The Promised Land Essay - Critical Context

Mary Antin

Critical Context

As the title of The Promised Land indicates, the book is primarily a hymn in praise of American life and Americanization. Like many autobiographers, Antin insists that her experiences are not unique. In fact, in narrating her adventures, she claims that she is “speaking for thousands.” She writes not only to entertain her American readers with the story of her adventures but also to make them sympathetic to the plight of the immigrant, so that they will continue to welcome thousands of immigrants yearly into the United States. She continues this task in another book, They Who Knock at the Gates (1914), which argues in favor of the American policy of unrestricted immigration. In both that book and The Promised Land, Antin reacts against forces that wanted to restrict immigration severely, especially from southern and eastern Europe. Antin’s argument in both books is essentially that immigrants make extremely good and patriotic citizens, as they come from nations that deprive them of the status of first-class citizens into a nation that treats them as the equals of all other people. She wonders how they can help but love such a nation and how the United States can want to restrict the number of new citizens of this sort.

The Promised Land is considered to be a piece of young adult literature mainly because of its treatment of the growth of a girl from childhood into young adulthood. It forcefully describes Antin’s journey from a childhood of almost unbearable restriction to an adolescence of previously unimaginable freedom and opportunity. The book is considered a classic in large part because of the insight that it gives into the Jewish immigrant’s situation and state of mind, both in the Old World and the New.

Some reviewers of the book found it overly optimistic, claiming that a book such as Ludwig Lewisohn’s Up Stream: An American Chronicle (1922) presents a more realistic view of the immigrant’s situation in the United States. Nevertheless, The Promised Land presents realistically the kind of vibrant optimism with which many of the young immigrants faced their American adventures.