Lisa N. Muir

Date of Graduation


Document Type



The recent republication of the works of Anzia Yezierska and Rose Cohen, as well as the first ever publications of the autobiographies of Bella Spewack and Rachel Cohen, demonstrate the current interest in the autobiographical experiences of turn-of-the-century female immigrant writers. These women were not politicos of the Progressive Era, nor were they literary revolutionaries in the stricter sense of writing against a patriarchal literary environment. Instead, these women pay particular attention to how ethnicity was constructed for them by cultural attitudes existing outside the text. Their autobiographical works confirm for the diverse readers of today that ethnicity is not fixed; instead, it is a process requiring change and transformation. The writers I study circumvented the limitations imposed by fixed attitudes toward ethnicity by established Americans at the turn of the century, and used their ethnicity to redefine what it meant to be an American. An ethnic anxiety permeates their words, and they portray in their literature a crisis point where they see themselves as not only marginalized by American culture, but also exiled from Jewish culture as well. Yezierska, Cohen, Spewack, and Calof realized that “Jewish Americanness” was forced on the immigrant by the outside world. Rather than rejecting the characterization, these women understood that the definition could only be changed by speaking from that position, with the autobiography being the natural outlet for the deep emotions experienced with the traumatic ordeal of uprooting from one country and seeking to integrate oneself into another. By publishing their stories, these women became definers themselves of the term American. They pushed themselves to the forefront, forcing recognition of the diversity within the definition of American. In the end, ethnicity, the mark of exile, is not an indicator of marginality, but, to borrow Barbara Shollar's description, a “textual marker for ‘outsider’ status” that authorized Jewish American women to write of their experience from a cultural and historical moment.