In a Literary Digest issue from 1923, Yezierska shared her view of America as “a new world in the making, that anyone who has something real in him can find a way to contribute himself in this new world.” At the same time, she noted, “But I saw I had to wait for my chance to give what I had to give, with the same life and death earnestness with which a man fights for his bread.” That same year, her third published work, Children of Loneliness (a novella with ten short stories and three autobiographical pieces), came out. “America and I,” one of those autobiographical pieces, describes the experiences that Yezierska went through that led to the development of this philosophy. This piece aptly fits Alice Kessler-Harris’s description of Yezierska’s mission, “to interpret her people to America,” which she writes about in the introduction to The Open Cage, a 1979 reissue of some of Yezierska’s work.
Yezierska relates her immigrant plight, from her first arrival in this “golden land of flowing opportunity” to her current success as a writer with the gift of introducing her people to their adopted culture. As an eager newcomer, Yezierska has grand dreams of what she will find in America; to Yezierska and the millions of immigrants like her, America stands in marked contrast to Russia. The Old World chokes its people with “airless oppression,” but America brings sunlight to this darkness. In the Old World, Yezierska and her people have no opportunity for economic betterment, but in America they can escape “from the dead drudgery for bread.” Yezierska’s soul and spirit were “stifled” in the Old World, but in America, Yezierska can revel in her ability to give voice to her own forms of self expression.”For the first time in America, I’d cease to be a slave of the belly,” Yezierska recalls how she felt at the time. “I’d be a creator, a giver, a human being.”
Yezierska sees her inability to communicate as the major obstacle standing in the way of her dreams. Although she is in America, she is pushed to the outskirts of American society because she has “No speech, no common language, no way to win a smile of understanding from them.” Once she is able to speak the language, Yezierska is confident that the Americans would want to hear about “the richness” in her. When an “Americanized” immigrant family offers to hire her as a maid, she moves in with them, hoping this will allow her to “begin my life in the sunshine, after my long darkness.” To Yezierska, this couple, “so well-dressed, so well-fed,” seem symbolic of the transformative success that America can bring.
As the narrative style underscores, Yezierska glorifies everything American: the “music of the American language,” American words,”new American things,” “an American dress and hat.” She is “so grateful to mingle with the American people” at the house where she works as a maid that she “never knew tiredness.” While living there, Yezierska comes to perceive herself as an American on the inside, for example “developing American eyes” with which to look at the world. All she needs—or so she thinks—is American clothing to cover up her immigrant heritage. With new clothes, “I’d show them I could look like an American in a day.” She is still filled with optimism; she does not comprehend that merely possessing the outward trappings of an American will not make her one.
Through her experience with the family, however, Yezierska comes to learn a bitter lesson: being “American” does not make something good. The family cheats her out of her wages, leaving Yezierska with nothing to show for a month’s hard work other than a new distrust of so-called “Americans.” However, Yezierska’s narrative also shows her understanding that it is the man and woman who label themselves as such. They are not American-born, actually coming from Yezierska’s own village in Russia. They only want to be American because of the economic opportunities it provides, such as the comfortable home and the nourishing food—as well as the chance to feel superior to other newer immigrants. This family so embraces their adopted country that they are even “ashamed to remember their mother tongue.” Yezierska’s reiteration of the word “American” implies that this family does not really represent America. Their self-portrayal of themselves as such is as fleeting as the “false friendship” they offered Yezierska. In turning her back on them, Yezierska is not turning her back on America at all.
Holding on to her belief in the concept of America and determining to search anew, Yezierska returns to the slums of New York, where her people have settled. She finds a job that she might have held in Russia-—sewing buttons in a sweatshop—a job that affords her only the bare minimum of sustenance. The outward circumstances that face Yezierska make her wonder, ‘”Where is America? Is there an America?”’ Yezierska begins to question what before had been her profound faith.
As time goes by, Yezierska moves her way up in the industrial world, going to work for a factory and maintaining a regular schedule with Sundays off. Still, she continues to hold fast to the belief that her America will be the place where can “work for love and not for a living.” When she tries to take steps in this direction, however, the native Americans she meets seem intent on making her aware of the folly of this philosophy. In her efforts to better herself and to fulfill her creative dreams, Yezierska seeks out assistance, but the first person to whom she turns has no comprehension of the depth of her feelings. When she confides to her English teacher, “I want to do something with my head, my feelings,” the woman advises her that she first worry about learning the language and then “patted me as if I was not yet grown up.”
The teacher does tell her about the Women’s Association, which Yezierska visits. This organization has the ostensible purpose of”trying to help the working-girl find herself,” but instead it coordinates activities that promote the needs and success of employers. Yezierska attends a lecture “The Happy Worker and His Work,” which is sponsored by the association. The lecturer extols efficiency in the factory worker at the same time he asserts, “It’s economy for the boss to make the worker happy.” Equating what makes the worker happy with her own vision of what would make her happy— expressing her thoughts and feelings through her writing—Yezierska believes these words apply to her. However, this lecture, filled with “educated language that was over my head,” offers Yezierska nothing except for false hope.
Yezierska’s next step toward achieving her goal is to go to the Vocational-Guidance Center, where she explains to the counselor that her job sewing shirtwaists makes her heart “waste away.” She describes her major problem as “I think and think, and my thoughts can’t come out.” To this plaint, the counselor replies with an answer focused on economic achievement, not personal fulfillment: “Why don’t you think out your thoughts in shirtwaists? You could learn to be a designer. Earn more money.” The counselor cannot understand Yezierska’s yearning to do more with herself than merely earn a living. More strikingly, as illustrated by her words “You have to show that you have something special for America before America has need of you,” the counselor does not even believe that Yezierska yet has a right to aspire to more than being a menial worker. Her admonishment seems to tell Yezierska—and all immigrants—not to hold goals surrounding intellectual, philosophical, artistic, or creative pursuits, but instead to focus only on pragmatic ones. The counselor would feed the body while stifling the soul.
Frustrated, Yezierska comes to feel that “the America of my dreams never was and never could be.” However, in letting go of her vision of America as a Utopia, Yezierska opens herself up to finding out what America really can be for her. By reading American history, she takes the important first step of rethinking her concept of America, and subsequently revamping it. America, she realizes, does not owe her the opportunities she seeks, but she must fight for them herself. Yezierska must emulate the Pilgrims who “made no demands on anybody, but on their own indomitable spirit of persistence.” Yezierska also realizes that not only is she erring in “forever begging a crumb of sympathy,” she is also doing so from the Americans— “strangers who could not understand.”
Yezierska experiences her life-altering epiphany when she comes to realize that America is “a world still in the making.” She can contribute to the ongoing creation of the country through the expression of her inner thoughts and feelings. In writing about the life of the immigrants, her achievement is two-fold: she finds the America of her dreams, but she also widens the perception of the country for the native born by “open[ing] up my life and the lives of my people to them.” The “bridge of understanding” that Yezierska works to build with words can only expand and improve American-born and immigrant readers’ ideas about the country they call home.
At the same time, particularly because she understands the role of all Americans in inventing the country, she feels sadness that so many immigrants “with my longing, my burning eagerness, to do and to be, [are] wasting their days in drudgery they hate.” These people are losing out on the opportunity to fulfill their own dreams, and “America is losing all that richness of the soul.” In these sentiments, Yezierska asserts her belief that people— even those who the American mainstream would ignore—have their unique gifts to offer and can thus shape the world in which they live.
“America and I” ends on the positive vision that Yezierska holds for the future of the country. She writes, “the America that is every day nearer coming to be, will be too wise, too open-hearted, too friendly-handed, to let the least lastcomer at their gates knock in vain with his gifts unwanted.” Whether Yezierska’s prophecy has come true is not for her to determine: it is for the individual, who may even decide to embrace self-expression as a further means of shaping the ever-unfolding world.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Anzia Yezierska, Published by Gale, 2002.
Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “America and I,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002