"Reading the Self Through the Domestic: Yezierska's Bread Givers and Material Culture"


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This is the presentation I offered for "Home and Belonging in Literature, Film and History" through the New Jersey Council of the Humanities at Montclair State University (March 31, 2009).

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"Reading the Self Through the Domestic: Yezierska's Bread Givers and Material Culture"

  1. 1. Reading The Self Through the Domestic Yezierska’s Bread Givers & Material Culture Dr. Laura Nicosia English Department Montclair State University
  2. 2. How Many of You Have Read/Taught Bread Givers? Anzia Yezierska. Persea Books. Original copyright 1925.
  3. 3. What Is Material Culture?
  4. 4. Material Culture refers to: • the psychological meanings that all physical objects have to people in a particular culture • the range of manufactured objects that are typical within a socioculture and form an essential part of cultural identity. Human beings perceive and understand the material things around them according to their culture.
  5. 5. In Other Words... You can tell a lot about people by looking at their stuff—the things they make, possess, think, and value. That is the idea that drives the field of material culture, in which scholars explore the meaning of objects of a given society. And nowhere are those meanings more revealing than in the material culture of the United States.
  6. 6. To understand Realistic novels, we need to appreciate that: “the things that people use and acquire in order to define themselves—their tools, their furniture, their accessories . . . are indeed part of the very definition of ‘character,’ of who one is and what one claims to be. And the picture of the whole only emerges—if it does—from the accumulation of things.” Peter Brooks. Realist Vision. Yale U P, 2005.
  7. 7. Today, We’ll Survey Yezierska’s Use Of Material Culture As: • Oppositional to the realm of the spirit • Expressions of being “a real person” • Representative of 19th-20th Century class distinctions & consumerism • Veneers to portray oneself in a different social class
  8. 8. The Setting For Bread Givers: NYC in the early 1900s
  9. 9. Hester Street in 1925
  10. 10. The Hustle & bustle of the Street: The press of urban humanity and mass market commodities & machine-made products
  11. 11. Yezierska’s use of Material Culture As Oppositional to the Realm of the Spirit
  12. 12. • As early as page 11, Yezierska presents the parable of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa and the “big chunk of gold” • From this story, it is clear that the desire for things of this earth come at the expense of heavenly treasures and “the wine of Heaven” (12).
  13. 13. Sara & Her family Are Taught Not to want the Things of This Earth
  14. 14. Sara Learns The World Doesn’t [always] Work That way--she Witnesses Reb’s Confrontation with the Landlord “She took one step towards him and shut his book with such anger that it fell at her feet. Little red threads burned out of Father’s eyes. He rose slowly, but quicker than lightning flashed his hand.... Father slapped the landlady on one cheek, then on the other, till the blood rushed from her nose” (18).
  15. 15. These scenes & stories clearly place Material culture in opposition to The Realm of the Spirit
  16. 16. The Family Choice: Reb’s Holy Books or The Samovar? When leaving Russia, the choice had to be made... What would YOU take? They also left feather beds, table cloths, curtains, towels—all sorts of domestic items (32-33).
  17. 17. Lesson One: Sara Ascertains That The Desire For Material Culture Might Put One’s Soul In Jeopardy
  18. 18. Yezierska’s use of Material Culture As Expressions of being a “Real Person”
  19. 19. Ask Yourself: How Does One Develop a Sense of Self without: • Privacy or room of one’s own? • Financial support? • Time to explore? • Permission to play and imagine?
  20. 20. In Order To Discover a Sense Of Self-- Kids Need To Be Kids
  21. 21. Sara’s Self-Worth was Based On: .
  22. 22. In Her Struggle to Feed Her Family, Gain Her Mother’s Respect & Assert Herself, the 10-Year-Old Sara Peddled Herring On the Street
  23. 23. “Earning twenty-five and sometimes thirty to fifty cents a day made me feel independent, like a real person” (28).
  24. 24. “And throwing the fifty pennies, like a shower of gold, into my mother’s lap, I cried, ‘Now, will you yet call me crazy-head? Give only a look what “Blood- and-iron” has done’” (23).
  25. 25. At First, Sara Believes That Things Make the Family More American • “Mother began to fix up the house like other people” (28). • “[W]e could all sit down by the table at the same time and eat like people” (29). • “I want to do something. I want some day to make myself for a person and come among people” (66). • “[W]ith seventy-eight dollars and eighty-nine cents coming in every day, we’ll soon be able to buy a piano and I’ll begin to take piano lessons. And if I were a piano-player instead of a shop hand, I wouldn’t have to marry myself to a common man...I’ll try to catch on to a doctor, or a lawyer” (118).
  26. 26. Lesson Two: The “things” of Material Culture Can Enable Empowerment, a Sense of Personhood & Pride
  27. 27. Material Culture As Representative of Class
  28. 28. Things as Indicative of Class & Breeding
  29. 29. Material Culture: Mass Production & Consumerism • Standards of Western Beauty • New World vs. Old World Values • Portraits of the American Dream as seen in popular culture (consumer ads, film, periodicals) • Perceptions of “Hand-Made” vs. “Machine-Made”
  30. 30. Mashah “buys-in” to New World Values & Beauty • “Like a lady from Fifty Avenue I look, and for only ten cents, from a pushcart on Hester Street” (2). • “[T]hese pink roses on my hat to match out my pink calico will make me look just like the picture on the magazine cover” (3). • “[S]he came home with another new-rich idea, another money-spending thing, which she said she had to have. She told us that...everybody in the family had a toothbrush and a separate towel for himself ” (6).
  31. 31. What Does a Personal Toothbrush & Towel MEAN to the Smolinsky Family?
  32. 32. Standards of Western Beauty Advertisement 1889 Mashah’s Pink Calico
  33. 33. Machine- Made Things Become the Indicator of High Class & Taste B. Altman advertisement 1926
  34. 34. Ornately Decorated Hats Indicate Breeding & Class B. Altman Advertisement 1887
  35. 35. The Standard of American Beauty: Fair Skin Long Curls Painted Lips Flowing Fabrics the Picture of Health Movie Poster 1917
  36. 36. Lesson Three: 20th Century American Material Culture Can: Represent Social Class, Perpetuate Standards of Beauty, & Endorse Consumerism
  37. 37. Yezierska’s Portrayal of Material Culture As a Veneer to Mask Genuine States or for fraudulent purposes
  38. 38. Mashah’s Store-Bought & Machine-Made Fashions
  39. 39. Shenah uses things to create the appearance of wealth & comfort to attract boarders: • She uses empty herring pails as a bed riser • She puts a board over a potato barrel, covers it with newspaper and creates a “table” • She uses a oilcloth-covered soapbox as a chair Examples from p. 15
  40. 40. The Ultimate “American Dream” The Family Buys a Store in NJ
  41. 41. The American Dream • Be one’s own boss • Make one’s own hours • Protestant Work Ethic: Hard work pays off • Honesty is the best policy • Freedom of choices
  42. 42. The stock in the store was a sham—a veneer—however.
  43. 43. Lesson Four: Ultimately, However, Sara Rejects Material Culture as an Escape from Poverty and Recognizes ‘Things’ as Merely Veneers • “But the more people get, the more they want. We no sooner got used to regular towels than we began to want toothbrushes, each for himself like Mashah” (29). • “It’s only when poor people begin to eat and sleep and dress themselves that the ugliness and dirt begins to creep out of their black holes” (38). • “I’m going to make my own life!” (138)
  44. 44. More... • “I looked in the glass at the new self I had made. Now I was exactly like the others! Red lips, red cheeks, even red roses under the brim of my hat.... But my excited happiness soon sank down. I felt funny and queer. Something was wrong. As if my painted face didn’t hang together with the rest of me. On the outside I looked like the other girls. But the easy gladness that sparkled from their eyes was not in mine. They were a bunch of light- hearted savages who looked gay because they felt gay. I was like a dolled-up dummy fixed for a part on the stage” (182-183).
  45. 45. More... “My one hope was to get to the educated world, where only the thoughts you give out count, and not how you look. My longing for the living breath of a little understanding became centered more and more in my dream of going to college” (183-184).
  46. 46. The End Laura Nicosia, PhD nicosiala@mail.montclair.edu
  47. 47. Appendix The Reality of Life on Hester Street
  48. 48. Hester Street Boarders Sub-renting to take on Boarders created crowded, dirty & inhumane living conditions
  49. 49. Visit the Tenement Museum • www.tenement.org • 91 Orchard Street
  50. 50. Take a Virtual Tour
  51. 51. A Well-stocked Pantry
  52. 52. Pre-Restoration Apt
  53. 53. Original Curtain in Doorway
  54. 54. a restored Apartment on Orchard Street
  55. 55. The Jewish Population was the Majority
  57. 57. The Family at Work in the Home
  58. 58. Sewing Garters
  59. 59. Working in the Sweat Shops
  60. 60. The Local Five & Dime
  62. 62. Display Ad 53 -- No Title Press Coverage: New York Times (1857-Current file); Apr 29, 1921; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005) pg. 8
  63. 63. Image Credits* Tenement 1890s: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7322191@N04/454796894/ • 1902 Hester Street Shops: http://www.flickr.com/photos/40045986@N00/3129760646/ • 1903 Hester Crowded Street: http://www.flickr.com/photos/40045986@N00/3128931073/in/set-72157611467423023/ • EdwardianFashion1: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8948677@N07/552612467/ • 1890s FashionAd: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8948677@N07/556162927/in/photostream/ • Coat Pattern Ad: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8948677@N07/556213761/in/photostream/ • PaperRoseHats: 1903: http://www.flickr.com/photos/strobis/2407068802/in/set-1466011/ • TenementHallway: http://www.flickr.com/photos/skyshaper/224936862/ • LowerEastSide: http://www.flickr.com/photos/skyshaper/539452728/ • SweatShop: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7322191@N04/456123160/ • GartersWorking@Home: http://www.flickr.com/photos/87862342@N00/507074034/ • Sewing@Night 1908: http://www.flickr.com/photos/87862342@N00/507102533/in/photostream/ • ChildWomanBed 1913: http://www.flickr.com/photos/87862342@N00/505171066/in/photostream/ • PrayingonBridge1910: http://www.flickr.com/photos/87862342@N00/1149170850/ • KosheringMeat: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wallyg/765699408/ JewishDailyFoward Newspaper • SingerSewingAd: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wallyg/765693888/in/photostream/ “ • TenementMuseum: http://www.flickr.com/photos/henry_roxas/262015335/ • Apt in Tenement museum: http://www.flickr.com/photos/henry_roxas/262015335/ • Restored Apt: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tenement/553083650/ • StaircaseHester: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tenement/553451867/in/photostream/ • KitchenCabinets: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tenement/553452267/in/photostream/ • CurtainDoorway: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tenement/2284558476/in/photostream/ • LightFixture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tenement/2284563756/in/photostream/ • KitchenShelvesMaterial: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tenement/2294141012/in/photostream/ • Banister1863+: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tenement/2413535665/in/photostream/ • Gish Intolerance 1916: http://www.imdb.com/media/rm3530594304/tt0006864 [IMDB] • five & dime: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jaharton/430046819/ • Herring Barrel: http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnemery/249900036/ • 1890 Illegal Immigrant Tenement: http://www.flickr.com/photos/40045986@N00/3296977834/ • B Altman Clothes: http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/2574540?n=192&s=4 • Hats: http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/2574540?n=194&s=4 • Gifts: http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/2574540?n=322&s=4 • * Not in order of appearance