Revisiting 'The Promised Land'
Werner Sollors edits new edition of premier immigrant autobiography
By Ken Gewertz
Mary Antin was one of many thousands of Eastern Europeans who emigrated to the United States in the 1890s. A native of Polotzk in the Russian "Pale of Settlement," she came to this country at the age of 13 and settled in Boston with her parents and three siblings.
Like many Jews who fled discrimination and oppression for a life of freedom, Antin felt that she had experienced a "second birth" on coming to America. What made her different from the majority of her contemporaries was that she left a moving and eloquent record of her experience.
Antin's autobiography, The Promised Land, was published in 1912 after excerpts had appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. It was a critical as well as a popular success, remaining in print through most of the century and becoming the most famous immigrant autobiography in America.
Recently, Penguin Books published a new paperback edition of The Promised Land, edited and with an introduction by Werner Sollors, the Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and professor of Afro-American studies. Sollors, who is known for his work on ethnicity and literature, said that he has long been an admirer of Antin's work.
"Her book really established the genre of the immigrant autobiography," Sollors said. "But it's also a great stylistic accomplishment. She's a very good writer, which is remarkable considering the fact that she came here at the age of 13 without knowing a word of English."
On Feb. 21, Sollors spoke at a reception at the Boston Public Library celebrating the publication of the new edition of Antin's book. The reception, jointly sponsored by the Trustees of the Library and Harvard's Center for Jewish Studies, seemed to bring the spirit of Mary Antin very much to life.
Among the guests were Antin's three granddaughters, Elizabeth Anne Ross, Margarita Esther Ross, and Rosemary Richards, who shared family stories of their famous ancestor. Sollors read a passage from the autobiography that made clear the special role the library played in Antin's development as an American.
In the passage, Antin describes the feelings of exaltation she experienced when she read the inscription above the building's main entrance: "Public Library -- Built by the People -- Free to All."
"That I who was brought up to my teens almost without a book," Antin wrote, "should be set down in the midst of all the books that ever were written was a miracle as great as any on record. That an outcast should become a privileged citizen, that a beggar should dwell in a palace -- this was a romance more thrilling than poet ever sung."
The Library holds the original manuscript of Antin's autobiography. At the reception, Liam Kelly, the Library's acting director, presented a photocopy of that manuscript to Antin's granddaughters. In return they presented the Library with a scrapbook of clippings collected by Antin's husband following the publication of The Promised Land.
"It's a family treasure," said Elizabeth Anne Ross of the battered, leather-bound volume. "It's a wonder it's still here. It must have been watched over by a special angel."
Ross said that she was a little girl when her grandmother died in 1949 and her memories of her are unclear. But she does remember many stories about her.
She said that Antin, who became an authority on immigration and had an active career as a public speaker, never lost her spontaneous and somewhat eccentric nature. Once while staying at the home of a wealthy supporter, she slid down the banister, landing at the feet of her astonished hostess. On another occasion, she decided to surprise the residents of a poor neighborhood by leaving money on their windowsills and gave away all her cash.
A literary prodigy, Antin began to attract attention as a writer even before The Promised Land was published. Shortly after her transatlantic voyage, she wrote a long, detailed account of the passage in a letter to her uncle in Russia. After being freely translated from Yiddish to English, the letter appeared in The American Hebrew and, in 1899, when Antin was 18, was published in book form (From Plotzk to Boston, misspelling the name of her hometown).
Her other early publications include a story "Snow," which appeared in the journal Primary Education, and a poem on George Washington, which was published in the Boston Herald. These early compositions were written in English, a language that Antin enthusiastically adopted, abandoning Yiddish and Russian, her first languages.
Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish literature and of comparative literature, spoke as a representative of the Center for Jewish Studies. She said that Antin probably never anticipated that Yiddish would have a second flowering in the United States.
"I wish Mary Antin could be here. She would probably think it strange that a professor of Yiddish would have a hand in sponsoring this event."
Sollors said that he was very pleased when Penguin asked him to edit Antin's book.
"I think The Promised Land helped to redefine what it means to be an American," he said. "It's an important book, especially now that immigration and multiculturalism have become such significant issues for our own time."
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College