Beta Phi Mu - Chi Chapter, Student Award for Scholarship
1996/1997 Co-Winner

List of Annual Award Winners


Joyce B. Adams
Indiana University, Bloomington, School of Library and Information Science

November 25, 1996


As libraries increasingly emphasize service to multicultural populations, it is all the more important to establish the role that libraries--and reading in general--played in the life of immigrants and their second-generation offspring at the peak of immigration from Europe between 1890 and 1920. The intellectual history of American immigration has been emphasized less than its economic history. Immigrants were propelled from the Old World by persecution or wretched material conditions; they were attracted by opportunities for employment.

However, even though work may have been the chief factor in immigration to the United States, one important result was the accelerated progress of migrant groups in education, especially the second and third generations. First-generation immigrants can be grouped by age of arrival, family characteristics, birth order, and other factors. Intellectual development has been quantified as placement and promotion, or total years of schooling--parameters easily included in socioeconomic studies. To what extent was learning was valued by immigrants as a road to financial security?

Were immigrant readers motivated to learn to read primarily by tangible rewards. In language-learning theory, such motivation is termed "instrumental," as opposed to "integrative" motivation. In the case of the latter, one studies a language "in order to understand or become like members of the target language group."

A very broad question to be examined is this study is what balance of instrumental and integrative motivation drove the immigrants of the turn of the century to read, and especially to read English, in order to appreciate the complexity of their educational situation as a whole. A very broad how four Jewish women immigrants experienced reading in English.


Literature Review

There is no compactly worked-out body of literature on immigrants, reading, and libraries. The following is not an exhaustive annotated bibliography, but a discussion of readily available books and articles on the subjects of Jewish immigrant culture in general, settlement work, schools, libraries, and book production/distribution.

Immigrant Culture

The work which has contributed most thus far to this author's perspective on the Russian Jewish immigrant population is Gerald Sorin's A Time for Building: The Third Migration 1880-1920.(1) The book falls roughly into three parts of three chapters each. The first covers the background and process of immigration; the second, newcomers' culture both inside and outside New York; the last, cultural encounters. As part of a comprehensive series on United States Jewish history, the work presents enough sources that it can be consulted with confidence for the aspirations and needs that created demand for books and shaped reading habits.

Irving Howe's account of Russian Jewish life in New York City is unequaled as an entertaining blend of primary and secondary sources. Like Howe's and Kenneth Libo's later work, it is limited as a research tool in that endnote numbers are dispensed with and identification of references correspondingly cumbersome.(2) Yet both invite further biographical study. Irving Cutler's work on Chicago is informative and, like that of Howe and Libo, rich in photographic illustrations.(3) Handlin's Boston's Immigrants(4) presents a general picture of relations between the city's established Americans and newcomers, but contains more information on Irish and French migrants than other groups.

Settlement Work

Interesting in terms of a focus on Boston and Mary Antin, and for details on institutional operations, is Robert Archey Woods, Americans in Process.(5) Woods comments on the use of the West End branch of the Boston Public Library, particularly by Jewish, Irish, and Black patrons. Jane Addams's classic Twenty Years at Hull House(6) occasionally mentions reading. In neither source is there a full discussion of how the settlement movement taught and encouraged English reading.


Writers on immigrant education discuss--more than textbooks or libraries--social and economic topics: attendance, retention, teacher-student relations, immigrant attitudes towards schools, Americanization, and the teaching of hygiene, English, and manual arts. In terms of the last of these, no specific mention has been found of whether it was requisite for a manual arts class to impart enough literacy to identify a blueprint, follow directional signs, read labels on supplies, or even attend to danger warnings.

Morris Berger's dissertation "The Settlement, the Immigrant, and the Public School"(7)

emphasizes cultural factors, especially Americanization, and the role of the settlement movement in creating an environment favorable to education. He uses the Educational Alliance as a case study. Selma Berrol's work on immigrants in the New York City schools has considerable material, including statistics, on attendance, and examines administrators' attitudes.(8) Some of the trends these authors identify in New York, e.g., ungraded "steamer classes" for multiethnic groups of total beginners at English, are confirmed by Woods for Boston. Diane Ravitch and David B. Tyack, frequently cited in other literature, analyze political influences in educational policy, and give useful detail.(9)


Probably still the most comprehensive work to date on United States library history is Michael H. Harris, A Guide to Research in American Library History, with an annotated bibliography of published and unpublished works.(10) Although the author, in his introduction, points out several lacunae in the study of librarianship, there is no lack of chronicles of individual institutions, or biographies of their founders and directors. However, many of the latter are Master's theses in library science and thus not readily available.(11) For the United States, Libraries and Culture is an outstanding journal. A good introduction to library history for the period under discussion in this paper is Wayne Wiegand's article in The ALA Encyclopedia.(12)

Sidney Ditzion's 1947 Arsenals of a Democratic Culture (a title adapted from the phrase "Arsenals of American Liberty" used in the dedication of the Uxbridge, Massachusetts Free Public Library in 1896) covers 1850-1900, the period, as the author defines it, during which the tax-supported free library became firmly established. Most helpful is the section addressing factory owners' roles in establishing public libraries to serve workers, including the foreign-born.(13) A contemporary treatment of this time segment would be desirable. There is a section on libraries at the turn of the century in Lawrence Cremin's work on Progressivism and education.(14)

Published studies of public library systems in large cities convey how such an institution served a body of citizens which at this time included a working class increasingly constituted of immigrants. Those found helpful for this paper--Wadlin for Boston, Spencer for Chicago, Woodford for Detroit, Kalisch for Baltimore, and Dain for New York City--are listed below as references. Finally, the early publications of the American Library Association contain contributions on libraries and immigrants made by, for example, John Foster Carr, Mary Antin, and Adelaide B. Maltby.(15)

Book Production/Distribution

Many works on nineteenth-century publishing bring little information on the persons who made up the market for books. Frank L. Schick's "The Recurring Emergence of American Paperbacks"(16) shows an overlap of the early mass immigration period with a strong wave of paperback reading that rose in the mid-1860s and subsided around 1890. He discusses genres, but not specific titles. David Kaser's A Book for Sixpence: The Circulating Library in America is significant in pointing out the prevalence of rental libraries before 1850, and for information on the economics of reading in general.(17)

Helmut Lehmann-Haupt(18) brings a more significant geographical than sociological analysis of book selling and buying. He does mention bookstores catering to a specific group such as college students, refers to rental libraries as a feature of the early 1900s, and describes Seymour Eaton's Booklovers Libraries, the later Tabard Inn Libraries. There is also a passage on what types of books were sold door-to-door by subscription agents, namely works with "advice on letter-writing, legal transactions, medical care, housekeeping and gardening . . . [popularly written] anthologies, encyclopedias, dictionaries."(19) Histories, biographies, and of course, religious works were significant.

The second volume of John Tebbell's A History of Book Publishing in the United States describes manufacturing methods, publishers, and the growth of publishing houses based on his "reading the files [of Publisher's Weekly] meticulously, page by page."(20) Unlike Tebbell and Lehmann-Haupt, Frank Luther Mott(21) presents the "demand" side of the book market. Educational trends and book or author clubs led to the popularity of some books. The Carnegie libraries are named as an important factor in the rise of a book to best seller. However, immigrants are not mentioned as such, although Mott does recognize Jane Addams' Hull House as a phenomenon that created a market for fiction on themes of labor and the urban poor.

A work limited to the Jewish influence in book production is Charles A. Madison, Jewish Publishing in America.(22) While an overview of periodicals and a chapter on the Jewish Publication Society are indirectly useful, more is written by far about Jewish publishers than their readers. To a large extent this also goes for Sarna's history of the Jewish Publication Society,(23) which is principally editor-author-book oriented, except for one chapter dealing with the planning of products that appealed to women and children.


K. W. Humphreys, writing in 1985, formulates several questions: "what books were available and where, who read them, what evidence is there that they were used and what effect did this use have on society (if any)? Alternatively one could ask what elements in society affected the supply of certain books and certain types of books."(24)

Societal pressures are emphasized in Robert Darnton's "What is the History of Books?" He plots a "Communications Circuit," an ellipsis proceeding from authors/publishers to book manufacturers/distributors to collections (e.g., libraries) and readers. Within the ellipsis are "Economic and Social Conjunctures," flanked by "Intellectual Influences and Publicity" and "Political and Legal Sanctions."(25) Darnton's cycle seems to view readers primarily as acted upon. For this researcher, readers are primarily actors. Thus, socioeconomic factors would answer the question, "What did immigrants read?" but not the questions "Did they read?--did they read English?--why or why not?"

This project has drawn considerably on a 1991 essay by Harvey J. Graff, who seeks to "examine through individual, personal testimony concrete uses of literacy's reading skills in . . . relationships to libraries in the historical context of the shaping of the lives of relatively ordinary persons, and the social and cultural relations of which they were part . . ."(26)

Graff narrates autobiographies with frequent use of the subject's own words; analyzes her/his attitude to reading; explores the sacrifices made--and not made--in the pursuit of reading; compares school, club, private, personal, religious, and public libraries. One of Graff's case studies, Edward Carpenter, did not use libraries, but rather read newspapers and novels as well as attending a literary club. Only one late nineteenth-century figure is discussed: Henry Seidel Canby, educator, writer, and a founder of the Saturday Review of Literature.

In the essay, Graff challenges a simplistic view of reading as a means to socioeconomic advancement:

Some persons found in libraries--of different kinds, to which they gained access in different ways--means of intellectual advancement. For some of them this meant an opportunity for further secondary and sometimes higher education. A great deal depended on chance, too, though the idiosyncrasies of an individual's stories can misleadingly exaggerate an apparent randomness or frequency. The personal testimonies themselves often are much more interesting and challenging than formulaic notions of rising through acquisition and use of literacy in libraries that complement comforting if distorting myths surrounding both libraries and literacy.(27)

For Graff's "relationship to libraries," this study will adopt a broader area, contact with reading matter. His "ordinary persons" will be narrowed to Jewish immigrants from 1880-1920, particularly self-observant, high-achieving females who wrote about their own intellectual development: Mary Antin in Boston, Hilda Polacheck in Chicago, Rose Cohen and Anzia Yezierska in New York. All made reading a part of their lives in the immigrant ghettos. How do they differ from one another? Is there any expected trait that none of them evince? Using the background sources discussed above, the connections of reading matter to these lives will be examined, in order to establish the balance of instrumental and integrative motivation.


Individual Cases

Mary Antin

Mary Antin was the most assimilated of this study's subjects, and yet the one who wrote with great success about her Old Country life and the passage to America. Her early autobiographical work, The Promised Land, recounts her childhood up to entrance in the Girls' Latin School of Boston. Antin was later an attender at Hale House in Boston, became acquainted with Edward Everett Hale, and had the use of his library. Later phases in her life were marriage to Lutheran pastor's son and geologist Amadeus Grabau, separation from him, speaking and political activity, association with the Gould Farm Colony in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and an interest in the anthroposophical ideas of Rudolf Steiner. Except for short stories, her writings were expository.(28) An early account of immigration, From Plotzk to Boston, was published while Antin was still in grammar school, but had acquired considerable written English. In 1914 she published They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration, a work favorable to liberal immigration laws, yet strongly advocating assimilation. Her longest and best-known work is The Promised Land.(29)

The family lived in great poverty in Poland, and Antin tried to help support them by apprenticing as a milliner. Because she showed very little skill, and as the second daughter in the family, she did not become a major source of material support. She learned to read and write at home at the time her brother attended religious school.(30)

While still in Europe, Mary visited her Uncle Solomon's family in Vitebsk and was especially impressed by her male cousin who attended a Russian secondary school. Mary could read as well as Cousin Hirshel, but was mystified by his demonstrations of mathematics. As she knew Russian besides Yiddish, she was able to read through the family's library of poetry and fiction, particularly a translation of Robinson Crusoe. "That was my introduction to secular literature, but I did not understand it at the time. When I had exhausted the books, I began on the old volumes of a Russian periodical, which I found on a shelf in my room. There was a high stack of these paper volumes, and I was so hungry for books that I went at them greedily, fearing that I might not get through before I had to return to Plotzk."(31) Reading material was a scarce good; any supply had to be taken advantage of before the commodity again became unavailable. In this case, the perception was accurate.

After immigration, Mary Antin entered school in 1894 in the Boston suburb of Chelsea. She advanced well; her third-grade teacher, Miss Dillingham, became a friend and supported publication of an essay of Mary's in an educational journal. When Miss Dillingham gave her a volume of Longfellow, Mary felt personal enhancement. "I had never owned a book before. The sense of possession alone was a source of bliss, and this book I already knew and loved. And so Miss Dillingham, who was my first American friend, and who first put my name in print, was also the one to start my library."(32)

Her own rapid promotions and high achievement may have led to the optimism Antin expressed in later years when writing They Who Knock at Our Gates. In discounting the supposed mental and moral inferiority of immigrants, Antin cited large attendance figures and high accomplishment in school, with ninety percent of distinctions going to the non-native born.(33) This is a rosier picture than that of more recent research, particularly that of Sherry Gorelick.(34) In fact, while huge numbers entered the schools, the dropout rate was high, for pupils frequently left school when their income from a job was needed.(35)

Mary Antin is on firmer ground, however, when she continues "and every school-teacher in the immigrant section of the larger cities has a collection of picturesque anecdotes to contribute: of heroic sacrifices for the sake of a little reading and writing; of young girls stitching away their youth to keep a brother in college; of whole families cheerfully starving together to save one gifted child from the factory."(36) These are Antin's own experiences; yet, in addition to the sacrifices the family made for her, one must remember the immense energy she poured into her own education. Mary Antin exemplifies self-education, intensive reading, readiness to assimilate, and academic rather than informal training.

Hilda Satt Polacheck

Like Mary Antin, Hilda Polacheck emerged as a writer despite a late start in formal education. Before Hilda's birth, seven other children had been born to her parents of whom only three--all girls--survived. Therefore the birth of a brother eighteen months younger than Hilda was important in the family.(37) As pointed out above, sons were more likely to be educated than daughters; younger daughters more than the elder. Thus Hilda's outlook for education was moderately favorable.

The father was the tombstone carver of Wloclawek on the Vistula. Preceding the family to America, he very soon found work in Chicago, where the influx of Jews had created demand for tombstone inscriptions in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, German, and Russian.(38) Next to the shop was the Jewish Training School, newly established by German Jews from Sinai Temple "probably in an effort to Americanize the Eastern European Jews more speedily." It was "one of the first manual training schools in the United States."(39) Before the family came, the father arranged for the children to be enrolled there.

Polacheck entered the United States at the age of ten, in 1892; her family moved to South Halsted Street near Hull House. "The great day came in September when Father took my sister, my oldest brother and me to be enrolled in the Jewish Training School. My oldest sister had finished school in Poland and my other brothers were too young to go to school."(40)

Hilda's first teacher, Mrs. Torrance, rewarded her with a book--a common way of recognizing achievement, as we see from Mary Antin's experience and a later gift of Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese to Hilda from Miss Landsberg, her teacher in a reading class at Hull House.(41)

In 1897, after her father's sudden death, Hilda went to work at a knitting factory.

Her last day of school was marked by regret. "I had mixed emotions in my heart. I was glad that I could help feed the family, but I could not forget that I would not go to school again. I did not realize at the time that it was possible to study away from school and that there were classes at Hull-House." Some time later, after she was fired for speaking out at a union meeting about poor working conditions, she spent the day walking the city. "I went to the public library next. I was very much impressed with all the marble and inlaid designs. I went up to the fourth floor and found myself in the reference room; there before my eyes was Lake Michigan."(42)

Reading did not continue with the classics, but with a fiction paperback in English lent her by a coworker. "I took it home and sat up half the night reading it." In 1900 she joined a reading class at Hull House, where Jewish attenders were typically attracted to English literature courses. "The class met once a week. I not only read the assigned books but every book I could borrow. Dickens, Scott, Thackeray, Louisa May Alcott, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, and many others now became my friends."(43) The cultural importance of the settlement house is well illustrated by Hull House. In meetings of the Shakespeare Circle, at one point run by Harriet Monroe of Poetry Magazine, plays were read aloud. Polacheck gives specific titles in a comment on the Hull House Book Reviewing Club.(44)

On the basis of an essay for a writing class taught by a University of Chicago instructor at Hull House, Hilda was invited to apply to the university as an unclassified student on scholarship with a loan to replace what her earnings provided for the family. She entered in 1904 to take elementary German, English composition, and English literature. "Reading the assigned books became a tonic to my soul. I soon came to know Ben Jonson, Alexander Pope, Beaumont and Fletcher, Keats, Shelley, and Shakespeare." While she passed the first two subjects, she did not pass English literature, something which seems not to have dampened her enthusiasm.(45)

One of Hilda Polacheck's next jobs was at A.C. McClurg & Co., a firm successful both in publishing and book selling "I was keenly interested in what books people were reading."(46) Polacheck advanced at McClurg's, worked at an orphanage, married, and moved to Milwaukee, where she wrote as unpaid drama critic for the Socialist Milwaukee Leader. She continued her association with Jane Addams, and eventually joined the suffrage movement. At her husband's death in 1929, she returned to Chicago to support her four children as manager of a hotel. Hired on with the Writers' Project of the WPA during the Great Depression, she preferred to write about social problems related to the work of Hull House; she may also have made some contribution to the State Guides.(47) She died in 1967.(48)

Polacheck was fortunate in that her parents did not resist her educational efforts. Like Antin, she attended a prestigious college, but did not graduate. In fact, very few first-generation immigrant women completed postsecondary education.(49) She was able to use her education in various positions. Polacheck's attitude toward assimilation is more complex than Antin's. Perhaps owing to the cultural pluralism advocated at Hull House, Polacheck did not advocate Americanization, but like Antin, she appreciated without resentment her acquaintances among educated mainstream Americans. Despite her socialist activity, she seems not to have had a particular antipathy to the lifestyle of the middle class.

Rose Gallup Cohen

Rose (Rahel, Ruth) Cohen is known primarily through her autobiography.(50) Born in 1880, she learned to read when her father brought home a tutor. Rahel, as she was originally named, her father, and an aunt emigrated to New York, living on Cherry Street, which has been characterized as the poorest on the Lower East Side.(51) The admiration for books and the prestige of the educated struck her early: neighbor children carrying their books were "like wonderful little beings of a world entirely different than mine. I watched and envied them." She began to experience a difference from other people -- probably her hunger for learning -- "a leaning toward things which I heard people call 'queer.'"(52)

Neither parent could write, so the arrangements for passage of the rest of the family to America were made by correspondence between Rahel and her sister. After they arrived, Ruth Cohen, as she was now called, continued to work while her brother and sister attended school. When the Cohens moved next door to a reader of Yiddish, borrowing a book of his helped Ruth gradually to regain her reading ability.(53)

Soon Cohen discovered a lending library at a local soda-water stand. She memorized poetry, and was particularly impressed by a Yiddish translation of David Copperfield. Having read out the soda seller's supply of Yiddish books written with vowels, she found that she could now supply the vowels in standard Hebrew script. "And now reading material was not so limited. A flying newspaper in the street, a crumpled advertisement sheet, I would smooth out tenderly and carry it home. . . . I tried to understand everything I read, but if I could not, I read it anyway. For just to read became a necessity and a joy." (54) The willingness to pass over difficult words or passages is characteristic of the reader who is taking advantage of scarce supply by reading as fast as possible; it is also a learning technique in which absorption of wide context at one time enables the reader to guess the unknown words or syntax.

When visiting the family of her first suitor, Cohen was drawn to two carefully displayed books. The suitor, Israel, has no interest in discussing the one of the two that they had both read, nor did he wish to read aloud together from the other, "a translation from the Russian into Yiddish, partly letters, partly diary." Ruth reads the book during her stay; it is written in the first person, which "made me feel as if that some one [the author] were actually talking to me." It was not long before the engagement to Israel was broken off. (55)

During an illness that followed, Cohen encountered Lillian Wald. At the Nurses' Settlement and Presbyterian Hospital, she had to speak standard English, not "the Yiddish English that I knew."(56) At last, the settlement movement presented Cohen an opportunity for more education. She attended an informal talk on Shakespeare at the East Broadway House, and heard the phrase, "'You can get it in the library.' . . . "I do not know how but it was now that I found that there were such things as free libraries and I joined the one at the Educational Alliance. I felt greatly awed when I looked around from my place in the line to the librarians' desk and saw the shelves and shelves of books and the stream of people hastening in and out with books under their arms. . . . When my turn came at the desk, I said to the librarian, 'Please give me the best thing that Shakespeare wrote.'" She went home with "Julius Caesar."

I pored and pored over my book for two weeks. I put it away and went to it again and tried to understand it. But all I could get out of it were words here and there. I could not get any meaning out of any of it. I felt heart sore and humiliated. I think it was then that I fully realised how little I knew, how ignorant I was. I decided to be guided by the librarian. . . .

The next time I stood before her desk I said to her, 'I can read just a little and I do not understand much. Will you give me a book?--any book--like for a child.' She brought me "Little Women." (57)

Working at settlement-house dressmaking shop, Cohen became fluent in standard English and met Ann O'There, a teacher and discussion leader who became her mentor. When given clerical duties, she needed to learn fractions. "That day I spent the half hour lunch period writing fractions. It was in this way that I liked best to learn because I could see the use for the thing I was learning."(58)

Rose Cohen had the most limited opportunities of all four women, with no formal schooling in the United States. During the time her autobiography covers, she read English only with difficulty. Still, she advanced to white-collar work and could express herself in English. Her story illuminates how large a role the settlement houses and related organizations played in immigrants' acquaintance with books.

Anzia Yezierska

The ability to integrate hard-won intellectual achievement with personal fulfillment was lacking in Anzia Yezierska, in that she did not attain financial security or a stable family life. Moreover, her writings show a real antipathy to the world of the educated, to the American establishment. On the other hand, she seems not to have shared Hilda Polacheck's Leftist sympathies or Mary Antin's wish to use her position to help the new generation of immigrants. Yet she achieved prominence as a writer, and her determination to write in her East-Side idiom, portraying life exactly as she had known it showed independence and integrity. Ahead of her time, she was a woman who wrote and lived on her own terms.

It is difficult to give a factual outline of Yezierska's early life, since even biographical works bring little evidence of her childhood. According to Notable American Women, she was probably born in 1880-81 and emigrated to America between 1890 and 1895.(59) She matriculated at Teachers College, Columbia University in 1900 as an unclassified student (like Polacheck at the University of Chicago). To obtain a free education, she had to study and teach domestic science, but she soon left this work.(60) She was married twice, and had a daughter, Louise Levitas, by her second marriage, which ended around 1916. She moved to Hollywood for the filming of Hungry Hearts, returned in disillusion, worked during the Depression in New York City for the Works Progress Administration, experienced in the 1950s renewed interest in her work. Anzia Yezierska died in 1970.(61)

Her major works are: Hungry Hearts (1920; filmed by Samuel Goldwyn in 1922), Salome of the Tenements (1923; filmed by Famous Players-Lasky and distributed by Paramount in 1925),(62) Children of Loneliness (1924), Bread Givers (1925), Arrogant Beggar (1927), and the autobiography Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950).

In 1917 Yezierska met John Dewey at Columbia University. Their brief romantic attachment awakened in Anzia both creative energy and a definitive ambivalence regarding the American-born upper classes, males in particular.(63) Toward the idealized male characters of this type who appear in the majority of her novels and stories, one notes simultaneously an attraction to their refinement and a disdain for their perceived emotional coldness. This extends to books and teaching methods, so that she oscillates from reverence for learning back to condemnation of authors who seem irrelevant to her experience. Unique among the women discussed here, she rails at learning "dry, inanimate stuff." Of the Teachers' College curriculum she writes: "The courses of study I had to swallow to get my diploma were utterly barren of interest to me."(64)

In the story "Wings," Mr. Barnes (the John Dewey figure) takes the protagonist on her first, inspiring, visit to a library. "Shenah Pessah halted in awe. 'What a stillness full from thinking! So beautiful it comes on me like music . . . How the book-ladies look so quiet like the things.' . . . In the few brief words that passed between Mr. Barnes and the librarian, Shenah Pessah sensed that these two were of the same world and that she was different."(65)

During her formative years in America, Yezierska was immersed in Yiddish culture.(66) Rosenfeld's poem "The Machine" affected her strongly: ". . . like a spark thrown among oil rags it set my whole being aflame with longing for self-expression."(67) Nor was all academic reading sterile. Sara Smolinsky, the protagonist of Bread Givers, eventually finds in psychology class a way to use her life experience in academic learning, by describing a ghetto acquaintance as a personality type. She moves on from her textbook to reading matter that her professor suggests. "I was so excited with the first new book that I stayed up half the night reading it on and on." The themes of compulsive and emotionally charged reading are familiar from the other women described above.(68)

In stark contrast to the highly rhetorical style of the essayist Mary Antin, Yezierska rejected the academic idiom to keep her own voice as a ghetto artist. In biographical terms, Mary Antin was able to profit from her association with Edward Everett Hale and other establishment figures; Rose (Ruth) Cohen showed a sense of her own aesthetic superiority and aspirations; Hilda Polacheck had strong radical leanings which she channeled into action. Anzia Yezierska was vulnerable and irrational at her bad times; at her good times, an uncompromising individualist, indefatigably devoted to writing her finest.

Books and Lives

Jewish Immigrant Culture, Family Life

English reading followed beginnings in Russian or Yiddish. Of Yezierska we learn nothing about reading in the Old Country; Polacheck began her education in the U.S.; Antin and Cohen had learned to read before immigration. Important in the development of reading was the attitude of parents toward a daughter's learning. Mary Antin and Hilda Polacheck had supportive fathers; Rose Cohen was included when her father brought a tutor to the house, but later found him intolerant of non-Jewish reading; at one point he hurled a book through the window, to its detriment, because it contained the word "Christ". Cohen writes, "After this there were long periods when father and I did not talk to each other."(69) Anzia Yezierska experienced severe father-daughter conflict. None of the women found an intellectual model in a mother and few, in other female family members. Of the middle-class relatives in Vitebsk, Mary Antin writes: "My aunt, poor hard-worked housewife, knew too little of books to direct my reading."(70) Rose Cohen reports: "As soon as I learned how to read I would sit for hours and read to my grandmother. Besides the Bible, we had a few religious books. I read these again and again, and became very devout." As she had in Poland to her grandmother, in America she read to her mother, who up to then had heard only the Scriptures read.(71) Typically, the reading members of immigrant families read aloud to those who could not read, as reported by Weinberg of a husband reading to his wife.(72)

Settlement Houses

The cultural importance of the settlement house is well illustrated by Hull-House. Both Addams' Twenty Years at Hull House and Polacheck's account of Hull-House, I Came a Stranger, refer to the Shakespeare Circle; while Addams mentions that Plato, Dante, and Browning were taught in classes.(73)


The settlement houses emphasized the importance of books in the home, whether by design or because space was lacking for a central library. Woods describes the home libraries of the Children's Aid Society, founded, according to Woods, in 1888, and existing by 1903 in "many other cities." A small collection was entrusted to one home, where a child was charged with maintaining it, an adult "volunteer visitor" carrying out administrative duties. Meetings of ten children, usually fourteen and younger, to a group would discuss their recent reading with the volunteer, related activities being "limited only by the personal resources and capacity of the leader."(74)

Mary Antin became an advocate of public libraries and libraries of social settlements. She speaks of high demand for books and states: "In the experience of the librarians it is the veriest commonplace that the classics have the greatest circulation in the immigrant quarters of the city." Antin cites the case of Dayton, Ohio, which used the above-mentioned home (or neighborhood store) placement system for collections. After the flood of March 1913, "the librarian tried to collect at the central library whatever was recovered of the scattered collection. Crumpled, mutilated, slimy with the filth of the disemboweled city, the books came back--all but one collection, which had been housed in the midst of the Hungarian quarter. These came back neatly packed, scraped clean of mud, their leaves smoothed, dried,--as presentable as loving care could make them."(75)

Hilda Polacheck's memory of the elegant Chicago public library building with its view of Lake Michigan exemplifies the "shrine of learning" type of reaction to libraries. Cohen and Yezierska have similar awe before libraries, librarians, or displays of books. This admiration resulted from an experience of education and all cultural opportunities as scarce, the same experience seemingly associated with "hoarding" behavior, compulsive reading when books became available.

Industrialization after 1850 brought mass production of cheap reading matter. Thus, economic forces that helped bring the immigrants to the U.S. may have helped make them readers. According to Kaser, standard prices for novels fell to seventy-five cents for hardbacks before the dime novel emerged in 1860. By the end of the century, novels could be had for as little as five cents apiece.(76) The apparent contradiction may be explained by convenience of location or the availability of classics and suitable nonfiction works. But immigrants more often referred to borrowing reading matter or receiving books as gifts from friends. If a library was visited, it was often that of a settlement, the Educational Alliance, or another organization rather than a public library. Classes, too, might be in public elementary school, at college, or at adult education programs such as that run by Hull House.

The Book Trade

The woman in the study who had the most experience with the publishing industry was Hilda Polacheck. She does not report buying books, but was aware of trends, happy to be at McClurg's when W. E. B. Du Bois's The Quest of the Silver Fleece was published. Not all the books demanded would have been of equivalent quality. Between 1906 and 1909, the approximate period when Polacheck worked at McClurg's, the best sellers, books selling at least 750,000 copies in those years, were: Elinor Glyn's Three Weeks, Zane Grey's The Spirit of the Border, John Fox, Jr.'s The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Frank C. Haddock's Power of Will, Lucy M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, Gene Stratton Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost, Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase, Robert W. Service's The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses, and two books by Harold Bell Wright: The Shepherd of the Hills (1907) and The Calling of Dan Matthews (1909). The first best seller for the McClurg publishing house--for the 1910-1919 era, in which 900,000 volumes sold qualifies a title for that list--was Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes (1914).(77)


Altogether there were about 125 American periodicals published in the Hebrew language or in Yiddish with Hebrew articles. The earliest one, starting in 1846, reprinted articles from publications abroad. Fannie M. Brody(78) suggests the main function of reading Hebrew newspapers was religious. The most successful Jewish periodical of the time, Abraham Cahan's Jewish Daily Forward, was in Yiddish. Its advice column was a needed guide for human relations under the pressures of two competing cultures.

Newspapers were an important part of Jewish immigrants' reading, especially those who had interests in political or union affairs. We would expect Hilda Polacheck and Rose Cohen, then, to have made the greatest use of newspapers. Perhaps the relative lack of references to newspaper reading owe to the fact that the four women reported on here were no longer dependent on reading Yiddish by the time this newspaper was well established; again, perhaps book reading was considered more suitable for mention in an autobiography. Weinberg's study of forty-six women mentions newspaper reading more often than does the present paper.

Employment, Emancipation, Motivation

Yezierska, in plodding through domestic science to stay in college, and especially Cohen, in learning fractions to keep her job, displayed instrumental motivation. Education brought benefits to these women which were not chiefly economic. The compulsive character of Mary Antin's reading had a strong emotional component that speaks for integrative motivation. None of them had a successful academic career in the modern sense, although all valued formal education. Writing made Antin well-known and Yezierska, briefly famous. Antin was highly regarded as a speaker; Hilda Polacheck supported herself and, for some years, her children.

However, instrumental motivation is in all four cases secondary to the integrative type. What is striking is the high premium put on the act of reading for aesthetic and moral reasons. All four women found greater opportunities in America for reading, which was associated with freedom from restrictions; those of the shtetl and those of womanhood. This goal indicates some instrumental motivation, yet spiritual freedom and a sense of being a higher type of person were the benefits expected, not social upward mobility through education and a better occupation. This idea of profit to one's character through reading is expressed by Mary Antin in evaluating her encounter with sensational fiction at her Uncle Solomon's house: "On the whole, then, I do not feel that I was seriously harmed by my wild reading. . . . I would even say that I have never been hurt by any revelation, however distorted or untimely, that I found in books, good or poor; that I have never read an idle book that was entirely useless; and that I have never quite lost whatever was significant to my spirit in any book, good or bad, even though my conscious memory can give no account of it."(79)



Reading was part of an educational effort that led to Americanization and economic advancement. Weinberg's sources show that this might be reading the Forward in Yiddish, borrowing books from the Workman's Circle library, or ordering a daughter to bring home only English books from the library rather than German ones.

Nevertheless, instrumental motivation did not prevail in the reading behavior of the four women studied here. Books and newspapers imparting useful information were mentioned less often than the classics. The compulsive reading of the women at certain stages of learning had a strong emotional component that speaks for integrative motivation. Besides pleasure, a sense of liberation, and enjoyment of new-found abilities, reading brought rediscovery of the self as American. In fact, an almost religious identification with a higher form of mental activity caused the women to seek out teachers and reading matter. While Mary Antin displayed the most strongly assimilative tendencies, only Anzia Yezierska resisted assimilation to any degree. Thus, this researcher advances a tentative finding that integrative motivation is at least as important as instrumental motivation in learning to read for Jewish immigrant women of this time period.

Final Remarks

The above essay is an attempt to illustrate the uses of reading matter by several remarkable individuals with limited formal education who left some record of reading and its influence on their lives. Unpublished materials and interviews can give a broader picture of immigrant women's reading by including more persons as subjects, including readers who did not become published writers; for writers may have read with more enthusiasm than nonwriters. This second step might include the augmentation of autobiographical accounts by the reports of booksellers and librarians to learn more about reading matter, demand, speed, in explaining motivation.

It would also be desirable to explore the experiences of women from other European cultures entering the United States at this time. Among other things, this would include a higher proportion of immigrants who settled in rural America. Such inclusiveness would add to the appreciation of Jewish religious and secular institutions' role in reading by evaluating that of immigrant churches and their schools. It has been important in this study to illuminate qualities rather than conduct quantitative comparisons of groups. When research of this kind has more fully described the immigrants of 75 to 110 years ago, it may be possible to replace clichés with understanding in the debate over educational norms for the immigrants of today.


1. Gerald Sorin, A Time for Building: The Third Migration: 1880-1920. Vol. 3 of the series The Jewish People in America, ed. Henry L. Feingold (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

2. Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976); Irving Howe and Kenneth Libo, eds., How We Lived 1880-1930 (New York: Richard Marek, 1979).

3. Irving Cutler, The Jews of Chicago (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

4. Oscar Handlin, Boston's Immigrants (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, Harvard University, 1959).

5. Robert Archey Woods, Americans in Process: A Settlement Study by Residents and Associates of the South End House. North and West Ends, Boston (New York: Arno, 1970).

6. Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990; originally published 1910).

7. Morris Berger, The Settlement, the Immigrant, and the Public School (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1956).

8. Selma Berrol, Immigrants at School (New York: Arno, 1978; originally published 1910).

9. Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars: A History of the New York City Public Schools (New York: Basic Books, 1988); David B. Tyack, The One Best System: A History of Urban Education (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974).

10. Michael H. Harris, A Guide to Research in American Library History, 2nd ed. (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974); see especially 1-15.

11. For example, Regina I. Kram, "The Foreign Language Collections of the Chicago Public Library, 1872-1947 (Master's thesis, University of Chicago, 1970); cited in Harris, Guide to Research, 77-78.

12. Wayne Wiegand, "United States," The ALA Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services, 2nd ed. (Chicago: American Library Association, 1986), 830-38.

13. Sidney Ditzion, Arsenals of a Democratic Culture: A Social History of the American Public Library Movement in New England and the Middle States from 1850 to 1900 (Chicago: American Library Association, 1947). See 66 (for "Arsenals . . .") and 110-23.

14. Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876-1980 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 445-48. This work appears under "Education" in this author's list of references.

15. Mary Antin, "The Immigrant and the Library," American Library Association Bulletin 7 (1913): 145-50; John Foster Carr, "Some of the People We Work for," ibid. 10 (1916): 145-54 and "Library Work for Immigrants," ibid. 10 (1916): 269-72; Adelaide B. Maltby, "Immigrants as Contributors to Library Progress," ibid. 7 (1913): 150-54. Carr authored a number of articles and books in the field of immigrant education. Maltby headed a Lower East Side branch of the New York Public Library.

16. Frank L. Schick, "The Recurring Emergence of American Paperbacks" in David Kaser, ed., Books in America's Past: Essays Honoring Rudolph H. Gjelsness (Charlottesville.: The University Press of Virginia, 1966) .

17. David Kaser, A Book for Sixpence: The Circulating Library in America (Pittsburgh: Beta Phi Mu, 1980).

18. -

19. Lehmann-Haupt, ibid., 251.

20. John Tebbell, A History of Book Publishing in the United States, vol. 2, The Expansion of an Industry, 1865-1919 (New York: Bowker, 1975), xi.

21. Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1947).

22. Charles A. Madison, Jewish Publishing in America: The Impact of Jewish Writing on American Culture (New York: Sanhedrin Press, 1976).

23. Jonathan D. Sarna, JPS: The Americanization of Jewish Culture (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989).

24. K. W. Humphreys, "The Book and the Library in Society." Library History 7, no. 4 (1985): 106-118; quotation, 106.

25. Robert Darnton, "What is the History of Books?" in Cathy N. Davidson, ed., Reading in America: Literature and Social History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986): 27-38.

26. Harvey J. Graff, "Literacy, Libraries, Lives: New Social and Cultural Histories," Libraries and Culture 26 (1991): 24-45; quotation, 25.

27. Graff, "Literacy, Libraries, Lives," 35.

28. "Antin, Mary," Notable American Women, vol. 1 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1971), 57-59.

29. Mary Antin, From Plotzk to Boston. Foreword by Israel Zangwill (Boston, Mass.: Clarke & Co., 1899). The Promised Land (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911). They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914).

30. Antin, Promised Land, 156.

31. Antin, ibid., 156. She continues "I read every spare minute of the day, and most of the night. I scarcely ever stopped at night until my lamp burned out. . . . often my head burned so from excitement that I did not sleep at once. And no wonder. The violent romances which rushed through the pages of that periodical were fit to inflame an older, more sophisticated brain than mine" (156-57).

32. Antin, ibid., 211, 216.

33. Antin, They Who Knock, 46.

34. Sherry Gorelick, City College and the Jewish Poor: Education in New York, 1880-1924 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1981). Gorelick opposes a common perception of Jewish upward mobility in the United States: that the role of formal education in European Jewish society enabled Jews to compete successfully with other immigrant groups in entering the professions. Rather, she maintains, it was the creation of new professions, particularly in socially-oriented fields like teaching, that enabled this education-driven rise in socioeconomic circumstances.

35. United States Bureau of the Census, Child Labor in the United States. U.S. Census Bulletin No. 69 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1907).

36. Antin, They Who Knock, 46-47.

37. Hilda Satt Polacheck, I Came a Stranger: The Story of a Hull-House Girl (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 5.

38. Polacheck, ibid., 25, 35-36.

39. Polacheck, ibid.; Cutler, Jews of Chicago, 79-80.

40. Polacheck, ibid., 29, 36-37.

41. Polacheck, ibid., 39, 66-67.

42. Polacheck, ibid., 55-56, 60.

43. Polacheck, ibid., 63, 67; Cutler, Jews of Chicago, 82.

44. Polacheck, ibid., 76, 86.

45. Polacheck, ibid., 88.

46. Polacheck, ibid.

47. Polacheck, ibid., 134, 137-59 passim, 168, 177.

48. Dena J. Polacheck Epstein, "Afterword," in Polacheck, I Came a Stranger, 179.

49. Of the forty-six women in Weinberg's study, only four completed postsecondary degrees. See Weinberg, World of Our Mothers, 261-62.

50. Rose G. Cohen, Out of the Shadow (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1918).

51. Cohen, ibid., 62; Gorelick, City College, 124.

52. Cohen, ibid., 90, 152.

53. Cohen, ibid., 140, 160, 187.

54. Cohen, ibid., 188-91.

55. Cohen, ibid., 217-220.

56. Cohen, ibid., 234.

57. Cohen, ibid., 251-53.

58. Cohen, ibid., 279-85.

59. "Yezierska, Anzia," Notable American Women, vol. 4, The Modern Period, 753-54 is noteworthy as an account published close to Yezierska's own lifetime. An intimate biography documented from personal papers is that of the novelist's daughter: Louise Levitas Henriksen, Anzia Yezierska: A Writer's Life (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988).

60. Immigrant girls and women were almost inevitably channeled into domestic science in education at every level. For a good discussion of this trend, see Maxine Seller, "The Education of the Immigrant Woman: 1900-1935," Journal of Urban History 4, no. 3 (1978): 307-30.

61. "Yezierska, Anzia," 754.

62. American Film Institute Catalog. Motion Pictures Produced in the United States. Part I Feature Films, 1921-30 (New York: Bowker, 1971), 369, 678.

63. On Dewey and Yezierska, see Mary V. Dearborn, Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey. New York: Free Press/Macmillan, 1988; and Henriksen, especially. 84-124

64. Anzia Yezierska, "Soap and Water," How I Found America (New York: Persea Books, 1991), 74.

65. "Wings" in Yezierska, ibid., 13.

66. Henriksen, Anzia Yezierska, p. 280.

67. "Soap and Water" in Yezierska, ibid., 73.

68. Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, 1975), 222-23.

69. Cohen, Out of the Shadow, 254.

70. Antin, Promised Land, 157.

71. Cohen, Out of the Shadow, 13, 188.

72. Weinberg, World of Our Mothers, 128-29.

73. Polacheck, I Came a Stranger, 76, 86.

74. Woods, Americans in Progress, 350-51.

75. Antin, They Who Knock, 73-74.

76. Kaser, Book for Sixpence, 104.

77. Mott, Golden Multitudes, 311-12.

78. Fannie M. Brody,"The Hebrew Periodical Press in America. 1871-1931: A Bibliographical Survey," American Jewish Historical Society Quarterly 33 (1934): 127-46.

79. Antin, Promised Land, 158.