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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Mary Antin

Mary Antin was born in Polotzk in the Pale of Settlement, the area of czarist Russia in which Jews were allowed to live. Even when young, she became aware of how restricted life in Russia was for Jews. The Russian government allowed them few options in terms of where they could live and what work they could do. They had few of the rights of the poorest peasants. In Polotzk, they were restricted in terms of religious options, with their lives thoroughly controlled by Jewish Orthodoxy.

After experiencing serious illnesses, Antin's parents lost their modest fortune. Failing in numerous attempts to recoup his fortune in Russia, Israel, when Mary was eleven, went to America seeking affluence but, more important, hoping to live with freedom and dignity. Unable to adapt to the new country or to master English, Israel eventually became embittered toward America, but when he sent for his wife and children in 1894, when Mary was thirteen, he was still enamored of America. Shortly after his family arrived in Boston, Israel proudly enrolled his three younger children in public school. Later, Mary pictured the public schools as the immigrant child's road to Americanization. Thriving in the public schools of Boston, she went from first to fifth grade in half a year.

Her abilities as a writer appeared early. At fifteen, she published her first poem in the Boston Herald. In 1899, Antin's first book, From Plotzk [sic] to Boston, was published; it briefly recounts her trip from Russia through Germany to Boston. With the appearance of this book, Mary, eighteen at the time, was hailed as a child prodigy. The material in this volume became the basis of her masterpiece, The Promised Land.

After attending Girls Latin School in Boston, she attended Teachers College of Columbia University from 1901 to 1902 and Barnard College from 1902 to 1904. In college, she met and married Amadeus W. Grabau, a geologist, one-time Columbia professor, and non-Jew, thus putting into action her belief that religious differences are irrelevant to life in America. While living in New York, she also became friends with Emma Lazarus, who encouraged her to write The Promised Land and to whom Antin dedicated the book. Appearing in serial form in the Atlantic Monthly in 1911 to 1912, The Promised Land was published in book form in 1912. Immediately hailed as a masterpiece, it is still accepted as a classic work of immigrant autobiography.

After The Promised Land, Antin wrote one more book, They Who Knock at the Gates, in which she argues in favor of immigration for all but criminals and declares that the best people of Europe crowd the steerage compartments of ships steaming toward America. For several more years, she published articles and short stories in magazines and did social work. From 1913 to 1918, she lectured throughout the United States. Although her marriage fell apart when, in 1920, her husband left her and settled in China, she remained ardently optimistic in her faith in America and in the eventual Americanization of the immigrants.

Antin is remembered today for The Promised Land. Many critics view the book as a naive, overly optimistic hymn of praise for Americanization and total assimilation. Others, however, view it as a sensitive, truthful account of a Jewish girl's odyssey from an essentially medieval life in Russia to a modern life in America.

Richard Tuerk
Texas A&M University-Commerce

In the Heath Anthology
from The Promised Land
      from Chapter IV (1912)
      III (1912)

Other Works
from Plotzk to Boston (1899)
They Who Knock at the Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration (1914)

Cultural Objects
Image fileThe Immigrant Dream and the US as a Land of Opportunity

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A Little Jewish Girl in the Russian Pale, 1890
Story supplied by the Internet Modern History Sourcebook at Fordham University.

Heroic Women You Can Talk To: Two Boston Immigrants
Explanation of a storyteller's travelling show.

Mary Antin
A student project including a summary of Antin's autobiography.

The Letters of Mary Antin: A Life Divided
An essay from the American Jewish Historical Society.

Secondary Sources

"Assimilation in Jewish-American Autobiography: Mary Antin and Ludwig Lewisohn," A/B:Auto/Biography Studies 3.2 (Summer 1987): 26-33;

Betty Bergland, "Rereading Photographs and Narrative in Ethnic Autobiography: Memory and Subjectivity in Mary Antin's The Promised Land," in Memory, Narrative, and Identity: New Essays in Ethnic American Literatures, ed. Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., and Robert E. Hogan, 1994;

Michael P. Kramer, "Assimilation in the Promised Land: Mary Antin and Jewish Origins of the American Self," Prooftexts 18.2 (May 1998): 121-48.

Steven J. Rubin, "Style and Meaning in Mary Antin's The Promised Land: A Reevaluation," Studies in American Jewish Literature 5 (1986): 29-34

Richard Tuerk, "The Youngest of America's Children in Mary Antin's The Promised Land," Studies in American Jewish Literature 5 (1986): 29-34, 35-43;