I wrote a paper about an American writer, Anzia Yezierska, for a college class over a decade ago. I came across it today, and since it's actually pretty good, and says some things that need to be said, I'm going to publish pieces of it in pieces.
In Pursuit of Happiness, Part I
Imagine yourself, a college student, sitting one mid-semester morning in your Introductory Biology class. The lecture concerns genetics: You are taking notes, listening intently and trying to reconcile newly-acquired facts with the oblivious acceptance that characterized you for as long as you can remember. You shake your head and laugh softly at yourself; this is not a new, or even unexpected, experience. With the sharpened critical questioning and thinking skills acquired during your term at college, you are increasingly able to challenge the many “common sense” ideas you now call “dogma.” You withdraw from your thoughts as the lecture topic turns to incest; to your surprise, the professor goes into extravagant detail deconstructing the “myth” of the Incest Taboo (Blevins). You look up from your notebook, too captivated to write.
But in the middle of one later night you wake, cold, sweaty and breathless. You tug the covers over your damp flannel gown and stare through foggy glass into the sky, dingy and rumbling from a storm yet unbroken. You slow your breathing, lie still and close your eyes, awaiting the downpour. Splashing through drowsy puddles, you lay bare the footprints of your sleepy apparition. The dam of psyche heaves as images spill into your mind: You were sitting under an umbrella . . . on a blue and white blanket, you think. You were wiping the sand from the edges and . . . laughing. Laughing at a clever joke; (oh god) you and your father, apparently romantically involved, were about to share a lover’s first kiss. You try to ignore the acidic churning of your stomach as you yank the covers to your neck, wrench your body onto its side and draw up your knees to ward off the room’s bitter chill.
The reconciliation of intellectual insight with a lifetime of conditioned affect is an extraordinarily difficult, always ongoing process. Anzia Yezierska, a Jewish immigrant writer, faced this same enigma and struggled throughout her life to resolve this paradox as continuously manifested in her ambivalence toward the intellectual pursuit of happiness and the emotional implications of her choices.
In this essay, I will discuss some of the ways by which a patriarchal society ensures that women internalize particular axiologies and how these systemic values are designed to frustrate women’s emancipatory endeavors. The second section will focus on the life and culture of Anzia Yezierska, an early 20th Century Jewish-American writer who simultaneously struggled against oppression and agonized in her realization of liberation. In the third section, I will examine several of Yezierska’s works, published and not, and attempt to expose the ambivalence she, as many feminists have, felt.
As we undertake this examination, however, we must bear several points in mind. Yezierska was undeniably a pioneering Jewish working class feminist, despite attempts by some to reduce her to a one-dimensional representative of “Jewish immigrant life on New York’s Lower East Side” in the 1920s (Harris v) . As feminists and as literary critics, we must uncover and admit the fact that we often devalue and diminish certain literature because we fail to see to working class, the “others,’’” writings as particularly reflective of other groups’ experiences and thereby exclude it from the canon.
Janet Zandy, in her journal article, “The Complexities and Contradictions of Working Class Women’s Writings,” points out that “the epistemology of working class lived experiences is not part of the institutionalized construction of knowledge” (5). As she asserts, mainstream American literature, whether traditional or feminist, consists almost entirely of middle and upper class contributions. I concur, and further suggest that this practice encourages the popular presumption that mainstream prose is universally valid and reflective, which is certainly not the case; it merely mirrors the mainstream’s life while it serves to negate other groups’ experiences.
When examining working class women’s literature, we must become and remain aware of the assumptions we utilize concerning identity formation, feminism, normalcy, essentialism, universalism, politics, et cetera, and refrain from the temptation to make hasty judgments concerning working class women, including Yezierska, based on our expectations as literary critics, or from whatever posture we read her prose. As we will find, she does share certain similarities with the several groups identified by their respective labels of working class, Jew, immigrant, woman, writer, feminist, socialist, mother, daughter and others. Yet she is also quite individualistic and unique in many ways: she transcends the definitions presented by any, or all, of these categories; it is precisely because she struggled so vehemently against such forms of reductionism during her search for a liberated identity that I believe she would feel quite at ease with our ambiguity.
Part two soon to come . . .