Powerful Woman from East Side: Anzia Yezierska
Anzia Yezierska paved the way for great storytellers like Grace Paley, who read Yezierska’s stories and novels of Jewish immigrant life as a young woman. Yezierska probed the tensions within families and the dilemmas facing women before anyone else. She resisted her mother’s traditional role and her father’s paternalism, and she struggled for a way to carve out her own identity.
“She was in the Lower East Side, which in a sense was much more densely immigrant than East Bronx,” where Paley grew up, Paley said in a 2004 interview. Speaking of Yezierska’s stories, she said: “I loved them. I really read her later, when I began to read stories again and get away from ‘literature.’ When I got away from ‘literature’ I became close to the literature that I had to do.”
Last week a blog post noted how Yezierska’s book Hungry Hearts became a Hollywood movie in 1922 produced by the Goldwyn Company. Some scenes were filmed in the markets of the Lower East Side. It premiered in theaters on December 3, 1922.
Yezierska rode a rollercoaster, going from sweatshops on the Lower East Side to Los Angeles, where she received $200 per week as a screenwriter. “Yezierska was overwhelmed by her portrayal in the popular press as a ‘sweatshop Cinderella,'” says the blog. She left Hollywood after only a few months.
She later chronicled the Great Depression in the 1930s and her time as a WPA writer with a clear eye for the pain experienced by the downwardly mobile. She expressed the acute shame of joblessness in a memoir, Red Ribbon on a White Horse:
Friends retreated before my failing fortunes just as I had once run away from my own poor people. Occasionally I ran into some of the celebrities with whom I used to dine at the Algonquin. At first I was naïve enough to greet them with the warmth I felt at the sight of a familiar face. Only after I saw their embarrassment did I learn to avoid noticing them at all.
Like so many others, Yezierska experienced the shame as if it were her fault. Later she embraced the idea that this anti-Cinderella story – her return to poverty – was a more universal story that she should tell. (This video clip introduces her in Soul of a People.)
Red Ribbon on a White Horse became a bestseller in 1950. To help it sell, W.H. Auden, who was already a famous poet, wrote a preface. Looking back, he called the Writers’ Project “the most noble and absurd undertaking ever attempted by any state. No other [government] has ever cared whether its artists as a group lived or died.”