June 13, 1881; Plotzk, Russia Died:
May 17, 1949; Suffern, New York Identification:
Russian-born American author and political activist Significance:
One of the most prominent voices of the early twentieth century wave of immigration to the United States, Mary Antin is best known for her 1912 book The Promised Land, describing her experience and that of her family in settling in America and attending American schools.
Born in Russia in 1881, Mary Antin was the daughter of a Jewish merchant who had been trained as a rabbi only to reject Orthodox Judaism and instead go into business. Her birthplace, Plotzk, was in the region known as the “Pale of Settlement,” where Russian Jews were allowed to live. After Czar Alexander II was assassinated by political radicals in March, 1881—exactly three months before Antin was born—Jews became scapegoats for political and popular reaction. Antin later described how she and her family had to hide inside their house during Christian holidays for fear that celebrations would turn into pogroms—violent persecutions of the Jews that were often supported by the Russian police. Jews were subject to arbitrary fines, and their children could be admitted to schools only in limited numbers.
Seeking to escape Jewish persecution in Russia, Antin’s father sailed for America in 1891 and settled in Boston, while his wife and six children waited until he established himself in the new country. Three years later, when Mary was thirteen, the family followed her father and took up residence in the Boston slum district called Revere. Later, they moved to Boston’s South End. Although Antin’s family was poor, in the new country she was free to attend Boston’s public schools, including the demanding Boston Girls’ Latin School. Antin later wrote about the great opportunity the school offered to her; it gave her both a dedication to learning and an intense sense of patriotism for her adopted nation.
In October, 1901, Antin married Amadeus Grabau, a German-born paleontologist and geologist who was eleven years her senior. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Grabau was then completing his doctorate in geology at Harvard. He would later become a prominent scholar and author of numerous books. The year they married, Antin and Grabau moved to New York, where Grabau taught at Columbia University. Meanwhile, Antin began studying at Teachers College and Barnard College of Columbia University.
Even before undertaking her college studies, Antin had begun her autobiographical writings. Her first book, which she wrote in Yiddish as a set of letters to an uncle still in Plotzk, was later published in English as From Plotzk to Boston (1899) with a foreword by Israel Zangwill. Zangwill himself was a prominent immigrant writer of Russian Jewish heritage best known for coining the term “melting pot” in a play of that name. Antin’s first book told the story of her own immigration experience, and it brought her name to the attention of the reading public.
A dozen years after From Plotzk to Boston appeared, the immigration experience became the subject of Antin’s most widely read book, The Promised Land (1912). Before its publication, it appeared in serial form in The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine serialization and the book brought the lives, experiences, and ambitions of America’s new immigrant populations to a wide readership. The writing helped bring public sympathy and understanding to people who had seemed alien to many Americans. Antin’s portrait of self-reliant, hardworking immigrant families, eager to become patriotic Americans, soon became required reading in civics courses in schools around the nation.
In 1914, Antin published They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration. She also lectured widely on the subject of immigration from 1913 to 1918. At a time when the American government was considering adopting more restrictive immigration policies, Antin was an outspoken advocated of openness to new immigrants. She also became a strong supporter of former president Theodore Roosevelt, who sought to recapture the presidency on the ticket of the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party in 1912.
Mary Antin’s life became more difficult after the United States entered World War I in 1917. Her husband held widely known pro-German views, and war between the United States and Germany made such views intensely unpopular. When Grabau left the country to do research in China in 1919, Antin remained behind with her family. After the war, Mary Antin wrote relatively little until her death in 1949. Carl L. Bankston IIIFurther Reading
Antin, Mary. The Promised Land. 1912. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004. Reprint edition of Antin’s most famous and influential book.
Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made. New York: Galahad Books, 1994. Comprehensive history of the experience of East European Jewish immigrants, including Jewish Germans, such as Antin and Grabau.
Mazur, Allan. A Romance in Natural History: The Lives and Works of Amadeus Grabau and Mary Antin. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2004. Sympathetic joint biography with special attention to Antin’s and Grabau’s writings.
See also: Education; Jewish immigrants; Literature; Melting pot theory; Progressivism; Religion as a push-pull factor; Russian and Soviet immigrants; Yezierska, Anzia.