Thursday, January 23, 2014

Guest Post: David Taylor on Anzia Yezierska, Part II

Anzia Yerierska as a teenager in 1910s New York.

Anzia Yezierska paid a price for being a renegade.  During the Depression, when popular tastes turned against stories about immigrants, her career guttered, and she had few reserves in terms of money and contacts to keep her afloat.  But even down and out, she nurtured her rebel side.

Depression / Federal Writers Project

In the 1930s, dwindling finances forced her to take government relief, but Anzia turned to the Federal Writer's Project,to help make some money and practice her craft. Here she found a dazzling community of talent that I talk about in my book Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America.

Anzia later described one encounter she had in the WPA cafeteria with a young Richard Wright after he won a prize his fiction:
Richard Wright in 1939.

“He handed me a copy of Story magazine… with the announcement that the first prize of the WPA Writers’ Contest was awarded to Richard Wright…  ‘Five hundred bucks!... And they’re going to publish my book!’

“In his eyes I saw my own elation thirty years ago when my first story was published… I knew the double-edged thrill of his triumph. It was not only recognition for his talent, but balm for all he had suffered as a Negro. I thought of Hollywood, when I’d been as intoxicated with the triumph over my handicaps as Wright was now… He would know how to take success for what it was worth and not become rattled by it as I had been…”

Anzia enjoyed the limelight again briefly in the 1950s with her memoir, Red Ribbon on a White Horse.  After that, though, she was mostly forgotten. She continued to write and live in New York City, dying in poverty in 1970.


Anzia Yezierska has influenced generations of writers who managed to discover her work.  The late Grace Paley, another brash and wonderful Jewish writer of short stories who grew up later in the East Bronx, was one. “I loved them,” Paley said of Yezierska’s stories in a telephone interview. “I read her later. When I got away from 'literature' I became close to the literature that I had to do." That is, with an ear to the language of the neighborhoods.”

In 1998, the critic Margo Jefferson ranked Yezierska’s Salomé of the Tenements among seven novels demanding to be filmed. Salomé was inspired by Yezierska’s friend Rose Pastor, who championed socialist causes, protested World War I, was tried and convicted of violating the espionage act of 1917 with her writings against the war (her case was dismissed in 1921), divorced, and later became a successful dress designer.

Yezierska’s own life story, rising from poverty to literary success, still strikes people today. Kyle Semmel, a writer and translator, invoked her immigrant story when he applied to a nonprofit that helps first-generation college students. Like many first-generation immigrants, she lived with her impoverished family and helped support them, selling items to vendors while studying English in night school. When everyone else in the family was asleep, she would crawl up to the roof “and talk out my heart to the stars. Who am I? What am I? What do I want with my life?”

“Yezierska’s case is a distinctly American one,” Semmel wrote, “and it mirrors the situation many young people find themselves in today: talented, eager and hard-working, but ultimately uncertain about their future because their families are in lower-income brackets.”

Hollywood and Broadway

Now in 2014, both Hollywood and Broadway are about to present striking glimpses into Anzia’s world – 1920s Manhattan and its strong woman burdened by hard life and hard choices.

 The Immigrant, a new film starring Marion Cotillard, got a standing ovation at Cannes last spring and gets its U.S. debut soon. The Village Voice called the film, about a Polish
Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant.
immigrant new to New York, “a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic.”

On Broadway, Rebecca Hall (Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and Iron Man 3) will debut in a revival of Machinal, a 1928 play by the journalist/playwright Sophie Treadwell, inspired by the true story of a woman driven to murder. (The same murder provided the seed for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity).


Anzia Yezierska’s set a model decades before what became known as the women's movement.  The 1920s were very much the modern world,” says Amy Bloom, author of the bestselling novel Away, whose protagonist (like Yezierska) escapes pogroms in Russia to face the trials of the New World. “We had cars and telephones and radio and movies. And I think that the struggle within women—between what is expected of them, discovering their own natures and trying to make their way in the world and be reasonably successful in whatever world they choose to be in—is always an issue.”

For Bloom, who gave voice to Yezierska in the 2009 documentary Soul of a People, which Andrea Kalin and I produced, Anzia’s hungry spirit and her characters would always slam against society’s norms. “By and large, women didn’t design the norm,” said Bloom, “so it doesn't always suit them.  But it doesn’t mean they don’t want to try to make their way in the bigger world.”

When Rebecca Hall and Marion Cotillard step into the footlights, they may remind us of another pioneer from that era still waiting in the wings.

David A. Taylor is a Washington, DC-based writer of prize-winning books, articles and films. His books include Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America and The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy. Twitter: @dataylor1

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Guest Blog: David Taylor on Anzia Yezierska, America's Immigrant "Hungry Heart" of the 1920s

Publicity photo of Anzia Yezierska from Goldwyn studio period, circa 1922.

Click here for Part II on Anzia, her legacy on Broadway, on more. 

You’ve probably never heard of Anzia Yezierska.  But not too long ago, this foreign-sounding name was the toast of New York publishing and Hollywood films.  Anzia Yezierska got attention because she wrote in a voice that demanded it.  She spoke not only for the flood of new immigrants flooding New York’s lower East Side in the early 1900s – Jews, Poles, Italians, and the ethnic strangers to Old America – but also for women carving out a strong new role.

Even if you haven’t read her books (click here for her Amazon page), you certainly know her characters.  This winter, Hollywood and Broadway give us two striking glimpses into Anzia’s world of the 1920s, a fitting tribute a century later, but more on that in Part II of this Post.

Anzia directly confronted the bastion of white male writers dominating American letters in the 1910s and 1920s.  Speaking out in the prestigious New York Times Book Review for a foreign-born author denied a university job in 1922, she openly threatened the cloistered old regime: “The generations that went before in America have little to say to us,” she wrote. “They could not begin to imagine the new world of the Melting Pot.”

Her Novels:

Scene from film version of Hungry Hearts, 1922.
Anzia Yezierska made her name through critically acclaimed novels set in Manhattan’s impoverished Lower East Side – her immigrant world -- that earned her the sobriquet "Cinderella of the Tenements."  Her stories like Hungry Hearts and Salomé of the Tenements featured tough, independent characters.  Her 1920 Hungry Hearts—tracing the lives and loves of Jewish immigrant women—became a well-reviewed Hollywood film in 1922 for the Goldwyn Company, the first time this Jewish-owned firm tried to show actual lives of Jewish people. (Click to see a clip.)

Born in Poland and reaching New York as a child in the 1890s, Anzia had to create her destiny by fighting both poverty and tradition.   Her parents refused to send her to college, so she sent herself.   Anzia’s daughter, writing years later, described how her mother “withheld from her wages enough money to pay for a year at the New York City Normal College.” Anzia ironed clothes in a laundry before and after classes.  Ultimately, she won her college degree. But having to defy her parents made her feel like a nomad. “She wrote about this as homelessness,” her daughter Louise wrote, “being lost between her parents’ Old World and the new world.”
Notice how, in the newspaper drawing, Anzia's
Jewish features -- nose and eyes -- seem to disappear.

Her voice:

Anzia’s prose could be clunky and melodramatic, but she had an ear for tart dialogue and vivid characters.  In her story “Hunger,” a young woman balks at her uncle’s complaints about the meal she’s made for him: “What a fuss over a little less salt!” she cries. When the old man says the Talmud gives a man the right to divorce his wife for not salting his soup, the young woman fires back: “Maybe that’s why Aunt Gittel went to the grave before her time – worrying how to please your taste in the mouth.”

Yezierska didn’t enter the limelight to please.  Among other targets, she took  on the state of male-female relationships: “American Man Must Be Nearly 60 Before He Really Loves, Says Novelist,” sounded the NY Evening Telegram in a profile of her in early 1923. 


Yezierska’s rollercoaster fame finally rode her to Hollywood, where she received $200 a week as a studio-employed screenwriter.  It was a fortune at the time, but it gave her vertigo.  She felt lost in California, cut off from her stories and people. She left after a few months, writing “This is What $10,000 Did to Me” for Cosmopolitan.  She married twice and ended both marriages, raised a daughter, had an affair with philosopher John Dewey, published five more novels and another collection of stories, and struggled.


In 1964, speaking at Purdue, Anzia described just how the Lower East Side’s voices first inspired her to write:“What started me on [my first] story was the sight of a crazed mother, looking among the pushcarts for her lost child. ‘People! My child! Find me my child! My Benny! My best child from all my children!’

“And when a policeman came, leading a frightened, pale-faced little boy, the way that mother slapped and cursed her Benny, her best child of all her children! “A fire should burn you! The waters should drown you! Thunder and lightning should strike you! Haven’t I enough worries over my head, without you getting lost on me?”

It was this voice that she turned into literature – and in portraying complex characters in a society contorted by change, she offers a model of courage for all of us today who call ourselves writers.

Next: The price of being a renegade, and the legacy.

David A. Taylor is a Washington, DC-based writer of prize-winning books, articles and films. His books include Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America and The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy. Twitter: @dataylor1