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

Anzia Yezierska

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 hard work.

While 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.

In 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.

Yezierska’s 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 of writers.

Yezierska 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.

Her 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.

Critics 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 (1923)

Other Works
Hungry Hearts (1920)
Salome of the Tenements (1922)
Children of Lonliness (1923)
Bread Givers (1925)
Arrogant Beggar (1927)
All I Could Never Be (1932)
Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950)

Cultural Objects
Image fileThe Immigrant Dream and the US as a Land of Opportunity
text file Virtual Tours of NYC's Tenement Museum

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Jewish Student Online Research Center
Presents a brief biography.

Secondary Sources

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