Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

By the time she wrote Bread Givers, Yezierska had undergone the pivotal experience of her literary career. The success of Hungry Hearts (1920), her collected short stories, brought her fame and a contract as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Away from the ghetto which was both the setting and inspiration for her creative efforts, Yezierska suffered from writer’s block and a painful sense of dissociation. The experience confirmed Yezierska’s cultural identity, and her resolve to return to Hester Street was marked by the awareness that with financial success, “I could buy everything I wanted except the driving force I had to inspire my work.”

Faithfully reproducing the battle Yezierska waged against poverty and cultural taboo, the romantic plot which gives Bread Givers a conventional sense of closure solves another dilemma that Yezierska faced: How can one establish independence without giving up the notion of romantic happiness? Variation on the themes of her own life was deliberately cathartic; as she wrote, “I thought by writing out what I don’t know and can’t understand it will stop hurting me.”

The clear poignancy of her literary style does not belie the hardships Yezierska endured to learn English from a janitor’s daughter, but instead transports the reader into her world without pretense or self-effacement. As one contemporary critic noted of her writing, “One does not seem to read, one is too completely inside.”

Approaching middle age, Yezierska stopped writing novels and stories, and her popularity waned. In Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950), her autobiography, she voices the belief that sacrificing cultural roots was too high a price for the recognition she had once craved. The mid-1970’s republication of Bread Givers and other out-of-print books by Yezierska has fortunately made her work widely available. The returning popularity of her work testifies to the universal emotional appeal and unique voice which first established her literary reputation.