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  • "Slipping back into the vernacular":Anzia Yezierska's Vernacular Modernism
  • Brooks E. Hefner (bio)

During her 1923 trip to Europe, Anzia Yezierska made the appointed rounds of any serious American author of the early 1920s. According to her daughter and biographer, Louise Levitas Henriksen, Yezierska sought out George Bernard Shaw, Israel Zangwill, H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, and Joseph Conrad to discover the secrets of their writing. The most interesting visit was with Gertrude Stein in Paris, where Stein gave her some typically Steinian advice: "Why worry? Nobody knows how writing is written, the writers least of all!" (Henriksen 195). The encounter between Yezierska and Stein has essentially gone unexamined in scholarship on these two writers, in part because they inhabit profoundly different spheres of the American literary canon. Despite the fact that they are both Jewish American women of roughly the same generation (Stein was born in 1874, Yezierska around 1880), they have come to represent very different things to scholars of American literature. Stein, firmly embedded in the modernist canon, has only recently been examined under the rubric of ethnic writing by critics such as Maria Damon, Barbara Will, and Priscilla Wald, while Yezierska's rise in American literary studies has been fueled by the interest in the subcanon of ethnic women's writing. 1 Yezierska's 1923 meeting with Stein certainly does not figure as the same kind of watershed moment in American modernism as Ernest Hemingway's arrival at 27 rue de Fleurus in the previous year. After all, Hemingway approached Stein as an apprentice and Yezierska's meeting occurred after she had already become a successful writer. However, the insistence that Stein remain an unqualified modernist writer, and that Yezierska, at best, be labeled an ethnic modernist suggests an inability of existing literary subcanons to adequately deal with the variety of modernist writing produced in this era.

Yezierska was all but invisible to scholars of American literature until the 1970s. Outside a brief mention in Allen Guttmann's 1971 study The Jewish Writer in America, Yezierska was even largely absent from the Jewish American literary canon, which was more kind to conventional realist and modernist figures such as Abraham Cahan, Mary Antin, and Henry Roth. 2 Yezierska's rediscovery by literary critics in the 1970s and [End Page 187] 1980s (with the republication of Bread Givers [1925] in 1975, and the publication of the Yezierska collection The Open Cage [1979] and the 1985 edition of Hungry Hearts [1920]) came on the heels of an increasing interest in narratives of working women by feminist scholars. 3 As Mary V. Dearborn notes, Yezierska's "fiction is welcomed, in short, because it provides valuable documentary evidence that ethnic women existed" ("Anzia" 108). To both feminist and labor historians, such documentation was crucial to the expansion of labor histories to include more diverse voices in the understanding of twentieth-century labor.

Since Yezierska's rediscovery, the scholarship on her work has consistently emphasized ethnicity, gender, and class, placing her in subcanons that write out meetings like the one between Stein and Yezierska. Critics have recently gone so far as to include her in studies of Yiddish literature, even though she never published in Yiddish. 4 Ethnic American writers such as Yezierska have been both blessed and cursed by the last thirty years of American literary scholarship. With the emergence of ethnic studies, many American writers long forgotten by literary historians have reemerged in new editions and made their way into classrooms and scholarly journals. This new attention has certainly been a boon for Zora Neale Hurston, whose work has become an indisputable part of the American and African American literary canons. While less canonical ethnic writers continue to inspire a significant amount of scholarship, the relationship of these writers to the rest of American literary history remains murky. In certain cases, such as Michael North's The Dialect of Modernism (1994), writers such as Hurston and Claude McKay form a background for understanding the racial and linguistic appropriations of already canonized high modernists such as Stein, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. But in most literary histories, ethnic writers remain outside standard narratives, playing supporting roles, uninvolved in the...


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