Weaving introspection with political commentary, biography with history, The Promised Land, first published in 1912, brings to life the transformation of an Eastern European Jewish immigrant into an American citizen. Mary Antin recounts the process of uprooting, transportation, replanting, acclimatization, and development that took place in [her] own soul and reveals the impact of a new culture and new standards of behavior on her family. A feeling of division-between Russia and America, Jews and Gentiles, Yiddish and English-ever-present in her narrative is balanced by insights, amusing and serious, into ways to overcome it. In telling the story of one person, The Promised Land illuminates the lives of hundreds of thousands. Mary Antin was born into a Jewish family in Polotsk in Russian-ruled Poland. Her family moved to the United States when she was still a child and she lived in Boston and then New York, where she attended the Teachers College of Columbia University and Barnard University. The publication of her autobiography, The Promised Land, made her famous and she lectured widely about the meaning of assimilation and her own story. She died in 1949.
Mary Antin was born on June 13, 1881, in Polotzk, Russia, the daughter of Israel and Esther Weltman Antin. Her father emigrated to the United States in 1891, and three years later the mother followed with the four children, arriving in Boston on the Polynesia on May 8, 1894. The Antin family eventually settled on Arlington Street in Chelsea, where Mary and the younger siblings started to go to public school; her older sister had to work as a seamstress. Mary Antin's teacher brought about her first published work, the composition Snow, in the journal Primary Education. Shortly after the transatlantic voyage, Mary wrote a long and detailed account of it in Yiddish for her uncle. Later, the philanthropist Hattie Hecht introduced Antin to Philip Cowen and Israel Zangwill, and the result was the publication of an English adaptation of the letter in the American Hebrew. In 1899, it appeared as a book that misspelled the name of her hometown, From Plotzk to Boston, with a glowing introduction by Zangwill. The essayist Josephine Lazarus--Emma Lazarus' sister--reviewed the volume for the Critic and became friends with Antin, who had been admitted to the prestigious Boston Latin School for girls. The family now lived in the Dover Street slum, and Mary associated with the South End Settlement House of Edward Everett Hale. She sat as a model for his daughter Ellen Day Hale, and became a member of the Natural History Club. There she met Amadeus William Grabau (1870-1946), who was finishing his doctoral work in geology and paleontology at Harvard. They were married in Boston on October 5, 1901, and soon took up residence in New York, where Grabau became a professor at Columbia University. Antin never finished Latin School, and therefore could only take a few college courses as a special student. Their dauther, Josephine Esther Grabau, Antin's only child, was born on November 21, 1907. Antin publshed short stories essays, and her books The Promised Land (1912) and They Who Knock at Our Gates (1914), which together sold more than one hundred thousand copies. After some successful years as a writer and Progressive lecturer, Antin suffered a nervous breakdown, and she and Grabau separated. She lived in pooer circumstances in later years, publishing little, and died on May 15, 1949. Werner Sollors is a professor of Afro-American Studies and English at Harvard University. His most recent book is Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature.