Mary Antin (1881-1949)

    Contributing Editor: Richard Tuerk

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students are often unfamiliar with the time period treated in The Promised Land, especially so with aspects of the Great Migration and of immigrant settlement in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Especially important is conveying to them the kinds of conditions the newly arrived immigrants encountered in large eastern cities. Students are also unfamiliar with the kinds of conditions the immigrants lived in in the Old World.

    I use slides made from photographs by people like Jacob Riis to try to give the students a feeling for life in the immigrant quarters. I also use books containing photographs by people like Roman Vishniak to give them a feeling for Old World Orthodox Jewish life. Frankly, I find that photographs have a stronger impact on my students than simple descriptions and statistics do.

    Most of the questions I hear from students concern life in the Old World; however, most material treating Old World life has been omitted from the anthology. Other questions involve the urban environment of the newly arrived immigrant. Strangely enough, few of my students question Antin's idea that total assimilation is desirable.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Antin's emphasis on Americanization and total assimilation deserves careful scrutiny. I try to discuss the values of an ethic of assimilation as well as the problems it presents. I usually contrast Antin with at least one author--usually Ludwig Lewisohn, although Leslie Marmon Silko would do as well--who questions the ethic of assimilation. Particularly apt books for contrast are Lewisohn's Up Stream and Silko's Ceremony. I also discuss the related theme of initiation in Antin's book.

    The work may be treated in terms of its sociological content, that is, in terms of what it reveals about the expectations and possibilities of an immigrant girl in America around the turn of the century. It also may be treated in terms of the role of the public schools in helping (perhaps forcing) the immigrant to come to terms with American culture and society. However, the work may also be treated as a piece of literature.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    As I see it, The Promised Land is a tale of initiation, even of rebirth. Antin's being reborn as an American provides her with her principal form in terms of her contrasting Old World and New (the anthology does not contain material dealing directly with her Old World life) and in terms of her growth in the New World. The book is, among other things, a study in radical discontinuity in terms of the relations of Antin's Old World life to her New World life and of continuous growth in terms of her New World life.

    Original Audience

    Antin says that she is writing for all Americans, and her statement seems correct. I mention the tremendous popularity of her work and its use, either in whole or in part, in classrooms in public schools throughout America. Chapters from it became parts of textbooks used from coast to coast.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Other works of initiation are especially useful for comparison, especially those dealing with initiation into American society. Ethnic tales of initiation make instructive objects of comparison, works like Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, Ludwig Lewisohn's Up Stream, O. E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth, and Richard Wright's Black Boy.

    Even more helpful, however, is comparing Antin's book with Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These works are in many ways very similar yet at the same time radically different, especially in terms of their evaluations of American society. Whereas Antin desires assimilation above all, Huck learns to loathe the idea of being assimilated into American society.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. In what ways is Antin's experience in the New World unique? In what ways is it typical?

    In what ways is she unique? In what ways is she typical? As you read the selection, it might help to bear in mind that she insists that she is representative of all young immigrants.

    What is her attitude toward public schools?

    How realistic is her evaluation of America?

    2. Compare Antin's attitude toward public schools with your own attitude; what incidents in her life and in yours are responsible for the similarities and differences in those attitudes? Trace the steps by which Antin shows herself becoming Americanized.


    Guttmann, Allen. The Jewish Writer in America: Assimilation and the Crisis of Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Section 2, chapter 3. "The Rise of a Lucky Few: Mary Antin and Abraham Cahan."

    Liptzin, Sol. The Jew in American Literature. New York: Bloch, 1966. Chapter 8. "The Promised Land."

    Proefriedt, William A. "The Education of Mary Antin." Journal of Ethnic Studies 17.4 (1990): 81-100.

    Rubin, Steven J. "Style and Meaning in Mary Antin's The Promised Land: A Reevaluation." Studies in American Jewish Literature 5 (1986): 29-34.

    Tuerk, Richard. "Assimilation in Jewish-American Autobiography: Mary Antin and Ludwig Lewisohn." A/B: Auto/Biography Studies 3.2 (Summer 1987): 26-33.

    --. "At Home in the Land of Columbus: Americanization in European-American Immigrant Autobiography." Multicultural Autobiography: American Lives, edited by James Robert Payne, 114-38. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

    --. "The Youngest of America's Children in Mary Antin's The Promised Land." Studies in American Jewish Literature 5 (1986): 29-34.