Academic journal article MELUS

Of Repression, Assertion, and the Speakerly Dress: Anzia Yezierska's Salome of the Tenements

Academic journal article MELUS

Of Repression, Assertion, and the Speakerly Dress: Anzia Yezierska's Salome of the Tenements

Article excerpt

Anzia Yezierska's complex and radical first novel, Salome of the Tenements (1923), is a text in which authorial subject and style are synergic. This theme-technique interplay has eluded critics who have failed to read the novel as Yezierska's sartorialized response to repressive ideologies and literary aesthetics in American culture. While contemporary scholars have explored Yezierska's feminist and political concerns, they have yet to investigate her intricate artistry with equal fervor. In fact, according to critic Magdalena Zaborowska, Yezierska has not been regarded as a serious writer (181). These views neglect the ways in which Yezierska mobilizes the creative force of clothing in Salome, particularly the aesthetic principles encrypted in the "Sonya Model," the fabulous dress which the title character designs in order to establish emphatically her own artistic style even as she mocks the artificiality and repressiveness of Americanization.

Contemporary critics attack Yezierska's novels for, among other alleged flaws, their sentimental prose, melodramatic plots (see Stubbs xvi), and for Yezierska's marginality (Zaborowska 118). Her plot structure is considered "simple, even crude.... Her characters never so much developed as they emerged: full blown archetypes of a culture and often fragments of herself" (Kessler-Harris v). Other reviewers also claim that her narrative resolutions are "artificial" and "unconvincing" (Zaborowska 131), though Yezierska prided herself as the mouthpiece of immigrant realism. Stubbs notes how "genteel critics reacted with uneasy disdain" following the publication of Yezierska's Arrogant Beggar in 1927. She writes that "The New York Tribune accused Yezierska of displaying a "complete and amusing ignorance of gentile minds, and somehow a faint lack of good taste" (vii).

Stubbs further suggests that early twentieth-century critics clobbered Yezierska's popular, sentimental realism because it was not modernist. Modernism was associated with high culture, sophistication, formalist innovations, and, quite relevantly, masculinity (xvii). Yezierska strongly objected to modernism's masculinist insistence on form, abstraction, and emotional restraint, and would not adapt her techniques and concerns to the period's literary aesthetics. And, worse still, when later her themes failed to engage the nation's changing consciousness in regard to immigration, her popularity plummeted and the bad reviews never relented (Wilentz "Introduction" xviii).

But what Yezierska's critics appear to miss, especially in Salome, is that she seems to have already anticipated a "response" to those unflattering criticisms. By offering the fictive yet pivotal Sonya Model as a categorical statement of her authentic literary aesthetic, she was indirectly yet indelibly defining her novels' creative and critical reference point. In other words, any critical assessments of her immigrant fiction must recognize the author's "form," her literary style and intentions. What obtains in Salome, then, is the case of the emerging, immigrant artist Sonya who is, like Yezierska herself, trying in her first Model/novel to formulate and customize her own, and thereby authentic, sartorial/literary voice. As Yezierska would put it, Sonya is trying to make from herself "a person" in a nation that sought to undermine that effort through its sociopolitical and literary ideologies, a nation in which Yezierska, "as an alien and a Jew ... was not accepted ... as an equal" (Wilentz "Cultural" 39).

Salome depicts Sonya's parallel growth processes in her dual but overlapping roles as a Jewish immigrant woman and an artist. In both positions, and under the textual climate of Americanization, Sonya faces the issue of conformity as she tries to actualize as both self and creative artist. As the plot unfolds, Sonya finds that she has to repress herself in order to fit into mainstream American culture and attain her goals. …

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