Anzia Yezierska was born in the village of Plinsk, in what was at the time Russian Poland—having become a Russian territory after Poland had been conquered and divided up by three empires. Her exact birth date is unclear, both because she did not seem to be able to recall the date and also because, according to her daughter, she regularly changed her biographical data for interviews, reinventing herself constantly. It is believed that she was born between 1880 and 1885. Her family emigrated to the United States sometime in the beginning of the 1890s and settled in New York City.
Like many other immigrants, Yezierska and her family members had their names changed to more "Americanized" names upon arrival to the United States. Officials changed their last name from Yezierska to Mayer, and Anzia's first name was arbitrarily changed to Harriet. Like the father in her novel Bread Givers, Yezierska's own father was a Talmudic scholar and was not employed, preferring to spend his time studying sacred texts. The whole family struggled to bring in enough income to pay for food and rent, and Yezierska was only able to attend two years of elementary school before she left school to begin working. Yezierska did not get along with her father, whose old-fashioned and traditional ways she saw as hindering the family's integration into American culture.
School Years and Writing Career
Determined to get an education and support herself, Yezierska left her parents' home and lived in a dormitory for working girls. She worked and focused on getting into college to attain her teaching degree. Yezierska applied to Columbia University's Teachers College, inventing a high school education for her application, and was accepted. She attended university from 1901 to 1905, and after graduation she spent several years teaching elementary school.
Though she worked hard to support herself during her studies and to become a teacher, Yezierska's real hope was to become a writer. She wrote several works of fiction in the years after quitting her teaching job in 1913, beginning with the two short stories "The Free Vacation House" (1915) and "The Fat of the Land" (1919). Much of Yezierska's work deals with similar subjects, including the immigrant experience, poverty, the repressiveness of the traditional patriarchy, and the case of young intelligent Jewish women who are caught between the "old ways" and the appeal of American life to immigrants.
During these years, Yezierska had a few love affairs and marriages, but none of them really lasted. She married Jacob Gordon in 1910 but feeling unprepared for married life, applied for an annulment soon after. In 1911 she married Arnold Levitas, a fellow teacher, and they had a daughter together named Louise Levitas. However, five years later Yezierska took Louise and moved from New York to San Francisco, working as a social worker. She eventually sent Louise back to live with her father, finding it too difficult to support both herself and her five-year-old daughter. Yezierska and Levitas divorced that same year.
In 1917 Yezierska met and struck up a friendship with a professor at Columbia University—John Dewey, the influential philosopher and education reformer. Dewey became a mentor to her, and he was also in love with Yezierska, but she ended their relationship when it seemed to be headed in a sexual direction. A few years later, it seemed like Yezierska's career would be made when a Hollywood producer picked up her book Hungry Hearts (1920) for a 1922 silent film of the same name. Yezierska was initially hopeful about the film and the exposure that would come with it, but after conflicts with the writer who edited the script, whom she accused of "[turning] out his caricatures of Jews like sausage meat," she became disheartened and distanced herself from the project. After another bad experience on a Hollywood project and internal conflicts over money and the affluence that surrounded her, Yezierska left Hollywood with bitter feelings.
Later Years and Legacy
Over the following decades Yezierska lived in New York and worked a variety of different jobs. She catalogued trees in Central Park for the Federal Writers' Project, a government program designed to help create work for writers during the Great Depression. She also wrote book reviews for the New York Times and continued to write novels on a variety of subjects. Though she published an autobiography called Red Ribbon on a White Horse in 1950, the truth of much of the biographical details is disputed, and her daughter Louise also speculated that many of the stories were fabricated. As a result there is not a wealth of detail available about Yezierska's actual life. On November 21, 1970, back in California, she died of a stroke at an unknown elderly age.
Critical assessment of Yezierska's work has fluctuated over time. Interest in her receded in the mid-20th century, but her novels and short stories were rediscovered in the 1960s by scholars interested in feminism and women's literature. Her work is still regularly read as part of the canon of American immigration literature, as well as being seen as useful for sociological and urban studies of life at her time.