Mary Antin was born June 13, 1881 in Polotsk, Belarus (at that time a part of Russia).
Then in 1891, unable to earn a living, her father decided to join hundreds of thousands of others and move to America seeking better opportunities.
By 1894, he had sent for his family who soon joined him in Boston’s South End area, a notorious slum.
While America never brought prosperity to Mary’s father, our country did deliver on its promise of equal opportunity.
Education kept the American dream alive for Mary and her siblings.
Like other immigrant children, in the days when grade levels were determined by competence in English rather than by age, thirteen-year-old Mary Antin squeezed herself into a desk meant for a kindergarten child. Her intelligence and evident literary gifts quickly impressed her teachers. Eager to show how much an immigrant child could accomplish in only four months, one of her teacher’s sent one of Mary’s composition’s entitled “Snow” to a Boston newspaper.
The publication of several of her poems made Mary sort of a local celebrity. Seeing her name in print for the first time, Mary became determined to become a writer.
Over the summer of 1894, Mary wrote down her journey to America.
Upon reading the story, Hattie L. Hecht, a local Jewish communal leader, persuaded the editor of the American Hebrew, Philip Cowen, to arrange for publication of Mary’s story.
Translated from Yiddish and owing to a misprint of the name of Mary’s home town, this story was published in 1899 titled “From Plotzk to Boston.”
Income from the book’s sales enabled Mary to continue her education at Boston’s premier female high school, Girls’ Latin School (now Boston Latin Academy), and to dream of the day when she could enter college.
Years later, when Mary wrote of the day she marched proudly off to school, she claimed that in “the simple act of delivering our school certificates . . . [my father] took possession of America.”
On a field trip sponsored by Hale House, a South End settlement home, Mary met geologist Amadeus William Grabau, the son and grandson of German-born Lutheran ministers. The two fell in love and were married in Boston on October 5, 1901.
Her husband completed his doctorate at Harvard University, and accepted a faculty position with Columbia University in New York City.
Finally, in New York, Mary fulfilled her dream of attending college, studying at Columbia’s Teachers College (1901–1902) and at Barnard College (1902–1904), but without finishing a degree.
And before long the birth of their only child, Josephine Esther, completed her domestic portrait.
But despite her new family, Mary’s ambitions for authorship did not wane.
While most of her poems remained unpublished, Josephine Lazarus—a transcendentalist, sister of the poet Emma Lazarus, and a member of Mary’s new circle of friends—convinced her to write her autobiography.
Josephine Lazarus’s death in 1910 spurred Mary to finish the project.
In September 1911, the Atlantic Monthly published Mary’s “Malinke’s Atonement,” a remarkable short story set in Polotsk about an impoverished nine-year-old “ignorant female” who, after a daring test of faith, wins access to the forbidden—an education “the same as a boy.”
Two months later, the Atlantic Monthly published the first installment of what became her best-known work, The Promised Land.
The Promised Land
Mary Antin is best known for her 1912 autobiography The Promised Land, which describes her early childhood in Czarist Russia, her immigrant experience at the age of 12, her culture shock upon coming to America, her public school education and assimilation into American culture.
Espousing the myth of the American dream, Mary showed how the idea of America ran counter to the economic, political, and cultural oppression of Europe. She pointed to her own adolescent success as proof of the abundant opportunities held out to immigrants who abandoned the old to embrace wholeheartedly the new.
After its publication, Mary lectured on her immigrant experience to many audiences across the country, and became a major supporter for Theodore Roosevelt and his Progressive Party. Roosevelt’s friendship confirmed what Mary had for so long asserted – that nothing stood in the way of the immigrant in America. And Roosevelt revealed his own debt to their friendship when he wrote that he became a zealous supporter of woman suffrage precisely because of his association with women like Mary Antin.
Then in 1914, Mary followed the success of The Promised Land with her last full-length work, They Who Knock at Our Gates, a polemic against the movement to restrict immigration. Although well received, this work was less popular than her autobiographical musings.
World War I
America’s entry into World War I resulted in a serious personal crisis that permanently changed Mary’s life.
While she threw herself into lectures for the Allied cause, her husband expressed his pro-German sympathies forcibly, causing a severe rift in their household.
In 1918, worried over their estrangement, Mary suffered a physical breakdown that was diagnosed as neurasthenia, from which she never fully recovered.
By 1919, when Amadeus Grabau’s pro-German sympathies had made his situation at Columbia untenable, he and Mary separated.
The illness caused her to retire from public life and return to Massachusetts, as her husband left for China where he became a pioneer in Chinese geology.
Although the couple later corresponded, illness and war kept Mary from visiting Peking, where her husband became interned by the Japanese and died shortly after his release in 1946.
Mary Antin died of cancer on May 15, 1949 in Suffern, New York.
The Promised Land brought Mary nationwide fame for its celebration of America and how it transformed the foreign-born Mary, into an author, citizen, and interpreter of the immigrant experience to her fellow Americans. Mary Antin’s autobiography sold nearly 85,000 copies before her death and remains the quintessential work of its genre.
This best-selling author and lecturer, champion of free and open immigration, celebrated in her life and the immigrant experience with the boundless opportunity of America.
“I thought it [a] miracle,” exclaimed Mary Antin in her best-selling autobiography, The Promised Land, written when she was just thirty years old, “that I, Mashke, the granddaughter of Raphael the Russian, born to a humble destiny, should be at home in an American metropolis, be free to fashion my own life, and should dream my dreams in English phrases.”
Now WE know em