In “America and I,” Yezierska recalls her experiences finding work that expresses her creativity and thus the America of her dreams. She comes to the United States with hopes of building a new life, the kind of life that she and her ancestors were unable to achieve in Russia. She believes that in America, freed from the need to work constantly just to survive, she will have time to voice her creative self-expression.
She soon discovers she is mistaken. Unable to speak English and with no job skills or training, she is forced to work as a maid for an Americanized Russian family. Although they will not tell her how much she will be paid, she works hard for the family, grateful to have the chance to live with Americans and start to learn English. She also looks forward to receiving her first month’s wages so she can buy new clothes and look like an American herself. The family, however, makes no move to pay her. When Yezierska asks them for her wages, they tell her that she should be paying them for the opportunities they are giving her; without knowing English, she is worthless. Yezierska leaves the family immediately, without a penny and having lost her trust for any Americanized immigrants.
Yezierska returns to the Lower East Side, where the Jewish immigrants live. She gets a job at a sweatshop sewing on buttons. She only makes enough money to live in a room that she shares with a dozen other immigrants. She is always hungry, but she likes this job better than working for the family because she has her evenings to herself. When the shop gets busier, however, Yezierska is asked to work longer hours. Eventually, she complains, which gets her fired.
This employment experience, however, allows her to get a job in a regular factory. She has more free time and better pay, but she still feels discontented because she does not speak English well enough. She begins to attend an English class at the factory and confides to the teacher her desire to work with her head and her thoughts, not her hands. The teacher tells her that learning the language will solve her problem, so after Yezierska has mastered reading and writing English, she approaches her teacher again. She follows the teacher’s advice of joining a social club run by American women to help immigrant girls. The Women’s Association holds a lecture about how to be a happy, efficient worker. However, Yezierska questions how she can be happy when she is not working at a job she loves. The next evening, she goes to see a counselor at a vocational center and tells the woman that she wants a job that will allow her to express her creativity. The counselor advises her to become a shirtwaist designer. Yezierska begins to think that the America of her dreams—the America of self-expression— does not exist.
Frustrated, Yezierska begins to read about American history and the country’s first settlements. She realizes that as the Pilgrims had to create a new world, so must she. Unlike the Pilgrims, when confronted with adversity, she has always lost heart and faith in America. She has the epiphany that America is not a finished product but rather a world that is still being created. As a newcomer to America, she too can contribute to the country’s development. She decides to write about the life that she and her fellow immigrants experience in America. In doing this, she finds a job she loves and the America she has been seeking. At the same time that she revels in her success, she cannot help but feel sympathy for all the other immigrants who have been unable to achieve their dreams in America.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Published by Gale, 2002.