In the summer of 1920, the writer Anzia Yezierska needed an income. Five years earlier, she had sold her first story, “The Free Vacation House,” to the literary journal The Forum for twenty-five dollars. With the money she’d earned from her fiction, set in the Jewish Lower East Side, she had rented a furnished room in midtown. But the magazine payments didn’t go far, and Yezierska supported herself between publications through temporary jobs as a night-school teacher, a charity worker, an academic researcher, and a waitress. City rents were rising with postwar inflation, so she wore old clothes, cooked simple meals on a hot plate, and moved to a cheaper room on East 101st Street in July.
That October, Yezierska would publish her first book, “Hungry Hearts,” a collection of her short stories. In the months before and after the book came out, she frequently wrote to her Boston-based publisher, Houghton Mifflin, proposing marketing schemes. She suggested that Herbert Hoover, who had fed the starving war refugees in Europe, write a preface, and that W. T. Benda, the well-known Polish illustrator, design the jacket cover. The advance sales of “Hungry Hearts” were disappointing. Yezierska asked her editor, Ferris Greenslet, to send copies to the poet Amy Lowell, the philosopher John Dewey, and the editor Max Eastman, of The Masses. Her letters requesting that Greenslet meet her in New York to discuss the book’s promotion went unanswered for weeks.
In November, impatient with her publisher’s efforts, Yezierska visited the office of the syndicated newspaper columnist Frank Crane. She sold another story. “Here was an East Side Jewess that had struggled and suffered in the desperate battle for life amid the swarms of New York,” Crane wrote about her, in his column shortly thereafter. The struggles he evoked were not those of Yezierska’s recent past but those of the immigrant neighborhood she had first left nearly twenty years ago. “From a sweatshop worker to a famous writer!” he exclaimed.
The story that Yezierska told Crane about her life wasn’t false, but it was incomplete. She was born in Poland around 1880 and immigrated to the United States with her family as a child. The ten Yezierska children and their parents lived for a time in a tenement on the Lower East Side, and Anzia may, at one point, have worked in a sweatshop. But Crane’s account of Yezierska’s ascent from immigrant poverty omitted the roughly two decades in between her first departure from her parents’ home and the publication of her first book. During that time, she lived in a Socialist dormitory just north of Greenwich Village, a new apartment in the Bronx suburbs, and a house in Long Beach, California, among other places. She attended college; married two men and left both of them; had a daughter and gave her up. It helped that Yezierska, then about forty, usually lied about her age.
The feature brought her the publicity and offers of employment she’d hoped it would: first, the newspapers asked her to write her own syndicated column, then Goldwyn Pictures offered her ten thousand dollars for the film rights to “Hungry Hearts.” In January, Samuel Goldwyn brought Yezierska to Hollywood, where she stayed in the beachfront Miramar Hotel and attended dinner parties with guests who fêted the “sweatshop Cinderella.” In the course of the nineteen-twenties, she published three striking and original novels—“Salome of the Tenements” (1923), “Bread Givers” (1925), and “Arrogant Beggar” (1927)—about Jewish immigrant women who rose out of poverty.
When critics praised Yezierska’s work in her lifetime, it was most often for its authenticity. “One does not seem to read,” the Yale professor William Lyon Phelps wrote, of “Bread Givers,” in The Literary Digest International Book Review. “One is too completely inside.” But her novels were less realistic depictions of the Lower East Side than parables set in that place, informed by the twenty years she’d spent outside it. In those two intervening decades, radicals and artists sought to redefine what it meant to be a woman worker and a working mother. Yezierska’s literary efforts were part of those experiments. She turned to fiction, as the literary scholar Susan Edmunds writes, when confronted with the limited possibilities available in her own life.
After the stock market crashed in 1929, Yezierska lost most of her savings, and readers seemed to lose their interest in her stories of poverty. Well-known male Jewish writers such as Alter Brody and Joseph Gaer had accused her of assimilationism and playing into stereotypes with her Yiddish-inflected prose. A fourth novel, “All I Could Never Be” (1932), flopped, and she did not publish another full-length work for eighteen years. Shortly before her death in 1970, she sold her last story for twenty-five dollars, the same amount for which she sold her first.
She remained mostly obscure until the historian Alice Kessler-Harris spearheaded the reissue of “Bread Givers” in 1975, and scholars gained a renewed interest in Yezierska’s work for its representations of immigrant life and its feminist themes. This month, Penguin reissued “Bread Givers” again, with a foreword by the writer Deborah Feldman that situates the novel in Yezierska’s shtetl past. But perhaps the most important contribution of “Bread Givers” is the world it imagines beyond the shtetl and the tenements; it looks, instead, to a future not yet made.
Like Chelm, the fictionalized village of fools in Yiddish oral tradition, Yezierska’s Lower East Side—with its crowded dwellings, pushcart peddlers, and narrow alleys—evokes a real place but functionally exists outside of geography and historical time. The characters who often reappear across Yezierska’s œuvre aren’t quite fools so much as idealists, immigrants arriving in America and encountering the contrast between their dreams of freedom and prosperity and the reality of drudgery and poverty.
The villagers of Chelm believe that they are wise men. Yezierska’s characters don’t realize that Old World wisdom looks like foolishness in the New World. Reb Smolinsky, the patriarch of “Bread Givers,” finds that the single-minded devotion to religious learning that conferred his high status in the Old World makes him a dupe and a schnorrer—a lazy beggar—in the eyes of Americans. He’s outraged when the landlady interrupts his worship to collect the rent; she sees only another deadbeat.
Oblivious to the inversion of his once prestigious position, Reb Smolinsky remains a tyrant in the home. Only men can study the Holy Torah, whereas women have the less exalted duty of earning a wage. The three older daughters of Reb Smolinsky labor in sweatshops. Sara Smolinsky, the book’s protagonist, who is too young for the factory at the novel’s start, sells herring at the pushcart market. Her first earnings inspire ecstasy:
Yezierska’s prose, with its breathless fragments, repetitions, and mixed metaphors, creates its own frenetic motion. First, it’s the herring dancing, and then happiness, and then Sara herself. Early critics often mistook Yezierska’s writing as the product of uncontrolled emotion, but her exclamations—always revised in countless drafts—propel her stories forward. For Sara, the exhilaration of the herring sale soon gives way to the routine of work and need. The Smolinsky girls aren’t Horatio Alger’s heroes, saving their earnings and advancing their careers. Their incomes serve to make the true honored work—Reb Smolinsky’s religious study—possible. Reb Smolinsky’s wife skims the fat off the soup for his portion while serving herself and her daughters watery broth. “Bread givers” is a direct translation of the Yiddish phrase “broit gibbers,” meaning “breadwinners.” It evokes obligation and dependency more than accomplishment.
Reb Smolinsky finds that in the New World, the economic structure of the family is flipped. When Berel, a more assimilated Jew, courts the oldest Smolinsky daughter, Bessie, he thinks that he’s doing the Reb an act of kindness to offer to marry her without asking for a dowry. But the Reb insists that the suitor pay him: if she marries, after all, he’ll lose his best earner. Like the real-life garment workers who sang Yiddish folk songs about the husbands who would rescue them from days and nights of endless sewing, the older Smolinsky daughters see marriage to middle-class, Americanized men as freedom from the drudgery of waged labor. But their husbands turn out to be unreliable providers, squandering their earnings on frivolous things for themselves. Fania Smolinsky’s spouse, like the actual husband of Yezierska’s sister Fannie, is a card-playing clothing merchant. He’s named, unsubtly, Abe Schmukler.
Anzia Yezierska left her father’s home in 1900, at the age of about twenty, joining the thousands of women in her generation who sought to make their way as independent wage earners. She lived for a time in the Clara de Hirsch Home for working girls, whose wealthy patrons tried to rescue single young women from immoral temptations by training them as servants. The home awarded Yezierska a scholarship to Columbia University so that she could become a teacher of domestic science. Her pedagogical method, she later recounted, was to ask the class if anyone knew how to bake a ham, and then to direct whoever answered to lead the rest of the lesson.
Yezierska received her real education while working as a teacher and living at the residential Rand School of Social Science. The Socialists who ran it didn’t think that workers needed training, or saving: rather, they hoped to supplement their “toil-won knowledge” so that they could change the world. Her close friend at the time, Rose Pastor, a Russian-born cigar-factory worker, married the millionaire Graham Stokes and used her resulting celebrity to help found the American Communist Party, organize garment workers, and advocate for birth-control access. Yezierska admired Pastor Stokes’s play “The Woman Who Wouldn’t,” which tells the story of a single mother who refuses to marry, instead joining the labor movement in the hopes that one day no child would experience want.
Yezierska also stayed in touch with her sister Helena, who, like her mother, had ten children and lived in a tenement. Helena ran a mutual-aid society, its membership comprising poor mothers no longer willing to rely on the contingent contributions of husbands or charity workers. Yezierska wrote down the stories that Helena told her about those women, and began sending them to magazines.