BOOKS AUGUST 1, 2012
by Mary Antin
Penguin Classics, 220 pp., $16
I WAS BORN, I have lived, and I have been made over. Is it not time to write my life’s story?” With that, Mary Antin both announced herself as a writer and changed public opinion about the value of immigration to America. Antin’s ringing endorsement of Americanization—of being “made over”—which appeared in 1912 in her autobiography, The Promised Land, probably did more to assuage civic concern about the masses of new Americans than any other pronouncement of the day. A hundred years after it was first released, Antin’s account remains a timely reminder of what is at stake when it comes to welcoming—or shunning—the foreign-born.
At the time The Promised Land was published, as now, doubts about the assimilability of immigrants ran high, prompting the federal government to institute a formal study of the ins and outs of the “immigrant question.” Training its sights on where “aliens” lived, how they earned their keep, their racial make-up, bodily forms, and political beliefs, the Dillingham Commission—as it was popularly called—amassed forty-one volumes of “data,” all with an eye toward formulating a policy of “intelligent action” rooted in the notion of “racial desirability.”
Antin turned that on its head, giving short shrift to nativism. In two brisk sentences, she momentarily assuaged the anxieties of those who fretted lest the “invasion” of immigrants from abroad dilute and weaken the body politic. And in the process, Mary (née Mashka) Antin, the daughter of Yisroel Pinhas and Esther Hannah Haye, became a household name.
A native of Polotzk, a city in the Russian Pale of Settlement to which the Jews had been consigned ever since the late eighteenth century, Mary Antin told Americans what they wanted to hear about assimilation in America. In exuberant prose that jumped off the page, she offered herself up as an example of the immigrant’s plasticity and capacity for transformation. As The New York Times sympathetically observed in the wake of the book’s publication, “We may understand, as we have never been able to understand before, why the journey from Russia to America is like the Exodus of old and why this country of ours, with all its poverty, with all its slums, with all its industrial problems, and its ‘armies of the unemployed,’ is still the land of promise.”
Reassuring and comforting, The Promised Land took off like a shot, selling thousands of copies. Here was the tale of an immigrant who not only mastered English but also made it her own. More importantly, it was the story of an immigrant who was quick to jettison her distinctive, age-old traditions in favor of an American sensibility. Whether writing of her fevered efforts in grade school to come up with a poem in honor of George Washington’s birthday—“We hail our Washington!”—or learning to appreciate the “pelting acorn, the scurrying squirrel” of the New England countryside, Antin was determined to give herself unstintingly to her adopted country—or as she puts it so tellingly, to “exchange Polotzk for America.”
Antin did not ignore her immigrant background. At least half the book, and some of its most rollicking prose, is given over to an affectionate account of her Russian Jewish childhood, the enveloping rituals of traditional Judaism and the sweetest cherries imaginable. “Among the liveliest of my memories,” she told her readers, “are those of eating and drinking … Why, I can dream away a half-hour on the immortal flavor of those thick cheese cakes we used to have on Saturday night … It takes history to make such a cake.”
For all its liveliness, Antin’s description of her Old World experiences is a study in contrast, the literary counterpart to the “before” and “after” photographs that immigrants were so fond of sending to their relatives back home: the “before” highlighting the greenhorn in her dowdy, old-fashioned immigrant garb, the “after” an unabashed salute to the newly natty American. She was also not inclined to talk of “immigrant gifts,” in the vocabulary of the short-lived Progressive movement that showcased how immigrants enriched America by way of music, dance, food, and the imagination. The past, the refashioned Antin wrote lyrically toward the close of her narrative, “was only my cradle, and now it cannot hold me, because I am grown too big.”
Ultimately the book’s appeal hung on the way in which it simultaneously defanged and humanized immigrants, softening the guttural sounds of their language and encouraging a native-born audience to root, root, root for its author and, by extension, her counterparts as they, too, sought their footing in the New World. “Became we came, the New World knew not the Old; but since we have begun to come, the Young World has taken the Old by the hand; and the two are learning to march side by side, seeking a common destiny,” she trilled.
It helped her cause that Antin’s Zion was the United States, not Palestine: by her lights, the foliage of New England was a “burning bush,” George Washington a latter-day Moses, and the Boston Public Library a “temple.” Though it may strike the contemporary reader as corny and heavy-handed, her knowing deployment of Old Testament nomenclature profoundly resonated with the biblically minded citizens of the New World. The immigrant Antin spoke their language, literally as well as metaphorically. The foreigner’s tongue was not so foreign, after all.
From time to time, disgruntled voices questioned Antin’s right to lay claim to America. The well-born Barrett Wendell, a professor of English and American literature at Harvard, was among them. Antin “has developed an irritating habit of describing herself and her people as Americans, in distinction from such folks as Edith ([his wife] and me, who have been here for three hundred years,” he harrumphed in 1917 in a letter to a friend, as her fame continued to mount.
Such uncharitable responses to The Promised Land did little to dull the public’s embrace of the book. But as the years passed, it lost its hold on the imagination, a casualty of changing attitudes toward Americanization. Increasingly sensitive to the coerciveness of the process rather than its beneficence, latter-day readers found Antin’s rah-rah perspective much too Pollyanna-ish, let alone insensitive to the loss, the dissolution, and the psychological costs of transplantation.
By the 1960s, Antin and her vision of America had fallen from grace. Even so, The Promised Land continued to be read, especially in the classroom. The proliferation of college courses on immigration, gender, social history, and Jewish history ensured a posthumous and steady supply of readers, most of whom now approached the text skeptically: as a cautionary tale rather than as a celebration.
I, too, assign The Promised Land from time to time, and enjoy the conversations that ensue about Antin’s limitations. But recently I had my comeuppance, a reminder of its staying power. One of the students in my class, a recent immigrant from Kazakhstan, obtained the book from the library. As luck would have it, the rather battered volume she borrowed turned out to have been an original edition from 1912. A long string of dates, stretching from pre–World War I America until the present, marched across the flyleaf, implanting this undergraduate within a longstanding American community of readers. More poignantly still, while most of the students in the class challenged Antin’s assumptions, she took the foreign born writer to heart and, in heavily accented English, praised The Promised Land right and left. This book, my Kazakhstani American student assured us, made her feel right at home.
Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at The George Washington University, where she also directs its Program in Judaic Studies and MA in Jewish Cultural Arts.