Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Anzia Yezierska, Part V - Final

Bread and Roses

In her 1950 autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse, Anzia describes the ambivalence she felt during the time the Bread Givers was first published: “I felt I had justified myself in the book for having hardened my heart to go through life alone” (216). The memories sparked by the book had left her yearning to make peace with her father, though, and she went to see him. He met her enthusiasm with condescension. “Only in America could it happen – an ignorant thing like you – a writer! What do you know of life? . . . It says in the Torah: He who separates himself from people buries himself in death. A woman alone, not a wife and not a mother [?], has no existence. No joy on earth, no hope of heaven” (Red Ribbon 216-217).

Anzia lived and died under the unrelenting scrutiny and criticism of everyone who knew her. Her resignation to the identity of the eternal, lost “other” made the ache of her belly her only lifelong companion. She was never victorious over her struggles, never uncovered the means to satiate her own hunger or reconcile her conflicts. Yet she refused to succumb until her very last days, pen in hand, ever contesting the paradox women faced by being forced to choose between tradition and freedom. Even after her daughter confined her to a nursing home, Anzia continued to write until her death at about eighty-nine years.

Her death was as ironic as her life. Not understanding that, for Anzia, sustenance was achieved through words of protest, the nurses, annoyed by her frequent calls, removed the telephone from her room. Within a year, although continuing to write in a little notepad she kept hidden in her robe, Anzia gradually stopped eating. One of her last notes reads, “I have learned at last that no individual counts when [her] work is over” (Henriksen 299).

Anzia Yezierska’s literary protests reveal an empowered, pioneering feminist despite her exclusion from the feminist literary canon. If she could hear my words, I would assure her that through unflinching endeavors in pursuit of happiness, she epitomized a life fervently torn between the unrelenting hunger for both the Bread and the Freedom of Life. Ironically, her strife typified a tradition from which later feminists, unhappy with their own legacies, could draw strength. Through and beyond her, we envisage the something more about which James Oppenheim and Anzia Yezierska dreamt as they sung his 1912 labor cry, first heard during a Women’s “Bread and Butter” strike:

As we come marching, marching,
We bring the greater days.
The rising of the Women
Means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler --
Ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories:
Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

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