Friday, September 7, 2018

My Country

Mary Antin (1881–1949)
From Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing

Students at Girls’ Latin School on Newton Street, Boston, 1893, photograph by Augustine H. Folsom (d. 1926). Mary Antin attended the school in the late 1890s. Courtesy Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Collections Online.
In her introduction to The Promised Land, Mary Antin—who was relatively unknown to American readers in 1912—explained why a young writer such as herself would publish a memoir:
I am not yet thirty, counting in years, and I am writing my life history. . . . My life has been unusual, but by no means unique. And this is the very core of the matter. It is because I understand my history, in its larger outlines, to be typical of many, that I consider it worth recording. My life is a concrete illustration of a multitude of statistical facts. Although I have written a genuine personal memoir, I believe that its chief interest lies in the fact that it is illustrative of scores of unwritten lives. I am only one of many whose fate it has been to live a page of modern history. We are the strands of the cable that binds the Old World to the New. As the ships that brought us link the shores of Europe and America, so our lives span the bitter sea of racial differences and misunderstandings. Before we came, the New World knew not the Old; but since we have begun to come, the Young World has taken the Old by the hand, and the two are learning to march side by side, seeking a common destiny.
Raised by a well-to-do family of Jewish shopkeepers in Polotzk in modern-day Belarus, Mashke Antin enjoyed a relatively tranquil childhood until she was about nine, when the family business collapsed and an influx of Jews fleeing pogroms elsewhere in Russia made it impossible for them to find work. Her father immigrated to Boston in 1891, and his wife and children followed three years later. While Israel Antin’s various business endeavors failed, the family struggled through lean years in the ghetto of Boston’s South End, but his daughter’s academic success and undaunted curiosity smoothed her assimilation into the family’s adopted country.

No longer “Mashke,” Mary managed to learn to read and write English with great facility in a matter of weeks. The journal Primary Education published her composition on “Snow,” when Mary Dillingham, her first teacher, sent it to the editors with a cover note: “This is the uncorrected paper of a Russian child twelve years old, who had studied English only four months. She had never . . . been to school even in her own country and has heard English spoken only at school.” In reality, Antin was fourteen; her father had lied about her age to qualify her for two extra years of elementary schooling, a deception she later turned into a short story, “The Lie.” Mary also earned a bit of local celebrity when the Boston Herald published her first poem—although, as she describes in “My Country,” she later cringed a little whenever she recalled her early work. She was only eighteen when she published her first book, From Plotzk to Boston, a memoir of her journey to America based on letters she had written in 1894 in Yiddish to her uncle. Not even the printer’s misspelling of her native town kept the book from becoming a regional success, and Antin received strongly positive reviews from papers like The New York Times and as far away as Kalamazoo.

Antin married in 1901 and moved with her husband to New York City, where she attended Barnard College. During the next decade she published essays and stories, and portions of her 1912 memoir, The Promised Land, appeared serially in the Atlantic Monthly. The book was immensely popular: during her lifetime it went through 34 printings and sold almost 85,000 copies. Along with Abraham Cahan’s fiction, The Promised Land is considered by many to mark the beginning of Jewish literature in America.

In “How I Wrote The Promised Land,” an essay that appeared in The New York Times, Antin highlighted the section “My Country,” in which she describes her early adolescent endeavor to become a published author:
The chapter called “My Country” has been much commented upon, and people have wondered how I could have known my own childish processes so well. But there is no miracle in this; as a piece of child psychology it has been duplicated many times. The creator of Emmy Lou knew every bit as much of her own mental development as I did, and so did the creator of Maggie Tolliver and of Tom Sawyer. These characters were not invented; they were remembered.
She wrote only one other book—They Who Knock at Our Gates (1914), which argued for an unrestricted immigration policy. In 1918 the separation from her husband (whose pro-German sentiments during the war were opposed by Antin), the death of her father, and the general xenophobic tenor of wartime American life brought on a nervous breakdown from which she never fully recovered. In later years she tried to reconcile her Jewish heritage with the ecumenical American God her heart belonged to: “In all those places where race lines are drawn, I shall claim the Jewish badge; but in my Father’s house of many mansions I shall continue a free spirit.”

Notes: Edward Everett Hale (author of The Man Without a Country and an acquaintance of Antin’s) is quoted on page 137. Although the quote—“Personal presence moves the world”—is often credited to him, Hale had attributed the slogan to Massachusetts Congressman Eli Thayer.

Portions of the above introduction have been adapted from the headnote that appears in Becoming Americans, edited by Ilan Stavans.

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