Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Great American Love Story: Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey

Think this is the Great Jewish-WASP Romance? Think again. 
Anzia Yezierska, "a planet on fire rushing toward a darker star with which she must merge to complete their double destiny." Really!
John Dewey. Dead. White. Male. Source.

You can see the idealism in her eyes. Source
And you can see the idealism in his. And a bit of stubborn self-righteousness in his chin. John Dewey in 1902.

Readers cannot hope to encounter any writer nearly as passionate, or as maddening, as Anzia Yezierska. The woman explodes on the page.

And this crazily,





Polish-Jewish-American immigrant sweatshop worker and woman writer, Anzia Yezierska, loved John Dewey, wildly successful ultra-WASP, Vermonter, philosopher, Progressive, and liberal education reformer.

A married man.

Decades older than Yezierska. (She did not know the date of her birth and could not say how old she was.)





A scholar with an international reputation that lasts to this day.

Yezierska and Dewey were the proverbial fire and ice.

They never even had sex.

After a brief, initial spark, Dewey cut Yezierska off completely, refusing to so much as speak to her. She continued to obsess on her one encounter with him for the rest of her life.

Readers can wallow in one thinly fictionalized retelling of their few brief moments together in one Yezierska book after another.

It's embarrassing, really.




I can't get enough of it.


"The Bread Givers" was my first Yezierska book. I had already read all the Dead White Males one must chew through to earn a BA in English. I was so resentful of being force-fed Dead White Males – none Polish except Jozef Korzeniowski, who was packaged and sold as a great "English" author; none working class; none whose last name ended in a vowel – that it took me decades to value the Dead White Males, to realize how great they really are.

I had already read dead white females: Louisa May Alcott. Margaret Mitchell, Charlotte Bronte. Loved them all, of course.

Reading Yezierska's "The Bread Givers," I felt like I was learning to read for the first time.

I said as much to my friend, Joe Whitmeyer.

He said, no, "The Bread Givers" is not a great book.

He knew it was not because, as he said, when he and his white-collar, Ivy League, male college buddies read James Joyce, they all thought Joyce was writing about them, and no one felt that way about "The Bread Givers."

I wanted to brain and bury Joe right then and there. I may have. I have not heard from him since this incident.

That same miserable attitude prevails when it comes to academically-deigned ethnic niches in literary canons. The great American ethnic authors are "people of color;" Yezierska doesn't count – she's "white." Feh. As she might have said.

The great American Jewish twentieth century novelist? No question. Philip Roth. Male, white-collar, removed from his Galician Jewish immigrant ancestors by two comfortable suburban American generations. Never toiled in a sweatshop. Tapped for greatness while still a student – at the prestigious University of Chicago. Obsessed with his ego and his schmeckel.

English department chairs are also obsessed with their egos and their shmeckels; of course they'd grant Roth their imprimatur.

Me? I enjoyed a gossipy, tell-all memoir about Philip Roth much more than a book by Philip Roth.

Roth's shoes don't smell of manure. Yezierska's definitely do.

Anzia Yezierska is to Philip Roth as James Brown is to Barack Obama.

Yezierska's passion for justice is as – well – passionate as her hunger and thirst for true love. Anzia Yezierska did not suffer fools, or conventional, powerful "truths." She gave me one of my favorite quotes for "Bieganski." A book, really, about people who think they know Poles, but who really don't.

"'How will you set about to know the Poles? … How can Americans with their cold hearts and clear heads ever come to know people burning up with a million volatile ideas? … Who cares for the culture immigrants bring with them? They may sell the labor of their bodies. But how many get the chance to give to America the hopes in their hearts, the dreams of their minds? … [She realizes that academics' study of Poles is only a 'slumming adventure,' 'ethnic entertainment' to save the researcher 'from looking into the depths where things get complicated and unutterable'] 'You know less about the Poles than when you started out to study them … You know nothing about the heart of the Poles. Without love, what is there to write about?' (Yezierska All 37-38; 80-82; 108-09)."

Oh, Anzia. In passages like that, you make my heart go pitter pat. I feel like I've found my one, true, woman-writer Messiah.

But then you turn around and drive me crazy again!

I think she really was a little nuts. I don't mean that in a fun way.

I think Anzia Yezierska was probably obsessive compulsive, and maybe suffered from a bit of narcissistic personality disorder.

I KNOW! I know it's horrible to celebrate a Romantic from the past, someone who exhibits the kind of raw passion that is outlawed today in our Cool Is All era, and then slap a medical diagnosis on her.

But you read book after book after book by Yezierska, and you see her play out the doomed Dewey romance over and over again, and you witness her tragic inability to move on, to put things into perspective, to, perhaps, laugh at herself, and your heart breaks, and you wish you could help her. But you can't. And so you read the next book.

"Hungry Hearts: Wings" tells the story of a Jewish immigrant woman who falls head over heels in love with a cold, superior, American WASP. And their doomed romance.

God, but she could love: "I'll wash your shirts for you! If you would even only talk with me…" "I wish I were the leather holding his feet!"

"Salome of the Tenements" – could there be a better title? How about "Arrogant Begger," another by Yezierska?

"Salome of the Tenements" tells the heartbreaking story of a – you guessed it – Jewish immigrant woman who falls head over heels in love with a cold, superior, American WASP. And their doomed romance.

"I'd wrap my soul around him like a living flame."

"This girl was an electric radiance divinely formed of flesh and blood."

"Her abandon, her nakedness, staggered him. The product of generations of Puritans, he retreated into his shell."

She responds: "His dead ancestors, his rigid training, prevented him from being warm and spontaneous. 'You live too much inside your head! Too much ashes from book learning is choking up your natural feelings!' This man was bound in with centuries of natural inhibitions it would take cataclysmic love to break down."

WASPS, she decides, "hold in their feelings like they hold little dogs on chains. They do tricks with them all day long."

"I am a flame of longing. A soul consumed with hunger for heights beyond reach. I am the ache of unvoiced dreams, the clamor of suppressed desires. I am the unlived lives of generations stifled in Siberian prisons. I am the urge of the ages for the free, the beautiful that never was on land or sea."

"And I am a Puritan whose fathers were afraid to trust. We are bound by our possessions of property, knowledge, and tradition."

Frustration is inevitable.

Her frustration with him: "Always at arm's length. Always cased in ice. So you can never touch them. Never get near them. I never know what goes on in his head. But everybody can tell what's going on inside of me. I'm naked and helpless as a child just born. The blood rushes to my face and betrays me every time I look at him."

And his frustration with her: "He instinctively recoiled at this outburst of demonstrativeness. The whole gamut of the Russian Jew – the pendulum swinging from abject servility to boldest aggressiveness."

To him, she is only a specimen: "his was the enthusiasm of the scientist for the specimen of his experimentation, of the sculptor for the clay that would take form under this touch. Her lack of contact with Americanizing agencies appalled him."

And, so, she got over him – at the end of the story. And then she took a break before moving on to the next story, in which she would fall in love with him all over again, and they would recoil from each other again – from exactly those qualities that first attracted them to each other – and then get over him. Until the next book.


Yezierska is worth talking about not just because she is Yezierska. She tells, not just the story of Yezierska and Dewey, but of passion and rationality, of immigrants and Americans, of outsiders and insiders, of youth and age.

How about Jews and Gentiles? I don't see it that way. Yezierska is every bit as much Polish as she is Jewish; see her quote, above, standing up for the Poles in what she saw as Dewey and other social scientists' snobbish dehumanization of them.

Put Yezierska in a "Jewish" box with Philip Roth, more than in the "Polish" or "immigrant" box? I don't see it. They would, simply, hate each other.

Make it "easier" – Jewish women who were her contemporaries? Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein? What did Parker, nee Rothschild, born in her family's oceanfront summerhouse, have in common with Yezierska, a girl who didn't know her own birth year, never mind her birth date, and grew up milking cows and yearning to read and write?

Gertrude Stein's "a rose is a rose is a rose" is cool. Yezierska was NEVER cool. She was never Paris, either, unlike Stein, who spent years there rubbing shoulders with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yezierska probably would have eventually punched Ernest Hemingway, and probably knocked him out.

Don't misunderstand – Yezierska is certainly, proudly, wildly Jewish. But her yearning for Dewey was more about a passionate, uneducated and poor immigrant yearning for a cool, rational, successful professor, rather than a Jewish woman yearning for a Gentile man. She says as much herself. It's always his coolness, his success, his scholarship, she craves. It's never his non-Jewishness she yearns for.

My students and I discussed Yezierska and Dewey in class. New Jersey is wildly diverse, and so are my classes. My students are immigrants themselves, and children of immigrants.

I think they held their noses when reading of Yezierska and Dewey's messy and pointless passion. "She's trying to hard."

"He's a player."

None of my students seemed to get what seemed horribly, tragically, wonderful obvious to me – that neither Yezierska nor Dewey was acting in a calculating fashion. They were both simply overwhelmed.

Overwhelm – do we still have that delicious, tear-jerking fate in our sensory overload world?

Philip Roth is to Anzia Yezierska as James Brown is to Barack Obama. 
Anzia Yezierska. Read her. 

1 comment:

  1. thanks for this. Just read Bread Givers. I am so amazed by Anzia. I love your point about how the wasp boys don't like her, because after all, she is not talking about them!


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