| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Anzia Yezierska, one of ten children, emigrated with
her family from Russian Poland to New York’s Lower East Side when she was about
fifteen. She worked in sweatshops, laundries, and as a maid, studying English
in night school. A settlement worker helped her get a scholarship to Columbia
College’s domestic science teacher training program; Yezierska invented a high
school diploma to enter. These early experiences formed her fictional voice of
the feisty immigrant waif who pulls herself up from poverty through wit and
attending Rand School classes in social theory, she met radical feminist
Henrietta Rodman, who encouraged her writing. She started using her European
name of Anzia Yezierska, rather than Hattie Mayer, the name which she had
received at Ellis Island. In 1910, Yezierska’s brief marriage to lawyer Jacob
Gordon was annulled. A year later, she married teacher Arnold Levitas, giving
birth to their daughter Louise in 1912. When Yezierska and Levitas separated,
she focused on her writing and visited Louise once a week. Her first published
story, “The Free Vacation House” (1915), describes an overworked immigrant
mother’s frustration with both domestic life and organized charity’s attempts
to relieve her. Through the voice of the ghetto mother, Yezierska expressed the
Yiddish-English dialect better than any previous writer had.
1917, Yezierska barged into the Columbia University office of philosopher and
educator John Dewey to enlist his help in obtaining a permanent teaching
certificate. From 1917 to 1918, she audited his seminars. Their brief and
probably unconsummated romance ended after the summer of 1918. For Dewey,
Yezierska was a window onto New York’s Jewish ghetto and inspiration for over
twenty love poems. For Yezierska, Dewey represented mainstream America, and the
paternal approval she did not receive from her own highly religious
father, who believed women should be wives and not writers. Dewey, however,
encouraged Yezierska and introduced her to editors.
most anthologized short story, “The Fat of the Land,” was originally chosen the
best of Best Short Stories of 1919; in 1920, Houghton Mifflin Company published
Hungry Hearts, a collection of Yezierska’s short stories. After newspapers
publicized the book, Goldwyn movie studios hired her to write screenplays. The
short stories of Hungry Hearts, and her first novel, Salome of the Tenements,
became two movies, the prints and negatives of which have since disintegrated.
Yezierska felt her creativity dry up in Hollywood and returned to New York.
There she was somewhat reclusive, but occasionally met with the Algonquin group
wrote more short stories (collected in Children of Loneliness) and three more
novels (Bread Givers, her most polished; Arrogant Beggar; and All I Could Never
Be, about her relationship with Dewey). This last work was written while
Yezierska held a Zona Gale Fellowship for writers-in-residence at the
University of Wisconsin (1928–31). Back in New York, around 1935 or 1936, Yezierska
joined the WPA Writer’s Project, staying perhaps until 1938.
fictionalized autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse, published in 1950
after an eighteen-year silence, renewed public interest in her writing. Most of
the volume describes her Hollywood and WPA experiences. Throughout the Fifties,
she wrote New York Times book reviews and sometimes lectured. Her fictional
voice of the old woman, speaker for the disenfranchised, aged poor, developed
at this time. Until 1966, Yezierska lived alone in New York, but then moved
near her daughter, who hired transcribers for the writing Yezierska continued
even when nearly blind. Yezierska died in a nursing home near Claremont,
California, at close to ninety.
have called Yezierska’s fiction extremely autobiographical, but examination
reveals it to be emotionally, rather than factually, true to her life. All of
her writing, whether about young immigrant working-class Jewish women, or the
elderly, isolated urban poor, expresses the feelings of characters considered
by others to be marginal to the American mainstream. Her work has been recently
rediscovered by those interested in women’s, ethnic, immigrant, Jewish, urban,
or working-class literature.
Sally Ann Drucker|
Nassau Community College
In the Heath Anthology
America and I
Salome of the Tenements
Children of Lonliness
All I Could Never Be
Red Ribbon on a White Horse
The Immigrant Dream and the US as a Land of Opportunity
Virtual Tours of NYC's Tenement Museum
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Jewish Student Online Research Center
Presents a brief biography.
Mary V. Dearborn, Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey, 1988
Louise Levitas Henriksen, Anzia Yezierska: A Writer's Life, 1988
Carol Schoen, Anzia Yezierska, 1982