A Room of Anzia Yezierska's Own


Give her another hundred years, I concluded, reading the last chapter [...] give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days. She will be a poet, I said, putting
Life’s Adventure, by Mary Carmichael, at the end of the shelf, in another hundred years’ time.

Many readers will recognize this excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929. And I hope we might all agree on the widespread popularity of the term itself: “room of one’s own.” Just think, for a moment, how broadly we associate Virginia Woolf and her Room with the ancillary ideas of women’s economic and creative freedom, intellectual and aesthetic growth, productivity and self-esteem.

But four years before the publication of A Room of One’s Own, someone else had presented a similar idea, albeit in a more subtle way. In her 1925 novel, Bread Givers, a work widely acknowledged to be highly autobiographical, Anzia Yezierska gave us the protagonist Sara Smolinsky. And for Sara, the need for a room of one’s own assumes critical importance and significance throughout the story—several years before Virginia Woolf articulated the concept in a more polemical way.

But Bread Givers is a rich book that can be approached and understood on many levels. While it might certainly come to mind for anyone compiling a women’s-studies syllabus or bibliography, for example, it also imparts a tale of Jewish life in early 20th-century New York. It is an immigration novel, a story of life on the Lower East Side, written by a woman who knew that territory well. Yezierska, born near Warsaw about 1885, immigrated to the United States as a teenager. Her family settled on the Lower East Side. And there the two stories—the story of the female and the story of the immigrant—intertwine. Again, the autobiographical influence is unmistakable: like Yezierska, Sara Smolinsky must battle to pursue her education.

Yezierska, however, had both sisters and brothers; Sara Smolinsky is one of four sisters. The family’s living quarters, already crowded, are rendered more so because Sara’s father reserves an entire room (“the best room”) in which to ensconce himself with his books, a room of his own, “for himself, for his study and prayers.” Sara, the book’s narrator, makes no bones about the privileged status of men in this context, and notes that had her father been blessed with a son, the boy would have been granted access to the special space.

Here is where the “woman’s story” deserves some separation from the immigrant’s tale, for here is where Yezierska seems to have anticipated Woolf’s message. Her Sara Smolinsky does something very daring for her time—she leaves her home and family to pursue her own professional and personal goals. Almost as soon as she begins her quest she is struck with a realization: “that I had yet never been alone since I was born. This was the first time I ate by myself, with silence and stillness for my company.” She recalls one instance, when she’d tried to escape a family meal by crawling into her bedroom only to be hassled by her family: “Look only the princess!” they’d said, as they “dragged” her back to the group.

But as a young single woman, Sara encounters considerable difficulty procuring “a room of her own,” even when it’s not a matter of luxury, but simply an issue of finding a place to live. When one landlady offers her a space to share with three other girls, Sara responds that she wants “a room all alone to myself.” The landlady gives Sara “a fierce look” and refuses. “This is a decent house. I’m a respectable woman.”

Sara’s search continues. “Each place took it out of me more and more. For the first time in my life I saw what a luxury it was for a poor girl to want to be alone in a room.”

When she finally finds a room—a wretched place full of dust but still possessing its own “door I could shut,” Sara is desperate. “This door was life. It was air. The bottom starting-point of becoming a person. I simply must have this room with the shut door. And I must make this woman rent it to me. If I failed to get it, I’d drop dead at her feet.”

Some years later, after college, Sara again searches for a place to live. She revels in her accomplishments, in her career as a teacher, in a chapter significantly titled “My Honeymoon With Myself”:

I celebrated it alone with myself. I celebrated it in my room, my first clean, empty room. In the morning, in the evening, when I sat down to meals, I enjoyed myself as with grandest company. I loved the bright dishes from which I ate. I loved the shining pots and pans in which I cooked my food. I loved the broom with which I swept the floor, the scrubbing brush, the scrubbing rag, the dust cloth. The routine with which I kept clean my precious privacy, my beautiful aloneness, was all sacred to me. I had achieved that marvelous thing, ‘a place for everything and everything in its place,’ which the teacher preached to me so hopelessly while a child in Hester Street.

But there is a price to pay for all of this aloneness, and it’s not merely a monetary one. Yet as Sara had assured her mother, before she could “marry myself to a man that’s a person I must first make for myself a person.” And for Sara Smolinsky, a room of one’s own is key to that process of self-making.

So it seems that through Sara Smolinsky Anzia Yezierska quite clearly identified the absolute need for a “room of one’s own.” We might speculate on the comparisons between Sara’s profession of teaching and Woolf’s focus on writing, especially given the implied presence of Yezierska herself in her novel. And we might also wonder if Woolf’s text is meant to limit itself to writing. Might it not also be appropriate to extend her discussion to broader emotional and intellectual concerns? Is Woolf’s frustration not truly directed toward impediments to women’s advancement more generally? How can women succeed in any field without the freedom to contemplate their actions and their inner lives? When Woolf pleads for the “five hundred a year,” when she begs to “let [woman] speak her mind,” is she not truly asking for the economic and social independence that transcend the writer’s world? Can, or should, Woolf’s women writers really be separated from their equally disadvantaged sisters in other fields? Woolf provides a hint of this wider interpretation herself: “allowing a generous margin for symbolism, that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that a lock on the door means the power to think, still you may say that the mind should rise above such things….”

For me, the central, unresolved question remains: What, if anything, did Woolf know of Anzia Yezierska and Bread Givers? Some mystery surrounds the text of A Room of One’s Own. What seems indisputable is that Woolf wrote it very quickly, and very much at the end of 1928. At that point, Bread Givers had been in print for three years. It’s a curious situation, for Sara Smolinsky’s room—and achievements—seems to belong right next to Mary Carmichael’s on that shelf.

And Yezierska didn’t need another 100 years. In fact, she had a few in the bank, already.