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The Letters of Mary Antin: A Life Divided

From: American Jewish History
Volume 84, Number 2, June 1996
pp. 71-80 | 10.1353/ajh.1996.0030

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American Jewish History 84.2 (1996) 71-80

Mary Antin is best known for her autobiography, The Promised Land, a best-seller when it appeared in 1912, but the American public first learned about her through her letters. Translated by Antin from Yiddish and describing her family's arduous journey from Russia, her collected letters appeared in English five years after Antin's arrival in the United States. The letters, From Plotzk to Boston, written to an uncle back home, appeared in 1889 with an introduction by Israel Zangwill -- at that time a very successful and highly regarded Anglo-Jewish writer.

The earliest of Antin's letters that I have examined, written in her late adolescence from 1889-1901, are some 30 to Israel Zangwill. They are filled with reports of the exceptional nurturing she received in the way of escorted travel, concerts, access to private libraries and all-around encouragement from wealthy, cultured Jews such as the Cowens, the Hechts and Josephine Lazarus. Antin also writes Zangwill often about her family's desperate financial situation, citing examples of her father's several failed business ventures.

A 1900 letter to Zangwill portrays the conflicted, maturing Antin. Endeavoring to perpetuate her child prodigy image as she revels in the pampered treatment by her teachers and benefactors, Antin shuns the sexuality that growing up brings. She rebels against one of her benefactors, Hattie Hecht, who insists that Antin needs a chaperon on her outings with young men: "I must and I mustn't a hundred horrid things," she writes. "I tell you that it nearly broke my heart to become 'grown up,' and it made me positively ill. Wouldn't you let me be a girl till I was tired of it?"

At this time Antin was still preserving the lie that she was 16 years old (she was actually 18). Less than a year after her declaration of confirmed girlhood, however, Antin announced her marriage to the non-Jewish, considerably older paleontology professor Amadeus Grabau. And by 1902, assuming the intermarriage to be the cause of her isolation from her former supporters, Antin writes that all her devoted wealthy friends have fallen away even though, "I have not changed my faith."

Before turning to the rest of her letters, I would like to cite some characteristic samples of the critical literature on Antin. Sarah Blacher Cohen claims that "Antin's religio-cultural striptease prevented her from becoming a profound writer of Jewish-American literature, or for that matter, any kind of literature. . . . She tried to forget her Jewish origins." Abraham Herbert Greenberg says this about Antin's negation of Judaism: "As for the Torah, Mary felt that it too would acquire greater sanctity if it were bound with the Declaration of Independence as a sort of grafted-on preamble of secularized pre-Genesis." While it is understandable that her published works might have led Antin's critics to their conclusions, a significant part of her writing has been ignored. Her correspondence, scattered in 10 or more archives in several states and Israel, has rested largely untouched and unread. I have unearthed some 130 letters that will, I believe, greatly modify the prevailing critical view of Antin and her work. Contrary to the conclusions drawn by critics familiar only with Antin's autobiography, The Promised Land, the letters show Antin's life and work were far more complex than the critics claim and that personal anguish contributed greatly to the tragic turn her life took.

To address the critics' assertions about Antin's negation of her Jewish heritage, one of the many letters Antin wrote in 1911 to Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, while working on her short story "Malinke's Atonement" and on The Promised Land contains the following passage:

I can never know, just what my Malinke or Rosele look like in your eyes, no matter how fully you express yourself: but what you and others have said does give me some idea of the figures my poor Jewish people make when standing detached from their overwhelming history, in the sight of a world that knows them but little. Malinke, to me is Malinke with a thousand years...

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