Mary Antin was born in Plotzk in what was then czarist Russia. Antin’s place of birth and her Jewishness determined what her identity would have been had her family stayed in Polotzk. Had they stayed, she would have been an Orthodox Jewish wife of a Jewish man, the mother of Jewish children, and a woman with only enough education to enable her to read the Psalms in Hebrew. As a Jew, she could not live beyond the pale of settlement in Russia and could never become assimilated into Russian society. As a young child, she felt stifled by this identity.
In The Promised Land she compares her moving at age thirteen to America, where she felt she had freedom to choose her own identity, to the Hebrews’ escape from bondage in Egypt. In America, she received a free education in Boston public schools. She had access to public libraries. She had access to settlement houses, like Hale House (in which she later worked), where she experienced American culture. She had a freedom of which she could hardly dream in Europe. The woman who in Polotzk would never have become more than barely literate chose for herself in the New World the identity of a writer and social worker. At fifteen, she published her first poem in the Boston Herald. At eighteen, she published her first autobiographical volume, From Plotzk to Boston, which resulted in her being hailed as a child prodigy. Eventually, she reworked the material from this book into her masterpiece, The Promised Land.
After being graduated from Girls Latin School in Boston, Antin went to the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City and then to Barnard College, where she met and married Amadeus W. Grabau, a geologist, Columbia professor, and gentile. She felt that her marriage cemented her chosen identity as a fully assimilated American. Although her husband eventually left her and settled in China, she never lost her faith in the possibilities of total assimilation into American society. She felt that since she had become fully assimilated, so could all other Jewish immigrants to the country she spoke of without irony as the promised land.