1890s Boston

Detail of "North Terminal Station, Boston" in the 1890s

Credit: Detroit Publishing Co.

How Mary Antin Brought The Boston Immigrant Experience To The Masses

December 9, 2016

During the 1890s, well over a million immigrants arrived in America, many of them so-called "new immigrants" from Southern and Eastern Europe. Many thousands of them settled here, in and around Boston. One of them was a young girl from Russia, who would commit her life story to paper and, in the process, give voice to the experiences of multitudes of new Americans.

Mary Antin was born in the Russian town of Polotsk. In 1894 she, her mother and her siblings boarded a steamship in Hamburg, Germany and made their way to Boston. Antin's father had come to the Bay State a few years prior, a Russian Jew escaping persecution in his homeland. When Mary arrived she was 13 years old, and as far as we know, spoke no English.

Antin finding herself at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City 104 years ago this week was itself a notable achievement, but that a crowd of more than a thousand people were packed into a room there to hear her speak was nothing short of remarkable. 

"It [was] not an easy path for her, especially in the beginning," explained Keren McGinity, who teaches American Studies at Brandeis University and is the director of the Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement program at Hebrew College. "Her family struggled financially, and like many other immigrant families, had to move frequently."

The family went from Chelsea to Winthrop, the West End to the South End. But Antin found stability and success in the Boston Public Schools.  

Mary Antin in 1915.
Caption
Photo Credit: "Songs of Ourselves"

"Mary Antin falls in love with American education," said McGinity. "She spends time at the Boston Public Library. She was devoted to her studies and to writing."

It was through writing that McGinity says Antin found her voice, and a pathway to a new life as an American. By age 18 she was writing poems in Boston newspapers and had published her first book. It was her 1912 autobiography, "The Promised Land," written when she was barely 30, that launched her onto the national stage.

"She is absolutely a woman on a mission when she writes "The Promised Land," said McGinity. "She is very much aware that she is speaking for people whose voices wouldn't otherwise be heard."

The book contrasts Antin's oppressive early years in Russia with an America that was, in her eyes, teeming with opportunity. McGinity says the book is a powerful window on the American immigrant experience, and a vigorous endorsement of the power of education.

Upon it's publication, "The Promised Land" struck a chord with the public, and launched Antin onto the national stage as a potent symbol of the promise of immigration at a time when America was deeply divided over the issue. 

"And she gives speeches with titles like "The Responsibility of American Citizenship," "The Civic Education of the Immigrant," and "Jewish Life in the Pale: A Lesson for Americans"," McGinity said. 

Antin also caught the eye of former president Theodore Roosevelt. The two met, exchanged letters, and Antin campaigned for him and his Progressive Party in 1912.

"She did become a mouthpiece of sorts," said McGinity. "Later she was involved with and spoke on behalf of the National Americanization Committee, the National Security League and the U.S. Government Committee on Public information."

But it was Antin's writings that McGinity says were her greatest achievement. McGinity pointed to one of her favorite Antin passages: One that she said, for her, captures Antin's spirit and reflects the spirit of the country she came to call home.

"Would I not rather be consumed by ambitions that can never be realized than lie in stupid acceptance of my neighbors' opinion of me? Better to climb and fall, to lie bruised, than to have never desired the height."

Antin would continue to write for the rest of her life on topics ranging from immigration to Jewish Identity to mysticism, though she never equaled the success of "The Promised Land." Still, McGinity calls Antin's legacy and her lessons for American society "limitless and enduring," and as vital today as they were a century ago.

"Reading the book is an education," said McGinity. "I think "The Promised Land" is really her greatest gift to us: To Bostonians, and Massachusetts residents, and all Americans."


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