Thursday, November 24, 2022

Hungry Hearts by Anzia Yezierska

"Was it then only a dream—a mirage of the hungry-hearted people in the desert lands of oppression—this age-old faith in America—the beloved, the prayed-for “golden country”? Had the starved villagers of Sukovoly lifted above their sorrows a mere rainbow vision that led them—where—where? To the stifling submission of the sweatshop or the desperation of the streets!"

Many years ago I read Anzia Yezierska's novel Bread Givers (1925) about a Russian Jewish family who move to New York's Lower East Side in the early 1900's.  The daughter, Sara Somilinsky, is in conflict with her father who wants her to stay home and lead a traditional life.  But Sara has dreams and wants an education and a chance for a brighter future.  I really enjoyed Bread Givers and I always meant to read more by Anzia Yezierska and so for the 2022 Back to the Classics category- choose a classic short story collection I decided to go with Hungry Hearts (1920) by Anzia Yezerskia.

Hungry Hearts consists of 10 stories set on the Lower East side of Manhattan.  Her characters are immigrant Jewish women and we learn about their dreams of finding love, happiness and belonging.  Each character in Hungry Hearts wants more out of life and to feel a part of America but it's not easy.  The tenements are bleak and the work when one can find it is exhausting.  Who has the time and the energy to dream and get an education?  And yet many of the women in Hungry Hearts are able to see a way to a brighter future.  But not all.  Some are ground down by poverty, landlords, sweatshops, bosses and the charity organizations that instead of helping treat the immigrants and the poor with condescension.

And yet, in the final story, How I Found America, we meet a young woman working long hours in a sweatshop with other immigrant women and the boss decides to cut their salaries. The young woman decides that she will say something to the boss and is promptly fired.  Leaving the factory upset she gets into a traffic accident, recovers and decides that she is not going back to the machines and enrolls instead in school.  She meets a teacher who really listens to her and the teacher reads a poem Our America by Waldo Frank:

"All the way home the words she read flamed before me: “We go forth all to seek America. And in the seeking we create her. In the quality of our search shall be the nature of the America that we create.” ... How glad I was that I had not stopped at the husk—a good job—a good living—but pressed on, through the barriers of materialism. Through my inarticulate groping and reaching-out I had found the soul—the spirit—of America"

Anzia Yezierska's novels and short stories like so many women writers from the 1920's fell into obscurity in the mid-twentieth century.  But thankfully her novels, memoir and short stories have had a revival.  I would start with Yezerskia's classic novel Bread Givers but Hungry Hearts is also well worth reading.  And though published in 1920 the issues tackled in Hungry Hearts: immigration, low wages, getting an education and finding your path in life regardless of the obstacles that others set up are as relevant today as they were one hundred years ago.