It is fitting to conclude the yearlong Retro Review column with a book that is marking the centennial of its own publication.
In 1912, Mary Antin wrote “The Promised Land,” her memoir and firsthand account of her emigration experience from Polotzk, Russia, to the tenements of Boston. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of the original 1912 version from the library; in this copy, black and white and sepia photographs adorn each chapter. More recent paperback printings are available.
Antin was so changed by her immigration experience that she wrote this memoir at the young age of 30, explaining in the opening lines:
“I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over. Is it not time to write my life’s story? I am just as much out of the way as if I were dead, for I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell. Physical continuity with my earlier self is no disadvantage. I could speak in the third person and not feel that I was masquerading.”
In the first part of the book, Antin describes with frightening clarity what it was really like to live in Russia under the czar, in a Jewish ghetto called the Pale, where life for the Jews was exceptionally unpleasant. Like many Jews, Antin’s father struggled to support his wife and four children but was subject to unfair taxes and other obstacles in place specifically for Jews. Antin, whose name was “Masha” back then, was subjected to cruel torments by other children and despite a thirst for knowledge, had no access to books.
Reading this section of the book catapults the reader into a world resembling scenes and characters from “Fiddler on the Roof,” but with a harsher dose of reality.
When Antin was about 12, her father, who had several years earlier gone to America in search of the ever-elusive American dream, sent for the rest of the family.
While her parents were still struggling financially in their new country and had two more babies (one of which Antin teasingly called “superfluous”), coming to America for Antin was like a rebirth; she blossomed in the welcoming arms of her new country, taking every opportunity to learn everything she could. She mastered English quickly and even attended a prestigious school.
Calling herself “retrospectively introspective,” she observed: “America was bewilderingly strange, unimaginably complex, delightfully explored. I rushed impetuously out of the cage of my provincialism and looked eagerly about the brilliant universe. My question was, What have we here? — not, What does this mean? That query came much later.”
On the flip side of her assimilation into her new country, she shed some of her Jewish identity, a process that began in Russia when she secretly witnessed her father turning off a lamp on Shabbos.
The book is part anecdotal and part introspection. There are amusing scenes, such as Antin’s utter confidence that a Boston newspaper would publish her school poem about George Washington (they did, indeed) that she hand-delivered to the editor and her constant run-ins with the cruel tenement landlady.
Antin’s memoir touches upon issues of sociology, assimilation, religious persecution and freedom. At a time when women were still relegated to child care, when American women still lacked voting rights, when women were not always fortunate enough to receive an education, this book is a colossal achievement.
What also makes this book extraordinary is that even though the author’s native language is not English, the book is poetic in its prose. At times, her writing is a little florid, but her intelligence and insights override this minor flaw.
The children’s picture book “Streets of Gold” by Rosemary Wells is based on “The Promised Land” and includes passages from the original book.
Mary Antin went on to become an immigration rights activist; she lectured on political issues and went on to publish other works, though she is best known for “The Promised Land.” Though she suffered from mental illness in the latter part of her life, she left behind a memorable legacy after her death in 1949.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)