In her life and her work, the best-selling author Mary Antin celebrated the immigrant experience and America’s boundless opportunities. Born in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Antin immigrated to Boston in 1894. Quickly mastering English thanks to Boston’s public schools, she determined to become a writer. Her autobiography, The Promised Land, published in 1912 when she was scarcely 30, catapulted her to fame. Although mental illness cut short her promising career within less than a decade, The Promised Land, a quintessential tale of immigrant triumph and American assimilation, has remained in print for more than a century.
“I thought it [a] miracle,” exclaimed Mary Antin in her best-selling autobiography, The Promised Land, written when she was just 30 years old, “that I, Mashke, the granddaughter of Raphael the Russian, born to a humble destiny, should be at home in an American metropolis, be free to fashion my own life, and should dream my dreams in English phrases.” This best-selling author and lecturer, champion of free and open immigration, celebrated in her life and work the immigrant experience and America’s boundless opportunities.
Childhood, Education, and Marriage
Born in Polotsk in the Russian Pale of Settlement on June 13, 1881—although some think that she was born two years later—to Israel Pinchus and Esther (Hannah Hayye) (Weltman) Antin, Maryashe Antin was the second of six children. For a brief period in her childhood, while the family business flourished, she learned with private tutors. But serious illness left the business in ruins. In 1891, unable to earn a living, her father set off, along with hundreds of thousands of others, to seek his fortune in America.
While their mother shouldered the burden of caring for the family, Antin and her elder sister found themselves apprenticed out to work. After three long years, their father managed to save enough to send for his wife and children. In the early spring of 1894, they left Polotsk bound for Boston.
While America never did deliver on its dream of prosperity to her father, whose various businesses failed, it did deliver on its promise of equal opportunity. Education kept the American dream alive for Maryashe—now Mary. Years later, when she wrote of the day she and her younger siblings marched proudly off to school, she claimed that in “the simple act of delivering our school certificates . . . [my father] took possession of America” (Antin, The Promised Land, p. 205).
Like other immigrant children, in the days when grade levels were determined by competence in English rather than by age, thirteen-year-old Antin squeezed herself into a desk meant for a kindergarten child. Her intelligence and literary gifts impressed her teachers. Eager to show how much an immigrant child could accomplish in only four months, one of them sent the child’s composition “Snow” to Primary Education. Seeing her name in print for the first time, Antin determined to become a writer.
Vaulting through grammar school in four years, she began fulfilling her literary ambition with poems published in Boston newspapers. Lofted by Boston educators “as an illustration of what the American system of free education and the European immigrant could make of each other,” Antin became a symbol to those who championed the nation’s capacity to assimilate the immigrant and the immigrant’s capacity to enrich America.
Knowing of the family’s desperate need to put all hands to work to make ends meet, the local Jewish communal leader Hattie L. Hecht persuaded Philip Cowen, editor of the American Hebrew, to arrange for the publication of Antin’s first book. In the summer of 1894, she had sent a 60-page letter describing the family’s journey to an uncle in Polotsk. Now translated from the Yiddish and edited, and owing to a misprint of the name of her hometown, From Plotzk to Boston (1899) became her first book. Income from its sales enabled Antin to continue her education at Boston’s premier female high school, Girls’ Latin School, and to dream of the day when she would enter college.
But school, writing, and household chores did not occupy all her time. On a field trip sponsored by a settlement house, she met the geologist Amadeus William Grabau (1870–1946), the son and grandson of German-born Lutheran ministers. The two fell in love and were married in Boston on October 5, 1901.
Amadeus Grabau went from Harvard University, where he had completed his doctorate, to the faculty of Columbia University. There Antin fulfilled her dream of attending college, studying at Columbia’s Teachers College (1901–1902) and at Barnard College (1902–1904), but without finishing a degree. The birth of their only child, Josephine Esther, completed the domestic portrait.
Yet Antin’s ambitions for authorship did not wane. While most of her poems remained unpublished, Josephine Lazarus—a transcendentalist, sister of the poet Emma Lazarus, and a member of Antin’s new circle of friends—convinced her to write her autobiography. In September 1911, the Atlantic Monthly published Antin’s “Malinke’s Atonement,” a short story set in Polotsk about an impoverished nine-year-old “ignorant female” who, after a daring test of faith, wins access to the forbidden—an education “the same as a boy.” Two months later, the same magazine published the first installment of what became The Promised Land (1912).
In The Promised Land, Antin sketched her life in Polotsk and Boston. Espousing the myth of the American dream, she showed how the idea of America ran counter to the economic, political, and cultural oppression of Europe. She pointed to her own adolescent success as proof of the abundant opportunities held out to immigrants who abandoned the old to embrace wholeheartedly the new. The Promised Land brought her nationwide fame, selling nearly 85,000 copies before her death.
Antin continued writing short stories for the Atlantic Monthly and opinion pieces for Outlook. In the same year that The Promised Land appeared, she campaigned for Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. The former president’s friendship confirmed what she had for so long asserted—that nothing stood in the way of the immigrant in America. And Roosevelt revealed his own debt to their friendship when he wrote that he became a zealous supporter of woman suffrage precisely because of his association with women like Mary Antin.
From 1913 to 1918, Antin traveled throughout the United States, lecturing, often to Jewish organizations, on themes set forth in The Promised Land. She celebrated the American dream, and, perhaps unexpectedly, championed Zionism. Although earlier she had found that her Jewish heritage paled before the American past that now belonged to her, she never repudiated her Jewish identity. Despite her intermarriage, her ardent quest for Americanization, and her abandonment of the piety of the Eastern European [encyclopedia_glossary_term:404]shtetl[/encyclopedia_glossary_term], she argued in the Zionist magazine The Maccabaean that “when I take my stand under the Zionist banner,” it “is in no sense incompatible with complete civic devotion” to America. Perhaps her return visit to Polotsk after her marriage—a visit about which little is known—fueled these sentiments.
In 1914, she followed the success of The Promised Land with her last full-length work, They Who Knock at Our Gates, a polemic against the movement to restrict immigration which, fueled by xenophobia and growing enthusiasm for the purported science of eugenics, had been gaining ground since the 1890s. Although well received, this work was less popular than her autobiographical musings, possibly because the tide against open immigration was turning. In 1917, after decades of failure, the U.S. passed a literacy test for immigrants.
America’s entry into World War I resulted in a serious personal crisis that permanently changed Antin’s life. While she threw herself into lectures for the Allied cause, her husband’s pro-German sympathies caused a severe rift in their household. In 1918, worried over their estrangement, Antin suffered an attack of what was then diagnosed as neurasthenia, from which she never fully recovered. The illness caused her to retire from public life. By 1919, when Grabau’s pro-German sympathies had made his situation at Columbia untenable, he and Antin had separated. The following year, he left for China. Although the couple corresponded, illness and war kept her from visiting Peking, where her husband died in 1946.
After the separation, Antin left New York for Massachusetts. She divided her time among Gould Farm, a social service community in Great Barrington, the family’s home in Winchester, and her own apartment in Boston. She was hospitalized briefly and also worked as a hospital social worker. Subsequently, attracted by Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy, she tried in “The Soundless Trumpet” (1937), one of her very few late essays, to convey the power of these new mystical insights—but without much success.
Mentally alert, but physically an invalid in her final years, Mary Antin resided with her younger American-born sisters. She died of cancer on May 15, 1949, in Suffern, New York.
For more than a century The Promised Land has remained in print as its reputation has waxed and waned. Its publication had made her a celebrity overnight. But, in the 1920s, her tale of immigrant success fell out of favor just as restrictive quotas on immigration were put into place. Later a new generation of literary critics, seeking Jewish authenticity in the American past, would read The Promised Land and find themselves put off by her celebration of American assimilation. For them, that was a betrayal of the Jewish people.
But, at the turn to the twenty-first century, the publication of a selection of Antin’s letters helped spark new appreciative views of her life and work. A new generation of literary critics explores the identity politics of The Promised Land and celebrates the individual triumphing over a difficult past to rise in America. Michael P. Kramer, for example, sees parallels between her autobiography and those of founding father Benjamin Franklin and civil rights advocate Booker T. Washington. The Promised Land also anticipated the narratives of the famed post-World War II American Jewish writers who similarly championed Jewish acculturation to America.
Numerous memoirs and novels have recounted the Jewish immigrant experience since The Promised Land was first published more than a century ago. Nevertheless, for its celebration of America and how it transformed the foreign-born Maryashe into Mary Antin, author, citizen, and interpreter of the immigrant experience to her fellow Americans, Antin’s autobiography remains the quintessential work of its genre.
Selected Works by Mary Antin
“The Amulet.” Atlantic Monthly 111 (January 1913): 177–190.
“First Aid to the Alien.” Outlook 101 (June 29, 1912): 481–485.
From Plotzk to Boston. Boston: W.b. Clarke, 1899.
“His Soul Goes Marching On.” Berkshire Courier, May 14, 1925.
“House of One Father.” Common Ground 1 (Spring 1941): 36–42.
“How I Wrote ‘The Promised Land.’” NYTimes, June 30, 1912, 392.
“The Lie.” Atlantic Monthly 112 (August 1913): 177–190.
“Malinke’s Atonement.” Atlantic Monthly 108 (September 1911): 300–319.
The Promised Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912.
“The Soundless Trumpet.” Atlantic Monthly 159 (May 1937): 560–569.
They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914.
“A Woman to Her Fellow-Citizens.” Outlook 102 (November 2, 1912): 482–486.
“The Zionists’ Bit.” The Maccabaean (February 1918): 40.
“A Zionist’s Confession of Faith.” The Maccabaean (February 1917): 157–158.
AJYB 24:115, 51:519.
Koppelman, Susan. “Mary Antin.” Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1984 (1985).
Kramer, Michael P. “Assimilation in The Promised Land: Mary Antin and the Jewish Origins of the American Self.” Prooftexts 18 (2): 121-148.
Nadell, Pamela S. Introduction to From Plotzk to Boston. New York: M. Wiener, 1985.
Obituary. NYTimes, May 18, 1949, 27:3.
Salz, Evelyn, ed. Selected Letters of Mary Antin. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
WWIAJ (1926, 1928, 1938).
Yudkoff, Sunny. “The Adolescent Self-Fashioning of Mary Antin.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 32 (1) (2013): 4-35.