(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Promised Land is Mary Antin’s mature autobiography. In it, she tells the story of what she considers her escape from bondage in Eastern Europe and her finding of freedom in America. Early in the book, she compares herself to a treadmill horse who can only go round and round in the same circle. She sees herself in Polotzk in what was then Russia as imprisoned by her religion (Jews were allowed to live only in certain places in Czarist Russia and only to work at certain trades) and her sex (among Orthodox Jews in Eastern Europe, women were not permitted education beyond learning to read the Psalms in Hebrew).

After her father suffered a long illness and as a result failed in business, he went to America. His family followed him to Boston, where Mary grew up. In America, she felt that she had all the freedom she lacked in the Old World. She could get free secular education. The public schools of Boston, she felt, opened new intellectual vistas for her. She also had access to public libraries and settlement houses that provided her with cultural activities. Thus, she felt she had “a kingdom in the slums.”

She responded to America’s possibilities by doing extremely well in school and by publishing her first poem when she was fifteen. Her father proudly bought copies of the newspaper in which it appeared and distributed it to friends and neighbors, bragging about his daughter the writer.

She became a member of the Natural History Club of Boston, and through it, learned about the lives of its members who, she felt, represented what was best about America, a country in which she felt she was a welcomed participant. Visiting many of the members in their homes, she became convinced that she had true equality in America.

In her book, Antin says that if she could accomplish so much, so can all immigrants. She admits that her father, because of an inability to master the English language and because of bad luck, did not prosper in the New World, but she still remains optimistic about America and about the possibilities of total assimilation for America’s immigrant population. Whereas the Old World represents, for her, lack of freedom and a predetermined identity, she sees the New World as representing freedom and the ability to choose her own identity.