Anzia Yezierska: Ironic Pioneer
I believe in those wing’d purposes,
And acknowledge red, yellow, white, playing with me,
And consider green and violet and the tufted crown intentional,
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something
else. (Whitman, “Song of Myself” 29)
At about ten years old, Anzia Yezierska and her impoverished Jewish family immigrated to America from a Russian-Polish village with what must have been grandiose dreams of a better future for them all. She arrived in about 1890 with six siblings, three sisters and three brothers, and her parents, who were all “instantly Americanized” with new American names, according to her daughter and biographer, Louise Levitas Henriksen (13-14). As Jewish Anzia Yezierska changed into American Hattie Mayer, the newly-Americanized family moved into a decrepit tenement, their first American home. All family members except Anzia, who was too young, and her father, a Hebrew scholar (who, due to tradition, did not work), were immediately forced into the labor market for survival (14).
For Jewish immigrants, first impressions of the New York atmosphere seemed rather unwelcoming if we are to believe one journalist, Ida M. Van Etten, who wrote in an 1893 periodical called Forum: “Most men, if asked what class immigrants they considered the least desirable, would answer, the Russian Jews . . . [they] are dirty, cannot speak the English language, and live . . . in unwholesome, ill- smelling tenement quarters, [and] they therefore form an objectionable part of our population” (172). It must have seemed incredibly unjust to Anzia, and to the several hundred thousand other Jewish immigrants, to be labeled, castigated, and face discrimination from “Americans” who were themselves the recent descendants of immigrants who had arrived, often impoverished, and had made lives for themselves here.
The Yezierskas arrived during what historians now call the “Progressive Period,” an era marked by cultural concern with the decreasing relative position of the individual within industrialized society. The perspective of the members of the massive working class increasingly shifted from the traditional aspirations to individualized success to concerns over the increased domination of the public by large corporations. The growing disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots” was openly compared to the class strife of contemporary European nations. Marxism and Socialism were mainstreamed as pluralistic reform advocates sought to remedy the “people’s oppression” through varying means (Grob and Billias 216-217).
Despite the family’s desperate financial situation, Anzia attended American school for a short while, where she was probably first exposed to ideologies that inspired her to reconceptualize her position within her new society and traditional family; ideas opposing long-accepted conventions of home and homeland. According to her daughter, “that dangerous bit of learning . . . probably gave her the critical, rebellious eye she now cast on the lot of women in her family ” as she “fought with her father and brothers, the tradition-keepers” (14). She learned quickly that America held promise for those who renounced traditional heritage and could find the means to attend school; after reading the inspirational poetry of a factory worker, she plotted and endeavored to achieve personal liberation through college (Henriksen 14-17).
Renunciation of persevering traditions is a complicated expedition that comes at a significant emotional cost, however. Robin M. Neidorf, in an essay entitled, “Two Jews, Three Opinions,” writes, “the process of becoming an argumentative Jewish feminist is a sort of deliberate accident, a combination of family choices and individual choices, circumstances both beyond and within one’s control” (213). She notes that Judaism conflicts sharply with one’s attempts to be both Jewish and a woman; the woman who seeks enlightenment risks the same castigation as archetypal Eve of both the Torah and the Bible after committing the same “crime.” Neidorf notes that, for the Jewess, existence is characterized by fruitless attempts to live out a “paradox, a contradiction” (214). Ultimate resolution comes in one of two ways, she says: “one group tries to reconcile and continues to fall short; one group withdraws and thus misses the rituals of Jewish life that give the comfort” (218).
Although her daughter eschews the topic, Anzia chose to shrug off tradition and shared her emancipatory dreams with groups of similarly resistant social reformers: the American Socialist Labor Movement. Although Anzia undoubtedly found herself torn between newfound intellectual “truth” and the emotional commitments she felt toward her family and traditions, her decisions, her choice of friends, her personal letters and her later prose reflect the greater weight she gave materialistic ideology.
Many of the Labor Movement organizations were centered in New York City; groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Labor Party (who, during this era, worked closely together) held meetings in and sent activists into the impoverished sections of the city, educating and recruiting women and men into their ranks. According to Howard Zinn, Jewish socialists sustained the New York Socialist Labor Party and printed its newspaper, The Forward, in which each issue quoted Karl Marx’s 1884 Communist Manifesto: “workmen of all lands, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains; you have a world to win!” (262).
Insinuations concerning Anzia’s increasingly political tendencies surface in Henriksen’s biography but require considerable research to confirm. Henriksen chooses to downplay her mother’s political convictions, often overlooks Anzia’s emotional disharmony and sometimes takes an offensive, even bitter, posture regarding her interpretations of Anzia’s political philosophies and actions. After Anzia became pregnant at age 30, Henriksen notes that Anzia now had “time to pursue her interest in women’s rights, socialism, and other contemporary social causes” (45). In 1911, Anzia, although herself married, furnished a former classmate a copy of the recently translated Swedish book that challenged traditional mores surrounding marriage and sexual morality, Love and Marriage (45).
When commenting on Anzia’s Communist-sympathetic poem, “The Deported,” published in the popular leftist magazine, the Nation, during the first American “red scare” of the 1920s, Henriksen admits Anzia’s sympathy for the “thousands of suspected [American Socialist/Communist] radicals [who were] jailed . . . without trial and deported.” Yet only one paragraph later, she complains that “although Anzia’s sympathies were with the deported, she was politically always a bystander, agreeing with the arguments, but too absorbed in her own fierce struggle to participate in a movement” (139).
Despite Henriksen’s reductionism, concrete evidence of Anzia’s insurgent beliefs lies in her choice of friends. From childhood, she surrounded herself with Marxist- Socialists including her sister, Annie, who had “organized the women of her neighborhood into a mother’s society, which worked to gain social benefits for all of them” and who was acquainted with the “leading activists and philanthropists of the East Side” (Henriksen 21). Rose Pastor Stokes, Anzia’s closest friend, was a noted social reformer who is described as an “an activist in the birth control movement, the Socialist Party, the union movement and . . . a co-founder of the Communist Party in the U.S.” (Kayton, par. 16).
Rose, and possibly Anzia, became involved in the Labor Movement, including at least one labor strike that made page two of the 2 December 1909 issue of the New York Times in an article entitled, “Suffragists To Aid Girl Waist Strikers.” In the story, Rose (who by this time was married to a millionaire social activist) is identified as one of several speakers for a women’s suffrage group calling themselves the “Political Equality Association.” They were engaged in what the unnamed author of the article calls “biggest mass meeting ever held in New York in the interest of labor” and in which Rose is quoted as saying, “Starve to win, or you’ll starve anyway” (2).
Rose (and again perhaps Anzia) became involved with Eugene Debs, the nationally acclaimed Social Activist who, in 1893, formed the American Railway Union to unite all railway workers. To his credit, Debs had also been indicted by the local and federal courts, had violated their orders, and had spent time in prison for his political views (Zinn 272-275). In 1919, Debs appealed one of his criminal convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court in which he alleged attempted to “incite . . . insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States” in members of the working class (Debs v. U.S., par. 10). Rose apparently shared Debs’ pacifistic perspective; a section of this federal case reads:
The defendant next mentioned Rose Pastor Stokes, convicted of attempting to cause insubordination and refusal of duty in the military forces of the United States and obstructing the recruiting service. . . . [I]f she was guilty so was he, and . . . he would not be cowardly enough to plead his innocence; but [since] her message that opened the eyes of the people must be suppressed, and so, after a mock trial before a packed jury and a corporation tool on the bench, she was sent to the penitentiary for ten years” (Debs v. U.S., par. 12)
Anzia was undeniably involved with some controversial persons. In August of 1916, she left her second husband in California and returned to New York where she was forced to temporarily relinquish the custody of her daughter to her soon-to-be ex-husband. She had been exposed by a “friend” as an acquaintance of Tom Mooney and Warren K. Billings, prominent leaders of the International Workers of the World (IWW). These known revolutionaries had recently been arrested and charged with the bombing of a “preparedness” parade in San Francisco, apparently demonstrating their objection to U.S. entry into World War I (Henriksen 69). In a September 1916 letter to Rose Pastor Stokes, Anzia laments, “Do you know I envy Billings his life sentence in prison. In one blow he is freed from the dragging down wear & tear of making a living—and in the solitude of prison, he can think out his thoughts . . . if I did not have [my daughter] to care for, I would be in prison writing” (Henriksen 72).
Anzia’s ambivalence is again illustrated through the examination of her rebelliousness towards the traditional telos of wifery and motherhood prescribed for the Jewish women of her era. As a teen, Anzia attended night school to prepare for college following each ten-hour workday in a New York sweatshop. In stolen moments, she devoured Walt Whitman’s poetry and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliant” prose. Thus inspired, Anzia took Virginia Woolf’s yet unspoken advice and moved out of her home, renting a room of her own in an era when “nice” Jewish girls did not live alone. At seventeen or eighteen, after finally saving enough money, she attended New York City Normal College, then Columbia University, for five very disappointing years. Yet neither the schools nor the room brought her any satisfaction; the colleges forbade women from the philosophy and poetry classes for which she longed and thrust her into a “Home Economics” major instead, and the oppressive atmosphere of the “Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls” left her yet again drowning in despair (Henriksen 17-18).
Driven by loneliness and a courageous desire to resolve the contradictions between her family’s and her own expectations, Anzia married twice, despite her admission that “I knew . . . the standard viewpoint of matrimony” (Henriksen 37). Her first marriage, in 1911, was brief and ended in an abrupt annulment; of it she said, “I have come to think now that I knew not the difference between friendship and love” (Henriksen 37). Her second marriage was moderately more successful: it lasted five years and yielded one child, but it, too, collapsed under the weight of her disillusionment.
Unable to endure the oppressive confines of her traditional marriage, Anzia fled to New York, and later to San Francisco, where she initiated a brief affair with poet Hugo Seelig. After her divorce was finalized, she returned to New York and spent her time writing and visiting Rose Pastor Stokes. Her romantic luck shifted briefly in 1918; from that January she spent nearly three years involved with Professor John Dewey of Columbia University, the one “true love” of her life (Henriksen 114). This relationship’s conclusion manifested two climaxes in her life: the dissolution of Anzia’s dream of the possibility for a matrimonial “happy ending,” and the complete resignation of her self-identity to that of “the outcast . . . the lost” (Henriksen 116). Ironically, this is the time that Anzia, the writer, finally attained professional success.