Anzia Yezierska (yih-ZYIHR-skuh), novelist and short-story writer, is generally acclaimed as a founding mother of Jewish American immigrant literature and Jewish feminism. Born into poverty in Russian Poland, Yezierska immigrated with her parents in the 1890’s to the Jewish ghetto on the lower East Side of New York. The daughter of a Talmudic scholar, Yezierska helped support the family with various menial tasks in sweatshops, laundries, and private homes. She was determined to move up in the world, however, and attended night school to learn English. A scholarship enabled her to graduate from Columbia University Teachers College with certification in domestic science.
Yezierska’s first marriage in 1910 was annulled almost immediately. Married to Arnold Levitas the following year, she insisted on a religious rather than a legally binding civil ceremony. A daughter, Louise, was born ten months later. Yezierska soon quit the marriage, but unable to support herself and a child, she returned Louise to her father, maintaining close contact with her throughout life.
While struggling to support herself through substitute teaching, Yezierska published her first story, “The Free Vacation House,” in 1915. The story centers on the humiliating effects of charity on the poor. When Yezierska showed it and other writings to John Dewey, with whom she was romantically involved for a short period, 1917 to 1918, he encouraged her to give up teaching and pursue writing. Yezierska heeded Dewey’s advice and enjoyed almost immediate success. In 1919 the anthologist Edward O’Brien selected “The Fat of the Land” as the best short story of the year. The main character, Hannah Breinah, is an immigrant who spends her life chasing the American Dream, only to find that wealth, once attained, does not bring the happiness she anticipated.
The publisher Houghton Mifflin offered Yezierska a contract for her first collection of short stories, Hungry Hearts, and its publication in 1920 led to wide critical acclaim but limited sales. Always a...
(The entire section is 847 words.)