“America and I” is one of three autobiographical pieces that Yezierska included in Children of Loneliness. All of these pieces explore the immigrant’s preconceived notions about America, the inevitable disappointment, and finally the reconciliation of illusions and reality, which leads to the creation of a pragmatic, more helpful way of looking at life in this new country. In “America and I,” Yezierska finds her own version of America. She introduces herself—and the story—by announcing that she represents all those “dumb, voiceless ones” who cannot speak for themselves. Yezierska presents her own experiences of arrival in a new country: the search for work, the inability to communicate, the feelings of not being welcomed. She delves into the transformation that she underwent emotionally during this period, as she comes to realize that America is not the people she meets or simply a country that can fulfill anyone’s dream but rather a constantly-changing concept, one that she can help create. As such, Yezierska’s autobiographical piece takes on a more universal meaning; it speaks not only for Eastern European Jewish immigrants like herself but for any person who has moved away from home and wants to assimilate into that new culture, yet enhance it.
Point of View
As befits an autobiographical essay, Yezierska narrates “America and I” from the first person point of view. Yezierska shares with the reader all the thoughts and feelings she goes through during the course of the story. This point of view gives the reader a more personal connection with the author. For example, because Yezierska explains the hopes that she held for America before her arrival, the reader is able to understand the true depth of her disappointment and disillusionment.
However, because the first person point of view is a limited one, “America and I” does not present a cohesive, objective view of immigrant life. For example, in writing about the sweatshop where she works, Yezierska focuses on her own relationship with the owner and her response to the woman’s attempts to manipulate the workers. Aside from the detail that the sweatshop is located in a dark basement, she does not provide a composite that would help the reader see the reality of the sweatshop, such as the unsafe, unhealthy working conditions that characterized such places.
Language and Imagery
As some critics pointed out upon the initial publication of Children of Loneliness in 1923, Yezierska’s language tends to the exaggerated, even overwrought. The opening of “America and I” supports this contention to a very real degree; in one long sentence, Yezierska references the “airless oppression of Russia,” her own “stifled spirit” and darkness, and the Promised Land with its ability to turn such despair into the “strings of a beautiful violin.” However, the imagery upon which Yezierska relies suggests that such use of language stems from her own passionate response to coming to America and the power of her aspirations for her new life. When narrating her hopes for herself in America, she returns over and over again to images of flames, fire, and light; even sunlight is described as “burning though my darkness.” These words represent Yezierska’s belief that America can transform her life and her own ardent longing for this to happen.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Anzia Yezierska, Published by Gale, 2002.