Magazine article Tikkun

Beggar's Banguet

Magazine article Tikkun

Beggar's Banguet

Article excerpt

Arrogant Beggar, by Anzia Yezierska, Introduction by Katherine Stubbs. Duke University Press, 1996. 153 pp. Cloth: $35.00. Paper: $12.95.

Since Republicans and Democrats alike expressed their intention in the Welfare Reform Bill to "end welfare as we know it," Americans might do well to begin planning ethical and effective alternatives. The reissue of Anzia Yezierska's 1927 novel, Arrogant Beggar, seems a timely warning against the limitations of private charities and a call for a different system of giving based on the Jewish notion of tzedakah, or social justice.

Yezierska, a Yiddish immigrant writer, briefly won a national following for her Lower East Side fiction in the 1920s. Having benefited from Americans' growing taste for immigrant and local color fiction in the late teens and early twenties, she was acclaimed in The New York Times as the "sweatshop Cinderella," had a highly visible and complicated romance with the philosopher John Dewey, and was hired as a Hollywood screenwriter in 1921, only to return to New York in disgust with the artificiality of Hollywood life. Preferring to remain physically and imaginatively in the world of the tenements, she published her most enduring novel, Bread Givers, in 1925, in which Sara Smolinsky struggles in Yiddish- inflected English to escape her father's Old World sexism and to find economic and social success amid a world of cold but appealing Gentiles. Yet even before the stock market crash in 1929 had produced a wave of xenophobia in America, the public had begun to lose its taste for immigrant fiction.

Controversial in its denunciation of wealthy philanthropists, Arrogant Beggar contributed to Yezierska's decline. Yet today these denunciations might seem a welcome response to conservatives' extravagant claims for the effectiveness of private charities. On the other hand, some progressives may dislike this novel's vision, for like antiwelfare Republicans, Yezierska seems to endorse individual entrepreneurialism as the answer to social inequality. Yet her complicated social vision, articulated before the welfare programs of the New Deal and the Great Society came into existence, tempers individualism with a drive for equity.

Unlike the main character in Bread Givers, Arrogant Beggar's Adele Lindner is a second-generation American who speaks and thinks an English uninflected by Yiddish. Adele answers an advertisement for a room in a Home for Working Girls funded by the wealthy philanthropist, Mrs. Hellman. Expecting the Home to be a refuge from tenement life, a clean place of community, nurturance, and warmth, Adele idealizes the picture of Mrs. Hellman. One by one, each of her illusions confronts a disheartening reality: Mrs. Hellman thinks of her as a poor girl to be helped but kept at a distance, pays her less than she deserves for her work, and manipulates a letter she has written to gain publicity for the Home. Mrs. Hellman's son, Arthur, becomes the object of Adele's dreams, but she is invisible to him. The Home is run by a strict set of rules according to the laws of "domestic science" and "efficiency," and the tenants, continually threatened with eviction for breaches of the rules, are made to feel the debt they owe Mrs. Hellman.

After being immersed in this system for several months, Adele berates herself for having become a "Hangeron! You've ceased to believe in yourself. Glad to get even the crumbs that fall from the master's table." And she castigates Mrs. Hellman for shaming her. She would rather return to the run-down, filthy tenements, would rather do any kind of work, than lose her integrity to the handouts of private philanthropists. …

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