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Reviewed by:
Louise Levitas Henriksen, (with assistance from Jo Ann Boydston ). Anzia Yezierska: A Writer's Life. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1988. 327 pp. $20.95.
H. Gustav Klaus, ed. The Rise of Socialist Fiction 1880-1914. New York: St. Martin's, 1987. 277 pp. $35.00.

Anzia Yezierska (Hattie Levitas 1880?-1970) was a Polish immigrant whose raw literary talent, fired by intense desire for recognition, bloomed on New York's lower east side and gave her a strong if transitory national literary fame in the 1920s, including a stay in Hollywood. Alas, film history has been no kinder to her than literary: Hungry Hearts (1922) gets no mention in the standard film encyclopedias, and it is questionable whether there still exist prints of this extravagant drama, typical of those to which thousands throbbed in the great movie palaces of the silent era. Her daughter's biography fills out the personal side of her career in a rather startling manner, demonstrating that Yezierska was a Mme. Sans-Gêne of truly awesome capacity for exasperating and then estranging nearly all those with whom she came into contact, including husband, child, and lover. Not the least fascinating part of the book is the story of the philosopher John Dewey declaring his infatuated love for this whirling dervish of the tenements. Meekly he agreed with her analysis of his condition, frozen emotions of the worst New England WASP variety, a frequent target in her stories. To what then must have been his pained surprise, he found the unfettered emotion she championed absent when it came to physical consummation of the love she professed. The response desired of him was considerably more chaste—advancement of the intellectual development and literary career of the enchantress. Dewey took steps to withdraw. No one was readier than Yezierska to capitalize upon such a handy social fantasy as WASP culture representing the Head versus immigrant Jewry the Heart, dry pedantry and emotional starvation versus warm loving emotional freedom. Indeed, she ranks as a pioneer in promoting it, and today it has become a standard device of antiestablishment rhetoric applicable to any "minority" culture. That Yezierska was herself incapable of any but self-love, and in revolt against Talmudic pedantry, was an irony she missed.

Yezierska wrote her crudely vivid ghetto stories more to dramatize her own experience, her struggles with poverty and the dead hand of traditional Jewish subjugation of women, than to advance a program for social reform. Her fame owed a lot to the American master myth, that here anyone can become someone. "A Scrub-woman Who Became a Great Novelist" trumpeted a contemporary newspaper headline: the scrubwoman part was an invention of her mother, as Henriksen wryly points out; the great novelist part was an invention of the newspaper. A fatal exchange: her personal fantasies encouraged beyond her wildest dreams, Yezierska was lifted up, then dropped, to live ever after in bitter incomprehension. What need then for a literary Mommie Dearest to explode whatever claim to personal greatness Yezierska may have had? The need is that of the daughter, coming out of a lifetime of silence to tell the whole story. The story has much American social history in it as well as human appeal.

H. Gustav Klaus, of the University of Osnabruck, is joined by British and continental scholars in his The Rise of Socialist Fiction 1880-1914, a widening of the scope of his earlier collection, The Socialist Novel in Britain (1982). Most of his contributors assume the reader to be unfamiliar with the fiction they discuss; fair enough, but unrelieved series of plot synopses occur too often. Kiernan Ryan [End Page 742] gives us one of Grant Allen's Philistia (1884), followed by one of Constance Howell's A More Excellent Way (1888), followed by one of W. E. Tirebuck's Miss Grace of All Souls' (1895), James Adderly's Stephen Remarx: The Story of a Venture in Ethics (1893), Olive Birrell's Love in a Mist (1900), and Margaret Harkness' George Eastmont: Wanderer (1905), all in the book's opening essay. It makes a numbing start to the proceedings. Application of a critical framework has its...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 742-743
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
N

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