Academic journal article MELUS

Writing Immigrant Aid: The Settlement House and the Problem of Representation

Academic journal article MELUS

Writing Immigrant Aid: The Settlement House and the Problem of Representation

Article excerpt

Historians have chronicled the importance of the settlement house to the development of public health, social work, and governmental welfare, but literary critics have been slow to acknowledge that the institution had a significant impact on American literature. (1) Rose Gollup Cohen's memoir Out of the Shadow (1918) offers one emblematic account of the literary culture of the settlement house when it describes the author's visit to a public lecture on Shakespeare at Lillian Wald's Henry Street Settlement. For Cohen, a Jewish immigrant garment worker, this cultural event was fraught with mixed emotions. Ashamed of her evident poverty and inability to read English, she regrets her decision to attend within moments of entering the room. Nonetheless, Cohen sits across from the lecturer and takes hold of a volume of Shakespeare, which glows with symbolic power. "I felt the light full upon me," Cohen writes, merging her anxious sense of being looked at with the book's totemic power. "It was on my hands, it shone into my lap, it seemed to shine right into me, showing my ignorance" (251). Although she can scarcely follow the thread of conversation that evening, Cohen walks home to her tenement apartment with a feeling of pride at having made contact with such elevated secular culture. Shakespeare is no longer alien to her, however daunting his language remains: "Shakespeare, this was an old friend.... I felt proud of this new knowledge and I walked home with a feeling of superiority over myself of the day before" (252). As her memoir proceeds, Cohen continues to recount her coming of age on the Lower East Side by referencing the books she received at nearby settlement houses; the volume of Shakespeare reflects Cohen's pursuit of erudition, Little Women signals her provisional connection to genteel American girlhood, and the New Testament points to her religious and generational alienation. Cohen charts her narrative of Americanization through these various intersections of settlement reform and literary culture; her memoir, in turn, holds a valuable place in early twentieth-century American literary history.

As a historical document, Cohen's memoir indicates how literature functioned within the settlement movement as a recreational activity, a measure of social and cultural progress, and a means of communicating particular ideas and values to patrons. However, as a work of imaginative literature, Out of the Shadow joins a large corpus of novels, memoirs, short stories, poems, plays, and periodical and reform tracts about the settlement house that constitutes a veritable sub-canon of American literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The closer one looks at this body of texts, the more Jewish it appears to be--much like the settlement movement itself. The turn-of-the-century settlement house was the source of a great deal of Jewish American literature from this period, as many participants later wrote about their experiences as clients, workers, or critical observers of this foundational pedagogical environment. An enduring symbol for the fraught process of assimilation and for the patron- client relations between "uptown" and "downtown" Jewish constituencies, the settlement house was also a site through which key period debates over Americanization, identity, and literary value were waged, particularly as these concerned the vexed issue of Jewish representation. Tracing the institutional connections among the various genres and diverse subcultures of Jewish literary culture around the turn of the century often leads back to this reform organization.

Like Cohen, thousands of immigrants and second-generation Jews had their first taste of English-language literary engagement through the settlement's system of literary clubs, lectures, and libraries and the writing that has become emblematic of the period reflects this legacy of access. Mary Antin's classic The Promised Land (1912) describes Boston's Hale House settlement as an institution "whose business in the slums is to mould the restless children on the street comers into noble men and women" and a place in which she was able to explore her burgeoning interest in the natural sciences (254). …

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