Monday, September 6, 2010

The Promised Land: The Autobiography of a Russian Immigrant by Mary Antin 1912

"The Promised Land brought [Antin] nationwide fame, selling nearly 85,000 copies before her death."  from the biographical entry on Antin written by Pamela S. Nadell published in the Jewish Women's Archive.

The Promised Land, first serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1912, was written by Mary Antin (b. 1881) to plead the case of the immigrant. She does this forcefully and movingly by describing who she was and what she achieved as an American Jewish immigrant. Antin was primarily interested in four subjects: economics, education, religion, and assimilation.

In focusing on these topics she contrasted the old world and the new. She starts by telling us about conditions in the old country which were the reasons for emigrating. In early chapters she describes her religious/cultural heritage, detailing the backgrounds of each of her parents and how they came to marry.

Her beautiful writing involves recreating the community of Polotzk, Belarus, with its characters like the local rabbi, the person in the community who arranged marriages, the person who was a wedding messenger and the wedding jester. She describes in some detail her father’s religious education, how highly prized such an education was in the community. She writes about the struggle to survive – about the Pale of Settlement and its boundaries – about how the Jews were increasingly hampered by anti-Semitic laws that further limited their abilities to support their families. And they worried about pogroms.

She then has a richly detailed section of a chapter that covers the trials and tribulations of the overland trip to and the wait in Hamburg, Germany, her mother clutching third class tickets her father who had already emigrated had sent them. At thirteen years of age, she, her mother and her three siblings finally boarded a ship bound for Boston where they were reunited with their husband/father who had been in America for three years. In this section she quotes in translation from a long letter she had written to her uncle (in Yiddish) who was back in Vitebsk when what they experienced was vividly fresh in her mind.

The last half of the memoir concerns the family’s early years in Boston, the slums, the hardships, and the opportunities.  Mary Antin was a precocious child; her parents and others realized it back in Potolzk, but girls did not attend school. In America the notions of equality and public education were truly marvelous and though she started school at the age of thirteen knowing no English, she accelerated quickly due to wonderful teachers in the public schools she credits with grooming her for her future. Throughout this time her parents struggled financially. She describes the slums where they lived without shame. Her parents never gained an economic foothold in America, but Antin credits them and her older sister with having been eager to sacrifice for her future. Her fifteen-year-old sister went right to work once they landed – she in large part supported the family. Antin as the star pupil was encouraged to stay in school.

With her Atlantic Monthly readers in mind Antin spends some time discussing assimilation. She writes about its difficulties, especially for the first generation, But she champions it, and gives examples from her own family that do not distress her. For example, she writes that her mother gave up her wig which she had worn due to religious strictures and her father worked on Saturdays. She also talks about the role that the public library and Hale House, a settlement house, played in her education and acculturation.

Note: The copyright on this book has expired and so it is available in inexpensive reprints. But you might want to look for the 1969 Houghton Mifflin edition which has a very interesting foreword by Oscar Handlin the noted historian on immigration who contextualizes Antin’s memoir by writing about the anti-immigration fervor in the air at the time. Written in 1968, Handlin also writes about Antin’s subsequent life. And he points out that she dedicated the book to Josephine Lazarus, sister of Emma Lazarus of Statue of Liberty fame, and explains their connection.There is also a 1997 edition published by Penguin with an extensive introduction that discusses the memoir mainly from a literary perspective written by Professor Werner Sollors from Harvard University. That edition includes the original photos and has an extensive bibliography for further reading.

This memoir contains a Glossary that explains Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian names and terms.

To read a digitized version of the 1912 edition with photos, click here.

To read a very interesting article in the Harvard University Gazette about Mary Antin  which includes an interview with one of her granddaughters on the occasion of a celebration of a 1997 Penguin re-issue of Antin's memoir, click here.

Author’s father’s family (Note: no last names are included - just nicknames and relationships)
Lebe the Innkeeper – author’s father’s great grandfather
    Hayyim the Glazier – Lebe’s son; married to Rachel Leah; author’s great grandparents
        Joseph – son of Hayyim and Rachel Leah; married Rachel; author’s grandparents
            Pinchus – son of Joseph and Rachel; married Hannah Hayye; author’s parents
                Fetchke (Freida) – Pinchus and Hannah Hayye’s daughter; married Moses Rifkin
                Maryashe (Mary) – Pinchus and Hannah Hayye’s daughter; author
                Joseph – Pinchus and Hannah Hayye’s son
                Deborah (Dora) – Pinchus and Hannah Hayye’s daughter
                May – Pinchus2 and Hanna Hayye’s daughter
                Celia – Pinchus and Hanna Hayye’s daughter
    Israel Kimanyer –  author’s father’s grandfather
        Rachel – Israel’s daughter; married Joseph son of Hayyim the Glazier
            Solomon – author’s father’s brother?
                Hushel, Dinke, Mendele, Perele – his children

Author’s mother’s family
    Deborah – married to Raphael the Russian; author’s great-grandparents
              Hannah Hayye (Esther Weltman); (father is Moshe Hayyim) – Deborah and Raphael’s daughter; author’s parents
               Hode Weltman – Deborah and Raphael the Russian’s daughter

Places and Institutions

Polotzk, Belarus
Vitebsk, Belarus
Boston, Massachusetts
Wheeler St., Dover St., Harrison Avenue, the South End of Boston, Massachusetts
Revere Beach, Revere, Massachusetts
Chelsea, Massachusetts
Hale House

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