This post also includes Morris Rosenfeld's classic Yiddish poem, "In the Factory"
Dover Press just reissued Anzia Yezierska's (born in Poland 1985, died in Ontario, California in 1970) 1920 collection of short stories, Hungry Hearts, subtitled Stories of the Jewish American Immigrant Experieces. She wrote in English. The publicity release for the new edition says she was the first Jewish American woman writer published in the country.. She immigrated with her family from Poland in 1890. They lived in the Lower East Side Area of New York City. She started out working in garment factories. In 1914, after a brief unsuccessful marriage she moved to San Francisco. Compressing a lot (I will provide a link to the best short biography I found online) she moves back to New York City, starts a relationship with the philosopher John Dewey who encourages her to write fiction based on her early years in America. She is a great success, her novels are best sellers., Samuel Goldwyn produced a movie based on her fiction in 1922. She received from this $100,000, millions today. She worked for a while as a very well paid screen writer.
From the 1922 Movie
So far I have read four stories in Hungry Hearts. All of them seem very honest, giving us real insight on what it felt like to be a young, very smart, Jewish woman from a small village in Poland where you knew everybody to the steaming melting pot that was the Lower East Side of New York City in 1920. She came for the dream of America and she does ultimately find a better life but she has to undergo the struggles of first generation immigrants. She faced prejudice from "real Americans" who thought her dirty, ignorant and a source of possible disease (sounds like the Republican Party platform on immigration!) while fearing how many childen she would produce as burdens on the government. Most often she first worked in garment factory, ten hours a day a slave to a machine. This is not what she came to America seeking. Of course she also dreams of becoming a "real American" and finding love. She is nobody's fool and no coward. She longed for an education. I will just talk briefly about the stories I have read.
"How I Found America"
"How I Found America" is the longest story in the collection. It feels like the author poured her soul into it. As the story opens we are in a small family house in a Shetl in Poland. The family is eating while the father is giving them a lesson from the Torah. An iron boot kicks in the door and a giant Cossack enters the door whip in hand. He tells the father that he must not again violate the law against teaching children where you eat or sleep. A second violation will bring at best a public beating.
In part II of the story a letter arrives from a villager now in America. Everyone is amazed on how wonderful it sounds. He has send fifty kopeks toward the girl telling the story passage. Her parents sell off what they must to get her to America.
Part III is set in the high rise urban slums of The Lower East Side of New York City. Of course she arrives knowing only Yiddish but she quickly learns enough English to coouicate and get a job at a garment factory. She wonders where the vast open spaces of America are, where are the men who will marry a girl with no dowry or no great beauty, where are the free schools. But still it is better than the days under the Cossacks. She begins to go to "immigrant school" but they want to train her to be a servant. She longs for a friend who is a "real American" and a real education. In the close she funds a true friend and as we leave her she is beginning her real education, reading Shelley.
The story is emotional, pulls on your heart strings. I liked the narrator a lot, tough and smart but not hard. The story ends with a kind of Whitmanesque affirmation of America. She finds happiness and I was glad. OK, to borrow a word from Yiddish, maybe it was a bit schmaltzy, but I think most will like this story. I did.
"The Free Vacation House"
"Free Vacation House" is told in the person of woman who has been in America for a few years. She is married and has kids. I want to share with you the prose style of Anzia Yezierska, how she beautifully captures English with the cadence of Yiddish.
As the story opens a woman from a charity organization knocks on her door. She had heard through the older child's teacher that the woman had expressed a wish for a vacation in the country. The charity woman begins to ask her a lot of questions. She doesn't really like this but she answers. Compressing a good bit, she is soon on a train with a group of women chosen to get a free vacation,through the country. She marvels to be away from the Lower East Side. At the home, seems like an old mansion coverted to a hotel, she is treated in a very condescending way. The staff fears the immigrant women will offend the paying guests. The power in the story is in the tension of the woman's longing for the country visit and her shame as being seen as a "charity case".
"Free Soap and Water"
With this story my admiration for Anzia Yezierska soared. I saw Hart Crane's bridge though her eyes. I saw her telling John Dewey the flaws in his philosophy, bargaining with Samuel Goldwyn, and I saw a proud Lamed Shapiro reading her stories with great respect. Maybe I even can see Whitman beaming down.
Anyway the narrator has just completed her college trading to be a teacher. It took her years of saving and working in a laundry to do it. Then the dean of the colleges says she cannot grant her a degree because of bad grooming. She tells her "soap and water is free". Decades of rage boil up inside the normally meek woman, she wants to scream at the dean. The depiction of the thoughts of the woman rise to real art. The woman says she has long been inspired by a poem by Morris Rosenfeld, "In the Factory". Here it is-
"In the Factory"
That oft, unaware that I am, or have been,
I sink and am lost in the terrible tumult;
And void is my soul... I am but a machine.
I work and I work and I work, never ceasing;
Create and create things from morning till e'en;
For what?--and for whom--Oh, I know not! Oh, ask not!
Who ever has heard of a conscious machine?
No, here is no feeling, no thought and no reason;
This life-crushing labor has ever supprest
The noblest and finest, the truest and richest,
The deepest, the highest and humanly best.
The seconds, the minutes, they pass out forever,
They vanish, swift fleeting like straws in a gale.
I drive the wheel madly as tho' to o'ertake them,--
Give chase without wisdom, or wit, or avail.
The clock in the workshop,--it rests not a moment;
It points on, and ticks on: Eternity--Time;
And once someone told me the clock had a meaning,--
Its pointing and ticking had reason and rhyme.
And this too he told me,--or had I been dreaming,--
The clock wakened life in one, forces unseen,
And something besides;... I forget what; Oh, ask not!
I know not, I know not, I am a machine.
At times, when I listen, I hear the clock plainly;--
The reason of old--the old meaning--is gone!
The maddening pendulum urges me forward
To labor and labor and still labor on.
The tick of the clock is the Boss in his anger!
The face of the clock has the eyes of a foe;
The clock--Oh, I shudder--dost hear how it drives me?
It calls me "Machine!" and it cries to me "Sew!"
At noon, when about me the wild tumult ceases,
And gone is the master, and I sit apart,
And dawn in my brain is beginning to glimmer,
The wound comes agape at the core of my heart;
And tears, bitter tears flow; ay, tears that are scalding;
They moisten my dinner--my dry crust of bread;
They choke me,--I cannot eat;--no, no, I cannot!
Oh, horrible toil I born of Need and of Dread.
The sweatshop at mid-day--I'll draw you the picture:
A battlefield bloody; the conflict at rest;
Around and about me the corpses are lying;
The blood cries aloud from the earth's gory breast.
A moment... and hark! The loud signal is sounded,
The dead rise again and renewed is the fight...
They struggle, these corpses; for strangers, for strangers!
They struggle, they fall, and they sink into night.
I gaze on the battle in bitterest anger,
And pain, hellish pain wakes the rebel in me!
The clock--now I hear it aright!--It is crying:
"An end to this bondage! An end there must be!"
It quickens my reason, each feeling within me;
It shows me how precious the moments that fly.
Oh, worthless my life if I longer am silent,
And lost to the world if in silence I die.
The man in me sleeping begins to awaken;
The thing that was slave into slumber has passed:
Now; up with the man in me! Up and be doing!
No misery more! Here is freedom at last!
When sudden: a whistle!--the Boss--an alarum!--
I sink in the slime of the stagnant routine;--
There's tumult, they struggle, oh, lost is my ego;--
I know not, I care not, I am a machine!...
[Translators: Rose Pastor Stokes and Helena Frank - in the publc domain ]
There are seven more stories in the collection. I hope to have them all read soon.
In the interests of full disclosure I was provided with a review copy of this book.
This is a valuable book you can buy for $4.00.
Publicity Photo by Goldwyn Studios