26 pages 52 minutes read

Anzia Yezierska

America and I

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1922

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Summary: "America and I"

Anzia Yezierska introduces her immigration story by outlining why she came to America—to find hope, romance, and freedom to express herself. When she arrives, she says her body is strong and her “heart and soul pregnant with the unlived lives of generations clamoring for expression” (Paragraph 4). This is not to be, at least immediately. She needs money but cannot find work in factories, so her only options are to work in a kitchen or to act as nanny and housekeeper for an Americanized family from the same village of origin as hers.

When she asks about wages, though, the family is cold. The man preaches that she should not “be so grabbing for wages” (Paragraph 13); she should instead be grateful to associate with his family. The woman tells her that this will be like a vacation with her two lovely children and that Anzia can learn to become civilized like they are. Anzia feels she is with friends, so she pushes wages out of her mind and decides to trust them.

She says, “The best of me I gave them” (Paragraph 16); she works hard early till late, but is never tired because she is grateful to mingle with Americans and learn English from the children, grocer, and anyone who will help her. Words will only get her so far, however, and she needs money to buy clothes to fit in. After the month is up, she awaits her paycheck so she can create the Americanized image of herself that is in her head.

On the day she expects to receive her money, she gets up, cleans the house, prepares breakfast, has lunch, and sets the table for dinner, all the while hearing nothing about her wages. She can no longer stand it and rushes to the American woman and man to ask them what they owe her. They look at her stonily and tell her she has a bed for sleeping, three meals a day, and doesn’t know any English. They say she is not worth any money yet.

She leaves, feeling helpless and wounded. She fears working for a similar family and has lost trust in “Americans.” So instead, she turns to “the Ghetto” for her next employment prospects. There, she finds work in a sweatshop in a Delancey Street basement, sewing buttons. Her day is long. She says: “Day after day, week after week, all the contact I got with America was handling dead buttons” (Paragraph 44). She sleeps on the floor of a room in a tenement with a dozen others in the same boat, and she is always hungry—yet she still feels herself to be better off than when she was with the “American” family, because she has her evenings to herself. She goes to the roof sometimes to talk to the sky about her feelings of being lost and to think about where America actually is.

The busy season starts at the shop, and Anzia’s days become longer. Her overseer gets greedier for her employees’ time. Eventually, Anzia can’t take it and tells the woman she wants to go home. Her overseer tells her, “You learned already too much in America. I want no clock-watchers in my shop. Out you go!” (Paragraph 53). Now fired, she can no longer pay for her bed or food.

Her situation gets better. She becomes a trained worker at a factory, where she only has to work eight hours a day, six days a week. She has food and a bed, and she dresses like an American—yet she doesn’t feel like one. She is not sure what she wants, but she begins to take an English class for “foreigners.” One day, she goes to the teacher for advice.

The teacher asks what Anzia wants to do. Anzia says, “I want to do something with my head, my feelings” (Paragraph 63). The teacher tells her to learn English first, and then they will see. As the young woman learns English, though, she still feels empty; the work with her hands is not enough. She goes to the teacher again, telling her that she feels different from everyone else. The teacher advises Anzia to join the Women’s Association and get involved with a social club; they have a department for immigrant girls.

Anzia joins. The first evening, the Women’s Association announces a lecture called “The Happy Worker and His Work,” and she wonders if there is any such thing. “Happiness is only by working at what you love. And what poor girl can ever find it to work at what she loves?” (Paragraph 73). She goes to the lecture, and the man talks about efficiency and uses language that she cannot understand. She decides that if efficiency makes workers happy, she needs it. The man talks about the Vocational Guidance Center, so she goes there the next day.

She tells the young woman there that she wants to work “by what’s in me. Only, I don’t know what’s in me” (Paragraph 81). The vocational guidance counselor is puzzled, so Anzia tries to explain. The counselor tells her to earn her living at what she knows and rise from job to job. When she asks Anzia what she wants, Anzia says, “I want America to want me” (Paragraph 89). The counselor responds that she must show she has something special for America to need her. Anzia points out that criminals get free bread and rent, while immigrants are willing but get nothing: “Here you see us burning up with something different, and America turns her head away from us” (Paragraph 94). The girl responds that she must be able to make a living before indulging in “poetic dreams” (Paragraph 96). Anzia does not find this answer satisfactory and leaves in despair.

Anzia goes through a period of despondence, believing that the America of her dreams never existed. She does not think Americans will understand her even though she now knows the language. She begins to read American history and discovers information about how the Pilgrims came to the country: “But the great difference between the first Pilgrims and me was that they expected to make America, to build America, create their own world of liberty. I wanted to find it ready made” (Paragraph 103).

She delves deeper into history and finds how the Pilgrims pressed on through many dangers and did not ask for sympathy. Anzia feels she is always begging for sympathy, and when she does not find it, she says, “There is no America!” (Paragraph 106). This leads to a revelation: America is a world still in progress, and she can help shape its future.

Anzia changes her approach. Because American lives are shut away from her, she opens hers: “And life draws life” (Paragraph 108). She finally finds happiness writing about the ghetto where she lives, sharing her world with others. Yet she also feels guilty that she loves what she’s doing while other immigrants experience the same troubles she once did, going unrecognized in this new country despite their eagerness. She ends the essay with an optimistic thought, saying that in the future, Americans “will be too wise, too open-hearted, too friendly-handed, to let the least last-comer at their gates knock in vain with his gifts unwanted” (Paragraph 110).