Anzia Yezierska and the Popular Periodical Debate over the Jews
Ebest, Ron, MELUS
Ever since the rediscovery and celebration of Anzia Yezierska's masterpiece Bread Givers in the early 1970s, scholars have struggled with the question of how to read her work. The struggle has assumed the form of a debate about the quality of Yezierska's prose. Antagonistic readers like Irving Howe, for example, have flatly called her stories "not very good," while even sympathetic readers like Grace Paley have acknowledged Yezierska's clumsiness (269; Wexler 158).(1) Yezierska's partisans have responded by seeing her stories as fictionalized memoirs and by extolling her ability to document the immigrant woman's experience. This makes her stories "valuable as social history and somewhat less important for [their] place in literature" (Kessler-Harris v).(2) On the other hand, the reliability of Yezierska's "social histories" is sometimes suspect. Admittedly they are, as Thomas J. Ferraro has suggested, rich in "autobiographical resonances" (57). Yet Yezierska's autobiography, at least as it was presented piecemeal in reviews and interviews through the 1920s, was largely a public-relations fiction: her life, as Mary V. Dearborn has said, "provides a case study of the invention of ethnicity in American culture" (109). Further, Yezierska's own daughter has warned against taking her mother's work as "literally true": "although most of her writing was autobiographical, she was incapable of telling the plain truth" (Henriksen, A Writer's Life 255). Thus the question remains: if we cannot take her compelling and critically-acclaimed(3) stories as either accomplished fiction or memoir, how should we take them?
My purpose is not to offer an answer to that question. Instead, I want to suggest an alternative way of reading Yezierska's stories, a way that puts aside, temporarily, the issue of her "awkwardness," that sheds light on her methods, and that permits a fruitful understanding of her work. This reading requires an examination of Yezierska's short stories in the context of their first publications. The context was this: during and after the First World War, American popular periodicals engaged in a heated public discussion over what they collectively called "The Jewish Question." Among those periodicals most interested in the subject were Cosmopolitan, Harper's, The Atlantic, The American Magazine, The Century (which once counted Woodrow Wilson among its contributors), and The Outlook (in whose pages Teddy Roosevelt, later a contributing editor, published a version of "The Man with the MuckRake"). The impetus for this discussion, which consumed scores of articles through the early 1920s, was the mass immigration of Jews, like Yezierska, from Eastern Europe.
As a writer, Yezierska believed "her mission was to mediate between her culture and the dominant culture of America" (Dearborn 112). The forum she chose for this mediation was the popular periodical press. Beginning in 1915, she published depictions of ghetto life in The Century, Harper's, The Forum, and other important periodicals. These were the same publications upon whose pages the debate over the Jews was raging. In other words, Yezierska's stories engaged this debate in the space it was already occupying, and, as we shall see, in the terms it was already employing. Thus the stories may be understood as arguments, offered by one of the Jews under discussion, and interjected into an ongoing, often ugly, frequently nativist, many-voiced debate. Contemporary and later scholars have criticized Yezierska's occasional employment of stereotypes. To be sure, Yezierska's "arguments" were sometimes as awkward as her prose. But a reading of those stereotypes in the context of the periodical debate reveals Yezierska to be a more skillful disputant than one might expect.
Since my intention is to describe Yezierska's role in this debate, I will begin by examining her justification of fiction as a legitimate vehicle for her perspective. Next I will explore four important issues raised in the debate--the problems of Russian Jewish personality, business practices, political ideology, and crude numbers--and Yezierska's responses to them. …