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  • The Adolescent Self-Fashioning of Mary Antin
  • Sunny Yudkoff

Introduction: Fashioning the Self1

The year 2012 marked the centennial anniversary of the publication of Mary Antin’s autobiography-cum-paean to America, The Promised Land.2 The text, divided into two parts, narrates Antin’s self-proclaimed conversion from an oppressed Russian Jewish subject into a patriotic, educated English-speaking American citizen.3 At the time of its first appearance, much of the American public greeted her glowing tale of successful Americanization warmly, landing The Promised Land on the national best-seller list in both 1912 and 1913.4 The Journal of Education saw The Promised Land as proof positive that public education worked. After all, the system had turned a poor Yiddish-speaking immigrant into a fine American writer.5Life magazine declared The Promised Land to be “good medicine for excessive anti-Jewish antipathy.”6 And multiple publications lauded The Promised Land for providing insight into the experience of the immigrant, for demonstrating the immigrant to be worthy of America, and for bespeaking a promising future for the country.7The Promised Land was received as more than a single woman’s autobiography. Rather, published at a time of increasing xenophobia and anti-immigration agitation, Antin’s text demonstrated that onetime immigrants could become loyal, literate, and law-abiding citizens. Theodore Roosevelt, then on his third presidential campaign, even solicited Antin to stump on his behalf, which she did,8 and her photograph would go on to find a place in Roosevelt’s autobiography.9 [End Page 4]

Although The Promised Land no longer wields a popular readership, the work remains a touchstone among scholars of Jewish and ethnic American literature. Antin’s model of obstacle-free Americanization, not surprisingly, has received critical attention from scholars who investigate her various modes of literary self-fashioning. How, researchers ask, does Antin present herself in this eminently public text? The assumption is that Antin’s autobiography models Greenblattian self-fashioning; it is a text that acts “as a manifestation of the concrete behavior of its particular author, as itself the expression of the codes by which behavior is shaped, and as a reflection upon these codes.”10 In Antin’s case, this assumption is compounded by a second: that something has been lost in the creation of the autobiography. What elements of herself, scholars ask, does Antin purposefully obscure in order to present a palatable, consumable image of the Jewish immigrant? Comparing the manuscript to the published version of The Promised Land, Keren McGinity has declared Antin “a woman on a mission” who “intentionally omit[ted] material . . . [to construct] an identity for herself that would be attractive to a predominantly patriarchal Gentile country.”11 Similarly, Alvin Rosenfeld has identified Mary Antin as having created the model of the American Jewish autobiography with her self-presentation as a liberated, secular intellectual.12 In a less complimentary vein, the American author Ludwig Lewisohn and critic Sarah Blacher Cohen have respectively admonished Antin for fashioning an autobiographical self that suppresses her connection to her Jewish identity.13 Concerned more with the codes of racial self-fashioning, Linda Joyce Brown has recently argued that Antin’s autobiography is an attempt to establish her identity as a white woman, showing that Antin “constructs the process of assimilation as an act of claiming a position as a white American.”14 Mary Dearborn and Magdalena Zaborowska have added to the literature by demonstrating how Antin’s gendered perspective impinges on her techniques of “working out an American ‘socialized’ identity.”15 Finally, Hana Wirth-Nesher and Steven Kellman have shown that The Promised Land may be conceived as a model of linguistic self-fashioning, whereby Antin asserts her American identity through her facility with English.16 Wirth-Nesher labels the effort as a form of “linguistic passing, where erasure of Hebrew and Yiddish would be [Antin’s] submission to the nativist pressures and linguistic policies and practices of her day.”17 As these scholarly analyses make clear, Antin’s autobiography can be read to reveal a variety of anxieties and personal identity politics that are superficially subsumed in the narration of her seamless integration into the American...


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