Yezierska describes the impoverished circumstances in which the immigrants in New York find themselves. People such as Yezierska came to America to escape such poverty; in Russia, they had to work all the time simply to survive. America, the land of opportunity, is supposed to be much different, but Yezierska finds this is not the case. She works long hours in a sweatshop but still earns only enough money to provide herself the barest of sustenance. When she loses that job, she has nothing to fall back on and is “driven out to cold and hunger” in the streets.
Yezierska experiences another, equally devastating sort of poverty: poverty of the soul. Unable to express her creativity, Yezierska feels something within her “like the hunger in the heart that never gets food.” To Yezierska, feeding the soul is as important as feeding the body; a person who works solely for survival is a slave, whereas a creator is a human being. She craves a job that will allow her to share her inner thoughts and feelings. By becoming a writer, Yezierska is able to fulfill her physical and emotional needs and to work her way out of the impoverishment that continues to entrap so many of her fellow immigrants.
Immigration and Cultural Diversity
Throughout its history, the United States has drawn immigrants from around the world with its promise of freedom from religious, political, and economic persecution. From its earliest settlements in the late 1500s and early 1600s, people have come to America seeking a new life. The French and the Dutch first came to North America to earn money from trade. The Pilgrims came to present-day Massachusetts to find the freedom to practice their religion. Other early English settlers were drawn by the promise of obtaining their own land. For example, the state of Georgia was chartered in 1732 as a colony where poor English citizens, such as those who had been jailed for debt, could start a new life.
The generation of immigrants of which Yezierska was a part is no exception. Yezierska and people like her came to escape a country where they were discriminated against socially and economically because of their religion. These immigrants brought to America different ideas and traditions, which Yezierska was eager to share in her new country. In “America and I,” she speaks of the “Russian soul” as an entity remarkably different from that of the soul of any other ethnicity. The essence that defines Yezierska arose from a background incomprehensible to the people she meets in New York, a background based on discrimination and drudgery, on fear of sudden violence, and on a system of erratic injustice. In Russia, Jewish people had no choice to become what they really wanted to be. In Yezierska, the “hidden sap of centuries would find release; colors that never saw light— songs that died unvoiced—romance that never had a chance to blossom in the black light of the Old World.” Yezierska recognizes that the Americans do not understand her feelings; however, she comes to realize that by writing about the plight of the immigrant, she can share with them something of her culture. Through her writing, Yezierska helps to bridge that gap and helps to shape the ever-changing culture of America.
In the early 1900s, many charitable institutions had formed to help immigrants acclimate to their new lives and assimilate into American culture. In many instances, the cultural groups themselves formed organizations that would provide such services. In “America and I,” Yezierska receives aid from organizations created solely by Americans. She learns to read and write English through a class offered at the factory where she is employed. She attends a lecture sponsored by the Women’s Association. She visits the Association’s VocationalGuidance Center. However, how much these charities benefit Yezierska is suspect. The Americans who try to help her find her path in America do not understand her hopes and dreams; all their advice is practical and geared toward sustaining a person’s physical body, not a person’s emotional well-being. When Yezierska tells the guidance counselor that she wants to let out her creative spirit, the counselor responds with a suggestion focusing on how Yezierska should design shirtwaists instead of sewing them, which will earn her more money. For a time, Yezierska feels that America owes her something. “American gives free bread and rent to criminals in prison. They got grand houses with sunshine, fresh air, doctors and teachers, even for the crazy ones. Why don’t they have free boarding-schools for immigrants—strong people—willing people?” she asks the counselor. However, Yezierska comes to realize that she needs to rely on herself—- not charitable associations, Americanized immigrants, or employers. Once she starts to do so, she is able to achieve her dreams and to find America in helping to create it.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Published by Gale, 2002.