Mary Antin (1881-1949)
Mary Antin articulated in her writing and speeches the experience of being an immigrant. Her book, The Promised Land, is still read today as an expression of the quintessential 19th century Eastern European immigrant experience with universal appeal to all immigrants.
Mary Antin was born Maryashe Antin in the town of Polotzk in the Pale of Settlement, the only area of Russia where Jews were permitted to live. She was the second child born to Israel and Esther (Hannah Hayye) (Weltman) Antin. Her family’s business options flourished in her early childhood, but when her parents suffered illness, they became impoverished. Her father immigrated to the U.S. in 1891 arriving in Boston along with many other Eastern European and Russian Jews who were escaping pogroms and looking for economic opportunities. He managed to save money to send for the rest of his family three years later. Secure employment was not available to new immigrants;this forced other family members to take factory work.
Mary learned English quickly, passing through grammar school in four years. Her teachers recognized her ability to express herself and encouraged her to write. Publication of a few of her poems in Boston newspapers made her a local celebrity.
Lina Hecht, a local Jewish leader, persuaded Philip Cowen, editor of the American Hebrew, to arrange for the publication of Mary’s first book. In 1899 a collection of letters she had written to her uncle at age 13 was published, translated from the Yiddish and entitled From Plotzk to Boston (the misspelling the name of her hometown was retained). The money she made from her book enabled her to hope for further educational opportunities. Benefactors recognized her talents and helped her by paying for tickets so she could attend local concerts and museums.
She attended Hale House, a South End settlement house, as a high school student, where she met Amadeus William Grabeau, the son of a German Lutheran minister and professor of geology. They married in 1902, Mary keeping her maiden name. When Grabeau became a professor at Columbia University, they moved to New York City and Mary was able to realize her dream of attending college. She attended Columbia’s Teacher College (1901–1902) and then Barnard College (1902-1904), although she did not graduate. They had one child, Josephine Esther, named after her friend Josephine Lazarus. In fact, it was Josephine, a Transcendentalist and sister of poet Emma Lazarus, who encouraged Mary to write her autobiography. The Promised Land was published in 1911; it began as a series of articles in the Atlantic Monthly magazine and it became a best seller.
She traveled throughout the country, lecturing on free and open immigration, and she also championed Zionism. She campaigned for Theodore Roosevelt after he responded to her books, and he later credited her and others for his support of women’s suffrage. She published They Who Knock at Our Gates in 1914 in order to encourage Americans to welcome immigrants and respect their contributions to the country.
During World War I, her husband lost his job, in part because of his pro-German sympathies. The couple separated, and he moved to China. They never reunited and he eventually died there in 1946.
In the following quotation from The Promised Land, she described the contrasts she had experienced in her life: “Anybody who knows Boston knows that the West and North Ends are the wrong ends of that city. They form the tenement district, or in the newer phrase, the slums of Boston….that is the quarter where poor immigrants gather to live, But I saw a different picture on my introduction to Union Place [West End]. I saw two imposing rows of brick buildings, loftier than any building I ever lived in. Brick was even on the ground for me to tread on instead of common earth or boards. I looked up to the topmost row of windows and my eyes were filled with the May blue of an American sky.”
About the riches of the Boston Public Library, she wrote “It was my habit to go very slowly up the low, broad steps to the palace entrance, pleasing my eyes with the majestic lines of the building and lingering to read again the broad inscriptions: Public Library – Built by the People – Free to All. Did I not say it was my palace? Mine, because I was a citizen; mine, though I was born an alien; mine though I lived on Dover Street. My palace – mine!”
Later in her life, she suffered from what was called neurasthenia, or what we today might call chronic fatigue syndrome. Mary moved back to Boston where some of her family still lived. Finding it difficult to continue writing, she was hospitalized briefly. As she aged, she became physically frail and eventually died of cancer in 1949. Her autobiography, The Promised Land, is an important contribution to the literature of immigration.
– South End Walk, Boston Women’s Heritage Trail Guidebook
– Vilna Shul, Beacon Hill Beacon Hill Walk, Boston Women’s Heritage Trail Guidebook [plaque with her name]
- From Plotzk to Boston by Mary Antin. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
- The Promised Land by Mary Antin. Penguin Classics, 2012.
- Selected Letters of Mary Antin by Evelyn Salz and Mary Antin. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
- Jewish Womens Archive
- Mass Moments: December 8, 1912: Crowd Gathers to Hear Writer Mary Antin