Academic journal article MELUS

The Limits of Language: Literacy, Morality, and Transformation in Mary Antin's the Promised Land

Academic journal article MELUS

The Limits of Language: Literacy, Morality, and Transformation in Mary Antin's the Promised Land

Article excerpt

Scholarship on ethnic literature has paid particular attention to literacy narratives. Linguistic assimilation is a central theme of immigrant writers, who use narratives of language socialization to show how characters mediate between cultures and reconcile the Old World with the New. (1) Language narratives are particularly important in the work of Mary Antin, whose life story is one of transformation through language. In The Promised Land (1912), she documents her escape from the Russian Pale of Settlement, arrival in the United States, and experiences learning English in American schools, where she quickly assimilated and attracted attention as an emerging writer. As she recounts, language and literacy acquisition created the potential for her dramatic transformation from an impoverished immigrant to a prominent writer and activist.

Literary scholars have tended to see Antin's language narratives as metaphors for her assimilation. It is true that Antin's rapid language acquisition reflects her patriotic zeal and embrace of Americanism. In The Promised Land, she makes a "public declaration of [her] love for the English language" which she acquired "word by word ... like gathering a posy blossom by blossom" (164-66). For those scholars who have accused her of being politically naive and stylistically stilted, such passages underscore what they see as her uncritical, pro-assimilation stance. Sarah Blacher Cohen, for instance, criticizes Antin for her tendency to use "the most impressive-sounding English" while urging immigrants to reject their cultural heritage (31). Steven G. Kellman asserts that Antin displays an "instrumental" view of language, which she treats as "a tool that can be adapted or discarded not only without trauma but also without distorting thought" (157). In Kellman's analysis, Antin's linguistic assimilation serves as a metaphorical displacement for her view of culture, which she also treats as something that can be easily adopted or discarded. (2) As William A. Proefriedt argues, however, it is difficult to say whether, in her blind patriotism or enthusiasm for assimilation, Antin is deceiving herself or simply "trying to convince [her audience] of the wisdom of open immigration policies and educational and social service support for immigrants" (91).

In fact, neither Antin's ideas about America nor her beliefs about language are as simplistic as they appear. The language acquisition narratives in her memoir serve a strategic rhetorical purpose, as Sean Butler points out. Butler notes that Antin uses her literacy narratives to achieve identification with her audience, positioning herself as an insider to American public discourse while simultaneously urging native-born citizens to reexamine their beliefs about immigrants. Antin "sees herself as occupying a third space that grows out of the vision of two (often opposed) groups. More importantly, she attributes much of this newness or thirdness to the process of acquiring a second language" (57). Butler suggests that Antin's work is more complex and nuanced than scholars have previously acknowledged. However, like that of critics such as Cohen and Kellman, Butler's interest in Antin's language narratives is primarily instrumental: he looks to her account of linguistic assimilation in order to understand her sense of self-division as it shapes her argument about Americanization.

This essay examines Antin's language narratives not as a metaphorical displacement of another theme, but as evidence about literacy itself. The recent publication of Antin's personal correspondence provides us with an opportunity to recontextualize her views on literacy, which are more complex and contradictory than critics have noted. (3) More precisely, I argue that The Promised Land attempts to engage readers in a dialogue about language, to echo popular conceptions about literacy, and at the same time to call them into question by using personal-experiential evidence to dismantle them. …

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