Mary Antin was a Jewish immigrant to the United States from Russia. She came to the country as a child and is best remembered for her memoir The Promised Land. While the Promised Land is often celebrated as a story of the American dream, a close read reveals the challenges she and her family faced when they arrived in the United States. This passage from the The Promised Land reflects on her father’s dreams and the role that language played in preventing them from coming true.
Almost his first act on landing on American soil, three years before, had been his application for naturalization. He had taken the remaining steps in the process with eager promptness, and at the earliest moment allowed by the law, he became a citizen of the United States. It is true that he had left home in search of bread for his hungry family, but he went blessing the necessity that drove him to America. The boasted freedom of the New World meant to him far more than the right to reside, travel, and work wherever he pleased; it meant the freedom to speak his thoughts, to throw off the shackles of superstition, to test his own fate, unhindered by political or religious tyranny. He was only a young man when he landed—thirty-two; and most of his life he had been held in leading-strings. He was hungry for his untasted manhood.
Three years passed in sordid struggle and disappointment. He was not prepared to make a living even in America. . . . Wherever the blame for his disabilities be placed, he reaped their bitter fruit. “Give me bread!” he cried to America. “What will you do to earn it?” the challenge came back. And he found that he was master of no art, of no trade; that even his precious learning was of no avail, because he had only the most antiquated methods of communicating it.
So in his primary quest he had failed. There was left him the compensation of intellectual freedom. That he sought to realize in every possible way. He had very little opportunity to prosecute his education, which, in truth, had never been begun. His struggle for a bare living left him no time to take advantage of the public evening school; but he lost nothing of what was to be learned through reading, through attendance at public meetings, through exercising the rights of citizenship. Even here he was hindered by a natural inability to acquire the English language. In time, indeed, he learned to read, to follow a conversation or lecture; but he never learned to write correctly, and his pronunciation remains extremely foreign to this day.