the richness and complexity of [the American] national literature and culture”. Dearborn further argues that American culture “reflects and questions notions of national and individual identity, interrogating the relationship of the self and society, the private and the public”, which leads to the perspective that “ethnicity allows us to see in a new light the ways in which difference or ‘otherness’ has always been an integral part of American culture” (4).

In this context, in order to make Dearborn’s argument clearer, I would like to add Sollors’ considerations, which are quite consistent with Dearborn’s but rephrase and explain the aforementioned thoughts. Sollors emphasizes the importance of the special way in which ethnicity is symbolized in American culture. For this purpose, he points out the ambiguity that surrounds “the very terminology of American ethnic interaction” (Sollors, Beyond 5). The root of this ambiguity is to be found in the “tension between the rejection of hereditary old-world hierarchies (embodied by the European nobility) and the vision of a new people of diverse nativities united in the fair pursuit of happiness [that] marks the course that American ideology has steered between descent and consent” (4-5). The question arising from this quotation is what is meant by “the tension between descent and consent” Sollors focuses on? In my opinion, his argument implies that there is a conflict between a person’s racial and ethnic heritage and the desire for a self-chosen cultural identity including a self-determined way of life also if it clashes with one’s heritage. This is observable not so much in Antin, whose struggles with the new identity are not that palpable and obvious, but to a greater extent in Yezierska, as we will see in the literary analyses. Although this phenomenon can also be observed in European societies, it can specifically be found in American culture.

In the following, another aspect concerned ethnicity is shown which is not only specifically American but an aspect that becomes especially visible in American culture. The definition of the concept of ethnicity in the previous chapter has shown that ethnicity is always based on a contrast. The perception of a person as a member of a certain ethnic group always implies a slightly negative connotation at the time period I am focusing on. America being the country of ethnic mix – all “in all, more than fifty groups compose [its] ethnic heritage” (Di Pietro, Ifkovic 3) – is especially confronted with this aspect. The US-American ethnic diversity – as positive and ‘fruitful’ as it is – also poses a major problem: In the discussion of ethnicity in American culture it is important to mention that

some ethnic groups – such as the Hispanics, Asiatics, American Indians, and blacks – have come to the public consciousness by being declared minorities. Others – like the Irish, Italians, Germans, and Poles – are numerous but rarely the object of legislation. Still others – the Latvians, Slovenes, and Icelandic people – are almost unknown among the general population (Di Pietro, Ifkovic 3).

It is indispensable to add that this certainly applies only to the time I am concentrating on – the end of the 19th to the beginning and the middle of the 20th century – and cannot be applied to our present time. At that time being ‘different’ or ‘marginal’ had a negative connotation per se in contrast to today when it has become very attractive or fashionable to emphasize ethnic roots among well off Americans. As Sollors shows,

[t]raditionally, the struggle was toward a […] truly American identity; now many Americans yearn for an ethnic identity. Ethnicity has been transformed from a heathenish liability into a sacred asset, from a trait to be overcome in a conversion and rebirth experience to an identity to be achieved through yet another regeneration” (“Literature” 649).

Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, the negative connotation of the term ethnicity makes it a term of conflict, as Berndt Ostendorf remarks:

At home the Irish, Germans, Chinese, and Italians are citizens of a nation or state, but when they emigrate to America, they suddenly become ethnics. The native Americans were tribes or nations before 1492; only when surrounded by powerful whites did they become unified as ethnics. The Afro-Americans, who came from a variety of African nations, were among the very first to land on American shores; this did not give them the option of becoming Americans or remaining self-determined Nigerians or Sudanese […], but they were shoved into one ethnic bag (Ostendorf, “Literary Acculturation” 578).

As a result from this fact, the poly-ethnic American population is in search of another sense of common emotion or corporate feeling – ‘Americanness’ or American identity. Everything revolves around the conflict between the group of the so-called WASPs[9] and the other American citizens although in America, everyone – apart from the Native Americans – can be regarded as an immigrant and therefore ethnic (cf. Ostendorf 578). Why were WASPs not seen as ethnic? A suitable justification is nearly impossible to determine. At any rate, ethnics and immigrants in American culture can be seen as “infused by the same spirit” (Di Pietro, Ifkovic 3). This spirit implies a “quest for self-determination and self-authentification” including the development and growth of an “American literary identity vis-à-vis British dominance” (Ostendorf 578). In times of the big waves of immigration between the 1890s and 1920s, when immigrating to the United States, ethnic groups became so-called hyphenated[10] cultures, belonging neither to the new world’s culture or society nor to the one of the old world anymore (Ostendorf, Gettoliteratur 7). The numerous debates about the integration of immigrant and ethnic groups between the 1890s and the 1920s have led to different concepts of American cultural cohesion. In Sollors’ words, the United States was provided “with a new vocabulary that was needed for the multiethnic reimagining of the country – as well as for naming the fearful opposition of that vision” (Sollors, “Ethnic Modernism” 366). These concepts are briefly introduced in the next few paragraphs:

Firstly, the concept of American culture as a melting pot[11] evolved, a term “which remains the most popular symbol for ethnic interaction” (Gleason 38). It includes the traditional vision of America as a country of ethnic assimilation. In this theory of integrating immigrants into American society it is assumed that a homogenous national culture can be developed through the assimilation of each immigrant. The basic idea of assimilation is that each immigrant has to change and to become a new person. The problematical aspect of the melting pot theory and its ideology is seen in the fact that not every immigrant is willing to assimilate and to give up his “own” culture. Therefore, this concept has been found difficult to put into practice as a social model.

Secondly, in opposition to the melting pot theory, the idea of cultural pluralism emerged – a term coined by Horace Meyer Kallen whose most famous essay entitled “Democracy versus the Melting Pot: A Study of American Nationality” (1915) promoted the idea of a multicultural society based on ethnic diversity. Kallen proposes a society consisting of a

form […] of the Federal republic; its substance a democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously in the enterprise of self-realization through the perfection of men according to their kind. The common language of the commonwealth […] is English, but each nationality expresses its emotional and voluntary life in its own language, in its own evitable aesthetic and intellectual forms (Kallen 92).

In his imagination, ethnic groups maintain their cultural identity, coexist in a peaceful way, and tolerate each other. In my opinion, this admittedly desirable vision seems to be quite naïve. Philip Gleason sees this problem as well (44). Also, in another sense, “Kallen’s vision of cultural pluralism is somewhat problematic” (“Critique” 259), Sollors says and justifies his statement by claiming that “[p]luralism is not a redemptively transcendent category that removes its advocates from prejudice” (273). This means that cultural pluralism – as Kallen envisioned it – does not solve the problem of alienation, or xenophobia and further problems immigrant had to face when they came to the United States. Thus, Sollors assigns a racist dimension to the idea of Kallen’s cultural pluralism (261). In this context, Gleason shows that Kallen was not only romantic in the sense that he presumed that differences would automatically blend into cooperative harmonies but Kallen was also romantic in his racialism: “Kallen’s racialism was romantic in that he valued diversity as such [and] ‘ancestry’ played a crucial role” in Kallen’s considerations (44). Certainly, Kallen “did not attempt to rank human groups as superior or inferior according to any absolute scale of racial merit [, but] he […] attribut[ed] the distinctive characteristics of peoples to inborn racial qualities whose origin and nature were obscure” (Gleason 44). Due to this conceptual shortcoming, Kallen’s idea of cultural pluralism has to be considered more a vision than reality. Randolph Bourne enhanced Kallen’s concept in his famous essay “Trans-National America” (1916) by promoting the idea that all immigrants and Americans share the feeling of having “a hand in the destiny of America” (Bourne 104). Concretely, Bourne proposed a “dual citizenship” to symbolize America as “a trans-nationality” (106).

Thirdly, a special form of assimilation emerged, known as Americanization, a term in use “during the antebellum nativist[12] controversies”, and clearly referring to the immigrants becoming assimilated into American life (Gleason 38). The question emerging in this connection is: What constitutes American identity? Gleason explains that

[s]ome have interpreted true Americanism as requiring close conformity to the cultural majority in language, religion, and manners, while others have adopted a more relaxed position about the range of variation that could be accommodated within the national identity. In the late 19th century, along with the shift in thinking about the melting pot, the balance swung toward the former view, as more Americans began to feel the nation required a higher level of cohesion and solidarity (38).

The Americanization movement included two orientations. One of them interpreted Americanism in narrow terms and regarded the new wave of immigrants as a danger to the national character that had to be protected by Americanizing immigrants, Gleason sums up, and continues, “[o]ther Americanizers […] were animated by a more positive desire to assist the immigrants in adjusting to the strange and often harsh conditions of life they encountered in the United States” (38). The Americanization movement can be divided into three phases – the first one extending from the turn of the century to 1914, the second one covering WWI and the third phase representing the immediate postwar years – but for obvious reasons, this thesis focuses on the beginning.

The preceding presentation has shown that since the United States is the country of immigration and multiculturalism – “by 1910, almost fifteen percent of the American population was of foreign birth” (Gabbacia 138) – the concept of ethnicity is a crucial feature especially in American literature and culture. This discussion automatically leads to the next chapter which deals with the tradition and the role of ethnic writing in America .

2.2. Ethnic Writing

The hitherto undertaken definition of ethnicity offers a perspective that regards ethnicity as a sense of cohesion or reverberation of a cultural community. In other words, ethnicity is the ingredient that makes people in a group feel connected. The question that rises now is how literature is involved in the construction of ethnicity or ethnic identity: “What is the active contribution literature makes to the emergence and maintenance of communities by reverberation and of ethnic distinctions?” (Sollors Invention xiv) Thinking about the actual term ethnic or immigrant writing, the following questions occur: Which authors can be considered as ethnic writers? Do they choose to be ethnic writers? What audiences are so-called ethnic texts written for? What exactly makes a text a piece of ethnic writing ? What are the specific ingredients? What can be said about the language that is used in ethnic writing ?

So first of all, what is ethnic literature ? Since the formulation of a clear-cut definition is rather difficult, the contents of the current debates on ethnic writing will be developed and presented in the following subchapter. In a further part, special attention will be paid to a brief commentary on the field of Jewish-American literature.

2.2.1. The Role of Ethnicity in American Literature – What is Ethnic Writing?

First of all, it is important to depict the change in attitude with regard to the concept of ethnicity among Americans that has been going on in the last few decades. As Mary Dearborn says, the concept of ethnicity in American culture has only gained increasing attention and importance in recent years. Di Pietro and Ifkovic emphasize as well that a new, positive awareness of ethnic diversity has arisen in the United States that made ethnic pluralism a stimulating force (cf. Di Pietro, Ifkovic 1). This resulted, for example, in the establishment of “MELUS”, the “Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature in the United States” and its journal, which is “concerned with expanding the definition of American literature to include long-neglected ethnic materials” (1). Other expressions of a changing attitude towards the concept of ethnicity can be seen in the growing activities of the Center for Migration Studies on Staten Island, New York, or in the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Saint Paul (cf.1). More examples are to be found in university courses on ethnic studies “instead of the WASP tradition which [had] dominated American [literary studies]” for decades (Clements 531); other examples are changing and innovative school curricula (cf. Di Pietro, Ifkovic 1). This changing attitude also gave rise to a new attention that is being paid to ethnic literature.

Mary Dearborn’s understanding of ethnicity in American culture implies the following: It is based on the premise “that literature by and about those who seem to be on the edges of American culture can perhaps best represent what happens within that culture.” Following from that, the American literary canon should not be confined to writers from the so-called mainstream:

This understanding of ethnicity […] demands a reading of the American literary tradition as one that consists not only of those writers commonly thought of as writing within the mainstream (many of whom in fact wrote as outsiders and explored what might be called outsiders’ or “ethnic” themes) but also of those often overlooked – women writers and those commonly described as ethnic (Dearborn, Pocahontas 4).

She demands a change in the canonization of American literature including writers that do not fit into the conventional mainstream: writers with different ethnic backgrounds and female writers.

In his “Critique of Pure Pluralism”, Werner Sollors notes that in current debates on the American literary canon, there can be found an opposition between pluralism and diversity on the one hand, and traditionalism on the other hand (cf. 251). The underlying general critique of many scholars with regard to the canonization of American literature is that ethnic authors and ethnic texts are mostly excluded, as applies to Mary Dearborn, for instance. They demand a new type of American literary history including writers who are different from the so-called mainstream. For the time being, this view can be subscribed to for reasons of acceptance and recognition of ethnic literature. But Sollors stresses a very important fact: he says that it is not necessarily the case that a more comprehensive literary history would lead to overcoming flaws and biases (cf. 252). His convincing argument is that a more broadly defined American literature would not distract attention from the actual problem. It is not “a matter of defining literature”, Sollors claims (253): “Of course, writers should not be excluded by virtue of race, region, or gender; but at the same time, should the very same categories on which previous exclusivism was based really be used as organizing concepts?” (255).

Sollors’ critique results from presuming that among serious scholars who study ethnic literary history, “the dominant assumption […] seems to be that history can best be written by separating the groups that produced such literature in the United States” (255). Those scholars recommended a so-called “mosaic procedure” that resulted in readers and compendiums of ethnic literature whose authors only have their ethnic roots in common (cf. 255), a procedure Sollors disapproves of.

As in the discussion of the concept of ethnicity portrayed above, Sollors emphasizes the importance of regarding ethnicity as the result of interactions; he criticizes, “what is often called ‘the ethnic perspective’ – which often means, in literary history, the emphasis of a writer’s descent – all but annihilates polyethnic art movements, moments of individual and cultural interaction, and the pervasiveness of cultural syncretism in America” (256). Therefore, the fusion of different literatures as well as cultural interaction cannot be accomplished by looking exclusively at an author’s descent.

In Sollors’ opinion, a group-by-group approach cannot be a suitable method because it has led to “unhistorical accounts held together by static notions of rather abstractly and homogenously conceived ethnic groups” (256). If there is anything positive that ethnic literary history could affect – in Sollors’ eyes – it

ought to increase our understanding of the cultural interplays and contacts among writers of different backgrounds, the ethnic innovations and cultural mergers that took place in America; and the results of the critical readings should not only leave room for, but actively invite, criticism and scrutiny by other readers (‘outsiders’ or ‘insiders’) of the texts discussed (256).

Therefore, the categorization of writers as members of ethnic groups should be understood to be a partial, temporal, and insufficient characterization at best (cf. 256). Ideas of different ethnic groups should be discussed together instead of separating each ethnic group in different chapters, Sollors proposes.

In his important work Beyond Ethnicity Sollors further dwells on the question of ethnic writing, namely in the chapter called “Ethnicity and Literary Form”. In this thesis’ chapter “Ethnicity in American Society” the tension between descent and consent Sollors refers to has already been discussed. This tension is taken up here. To recall his considerations, let me briefly recapitulate: A person’s descent is his or her racial, ethnic, or religious heritage, whereas the term consent indicates a person’s quest for a self-determined life, a self-chosen cultural identity even if this conflicts with his or her heritage. When it comes to ethnic writing, the emerging tension between consent and descent “sometimes expresses itself as uneasiness about the incongruity of putting new-world content into old-world forms, or minority writing in majority forms” (Sollors, Beyond 237). Further, Sollors states that “there is no ontological connection between a country and a form” (237) which implies that ethnic literature does not automatically have to have a specific literary form. Still, Sollors assigns a kind of artificial character to the relationship of ethnicity and form. At any rate, there is one form, i.e. the epic, which can be viewed transnationally by all peoples because “it is generally associated with ethnogenesis, the emergence of a people” (238).

The pivotal point is the question whether it is possible to draw a line of distinction, to differentiate between ethnic writers and non-ethnic writers. This is a very important point Sollors also discusses. To illustrate his point, Sollors cites an example of an author[13] who is second generation by descent (since he is a son of Swedish immigrants) and melting pot by consent (resulting from his marriage with his Luxemburg wife). Because of being American born, he could be regarded as an American writer but, at the same time, he has Swedish roots. How can he be ‘categorized’? Attempts to formulate ‘laws’ of immigrant writing should, of course, be sharply criticized (cf. 242). In this context, Sollors brings up the following important thoughts: “If an author’s descent is what matters […], then there is no good reason for excluding [him or her]. If descent does not matter, then why use it as a category at all?” (242). This corresponds to his considerations about the canonization of American and ethnic literature.

The underlying stereotypes Sollors alludes to are that in many debates, “[e]thnic writing is equated with parochialism, and ethnic writers who were not parochial are simply classified not as ethnic but as ‘wholly American’” (243). Thus, writers “of national fame or of striking formal accomplishments or of international fame are often categorically excluded from the realm of ethnic writing” (241-2). These considerations should be kept in mind when discussing ethnic literature.

Another mistake that is often made is “to equate America with modernity and ethnicity with tradition” (244). According to Sollors we have to keep in mind that ethnicity and modernity are not opposites. Literary forms of ethnicity are not exclusively traditional (cf. 247). To clarify the different terms, Sollors adds elsewhere: “In order to differentiate the sociological and technological developments[14] from aesthetic movements, it may be helpful […] to refer to the former as ‘modernity’ and only the latter as modernism” (Sollors, “Ethnic Modernism” 362).

Sollors proposes a broader definition of ethnic literature: “[…] works written by, about, or for persons who perceived themselves, or were perceived by others, as members of ethnic groups, including even nationally and internationally popular writings by ‘major’ authors and formally intricate and modernist texts” (Sollors, Beyond 243). He explains that “acculturation and modernization work in more complicated ways than by literary diffusion from more modern American mainstream to more traditional ethnic group, in the course of which ethnic literature supposedly ‘matures’ and immigrant writers become ‘wholly American’” (248). Less assimilated writers similarly are, therefore, “more in tune with international avant-gardist literary movements” (248).

A crucial characteristic concerning ethnic writing is the double audience ethnic writers address. This double audience is either real or imagined and “composed of ‘insiders’ and of readers, listeners, or spectators who are not familiar with the writer’s ethnic group” (Sollors 249). This signifies that ethnic writers writing in English address readers who are familiar with their ethnic groups and readers who are not. The ethnic writer is, on the one hand, a public persona who speaks for the immigrant cause, and, on the other, a private individual (cf. Zaborowska 4). This becomes visible in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land. As a public persona, Antin speaks for the immigrant cause and wants to show the American readership that immigrants were willing to assimilate, just as the political climate demanded. Still, there are ambivalences in her text. Beneath the surface of the positive and affirmative attitude towards assimilation, Antin speaks as a private individual (cf. Zaborowska 4). Thus, the writers are able to play a variety of roles, Sollors explains, either they take “the general readers by the hand and initiate them into the mysteries of low life and ethnicity or […] address the immigrant readers and tell them about America” (249 f.) But writers can also function as interpreters of ethnicity, be it impalpably and unintentionally, to ignorant and even hostile outsiders and as mediators between “America” and greenhorns at the same time (cf. 250). This strategy is implemented by e.g. explaining some inside information about the specific immigrant culture, or using dialect (cf. 251).


[1] To simplify matters, the books’ titles – when quoted – will be abbreviated PL for The Promised Land and BG for Bread Givers in the following.

[2] The thesis is based on the following edition: Mary Antin, The Promised Land, 1912 (New York: The Modern Library, 2001).

[3] All page references preceded by BG are to the following edition: Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York: Persea, 2003).

[4] The category gender in Antin and Yezierska is – in addition to ethnicity – another absorbing aspect to discuss since it is also a “crucial feature […] of American identity” (Dearborn Pocahontas 6). The question whether women represent ethnicity in a gender-specific way is a very interesting one but will not be focussed on here. Furthermore, “one could also group autobiographies by […] social class, historical period, narrative point of view, or any number of other promising criteria” (Wong 159) but it is ethnicity and the immigrant experience in autobiography that is going to be in this thesis’ focus.

[5] The term ethnicity had been obsolete since the eighteenth century, and was revitalized by the anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner in 1941 (cf. Sollors “Ethnic Modernism” 366).

[6] The following definition of the term ethnicity is based on Werner Sollors, “Ethnicity”, Critical Terms for Literary Study, eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995) 288 – 305 as well as Werner Sollors, “Introduction”, The Invention of Ethnicity (New York: Oxford UP, 1989) ix – xx. Very much has been written about the concept of ethnicity, and in this definition I want to put the focus on the publications of Werner Sollors.

[7] The further examination of the work of Georges Devereux, to whom Sollors is referring here, would move the thesis out of its focus. Therefore his approach is outlined only very briefly.

[8] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso 1985), 62. The political scientist Anderson became famous for his influential study Imagined Communities which “reflected upon the conditions under which modern national and ethnic groups have been invented (or ‘imagined’)” (Sollors, Invention xi). To briefly outline Anderson’s basic statement, it can be said that he proposes the definition of a nation as an “imagined political community […] because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson 5-6). In his considerations, Sollors repeatedly refers to Anderson.

[9] WASP = White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a category that represented the cultural mainstream at the time the thesis focuses on. Today, WASPs are still relevant but increasingly become less important and lose ground.

[10] For example, the notions Jewish-American, Italian-American, etc. This hyphen is, of course, “far from being considered a minus sign” (Sollors, Beyond 243).

[11] The term melting pot became famous through Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting-Pot “which had a long run in New York in 1909” (Gleason 38).

[12] The term nativism describes, as critic John Higham remarks, the “intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e., ‘un-American’) conncetions” (4). It is defined as a policy including unfavorable opinions on outsiders and is strongly connected with nationalism (Higham 4).

[13] Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967)

[14] These developments include the continuing processes of urbanization, industrialization, secularization, and migration, for instance (cf. Sollors, “Ethnic Modernism” 362).


ISBN (eBook)
832 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Universität Hannover – American Studies
2006 (Dezember)
Jewish Immigrant Experience Anzia Yezierska Bread Givers Mary Antin Promised Land



Titel: The Jewish Immigrant Experience in Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers and Mary Antin's The Promised Land