The heavy garments of the past: Mary and Frieda Antin in The Promised Land.
A long past vividly remembered is like a heavy garment that clings to your limbs when you would run. And I have thought of a charm that should release me from the folds of my clinging past. I take the hint from the Ancient Mariner, who told his tale in order to be rid of it. I, too, will tell my tale, for once, and never hark back any more. I will write a bold "Finis" at the end, and shut the book with a bang! (Mary Antin)
When she relinquishes the "heavy garments" of her past, Mary Antin moves away from textile and towards text. In Antin's The Promised Land, the key trope of clothing marks milestones in a journey away from vestments of the shtetl toward "the consecration robes" of American cultural literacy. While Antin moves toward literacy, her sister moves toward labor. In Polotzk, Frieda and Mary both have the rare opportunity to pursue a liberal education, but in America Frieda goes to work in the factory producing ready-to-wear clothes for the market and continues to work at home making dresses for Mary to wear to school. In what follows, I would like to consider Antin's literacy in relation to Frieda's labor through Antin's material and metaphoric uses of clothing production and consumption in the process of Americanization. How does "Mary's" acquisition of literacy relate to Frieda's work with sewing and knitting? Does Mary's personal narrative take her from labor to literacy or does it, within the logic of modern industrial labor and Fordism, take her from production to consumption? To what extent is Mary's literacy related to consumption? Does the narrative of Mary's assimilation into American cultural literacy require the story of Frieda's alienation from labor and literacy? Or do labor and literacy work dialectically, like two ends of a loom, producing a shared fabric of agency?
In Polotzk, women were excluded from scholarly work, allowed to gain only enough literacy to run domestic and occasionally economic matters for their families. In America, the wage-labor system prevented even this limited amount of learning for most women. Thus, not only were many alienated from the objects they produced, they were also excluded from literacy. As one anonymous female worker in New York put it at the beginning of the twentieth century:
I would like to write a poem But I have no words. My grammar was ladies waists And my schooling skirts. (qtd. in Glenn 1990, 2)
Antin was aware of how her sister acquired a grammar of garments while she herself gained access to the promised land of American education. The Promised Land explores the relationship between clothing and its production on the one hand, and literacy and its relation to consumption and agency on the other. Ultimately, I would argue that Mary Antin's literacy through texts and Frieda Antin's labor on textiles work dialogically to historicize and give meaning to their assimilation into industrial America.
Assimilation and Material History
Mary Antin imagined her own movement away from textile and labor toward text and literacy as a movement along a historical, even evolutionary path toward modern American identity. This historical measure of an immigrant's assimilation was a key trope not only in Antin's work, but also in the wider discourse of assimilation in the United States at the turn of the century. (1) Commentators disagreed about whether immigrants were assimilable or not, but most shared the idea that assimilation was (or was not) achieved across a historical divide. Ethnologists like Lothrop Stoddard, E.A. Ross, and Madison Grant saw race in terms of each group's progress or stasis along lines of racial evolution already charted by the most advanced race--Anglo-Saxons, and particularly Anglo-Americans. Antin appropriates much of this language into her own writing by echoing Jane Addams's notion of material history rather than the ethnologists' notions about racial history.
Henry Cabot Lodge, for example, argued that Eastern Europeans could not span the historical divide separating them from Anglo Saxons, and that immigrants from anywhere but Northern and Western Europe threatened to produce "a great and perilous change in the very fabric of our race" (1909, 260). Lodge saw race in terms of history, claiming that Eastern Europeans could not cross the "race divisions which have developed by the conditions and events of the last one thousand years" (253). (2) In contrast and despite his well-known attacks on hyphenated Americans, Theodore Roosevelt suggested that immigrants could span the gap between Old World customs and New World civilization. In his Foreword to E. G. Stern's My Mother and I, Roosevelt describes this immigrant autobiography as the narrative of "the Americanization of a young girl, who ... leaps over a space which in all cultural and humanizing essentials is far more important than the distance painfully traversed by her fore-fathers during the preceding thousand years" (1919, 1). In this model, assimilation was a great leap forward. Ultimately, however, Lodge and Roosevelt agreed that the difference between Anglo and non-Anglo was to be measured along a historical scale of racial or cultural evolution.
Antin echoes this worldview when she claims, for example, "I began life in the Middle Ages, as I shall prove, and here am I still, your contemporary in the twentieth century, thrilling with your latest thought" (1997, 3). And, even more explicitly, Antin describes her own discovery of evolutionary theory in ways that reiterate the popular discourse of racial evolution: "I had a vision of myself, the human creature, emerging from the dim places where the torch of history has never been, creeping slowly into the light of civilized existence, pushing more steadily forward to the broad plateau of modern life, and leaping, at last, strong and glad, to the intellectual summit of the latest century" (285). Here, Antin borrows almost directly from Roosevelt's notion of the immigrant's great leap across a millennium of historical transformation. However, I would argue that while Antin narrates assimilation along the lines of cultural (if not racial) evolution, the more important trajectory of her narrative charts assimilation along material lines. Here, the "heavy garments of the past" can be understood materially, almost literally.
The material history of assimilation had its own discourse that economists and social workers shared. Economists Francis Amasa Walker and Richmond May-Smith, for example, bemoaned the immigrant's tendency toward parsimony and her (this was a gendered discourse as well) ability to survive at subsistence levels. Within this discourse, as Katrina Irving has recently examined it, parsimony was a primitive racial characteristic that threatened to destroy modern Americans' supposedly more culturally advanced characteristics of acquisitiveness and consumption. Another economist of the time, Simon Patten argued that "The first rapid advance [in civilization] has been made when the desires have been intensified and multiplied until men who are now content to live five days on the earnings of two can no longer make both ends meet. If they have few wants and less imagination, they may never improve" (qtd. in Irving 2000, 56). Business executives on the one side and social workers like Jane Addams and Mary Simkovich on the other were concerned about how immigrants assimilated out of Old-World scarcity into New-World abundance. (3)
Here, we can contrast Henry Ford's well-known ceremony for the graduates of his English School with Addams's Labor Museum. John Higham describes the ceremony performed by graduates of Ford's school:
The students acted out a pantomime which admirably symbolized the spirit of the enterprise. In this performance a great melting pot (labeled as such) occupied the middle of the stage. A long column of immigrant students descended into the pot from backstage, clad in outlandish garb and flaunting signs proclaiming their fatherlands. Simultaneously from either side of the pot another stream of men emerged, each prosperously dressed in identical suits of clothes and each carrying a little American flag. (Higham 1978, 248)
What is important about this ceremony is that it is a graduation from a school that taught American English, but central to the spectacle is the adoption of new clothes; thus, literacy in the cultural practice of consumption is shown to be as important as the acquisition of English language skills. The ceremony dramatizes the basic tenet of Fordism--that mass production leads to and requires mass consumption; trading the outlandish clothes of Russia for the ready-made clothes of America dramatizes the workers' ability to buy as well as to make. Furthermore, the spectacle of transformation performs a ritual erasure of the past, of the memories immigrants associated with their old clothes.
In contrast to Ford's pageant of assimilation, Jane Addams's Labor Museum reflects an awareness of the immigrant's agency in the processes of industrial production and material consumption. In her Museum, Addams placed the handcraft tools of pre-industrial Eastern and Southern Europe beside machines of the American garment industry. In this way, immigrants in the neighborhood of Hull House could see their work as part of a material historical narrative. Addams was aware that many immigrants came to their factory jobs with what Susan Glenn calls "a well-developed craft pride" (1990, 5). Thus, in linking Old-World needlecrafts with New World industry, Addams was merely recognizing and displaying the ways in which she believed immigrants already viewed their work. For Addams, newcomers from Eastern Europe left behind the garments of their past and also the means of producing them.
Addams wanted immigrants to see Americanization as part of a historical narrative from craft to industry, from hand- to mass-production, from old to new garments, and from use to exchange value. In recounting her initial idea of establishing a labor museum at Hull House, Addams describes a process of seeing material--specifically textiles and textile crafts--historically:
We found in the immediate neighborhood at least four varieties of these most primitive methods of spinning and three distinct variations of the same spindle in connection with wheels. It was possible to put these seven into historic sequence and order and to connect the whole with the present method of factory spinning.... Within one room a Syrian woman, a Greek, an Italian, a Russian, and an Irishwoman enabled even the most casual observer to see that there is no break in orderly evolution if we look at history from the industrial standpoint; that industry develops similarly and peacefully year by year among the workers of each nation, heedless of differences in language, religion, and political experiences. (Addams 1981, 173)
For Addams, history was not to be narrated along lines of race--as it was for Lodge, Roosevelt and the social Darwinists. Nor was progress
merely the acquisition of skills of consumption and production as it was for Ford and the economists of his day. For Addams, there was no "outside" of material history and the history of work, and immigrants and others could come to terms with historical change if they could imagine it in terms of a narrative of material production.
Addams, along with fellow social workers Mary Simkovich and Lillian Wald, certainly recognized that learning to consume was an important step in the process of assimilation. Indeed, inspired by settlement/social work discourse, Ludmila Foxlee, as part of an attempt to help newcomers assimilate as quickly as possible, opened a clothing store at Ellis Island in 1920 in order to allow immigrants to exchange their greenhorn clothes for ready-to-wear fashion and as a consequence to begin to become consumers (Schreier 1994, 93). However, Jane Addams saw competency in consumption as part of a wider cultural literacy, and unlike Ford, she attempted to see this fundamentally from the point of view of the immigrants themselves.
In fact, these immigrants were not merely passive props in spectacles of consumerism; they actively produced their own imagery of assimilation by documenting with photographs their consumption of clothes. Newcomers from Eastern Europe often had studio photographs taken of themselves in a new suit or in a new skirt and shirtwaist. These images were not only to be sent home to show off one's wealth to relatives in the old country; they were also displayed prominently in one's home in America. (4) While many social workers were friendly toward industry and promoted the notion that the production-consumption model was necessary for assimilation, these settlement workers tried to see this process from the point of view of the immigrants themselves, and in some cases attempted to organize social and political movements around consumption as well as labor. (5)
Thus, the key to movement across one's own personal material history was, for Addams, the acquisition of literacy broadly defined, and often this meant a critical rather than or as well as a consuming literacy. In Twenty Years at Hull House, Addams describes a scene that occurs during an evening lecture on the history of the English textile industry. After hearing the lecture, held at the Labor Museum, a tailor in attendance makes a direct link between labor and literacy in his own understanding of industrial history:
a Russian tailor in the audience was moved to make a speech. He suggested that whereas time had done much to alleviate the first difficulties in the transition of weaving from hand work to steam power, that in the application of steam to sewing we are still in our first stages, illustrated by the isolated woman who tries to support herself by hand needlework at home until driven out by starvation, as many of the hand weavers had been. The historical analogy seemed to bring a certain comfort to the tailor.... Human progress is slow and perhaps never more cruel than in the advance of industry, but is not the worker comforted by knowing that other historical periods have existed similar to the one in which he finds himself, and that the readjustment may be shortened and alleviated by judicious action; and is he not entitled to the solace which an artistic portrayal of the situation might give him? I remember the evening of the tailor's speech that I felt reproached because no poet or artist has endeared the sweater's victim to us as George Eliot has made us love the belated weaver, Silas Marner. (Addams 1981, 173-74; my emphasis)
Antin, along with others of her generation, did represent if not endear the sweater's victim to American readers in describing Frieda's labor in her own advance toward literacy. Indeed, Antin refers to the materiality of assimilation less explicitly than either Abraham Cahan or Anzia Yezierska. (6) However, part of the purpose of this essay is to open up a seldom observed yet crucial aspect of Antin's autobiography, one that links her thematically and in terms of cultural context to her fiction-writing contemporaries.
From her grandmothers' generation to her own early education Antin depicts the women of the Russian Pale as a community with its own material way of knowing. Within this community of women handcrafted fabrics circulating more as gifts than as commodities or capital, bind women together in a communal and oral social milieu. However, Antin individuates her own experience, especially in contrast to her sister's, by constructing an auto-biographical persona that moves away from this oral and communal world of material knowledge--these heavy garments of the past--toward literacy, individuality, consumption, and modern ways of knowing. (7)
In telling the stories of her grandparents, for example, Antin touches again and again upon clothing and fabric as the tissue of shtetl life. Her father's mother, for example, pawns her own shawl and Sabbath cap in order "to secure the scant rations that gave the young scholar [Antin's father] strength to study" (1997, 39). In Eastern Europe, then, women often provided the household income so that men could pursue religious scholarship. (8) In America, as I will discuss later, Mary and Frieda reproduce this gendered division of labor with Mary taking on the male role. Mary will become the young scholar of a secular American faith as well as the consumer of ready-to-wear American clothes, while Frieda will produce, literally, the vestments of this new faith.
Like other women in the shtetl, Antin's mother's mother "learned knitting from watching her playmates" and developed a talent for business. This maternal grandmother exemplifies how labor and literacy were woven together in the lives of Eastern European women, but her story also marks the limits of literacy, which most often made women economic contributors to their husbands' and sons' education:
My grandfather was obliged to admit that the little learning she had stolen was turned to good account, when he saw how well she could keep his books, and how smoothly she got along with Russian and Polish customers. Perhaps that was the argument that induced him, after obstinate years, to remove his veto from my mother's petitions and let her take up lessons again. For while piety was my grandfather's chief concern on the godly side, on the worldly side he set success in business above everything. (Antin 1997, 43)
Women learned enough to work and earn money, but not enough to become either pious or "enlightened." As Susan Glenn puts it: "Barred from playing any important role in religious leadership and excluded from positions of authority in the community, women found their "sphere" confined to domestic and economic functions" (1990, 10).
Thus, given their worldly and sacred responsibilities, shtetl women sometimes experienced abundance as a burden, and this burden appears materially in the form of clothes in Antin's narratives--both her autobiography and one of her short stories. Antin's family is middle class, but, as Irving Howe observes, "in the shtetl, one could hardly speak of fully formed rival classes." Still, Antin clearly remembers the workings of the social concept of yikhes--or notions of "family status and pride" (Howe 1976, 8). For example, Antin's great aunt Hode gains notoriety because of her "silk dresses" which she wears on weekdays, making the women of Polotzk "breathless over her wardrobe." However, being the object of vicious rumors and never bearing a child, Hode feels "a hungry heart beneath her satin robes" (Antin 1997, 45). She becomes a second mother to Antin's mother, unloading some of her sartorial burden upon this niece: "Hode would treat my mother to every delicacy in her sumptuous pantry, tell her wonderful tales of life in distant parts, show her all her beautiful dresses and jewels, and load her with presents" (46). Antin represents Hode's life as a pathetic case of how women could be limited by both poverty and wealth.
This great aunt might be the inspiration for Antin's short story "The Amulet," in which a young, childless wife named Sorke must rely on the words of a prophecy and the power of a magic amulet for any chance of having children. Like Hode, Sorke "would have given all her wealth for one scrawny baby" (1997, 45). Sorke's clothes become the signs of her unfulfilled feminine desire. Turning Thorstein Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption on its head, Antin presents Sorke's problem as her accumulation of material wealth; her ample wardrobe signals her failure in reproduction: "And look at my clothes! I've given away enough for a poor bride's trousseau; I never wear out anything. [...] I wish we were poor. At least I'd have something to do, then." Sorke adds that she would "rather do patching and yarning than this everlasting fancy work" (Antin 1913,33). Throughout this passage Antin's narrator suggests that within the Jewish Pale of Settlement, conspicuous consumption was a sign of spiritual wealth only when money was spent on offspring, not when it was limited to the needs and wants of husband and wife, alone. In a household full of children, the woman's wardrobe signifies the material and spiritual wealth of the family; in the absence of children, the abundance of textiles signifies the family's spiritual bankruptcy. The woman bears the burden of both material scarcity and abundance. Antin represents Sorke and her aunt Hode's dilemmas of abundance precisely because in America Antin herself, as Andrew Heinze might put it, would have to adapt to abundance. In relinquishing the heavy garment of her own past, she can better observe the burdens of others.
Antin's parents' marriage also illustrates the ways in which women were burdened with material while men were enlightened by learning in the Eastern European division of domestic labor. In her marriage, Antin's mother chooses a learned over a wealthy man. While she is promised a prosperous marriage to Hode's adopted son Mulke, she refuses her aunt's offer and chooses "a beardless young man, in top boots that wanted grease, and a coat too thin for the weather" (1997, 47). Once married, Pinchus (Antin's father) finds that "he need do nothing but eat free board, wear his new clothes, and study Torah,..." while, in contrast, Antin's mother seems to be burdened with the social weight of her trousseau. Her parents "loaded her with presents," including cloaks and gowns designed by "the best tailor in Polotzk." A wedding gown, lingerie, featherbeds, linen, "yards of lace to trim the best sheets, and fine silk coverlets adorn[ing] the plump beds"--all of these add a weight and a heft to Antin's mother's new married life (50).
When Antin's father travels to Odessa and returns influenced by the modern secular ideals of the Haskala movement, he refuses to reproduce the division of labor that characterized his parents' relationship: "My mother was with my father, as equal partner and laborer, in everything he attempted in Polotzk" (1997, 54). By the time they come to America, however, Antin's mother seems less willing than her father to give up the religious vestments of the Old World for material (in)vestments in the New, and Antin recalls that her mother "gradually divested herself, at my father's bidding, of the mantle of orthodox observance," and "the process cost her many a pang, because the fabric of that venerable garment was interwoven with the fabric of her soul" (194). This last reflection complicates the liberalizing influence of Pinchus's travels into more modernizing areas of Russia. Giving up the heavy garments of the past becomes an ambiguous process, at best. The process might "enlighten" individual consciousness, but it threatens to rend the fabric of sacred and communal identity.
The Fabric of Sisterhood
Pinchus's exposure to the "enlightening" influence of the Haskala translates into access to literacy for Frieda and Mary, for whom two opportunities, aside from marriage and work, present themselves in Polotzk; one leads toward the development of skill in the needle trades, the other toward literacy. Antin recalls that "a girl's real schoolroom was her mother's kitchen. There she learned to bake and cook and manage, to knit, sew, and embroider; also to spin and weave, in country places. And while her hands were busy, her mother instructed her in the laws regulating a pious Jewish household ..." (1997, 29). Unlike the formal education boys received, girls' instruction was braided into sewing and weaving tasks; their education was oral, not textual. Not all women within the shtetl moved from the world of shared work and learning to marriage, but generally, women's work served men's scholarship. Antin observes that the growing girl's acquisition of handcraft skills led to the young woman's acquisition of a wedding trousseau--including "linens and featherbeds ... silks and velvets ... frocks and mantles" (30). Recalling one ceremony of a young woman in Polotzk, Antin notes the "sixteen-year-old bride, suffocated beneath her veil" (35). Antin represents these moments in a woman's life as the more literal or material proof of her introductory metaphor of the heavy garments of the past. Women were burdened with cloth.
In this world in which women's lives were measured in yards of fabric, Antin describes how she and Frieda shared an experience in which weaving and narrative worked dialectically to provide a framework upon which to build an inclusive history of identity. In Polototzk, Antin describes how "we children wound yarn" while the older women told stories: "If somebody had a story to tell while the rest worked, the evening passed with a pleasant sense of semi-idleness for all" (1997, 84). As a moment of communal labor and orality, this scene might have had a place in Jane Addams's labor museum, depicting the communal links that handcraft textile work fostered and that industrial labor would sever. Much later in her autobiography, Antin attempts to reclaim this type of communal work by describing a visit to her now-married sister's house in the United States, a scene I shall discuss in the conclusion. But Antin's return to orality occurs only after the sisters' labor is divided even further between Frieda's material work and Mary's mental work.
Before being taught textile trades, Maryashe and Fetchke (as the sisters were called in Russia) are given the unusual opportunity of studying Russian and Hebrew. Traditionally, a "girl was 'finished' [with school] when she could read her prayers in Hebrew, following the meaning by the aid of the Yiddish translation especially prepared for women," considered "wohl gelehrent--well educated"--if she could perform a few basic tasks in Russian and Yiddish (sign their name, write an informal letter) (Antin 1997, 90). However, it is also in the mid- and late-nineteenth century that the Haskalah movement begins to advocate for, among other progressive reforms, education for both sexes (Glenn 1994, 33). As I have already noted, Antin's father was influenced by this movement, and Antin's "parents' ideals soared beyond" traditional gender boundaries (1997, 90). Ironically, after receiving lessons first at the Reb's heder and then privately at home, Frieda seems likely to continue with her lessons longer than Mary: "Although my sister and I began our studies at the same time, and progressed together, my parents did not want me to take up new subjects as fast as Fetchke did" (95). However, recalling that she did not want to be outdone, Antin describes how she spied on her sister's lessons and stole a Russian primer so she could study in secret, continuing to attain literacy in Russian. This early exposure to literacy makes Frieda's ultimate exclusion from education all the more complicated and agonizing for Antin to narrate.
Soon, the fabric of communal sisterhood and common labor begins to fray and tear with Frieda receiving training in textile crafts and Mary learning other languages and reading Western literature. "She [Frieda] learned early," Antin intimates, "from my mother's example, that hands and feet and brains were made for labor" (1997, 80). Their father wants them to have a marketable skill, something quite common for women of the shtetl (9): "He wanted Fetchke and me to be taught some trade; so my sister was apprenticed to a dressmaker and I to a milliner." Frieda is successful in her training, but Mary "had to be taken away from the milliner's after a couple of months." Her "career as a milliner was blighted" because she could not master the trade (119). Antin admits that she is "very clumsy with [her] hands." Even her one success in textile work she describes as an art rather than a craft: the urban, even cosmopolitan, practice of "Russian lace," a decorative form of sewing used to adorn pillowcases. Like others who learned this art, Mary earns money by giving lessons, already moving from manual to mental labor. Finally, she uses her earnings to buy a pattern for a shawl for her mother, so that even when she does learn to work with cloth, she invests that time toward consumption not production (127-28).
However it may be, Mary mentions this skill as a minor part of her growing up, downplaying her attainment of manual skills; much more important is her introduction to European, particularly English literature. Immediately after her initial failure as a milliner's apprentice during the family's last year in Russia, Mary is sent to Vitebsk to stay with her Uncle Solomon where she learns to dance, studies arithmetic, and is introduced to literature. Thus, even before coming to America, Mary seems to be moving toward literacy while Frieda continues to develop her skills in textile crafts. Interestingly, of all the texts that she reads she remembers by name only Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (Antin 1997, 124), a key text in American theories of modern education. In "The Aim of History in Elementary Education," John Dewey outlines a historical model for education similar to the model for assimilation that Jane Addams outlines in the Hull House Labor Museum. Naming Defoe's Crusoe as a key text, Dewey argues that elementary education proceeds through three stages: The first stage introduces the child to experiences and activities corresponding to the earliest stage of human history and links this history to occupations and inventions of the child's particular region; the second introduces the child to more specific historical data about, again, his or her local region; finally, the third stage allows the student to view the broad sweep of history through, in part, the reading of literature, especially Defoe. (10) It seems that Frieda remains stuck in the first stage of this education, if she enters it at all, while Mary reads Crusoe instead of working with needle and thread, thus advancing to the final stage of modern American education.
Forms of Labor, Consumption, and Literacy in The Promised Land
On the steamer to America, Antin writes what will become her first book--a letter to her Uncle Moses that she translates from Yiddish into English and publishes as From P[o]lotzk to Boston in 1899, complete with a Preface by Israel Zangwill. In this letter, passages of which appear in The Promised Land, Antin even recalls feeling like Crusoe as she looked out onto the open sea (1997 142). By the time they come to Boston, Frieda and Mary's paths diverge even more, as Mary is sent to school and Frieda is sent to the sweatshop: "My heart pulsed with joy and pride and ambition; in her heart longing fought with abnegation. For I was led to the schoolroom, with its sunshine and its singing and the teacher's cheery smile; while she was led to the workshop, with its foul air, care-lined faces, and the foreman's stern command" (157). Most poignantly, Frieda's industrial labor is divided from her handcraft labor at home as she sews the very clothes that Mary and her younger sister, Deborah, wear to school: "Our going to school was the fulfillment of my father's best promises to us, and Frieda's share in it was to fashion and fit the calico frocks in which the baby sister and I made our first appearance in a public schoolroom" (157-58). Coming exactly in the middle of the autobiography, this is a pivotal moment, the precise point at which Mary enters the promised land of American education, finally exchanging the heavy garments of the past for what she calls "the consecration robes" of a secular faith in democratic institutions of education and in the civic religion of American history. Indeed, we see here the gendered division of the shtetl, where women's work provided the material requirements of men's religious scholarship, reproduced in Mary and Frieda's relationship.
However, Mary's path away from labor leads her not just to literacy but also toward consumption, even toward consumption as literacy and literacy as consumption. Part of the process of assimilation in America involved the transformation of the immigrant's perceived tendency toward parsimony into facility in the art of buying. (11) For Elizabeth Ewen and Barbara Schreier, this process led a younger generation of Jewish women to purchase ready-to-wear waists and hats, and to adorn the latter in ways that distanced them from their mothers' traditional costumes. Indeed, Antin's well-known contemporary, Anzia Yezierska, produced a body of work that centered on this premise--that the adoption of a particular wardrobe characterized by modest understatement was the mark of a new enlightened sense of self. (12) Antin presents the purchase of clothes from a department store as one of those formative steps in the immigrant's progress into American identity:
A fairy godmother to us children was she who led us to a wonderful country called "uptown," where, in a dazzlingly beautiful palace called a "department store," we exchanged our hateful homemade European costumes, which point us out as "greenhorns" to the children on the street, for real American machine-made garments, and issued forth glorified in each other's eyes. (Antin 1997, 149)
In placing terms like "uptown" and "department store" in quotes, Antin implies that she learned both about clothes and about the grammar of consuming them. However, Antin's acquisition of cultural literacy in consumption develops in tension with her acquisition of other discourses of democracy and of an understanding of American civic faith. The fairy-tale quality of the department-store palace and fairy-godmother guide is soon transformed into the language of American civic faith.
In recalling her first day of school, Antin mentions the dress her sister made for her: "I remember to this day the gray pattern of the calico, so affectionately did I regard it as it hung upon the wall--my consecration robe awaiting the beatific day" (1997, 158). This notion of her new clothes as sacred vestments suggests what Sam Girgus has called the "New Covenant" in Jewish American literature. (13) Mary's "consecration robes" bring her into this New Covenant in "the American idea." As she puts it in They Who Knock at Our Gates: "I have chosen to read the story of '76 as a chapter in a sacred history; to set Thomas Jefferson in a class with Moses, and Washington with Joshua; to regard American citizenship as a holy order" (1914, 27). However, this paean to American civic faith is complicated by the fact that Frieda's labor adorns Mary's literacy:
Frieda, I am sure, remembers it [Mary's calico], too, so longingly did she regard it as the crisp, starchy breadths of it slid between her fingers ... she bent over the sewing-machine humming an Old-World melody. In every straight, smooth seam, perhaps, she tucked away some lingering impulse of childhood; but she matched the scrolls and the flowers with the utmost care. (Antin 1997, 158)
Note how the humming of the modern machine provides the musical accompaniment to Fireda's traditional singing, procucing a scene that would have found a welcome place in Jane Addams labor museum. If Antin's autobiography speaks for millions of immigrants as she suggests, then this poignant scene touches on the unfair choices immigrant families were forced to make. Frieda's stifled desire and Mary's fulfilled longings meet at the seams of Mary's calico dress.
By contrast, a key trope in Chapter IX, titled "My Country," is Mary's store-bought plaid dress. While Frieda's hand-made clothes consecrate Mary's entry into school, this factory-made garment marks Antin's entry into the discourse of American civic faith--her recitation of a poem she has written in praise of "the Father of his Country," George Washington (Antin 1997, 180). At this event, where she meets a school board member, Antin seems once and for all to leave behind the heavy garments of the past, but she is careful not to replace these garments with the frills and plaids of conformity. Antin describes her plaid dress as insignificant to her spiritual connection with America. The dress is, at least implicitly, a contrast to the gray calico her sister makes for her first day of school. Antin notes this contrast in recounting her public praise of Washington:
My dress added no grace to my appearance. "Plaids" were in fashion, and my frock was of a red-and-green "plaid" that had a ghastly effect on my complexion. I hated it when I thought of it, but on the great day I did not know I had any dress on. Heels clapped together, and hands glued to my sides, I lifted up my voice in praise of George Washington.... I was face to face with twoscore Fellow Citizens, in clean blouses and extra frills. I must tell them what George Washington had done for their country--for our country--for me. (Antin 1997, 180-81)
Certainly, the plaid dress--as a ready-to-wear item--can be read as a material manifestation of Mary's assimilation through consumption, but Antin is careful to downplay the dress as a consumer's uniform. Returning to the plaid dress in the conclusion of this chapter, Antin underscores its insignificance in contrast, again implicitly, to her calico:
When I found myself shaking hands with an august School- Committeeman, or a teacher from New York, the remnants of my self- possession vanished in awe; and it was in a very husky voice that I repeated, as I was asked, my name, lineage, and personal history. On the whole, I do not think that the School-Committeeman found a very forward creature in the solemn-faced little girl with the tight curls and the terrible red-and-green "plaid." (Antin 1997, 189)
Mary's "terrible ... plaid" conveys her place within the democratic sisterhood and brotherhood of her class, a place she occupies through what Wendy Zeirler has called her "steady alienation from her older sister Frieda" (1999, 5). But, at the same time, the overall arch of Antin's narrative privileges her sister's hand work over this kind of mass-produced emblem of identity, and links that hand work with Mary's (and Antin's) own mental labor.
The store-bought dress suggests that Antin's cultural literacy in the "American idea" is complicated not only by production and labor, but also by consumption. In one anecdote, Mary's path to literacy and her path to consumption seem, in fact, to converge. When Antin's poem on George Washington is published in the Boston Herald her father buys up all the copies of the publication he can lay his hands on. He
took all the change out of the cash drawer and went to buy up the "Herald." He did not count the pennies. He just bought "Heralds," all he could lay his hands on, and distributed them gratis to all our friends, relatives, and acquaintances; to all who could read, and to some who could not. For weeks he carried a clipping from the "Herald" in his breast pocket, and few were the occasions when he did not manage to introduce it into conversation. He treasured that clipping as for years he had treasured letters I wrote him from Polotzk. (Antin 1997, 187)
As Frieda produces textiles, Mary produces texts for both home and marketplace. The horded Heralds might be read in relation to the fact that The Promised Land was, itself, a best seller. Frieda may have produced shirtwaists, but Antin produced popular narrative for mass consumption.
The Follies of the Poor and Mary's Graduation Dress
Antin registers even more troubling anxieties about her own position in relation to her sister in Chapter XV, "Tarnished Laurels," in which she combines two rhetorical points of view, writing as a sociologist examining cultural practices in the immigrant ghetto and as a sister reflecting upon the personal cost of entering the Promised Land. As sociologist, Antin observes the spectacle of conspicuous consumption on graduation day in the immigrant neighborhood of Wheeler Street. She claims that "Wheeler Street recognizes five great events in a girl's life: namely, christening, confirmation, graduation, marriage, and burial. These occasions all require full dress for the heroine, and full dress is forthcoming, no matter if the family goes into debt for it" (1997, 217). In terms that echo Thorstein Veblen, (14) Antin writes,
A mother who had scrubbed floors for years to keep her girl in school was not going to have her shamed in the end for want of a pretty dress. So she cut off the children's supply of butter and worked nights and borrowed and fell into arrears with rent; and on Graduation Day she felt magnificently rewarded, seeing her Mamie as fine as any girl in the school. (Antin 1997, 217)
The event is memorialized in a photograph (15) in which "the gloves, fan, parasol, and patent-leather shoes" are "in full sight around a fancy table." She concludes by exclaiming rhetorically: "Truly, the follies of the poor are worth studying" (217). Antin has adopted the perspective of settlement workers like Lillian Wald, Mary Simkovich, Mary Brewster, and even Jane Addams, but she has done so with an ironic bent, a critical tone that Anzia Yezierska would push even further in stories like "The Free Vacation House" and "Soap and Water" and especially in her novel Arrogant Beggar, all of which represent settlement workers as sometimes well-meaning but usually self-important gentiles who treat immigrants condescendingly. But here Antin's irony, while critical, acknowledges that the discourse of sociological observation was open to a dialectical relationship with the voice of immigrants themselves.
In this light, Antin's comments echo Jane Addams's claims in "Charitable Effort," in which Addams discusses "the charitable relation" as the most rapidly changing relation in American democracy. In her essay, Addams examines not what social workers can teach the poor about democracy, but what the poor--and mostly immigrants--can teach the social worker and political reformer. Immigrant working women's sense of dress can teach a particularly important lesson about democracy to social workers who are prone to misunderstand the importance of personal style in the lives of the working class. Addams contrasts the educated middle-class young woman with "the working girl, whose family lives in a tenement" (2002, 19). The former "may afford to be very simple, or even shabby as to her clothes," while the latter "knows full well how much habit and style of dress has to do with her position. Her income goes into her clothing, out of all proportion to the amount she spends upon other things" (20). The charity worker should be aware that "the disproportionate expenditure of the poor in the matter of clothes is largely due to the exclusiveness of the rich who hide from them the interior of their houses, and their more subtle pleasures, while of necessity exhibiting their street clothes and their street manners ..." (20). Addams reads conspicuous consumption as a form of "striving for democracy":
The poor naturally try to bridge the difference by producing the street clothes which they have seen. They are striving to conform to a common standard which their democratic training presupposes belongs to all of us. The charity visitor may regret that the Italian peasant woman has laid aside her picturesque kerchief and substituted a cheap street hat. But it is easy to recognize the first attempt toward democratic expression. (Addams 2002, 21).
The slight tone of condescension in a phrase like "democratic training" is mitigated by Addams's sensitivity to the material ways in which identity is expressed, reflecting an understanding of the process of assimilation as lived by immigrants like Mary and Frieda Antin. Addams's writing, in fact, challenges popular derision of how Grand Street (in the Lower East Side) imitated Broadway and Fifth Avenue. (16)
Antin's sociological distance from her own neighborhood clearly shows the distance that has come between herself as an educated young woman and her sister as a working woman. And while Antin is certainly not an upper middle-class socialite, neither is she a manual laborer. Rather, like so many women writers, photographers, sociologists, and other professionals of her time, Antin writes from a liminal space between the young woman who can buy any dress she desires--opting for tasteful understatement--and the working girl who feels a need to display, through her attire, the class to which she aspires. From this vantage point, Antin registers the uncomfortable realization that it is her own sister (literally and figuratively) who makes her own assimilation possible.
Antin exposes the dependence of the upwardly mobile and literate professional woman upon her working-class "sister" when she tells the poignant story of how Frieda sacrifices her own wedding trousseau in order to make Mary's graduation dress. Frieda, around the time of Mary's own graduation, is engaged to Moses Rifkin. This marriage will free her from the sweatshop. When the marriage is delayed, Frieda continues to work in the shop, and becomes a spendthrift. She begins to use her money at "bargain sales" where she buys "finery as had never graced our flat before." This outlay of her own money is matched by her investment of labor. She works in the evenings: "she shut herself in the parlor, and cut and snipped and measured and basted and stitched as if there were nothing else in the world to do." Her whole life is taken up with her craft of sewing: "She remained all evening in a white disorder of tucked breadths, curled ruffles, dismembered sleeves, and swirls of fresh lace; her needles glancing in the lamplight, and poor Moses picking up her spools." Frieda even buys the "sash with the silk fringes." In highly dramatic rhetoric that complicates the sociological perspective she uses to describe immigrant ghetto graduations, Antin concludes by asking, "Her trousseau, was it not?" and answers, "No, not her trousseau. It was my graduation dress on which she was so intent" (1997, 219)
Here, the white trousseau of the Jewish bride is transformed into the white graduation dress of the Jewish-American intellectual. The "sacred fringes" of the boy attending heder are replaced by the "silk fringes" of the girl's graduation sash. This becomes the "vestment" of a new covenant, and Antin notes that "Those who are rich in spiritual endowment will never be found bankrupt" (Antin 1997, 219). Antin is, perhaps, aware that she is intellectually enlightened by texts at the same time that her sister is physically and socially burdened by textiles. Like the educated middle-class social worker who learns the meaning of democracy from her working-class immigrant "sister," so Antin understands her own progress in school in contrast to her sister's place at home and work.
Labor and Literacy
Antin's attention to the relationship between Frieda's sewing and her own education is, ultimately, an attempt to reproduce the communal bond that linked them to labor and literacy in the Old World. In adapting to abundance, Russian Jewish immigrants experienced both "spiritual unrest" and increased freedom (Heinze 1991, 17-18). This process "made for a rich and subtle interweaving of old world traits and new world ways" (18). Antin claims, agency, even within a Fordist system of production-consumption, by reproducing the old world dialectic of communal and feminine labor and orality, and by linking the latter to textual literacy. In her reflections as sister, Antin performs a dialogic discourse that allows her own agency to emerge, and also offers her readers a glimpse of Frieda's desire, a desire not wholly hemmed in by her role as Old-World dressmaker. What may at first seem like a division of agency along lines of labor and consumption is mitigated by a renewal of communal work epitomized by the Old-World practice of simultaneous yarning and storytelling.
The torn fabric of communal work that linked Mary's literacy with Frieda's labor is mended towards the end of The Promised Land when Mary describes visiting Frieda and her husband, Moses, and reading to Frieda while the latter worked on her sewing. During these visits Mary's volumes of Cicero and Virgil and Frieda's "silver spools" are lighted by the same lamp: "Frieda took out her sewing, and I took a book; and the lamp was between us [...]" (Antin 1997, 263). On the one hand, this shared space contrasts the work of the two sisters--one manual, the other mental; it also contrasts the orality of Mary's Russian memories with the literacy in her American recollections. On the other hand, the shared space creates a dialectic between mental and manual labor and reconnects literacy to orality. Mary lightens Frieda's labor not with spoken tales, but with her reading of the written word:
She liked to hear me read Cicero, pleased by the movement of the sonorous periods. I translated Ovid and Virgil for her; and her pleasure illuminated the difficult passages, so that I seldom needed to have recourse to the dictionary. I shall never forget the evening I read to her, from the "Aeneid," the passage in the fourth book describing the death of Dido. I read the Latin first, and then my own version in English hexameters, that I had prepared for a recitation at school. Frieda forgot her sewing in her lap, and leaned forward in rapt attention. (Antin 1997, 263)
This passage draws attention to the links and distances between text and textile, and contrasts the weaving of literacy into this sewing session with the weaving of orality into the yarning sessions of Polotzk. Frieda and Mary are confidantes, like the sisters Dido and Anna in Virgil's epic. While Frieda works with textile, Mary works on text, spinning English out of Latin, weaving a narrative out of verse. And, yet, it is Frieda's enjoyment of Mary's scholarship that brings out the beauty of the verse of Mary herself. Frieda's desire completes Mary's understanding of Virgil, suggesting that literacy is much more complex than understanding a sign system.
When I was through, there were tears of delight in her eyes; and I was surprised myself at the beauty of the words I had just pronounced. I do not dare to confess how much of my Latin I have forgotten, lest any of the devoted teachers who taught me should learn the sad truth; but I shall always boast of some acquaintance with Virgil, through that scrap of the "Aeneid" made memorable by my sister's enjoyment of it. (Antin 1997, 264; my emphasis)
By referring to her translation of a portion of Book IV of the Aenied as a "scrap," Antin uses the term of the tailor or even of the rag picker to describe her own delight in literacy, and Frieda's delight in literacy-remade-into-orality reminds Antin of the beauty of oratory. Through Frieda's tear-stained eyes and pricked-up ears, Mary's literacy becomes literature; her scholarship becomes art, but only through her oration of the written word.
Like Addams's Labor Museum, which made industrial and pre-modern methods of production both more meaningful by juxtaposing and historicizing them, Antin's description of this scene makes the experiences of labor and literacy both more meaningful by interweaving and narrativizing them. Frieda's sewing, mending, and embroidering come into dialogue with Antin's writing, reading, and even consuming to create identities that retain communal Old-World practices while constituting modern, New-World notions of individual subjectivity.
(1) For a detailed discussion of Antin's involvement in discourses if assimilation and ethnicity see Jacobson (2000, 201-19).
(2) See Higham (1978, 101-56, 202-05) for a discussion of Lodge.
(3) For a discussion of assimilation as "adapting to abundance," see Hienze (1990, Chapter 5).
(4) For a discussion of how these photographs were used in the immigrant home, see Schreier (1994, 98) and Heinze (1990, 89). See also Ewen (1985, 186-205).
(5) Sheila Rowbotham (1999) argues that Addams and Caroline Hunt--Hull House Settlement worker--laid the groundwork for the development of consumer collectives such as Florence Kelly's National Consumer League.
(6) On the motif of clothing and fashion in Yezierska see Goldsmith (1997, 1999), Okonkwo (2000), and Stubbs (1998). See Higham (1987), Howe (1976), and Sanders (1999) on Cahan.
(7) For a discussion Anitn's individuation in opposition to her communal past, see Zierler (1999).
(8) See Howe (1976), Glenn (1990), and Ewen (1985).
(9) Ewen (1985), Schreier (1994), Glenn (1990), and Irving (2000) have all noted the importance of learning a skill in the lives of Eastern European Jewish women, and most important among these skills are the needle trades. In Out of the Shadow, Rose Cohen recalls her grandmother's disappointment in a son (Cohen's own father) who becomes a tailor and her equal disappointment in a daughter (Cohen's aunt) who does not become a seamstress but a nurse (1995, 29).
(10) Dewey lays out this model in Chapter 8 of The School and Society (1980).
(11) Irving develops this thesis in Immigrant Mothers (2000, 51-60).
(12) This is especially true of passages in Bread Givers and much later in Red Ribbon on a White Horse. In Bread Givers, Sara's first experience in a department store leads her not to ornamentation but to plainness: "Plain serge only! Yes. But more style in its plainness than the richest velvet." (Yezierska 1975, 239). And in her "autobiographical" Red Ribbon on a White Horse, Yezierska describes her "most extravagant costume" as "a peasant dress of soft blue wool with a white collar" (1987, 122).
(13) By "New Covenant," Girgus means replacing an old-world orthodoxy with a new-world reformation based on the Puritans' use of Old Testament discourse to imagine America as the new Zion. Girgus claims that Jewish American writers endorse and shape "the American idea," "the set of values, beliefs, and traditions of freedom, democracy, equality, and republicanism that are known as the American Way and that give America a unique identity in history" (1984, 3).
It is true of dress in even a higher degree than of most other items of consumption, that people will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption; so that it is by no means an uncommon occurrence, in an inclement climate, for people to go ill clad in order to appear well dressed. (Veblen 1994, 168)
(15) For a discussion of the prevalence of these types of pictures in the homes of Eastern European immigrants see Heinze (1990, 89-90).
(16) Ewen (1985, 24-27).
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______. 2002. "Charitable Effort." Democracy and Social Ethics. 1902. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
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______. 1914. They Who Knock at Our Gate: The Complete Gospel of Immigration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
______. 1986. From Plotzk to Boston. Boston: W. B. Clarke and Co. 1899. Reprint. New York: M. Weiner.
______. 1997. The Promised Land. 1912. Reprint. New York: Penguin.
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Goldsmith, Meredith. 1997. "Dressing, Passing, and Americanizing: Anzia Yezierska's Sartorial Fictions." Studies in American Jewish Literature 16: 34-45.
______. 1999. "'The Democracy of Beauty': Fashioning Ethnicity and Gender in the Fiction of Anzia Yezierska." Yiddish 11: 166-87.
Heinze, Andrew R. 1990. Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity. New York: Columbia University.
Highan, John. 1978. Strangers in the Land; Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. 1955. Reprint. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
______. 1987. Send These to Me: Immigrants in Urban America. 2nd ed. 1985. Reprint. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Howe, Irving. 1976. World of Our Fathers. New York: Bantam.
Irving, Katrina. 2000. Immigrant Mothers: Narratives of Race and Maternity, 1890-1925. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Jacobson, Matthew Frye. 2000. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. New York: Hill and Wang.
Lodge, Henry Cabot. 1909. Speeches and Addresses, 1884-1909. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Okonkwo, Christopher. 2000. "Of Repression, Assertion, and the Speakerly Dress: Anzia Yezierska's Salome of the Tenements." MELUS 25: 129-45.
Roosevelt, Theodore. 1919. Forward to My Mother and I, by E. G. Stern. 1917. Reprint. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Rowbotham, Sheila. 1999. "Women and Forms of Organization Around Consumption in the United States, 1880-1940." Threads Through Time: Writings on History and Autobiography. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin.
Sanders, Ronald. 1999. The Lower Eastside Jews: An Immigrant Generation. 1969. Reprint. Mineola, NY: Dover.
Schreier, Barbara A. 1994. Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 1880-1920.
Stubbs, Katherine. 1998. "Reading Material: Contextualizing Clothing in the Work of Anzia Yezierksa." MELUS 23: 157-73.
Veblen, Thorsten. 1994. The Theory of the Leisure Class. 1899. Reprint. New York: Penguin.
Yezierska, Anzia. 1975. Bread Givers. 1925. Reprint. New York: Persea.
______. 1987. Red Ribbon on a White Horse. 1950. Reprint. New York: Persea.
Zierler, Wendy. 1999. "In(ter)dependent Selves: Mary Antin, Elizabeth Stern, and Jewish Immigrant Women's Autobiography." The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature: Carving Out a Niche. Ed. Katherin B. Payant and Toby Rose. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Babak Elahi is an assistant professor in the Department of Language and Literature at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His work on literary and cultural discourses of immigration has appeared in Arizona Quarterly.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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