Click here for Part II on Anzia, her legacy on Broadway, on more.
You’ve probably never heard of Anzia Yezierska. But not too long ago, this foreign-sounding name was the toast of New York publishing and Hollywood films. Anzia Yezierska got attention because she wrote in a voice that demanded it. She spoke not only for the flood of new immigrants flooding New York’s lower East Side in the early 1900s – Jews, Poles, Italians, and the ethnic strangers to Old America – but also for women carving out a strong new role.
Even if you haven’t read her books (click here for her Amazon page), you certainly know her characters. This winter, Hollywood and Broadway give us two striking glimpses into Anzia’s world of the 1920s, a fitting tribute a century later, but more on that in Part II of this Post.
Anzia directly confronted the bastion of white male writers dominating American letters in the 1910s and 1920s. Speaking out in the prestigious New York Times Book Review for a foreign-born author denied a university job in 1922, she openly threatened the cloistered old regime: “The generations that went before in America have little to say to us,” she wrote. “They could not begin to imagine the new world of the Melting Pot.”
|Scene from film version of Hungry Hearts, 1922.
Anzia Yezierska made her name through critically acclaimed novels set in Manhattan’s impoverished Lower East Side – her immigrant world — that earned her the sobriquet “Cinderella of the Tenements.” Her stories like Hungry Hearts and Salomé of the Tenements featured tough, independent characters. Her 1920 Hungry Hearts—tracing the lives and loves of Jewish immigrant women—became a well-reviewed Hollywood film in 1922 for the Goldwyn Company, the first time this Jewish-owned firm tried to show actual lives of Jewish people. (Click to see a clip.)
Born in Poland and reaching New York as a child in the 1890s, Anzia had to create her destiny by fighting both poverty and tradition. Her parents refused to send her to college, so she sent herself. Anzia’s daughter, writing years later, described how her mother “withheld from her wages enough money to pay for a year at the New York City Normal College.” Anzia ironed clothes in a laundry before and after classes. Ultimately, she won her college degree. But having to defy her parents made her feel like a nomad. “She wrote about this as homelessness,” her daughter Louise wrote, “being lost between her parents’ Old World and the new world.”
|Notice how, in the newspaper drawing, Anzia’s
Jewish features — nose and eyes — seem to disappear.
Anzia’s prose could be clunky and melodramatic, but she had an ear for tart dialogue and vivid characters. In her story “Hunger,” a young woman balks at her uncle’s complaints about the meal she’s made for him: “What a fuss over a little less salt!” she cries. When the old man says the Talmud gives a man the right to divorce his wife for not salting his soup, the young woman fires back: “Maybe that’s why Aunt Gittel went to the grave before her time – worrying how to please your taste in the mouth.”
Yezierska didn’t enter the limelight to please. Among other targets, she took on the state of male-female relationships: “American Man Must Be Nearly 60 Before He Really Loves, Says Novelist,” sounded the NY Evening Telegram in a profile of her in early 1923.
Yezierska’s rollercoaster fame finally rode her to Hollywood, where she received $200 a week as a studio-employed screenwriter. It was a fortune at the time, but it gave her vertigo. She felt lost in California, cut off from her stories and people. She left after a few months, writing “This is What $10,000 Did to Me” for Cosmopolitan. She married twice and ended both marriages, raised a daughter, had an affair with philosopher John Dewey, published five more novels and another collection of stories, and struggled.
In 1964, speaking at Purdue, Anzia described just how the Lower East Side’s voices first inspired her to write:
“What started me on [my first] story was the sight of a crazed mother, looking among the pushcarts for her lost child. ‘People! My child! Find me my child! My Benny! My best child from all my children!’
“And when a policeman came, leading a frightened, pale-faced little boy, the way that mother slapped and cursed her Benny, her best child of all her children! “A fire should burn you! The waters should drown you! Thunder and lightning should strike you! Haven’t I enough worries over my head, without you getting lost on me?”
It was this voice that she turned into literature – and in portraying complex characters in a society contorted by change, she offers a model of courage for all of us today who call ourselves writers.
Next: The price of being a renegade, and the legacy.