Anzia Yezierska

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Anzia Yezierska
Yezierska CedarRapids 5Mar1921.jpg
Sketch of Anzia Yezierska 1921
Born 1880s
Maly Plock, Poland
Died November 21, 1970
Ontario, California
Occupation Writer, Novelist, Essayist
Nationality United States
Genres fiction; non-fiction

Anzia Yezierska (1885 - 1970) was an American novelist born in Maly Plock, Poland.

Personal life[edit]

Yezierska was born in the 1880s in Maly Plock to Bernard and Pearl Yezierski. Her family emigrated to America around 1890, following in the footsteps of her eldest brother Meyer, who had arrived in the States six years prior. They took up housing in the Lower East Side, Manhattan. Her family assumed the surname Mayer, while Anzia took Harriet (or Hattie) as her first name. She later reclaimed her original name, Anzia Yezierska, in her late twenties. Her father was a scholar of sacred texts.

Anzia Yezierska's parents encouraged her brothers to pursue a higher education.

In 1910 she fell in love with Arnold Levitas, but instead married his friend Jacob Gordon, a New York Attorney. After 6 months the marriage was annulled. Shortly after, she married Arnold Levitas in a religious ceremony to avoid legal complications. Arnold was the father of her first and only child, Louise Levitas Henriksen, born May 29, 1912. Around 1914 she left Arnold and moved to San Francisco with her daughter where she was employed as a social worker. However, she later gave up her paternal rights for Louise to Arnold because she was overwhelmed with the chores and responsibilities of raising her daughter. She then moved back to New York City. Around 1917, she engaged in a romantic relationship with Philosopher John Dewey, a professor at Columbia University.

After achieving her goal of becoming an independent woman, her sister influenced her to begin writing. She devoted the remainder of her life to writing.

Yezierska was the aunt of American film critic Cecelia Ager and the great aunt of Ager's daughter, journalist Shana Alexander.

Anzia Yezierska died November 21, 1970 of a stroke in a nursing home in Ontario, California.

Writing career[edit]

Yezierska wrote about the struggles of Jewish and later Puerto Rican immigrants in New York's Lower East Side. In her fifty-year writing career, the main theme running throughout her works is the cost of acculturation and assimilation among immigrants. Her stories provide insight into the meaning of liberation for immigrants—particularly Jewish immigrant women. Many of her works of fiction can be labeled semi-autobiographical. In her writing, she draws heavily on her personal life as an immigrant in New York's Lower East Side. Her works, therefore, feature elements of realism with heavy attention to detail and skillful use of Yiddish-English dialect. At the same time, sentimentalism and highly idealized characters have prompted some critics to label her works as romantic.

Anzia Yezierska in 1922

Yezierska turned to writing around 1912. Turmoil in her personal life prompted her to write stories focused on problems faced by wives. In the beginning, she had difficulty finding a publisher for her work. But her persistence paid off in December 1915 when her story, "The Free Vacation House" was published in The Forum. She attracted more critical attention about a year later when another tale, "Where Lovers Dream" appeared in Metropolitan. Her literary endeavors received more recognition when her rags-to-riches story, "The Fat of the Land," appeared in noted editor Edward J. O'Brien's collection, Best Short Stories of 1919. Yezierska's early fiction was eventually collected by publisher Houghton Mifflin and released as a book titled Hungry Hearts in 1920. Another collection of stories, Children of Loneliness, followed two years later. These stories focus on the children of immigrants and their pursuit of the American Dream.

Some literary critics argue that Yezierska's true strength as an author rests in the longer fictional form, the novel. Her first novel, Salome of the Tenements, was published in 1923 and was based on the experiences of her friend, Rose Pastor Stokes. Stokes gained fame as a young immigrant woman who married into a prominent New York family in 1904.

Her most studied work, Bread Givers (1925), follows the story of a young woman struggling to live from day to day while searching to find her place in American society. Bread Givers earned Yezierska critical acclaim and respect as a mature artist. Bread Givers remains her best known novel.

Arrogant Beggar chronicles the adventures of narrator Adele Lindner, who exposes the hypocrisy of the charitably run Hellman Home for Working Girls after fleeing from the poverty of the Lower East Side.

In 1929-1930 the Zona Gale fellowship at the University of Wisconsin offered financial relief and made few demands on Yezierska, who was able to write several stories and finish a novel. All I Could Never Be was published in 1932, after Yezierska had returned to New York City.

The end of the 1920s marked a decline of interest in Yezierska's work. During the Great Depression, she worked for the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. During this time, she wrote the novel, All I Could Never Be. Published in 1932, this work is derived from her striving to become an American but never achieving that status because she sees herself as an immigrant and feels the road to success is harder because things typically come easier to Americans than immigrants. It was the last novel Yezierska published before falling into obscurity.

Her fictionalized autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse, came out in 1950 when she was nearly 70 years old. The publication of her memoirs led to greater interest in her works. The Open Cage is one of Yezierska's bleakest stories written during her later years of life. She began writing it in 1962 at the age of 81. It compares the life of an old woman to that of an ailing bird.

Although she was nearly blind, Yezierska continued writing and having stories, articles, and book reviews published until her death in California in 1970.

Yezierska and Hollywood[edit]

The success of Anzia Yezierska's early short stories led to a brief, but significant, relationship between the author and Hollywood. Movie producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights to Yezierska's collection Hungry Hearts. The film of the same title was shot on location at New York's Lower East Side with Helen Ferguson, E. Alyn Warren, and Bryant Washburn. In recent years, the film has been restored through the efforts of the National Center for Jewish Film, the Samuel Goldwyn Company, and the British Film Institute. In 2006, a new score was composed to accompany the film. Yezierska's 1923 novel Salome of the Tenements was also produced as a silent picture. The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival showed the restored print in July 2010.

Goldwyn, recognizing the popularity of Yezierska's stories, gave Yezierska a $100,000 contract to write screenplays. In California, Yezierska's sudden rise to fame prompted publicists to label her "the sweatshop Cinderella." Although Yezierska's own semi-autobiographical work had contributed to this rags-to-riches image, she found herself uncomfortable with being touted as an example of the American Dream. Frustrated by the shallowness of Hollywood and by her own alienation from her roots, Yezierska returned to New York in the mid-1920s and continued publishing novels and stories about immigrant women struggling to establish their identities in America.

Works by Anzia Yezierska[edit]


"Anzia Yezierska". In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 221:American Women Prose Writers, 1870-1920. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Sharon M. Harris, University of Nebraska, Lincoln. The Gale Group, 2000, p. 381-7.

"Anzia Yezierska". In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 28: Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Daniel Walden, Pennsylvania State University. The Gale Group, 1984, p. 332-5.

"Anzia Yezierska." Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. 24 October 2007 <>.

Berch, Bettina. From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska. Sefer International, 2009.

Bergland, Betty Ann. “Dissidentification and Dislocation: Anzia Yerzierska’s on a white horse.” “Reconstructing the ‘Self’ in America: Patterns in Immigrant Women’s Autobiography.” Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1990, 169244

Boydston, Jo Ann, ed. The Poems of John Dewey. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977.

Cane, Aleta. "Anzia Yezierska." American Women Writers, 1900-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Source Book. Ed. Laurie Champion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Dearborn, Mary V . “Anzia Yezierska and the Making of an Ethnic American Self.” In The Invention of Ethnicity. Ed. Werner Solors. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, 105-123.

--. Love in the Promise Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey. New York: Free Press, 1988.

--. Pocahontas’s Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture. New York Oxford University press, 1986.

Drunker, Sally Ann. "Yiddish, Yidgin, and Yezierska: Dialect in Jewish-American Writing." Yiddish 6.4 (1987): 99-113.

Ferraro, Thomas J. “’Working Ourselves Up’ in America: Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89:3 (summer 1990), 547-581.

Gelfant, Blanche H. “Sister to Faust: The City’s ‘Hungry’ Woman as Heroine.” In Women Writing in America: Voices in Collage. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1984, 203-224.

Goldsmith, Meredith. "Dressing, Passing, and Americanizing: Anzia Yezierska's Sartorial Fictions." Studies in American Jewish Literature 16 (1997): 34-45. [End Page 435]

Henriksen, Louise Levitas. Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Henriksen, Louise Levitas. "Afterword About Anzia Yezierska." In The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection. New York: Persea Books, 1979, 253-62.

Inglehart, Babbette. "Daughters of Loneliness: Anzia Yezierska and the Immigrant Woman Writer." Studies in American Jewish Literature, 1 (Winter 1975): 1-10.

Japtok, Martin. "Justifying Individualism: Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers." The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature: Carving out a Niche. Ed. Katherine B.--Rose Payant, Toby (ed. and epilogue). Contributions to the Study of AmericaN Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. 17-30.

Konzett, Delia Caparoso. "Administered Identities and Linguistic Assimilation: The Politics of Immigrant English in Anzia Yezierska's Hungry Hearts." American Literature 69 (1997): 595-619.

Levin, Tobe. "Anzia Yezierska." Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Source Book. Ed. Ann Shapiro. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Schoen, Carol B. Anzia Yezierska. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Stinson, Peggy. Anzia Yezierska. Ed. Lina Mainiero. Vol. 4. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1982.

Stubbs, Katherine. "Reading Material: Contextualizing Clothing in the Work of Anzia Yezierska." MELUS 23.2 (1998): 157-72.

Taylor, David. Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons, 2009.

Wexler, Laura. “Looking at Yezierska.” In Women of the World: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing. Ed. Judith R. Baskin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994, 153-181.

Wilentz, Gay. "Cultural Mediation and the Immigrant's Daughter: Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers." MELSUS, 17, NO. 3(1991–1992): 33-41.

Zaborowska, Magdalena J. “Beyond the Happy Endings: Anzia Yezierska Rewrites the New World Woman.” In How we Found America: Reading Gender through East European Immigrant Narratives. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995, 113-164.

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