Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

By Hana Wirth-Nesher | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
“I learned at least to think in English without an accent”
LINGUISTIC PASSING: MARY ANTIN

“Yonder,” they told him, “things are not the same.”

He found it understated when he came.

His tongue, in hopes to find itself at home,

Caught up the twist of every idiom.

He learned the accent and the turn of phrase,

Studied like Latin texts the local ways.

—Adrienne Rich, “By No Means Native” (1950)

It is undeniable that we get our strongest impressions of a person
from the way he speaks, that therefore a handicap of prejudice
must pursue through life those who discount themselves by
vulgar accents.

—Clara Katherine Rogers, English Diction (1915)

I shall turn the aliens' ridicule into sympathy. This I can do, for I
am both of you and of them: I speak both your languages.

—Mary Antin, from the manuscript of The Promised Land

FEW SENTENCES in the repertoire of Jewish American literature have resounded as much as the opening line from the prologue to the The Promised Land, published in 1912. “I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over … I am as much out of the way as if I were dead, for I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell.”1 Having immigrated to the United States from Russia at the age of twelve, Mary Antin claims from the very outset that her autobiography is a story of death and rebirth. “Physical continuity with my earlier self is no disadvantage,” she adds, “I could speak in the third person and not feel that I was masquerading” (2). In fact, Antin did consider renaming the character of her own life story, so that Mary Antin would narrate the story of Esther Altmann, thereby signaling the absolute break between the self she had become in America and the self she had left behind in Europe. Persuaded by her publisher to retain the autobiographical pact of homonymous narrator and character,2 she nevertheless described her life story as that of a total conversion, of a transformation of spirit within the same body.

-52-

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