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Name Yezierska, Anzia
Born / Died 1880–1970

The Anzia Yezierska collection consists of manuscripts by Yezierska and others, printed material, correspondence, audio recordings, and other items.

Manuscripts by Yezierska include drafts of five chapters of the book Red Ribbon on a White Horse (Scribner, 1950); several short stories, many in multiple drafts; articles and speeches, mostly from the mid-1960s; and notes and preliminary ideas for unrealized or uncompleted novels and stories.

Manuscripts by others in the collection include: works by Yezierska’s daughter, Louise L. Henriksen, including My War, research notes for Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life, and drafts and notes for Terrorists, Illegals, Smugglers, Or At Least Spies ; two versions of a play titled The Bread Givers, one by Even Nisonson and another by Victoria Rose (based on Yezierska’s novel of the same name); Victor Stoloff’s play The Open Cage (also based on a novel by Yezierska); and manuscripts of two collegiate thesis papers written about Yezierska.

There are several sections of correspondence in the collection. The personal letters date from 1917-1969, and includes letters from Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Michael Blankfort, Joy Chute, Milton Hindus, Arnold Levitas (Yezierska’s husband), and Marchette Chute and Ms. Cecelia Ager. Also present are several letters between Yezierska and her daughter, Louise Henriksen. These include letters written by Henriksen from a World War II Red Cross facility in Papua, New Guinea. The collection also has a number of Yezierska letters which have been transcribed (typed) for use in Henriksen’s book Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life. Professional letters include items to and from publishing companies from 1920-1927, as well as letters regarding copyright and invitations for Yezierska to speak at public events. A number of letters pertain to Louise Henriksen’s dealings with her own publishers between 1968 and 1995.

Printed material in the collection primarily consists of short stories and articles appearing in various magazines, including Commentary, Chicago Jewish Forum, Modern Maturity, The Reporter, Cosmopolitan, The Nation, as well as six book reviews done for the New York Times during the 1950s. Other printed items include several reviews of Yezierska’s books and publicity articles from 1923-1970. Besides clippings, there are also several issues of publications carrying articles and reviews on Yezierska, including The New York Times, Book Review Digest, Publishers Weekly, Midstream, and Jewish Monthly . One such item is Louise Heniksen’s article on Yezierska from Jewish Book World .

Audio recordings in the collection include Yezierska reading from Bread Givers, The Golden Cradle, and The Bird, as well as several other recordings.
Other items in the collection include Yezierska’s will, a passport, genealogical material regarding Yezierska’s family, several of Louise Henriksen’s journals, World War II memorabilia, and video cassette recording of a performance of Victor Stoloff’s play version of
The Open Cage .

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With her family, Anzia Yezierska (1880 - 1970) emigrated from Russian-occupied Poland to the United States. She would later write acclaimed short stories and novels set among immigrants on New York City’s Lower East Side, most notably the short story collection Hungry Hearts (Houghton Mifflin, 1920), Salome of the Tenements (Boni & Liveright, 1922) and, what is perhaps her best known work, Bread Givers (Doubleday, 1925).

Little is really known of Yezierska’s early life and she was an unreliable narrator of her own life. (Her daughter Louise Levitas Henriksen stated “less than anyone I can think of could she be trusted to tell the unadorned truth.”) There has been much speculation over the year of her birth. Yezierska always claimed not to know when she was born and selected October 19, 1883 as her birthday. Some biographers argue that 1885 is the likely year of her birth, but U.S. government records list October 29, 1880 as her date of birth.

Whatever the case, Yezierska arrived in America with her parents Pearl and Bernard, a Talmudic scholar, and several older siblings in 1890. Her older brother had preceded them and he had had his name altered from Meyer Yezierska to Max Meyer. The family also adopted the new surname, so upon her arrival in her new homeland, Anzia Yezierska became Harriet Meyer. Shortly after settling in New York City’s Lower East Side, she found employment as a seamstress in a garment factory. After continued clashes with her traditionalist father, she moved out of the family home in 1899 and eventually found rooms at the Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls. During the day she worked as a domestic or at factories and in the evenings she attended classes to improve her English at the New York City Normal College. Yezierska scrimped and saved a part of her earnings to fund her attendance at Teacher’s College at Columbia. Some residents of the de Hirsch Home also provided financial assistance.

In 1904, Yezierska graduated and found work as a schoolteacher, but it was a career that left her feeling unsatisfied, partly because of her issues with being an emigrant. She often felt unworthy or looked down upon – by her classmates, by her teachers and, later, by her employers. Instead, Yezierska earned a scholarship to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Art in 1907, yet once she came to believe that she lacked the necessary skills for a career on the stage.

Although she was engaging in a correspondence with Arnold Levitas throughout 1910, in November of that year, she married Jacob Gordon. Almost immediately, though, she came to regret her decision. Gordon wanted a traditional wife, a role she was unwilling or unable to play. Reportedly the couple separated on their wedding night before consummating the union and within six months, the marriage had been annulled. During the summer of 1911, Yezierska wed Levitas and the following spring gave birth to their only child, a daughter, Louise. Once again chafing under the restrictions of matrimony, she separated from her husband and headed to the West Coast to stay with relatives. To support herself and her daughter, she took a job as a social worker for Jewish charities in San Francisco. The stresses of being a working parent were too much for her, though, and she eventually sent her daughter to live with her former husband and his mother in the Bronx.

By 1913, Yezierska had begun to try her hand at writing and two years later made her literary debut with the somewhat autobiographical story “The Free Vacation Home,” about an overworked immigrant mother and her frustrations with domesticity and the local Jewish charity’s attempts to assist her. The story was published in the December 1915 issue of Forum magazine.

Returning to New York City, Yezierska was able to find only part-time teaching positions. Believing she was being discriminated against over her ethnic background and due to the fact that she was an emigrant, she made an appeal to philosopher and education reformer John Dewey, then the dean of Teacher’s College. Impressed with the young woman, Dewey hired her to work as a translator on a project, invited her to attend his graduate seminar, and encouraged her to pursue a writing career. There has been speculation by biographers of both Dewey and Yezierska that a romantic affair may have ensued, but there is nothing to substantiate that their relationship was anything but platonic.

1919 was a turning point for Yezierska’s writing career. “The Fat of the Land,” about a wealthy older Jewish woman longing for the camaraderie of her days as a resident of the Lower East Side, was published in Best Short Stories of 1919 . Parlaying that success, she was able to secure publication of her first story collection, Hungry Hearts (Houghton Mifflin, 1920). Samuel Goldwyn purchased the film rights and offered Yezierska a contract for $10,000 to serve as a screenwriter. The Hollywood publicity machine went into overdrive and the author was portrayed as “the Queen of the Ghetto.” Many came to believe that all of her stories were autobiographical when in fact she based the characters on women she had known throughout her life. The entire experience with the film industry had left her wanting and she fled to the East Coast.

Back in New York, she resumed writing and turned out her first novel, Salome of the Tenements (Boni & Liveright, 1923), based on the life of her friend the radical Socialist Rose Pastor, an impoverished Jewish immigrant who married millionaire James Phelps Graham Stokes. The Stokes marriage crumbled under disputes over politics and support for American involvement in World War I. The novel was also purchased by Hollywood and served as the basis of a 1925 feature film.

Enjoying fame and the economic security her fiction provided, Yezierska published a second collection of stories, Children of Loneliness (Funk & Wagnalls, 1923), and the novel Bread Givers (Doubleday, 1925), which was a loose retelling of her childhood and her struggles with her father. As societal changes occurred and the plight of the emigrant became of less concern, Yezierska’s later work suffered. Both Arrogant Beggar (Doubleday, 1927) and All I Could Never Be (Putnam, 1932) failed to sell. She joined the Writers Project of the Works Public Administration (WPA) and continued to produce fiction, although she did not publish anything for more than a decade.

In 1950, Yezierska emerged from the shadows with Red Ribbon on a White Horse (Scribner, 1950), then billed as an autobiography and published with an introduction by W.H. Auden. The books appearance renewed interest in her and her writing. Over the next ten years, Yezierska contributed book reviews to The New York Times and occasionally made public appearances. Up until the mid-1960s, she lived alone in New York City but then moved to California to be closer to her daughter. Although legally blind, she continued to write via dictation. She died of complications from a stroke in a nursing home in Ontario, California on November 21, 1970.

Yezierska’s literary reputation was burnished with the 1975 reprint of Bread Givers championed by Alice Kessler Harris. Harris also edited The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection (Persea Books), a compendium of short stories published in 1979.

Library of Congress Subject Headings Women authors, American.
American literature Jewish authors.
American literature Women authors.
American literature 20th century.
Russian-American literature 20th century.
Russian Americans.

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