Anzia Yezierska: “America and I”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Every American has heard stories of Eastern European and Southern European immigration to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, I’m sure that many StoryWeb readers are descended from those immigrants.

The stories are legion, the images unforgettable. Without a doubt, every American needs to visit Ellis Island at least once. (If you’re going for the first time, plan to spend the entire day. There is so much to see, touch, feel, explore – and so many, many stories to hear as you listen to the headphones on your self-guided tour.)

Likewise, everyone should make it a point to visit the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This outstanding, award-winning museum was created when construction workers uncovered a boarded-up, untouched tenement building. The tenement was home to nearly 7,000 immigrants. Visitors to the museum tour the four apartments, each telling the story of a different family who actually lived in the building. Neighborhood walking tours and “Tenement Talks” are also available.

Another source for learning the powerful history of immigration, tenements, and sweatshops is Ric Burns’s series New York: A Documentary Film. You’ll find episodes 3 and 4 especially relevant.

All of these resources are great ways to learn about immigration, but this week I want to pay homage to one particular immigrant: writer Anzia Yezierska, who hailed from Russian Poland. Born in the 1880s, Yezierska immigrated with her Jewish family to the United States in the early 1890s. Her 1923 essay, “America and I,” tells the story of her struggle to move beyond working as a domestic servant and as a shirtwaist maker in sweatshops to working with her “head.”

When she goes to a vocational counselor, she is told that she should become the best shirtwaist maker she can be and slowly rise from job to job. But she counters with, “I want to do something with my head, my feelings. All day long, only with my hands I work.” Yezierska feels she is “different,” that she has more to offer.

Ultimately, Yezierska was able to work with her head, her feelings. She mastered the English language and began to write novels, short stories, and autobiographical essays. As works like “America and I” demonstrate, she wrote in a dialect of Yiddish-flavored English. We hear the Russian immigrant: she comes through on the page.

Like many others, I have often bemoaned the plight of the immigrants who flooded through Ellis Island, crowded into the tenements of the Lower East Side, and toiled in sweatshops like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (the site of one of the deadliest industrial accidents in American history). How wretched their lives must have been, I have thought more than once.

But a dear friend who is descended from Italian immigrants to New York tells me that he thinks the immigrants were quite successful. In just two generations, his family moved out of the Lower East Side to Little Italy in the Bronx and then to White Plains, New York. Their great-grandson is now a professor at a liberal arts college in New York City. Such rapid success is, to my friend, mind-boggling!

If you want to hear firsthand what the journey was like for one immigrant, be sure to read Anzia Yezierska’s essay “America and I.” You can read the short essay online – or buy the collection How I Found America, which includes the essay. If you’re ready to read more of Yezierska’s writing, you’ll definitely want to check out her 1925 novel, The Bread Givers, widely considered to be her masterpiece.

You might also want to explore a bit of Yezierska’s biography. She ended up earning a scholarship to Columbia University and was later involved in a romantic relationship with Columbia professor John Dewey. You can read about their relationship in Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey. Yezierska’s only child, Louise Levitas Henriksen, wrote a biography of her mother, Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life. In From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, biographer Bettina Berch looks at Yezierska’s written works as well as her work as a screenwriter for Hollywood. An excellent student paper, “Anzia Yezierska: Being Jewish, Female, and New in America,” Is a great (and short!) introduction to Yezierska and her work. Other useful overviews of Yezierska and her work can be found at Jewish Women’s Archive and My Jewish Learning.

Listen:Listen as I read Anzia Yezierska’s essay “America and I” in its entirety. The clip runs 31 minutes. You can follow along here.

Image Credit: Anzia Yezierska,