|Anzia Yerierska as a teenager in 1910s New York.
Anzia Yezierska paid a price for being a renegade. During the Depression, when popular tastes turned against stories about immigrants, her career guttered, and she had few reserves in terms of money and contacts to keep her afloat. But even down and out, she nurtured her rebel side.
Depression / Federal Writers Project
Anzia later described one encounter she had in the WPA cafeteria with a young Richard Wright after he won a prize his fiction:
|Richard Wright in 1939.
“He handed me a copy of Story magazine… with the announcement that the first prize of the WPA Writers’ Contest was awarded to Richard Wright… ‘Five hundred bucks!… And they’re going to publish my book!’
“In his eyes I saw my own elation thirty years ago when my first story was published… I knew the double-edged thrill of his triumph. It was not only recognition for his talent, but balm for all he had suffered as a Negro. I thought of Hollywood, when I’d been as intoxicated with the triumph over my handicaps as Wright was now… He would know how to take success for what it was worth and not become rattled by it as I had been…”
Anzia enjoyed the limelight again briefly in the 1950s with her memoir, Red Ribbon on a White Horse. After that, though, she was mostly forgotten. She continued to write and live in New York City, dying in poverty in 1970.
Anzia Yezierska has influenced generations of writers who managed to discover her work. The late Grace Paley, another brash and wonderful Jewish writer of short stories who grew up later in the East Bronx, was one. “I loved them,” Paley said of Yezierska’s stories in a telephone interview. “I read her later. When I got away from ‘literature’ I became close to the literature that I had to do.” That is, with an ear to the language of the neighborhoods.”
In 1998, the critic Margo Jefferson ranked Yezierska’s Salomé of the Tenements among seven novels demanding to be filmed. Saloméwas inspired by Yezierska’s friend Rose Pastor, who championed socialist causes, protested World War I, was tried and convicted of violating the espionage act of 1917 with her writings against the war (her case was dismissed in 1921), divorced, and later became a successful dress designer.
Yezierska’s own life story, rising from poverty to literary success, still strikes people today. Kyle Semmel, a writer and translator, invoked her immigrant story when he applied to a nonprofit that helps first-generation college students. Like many first-generation immigrants, she lived with her impoverished family and helped support them, selling items to vendors while studying English in night school. When everyone else in the family was asleep, she would crawl up to the roof “and talk out my heart to the stars. Who am I? What am I? What do I want with my life?”
“Yezierska’s case is a distinctly American one,” Semmel wrote, “and it mirrors the situation many young people find themselves in today: talented, eager and hard-working, but ultimately uncertain about their future because their families are in lower-income brackets.”
Hollywood and Broadway
Now in 2014, both Hollywood and Broadway are about to present striking glimpses into Anzia’s world – 1920s Manhattan and its strong woman burdened by hard life and hard choices.
The Immigrant, a new film starring Marion Cotillard, got a standing ovation at Cannes last spring and gets its U.S. debut soon. The Village Voice called the film, about a Polish
|Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant.
immigrant new to New York, “a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic.”
On Broadway, Rebecca Hall (Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and Iron Man 3) will debut in a revival of Machinal, a 1928 play by the journalist/playwright Sophie Treadwell, inspired by the true story of a woman driven to murder. (The same murder provided the seed for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity).
Anzia Yezierska’s set a model decades before what became known as the women’s movement. “The 1920s were very much the modern world,” says Amy Bloom, author of the bestselling novel Away, whose protagonist (like Yezierska) escapes pogroms in Russia to face the trials of the New World. “We had cars and telephones and radio and movies. And I think that the struggle within women—between what is expected of them, discovering their own natures and trying to make their way in the world and be reasonably successful in whatever world they choose to be in—is always an issue.”
For Bloom, who gave voice to Yezierska in the 2009 documentary Soul of a People, which Andrea Kalin and I produced, Anzia’s hungry spirit and her characters would always slam against society’s norms. “By and large, women didn’t design the norm,” said Bloom, “so it doesn’talways suit them. But it doesn’t mean they don’t want to try to make their way in the bigger world.”
When Rebecca Hall and Marion Cotillard step into the footlights, they may remind us of another pioneer from that era still waiting in the wings.