Academic journal article MELUS

Recollecting, Repeating, and Walking Through: Immigration, Trauma, and Space in Mary Antin's the Promised Land

Academic journal article MELUS

Recollecting, Repeating, and Walking Through: Immigration, Trauma, and Space in Mary Antin's the Promised Land

Article excerpt

I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over. Is it not time to write my life's story? I am just 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.

--Mary Antin, The Promised Land (1)

With these lines, Mary Antin begins her best-selling 1912 immigrant autobiography and establishes immigration as an experience akin to death and resurrection. The language of new beginnings is familiar to readers of the bildungsroman, immigration narratives, and autobiographies. (1) However, what is remarkable here is Antin's emphasis on the death, rather than birth, of her identity. Antin alludes to the losses and psychological ruptures that divide her life "before" and "after" the immigration journey--between living in an eastern European shtetl and in urban Boston, between the subject positions of immigrant and American, and between the temporalities of past and future. Immigrant autobiographies are commonly structured around this rupture. Yet while critics have usually focused on The Promised Land's rosy-hued vision of America as a paradigmatic example of the assimilation narrative, this essay shows the significance of the incommensurable, and hence traumatic, break created by immigration and Antin's attempt to create psychological coherence out of that trauma through the related practices of autobiographical narrative and spatial orientation.

Published at the height of America's great immigration boom, (2) The Promised Land tells a now-familiar story through its text and photographs. Due to worsening economic and political conditions for Jews in Russian territories, at age thirteen Mary Antin immigrates to Boston with her mother and siblings, where they join Antin's father, who had come to America three years prior. The family struggles to gain an economic foothold in the US, moving frequently in search of cheaper rents and better business opportunities. Owing to her intellectual abilities, immature physical development, and her father's favoritism, Mary goes to school instead of work; her older sister is not so fortunate. (3) As is typical in immigrant autobiographies, Antin emphasizes how she distinguishes herself academically, winning a scholarship to a prestigious private high school.

In the book's final chapter, Antin triumphantly recounts going to Barnard College, earning money from writing, and learning to speak without an accent. The autobiography thus contrasts the political, economic, and social restrictions that defined life for Jews in eastern Europe with seemingly unlimited opportunities in the United States for those with the wit and will to succeed. America is Antin's Zion, the "Promised Land" of the autobiography's title, (4) and Antin is the "heir of the ages," the ideal citizen worthy of American freedom and opportunity (Antin, Selected Letters 55). (5) In many ways, The Promised Land reinforces the idea that America is truly democratic and meritocratic, a place where every immigrant can create his or her own destiny.

This assimilationist arc has been the primary focus of criticism of the autobiography in recent decades. Mary V. Dearborn is typical when she claims that "The Promised Land seems to lack any alternative, protesting voice" (42). Sarah Blacher Cohen is more damning; she asserts that "the autobiography lacks depth. The conquest it describes seems too rapidly won and too unqualifiedly successful.... [I]t certainly prevented her from becoming a profound writer of Jewish-American literature, or for that matter, any kind of literature" (31-32). Michael P. Kramer, a more sympathetic reader, nonetheless insists that for Antin, "the process of Americanization is wholly unproblematic" (128), and that "the assimilationism of The Promised Land is more characteristic of American Jews than critics care to admit" (123). Matthew Frye Jacobson, however, reads Antin's assimilation as a rebuke to contemporary critics of immigration--nothing less than "the core principle in a quiet politics of antinativism" (206). …

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