Review of Mary Antin's "The Promised Land" appears in the "New York Times"
Only 30 years old when she published her autobiography, The Promised Land, Mary Antin captured the dreams and experiences of turn-of-the-century Russian Jewish immigrants. The book, which was reviewed in the New York Times on April 14, 1912, recounted Antin's early life in Russia, her immigration to the United States at age 13, her successes in the Boston public school system, and her subsequent marriage and entry into the American middle class.
The Promised Land was the second book by this precocious writer. At thirteen, she had written a series of long letters to an uncle, chronicling her journey from Polotsk, Russia, to Boston. At the urging of a local Jewish communal leader, the collected letters were translated from Yiddish and published as From Plotzk to Boston in 1899. Income from sales of the book helped support Antin's family, and allowed her to finish her education.
After her 1901 marriage to geologist Amadeus Grabau, Antin studied at Columbia University's Teachers College and at Barnard College, but did not finish a degree. In New York, Antin continued to write both poetry and prose. Most of her poems remained unpublished, but a short story was printed by the Atlantic Monthly in 1911. Just two months later, the magazine began serializing what became The Promised Land, which was eventually published in book form by Houghton Mifflin. The book celebrates the promise of America, contrasting the abundant opportunities of the United States to the economic and cultural oppression faced by Jews in Europe. Making Antin an instant celebrity, the book sold almost 85,000 copies over the next four decades. Despite its rosy picture of the American dream, The Promised Land was one of the first books to present the stark realities of the immigrant experience to an American audience in English.
After the publication of The Promised Land, Antin campaigned for Theodore Roosevelt's (unsuccessful) presidential bid, and then traveled the country speaking about the themes of her book. Roosevelt later said that his support of women's suffrage came from his association with Antin and women like her. Despite Antin's zeal for Americanization, she was also a dedicated Zionist, arguing that Zionism was "in no sense incompatible with complete civic devotion" to the United States.
In 1914, Antin published They Who Knock at Our Gates, a passionate defense of the immigrant and an argument against immigration restriction. When the U.S. entered World War I, in 1917, she lectured on behalf of the Allied cause, but her activism led to an estrangement from her husband, a German sympathizer. By 1919, they had separated permanently. Around this time, Antin retired from public life, but continued to publish occasional essays. She died of cancer in 1949.
To learn more about Mary Antin, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
See also: Autobiography in the United States.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 55-57; New York Times, April 14, 1912, June 30, 1912, May 18, 1949.