Anzia Yezierska on Her Struggle to Write Bread Givers (1925)

Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska 1925

Anzia Yezierska (1890 – 1870), a Polish-born, Jewish-American writer was in her early teens when her family immigrated into the United States during the mass Jewish immigration between 1880 to 1924. They settled and lived in the immigrant neighborhood of the East side of Manhattan.

Bread Givers (1925) remains her best-known novel among a body of work that reflected the Jewish immigrant experience in America of the early 1900s. To set this kind of story down with a female perspective was quite a rarity in her time, reflecting the author’s  unflagging determination.

When Bread Givers came out to general acclaim in 1925, Anzia had already published two other well-received works, Hungry Hearts (1920), a collection of short stories, and Salome of the Tenements (1922), a novel. Both were well received; parts of Hungry Hearts were even adapted into a 1922 silent film. 

She wasn’t an inexperienced writer, then, while working on Bread Givers, yet from her description of the process, writing it was agonizingly slow, a process of fits and starts. Perhaps because it was somewhat autobiographical, creating it may have been emotionally painful.

Bread Givers delves into the well-worn theme of an immigrant family whose daughters chafe against the ways of their religious, Old World parents. The head of the family, Reb Smolinsky, is a scholar of the Torah, but he’s childish and impractical. He seeks to control and be supported by his daughters, who are longing to spread their wings in the new land of hopes and dreams.

Anzia Yezierska’s work faded away for a time, then rediscovered and reissued in the early 2000s. Here, from a 1925 syndicated article that appeared in numerous newspapers around the U.S. upon the release of Bread Givers, is her first-person narrative of the trials and tribulations she went through to write this novel. Her all-too-familiar struggles will surely resonate with today’s writers.


Anzia Yezierska’s struggle to write Bread Givers,
in her own words

I have often wondered, why the people I know and lived with were never found in stories. Whatever I read of the poor were not my poor: not the life I had lived. They were dressed up in romance, in drama, in colorful climaxes that made fine literature.

The stories were like the pretty pink and white faces on the magazine covers, or like photographs where all the lines and shadows of character were rubbed out, or else they were humorous caricatures, like the funny page of the evening paper. The living people in their everyday working clothes with all the lines and wrinkles of worry were not there.

The brutal fight over pennies at the pushcart, the cheap cafeterias where the hungry working girl goes for food only to come out hungrier after her meal than before; the terror of the poor on the first of the month when the rent has to be paid; these realities were too trivial, too sordid for stories.

And yet I know that in this grinding waste of the dull everyday lay buried rich drama, more colorful than any faked heroics of fiction.

This conviction that the poorest life is rich enough for the greatest story, that the real struggle of the washerwoman, the shopgirl, the fishwife, no matter how sordid, how ugly, throbs with dramatic beauty goaded me to write. So without any plot or plan, without knowing how, I started to set down the life I had lived.

For years I had been in the habit of jotting down anything that flashed through my mind. Feelings, longings, memories. A phrase, a sentence. Sometimes in the middle, or end, or the beginning of a thought. It was sort of company that made me forget my loneliness.

In the street, in the car, in the subway, on the way to the market, or out for a walk, an idea would suddenly fly through my head like a bird in the air, then I’d stop wherever I was and write it down on anything I could find — the edge of a newspaper or a lunch bag, All these scraps I threw into a soapbox under my bed. 

When that got full, I threw the contents into an old brown bag that we had used to carry our pillows and featherbeds from Poland to America. I called this mess of written junk my rag bag of dreams.

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Bread givers by anzia yezierska

A review of Bread Givers (1925)
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How could I ever make sense out of this foaming about the boss, the shop, the high price of herring, the duties of parents to children, and the wild questionings as to why we were born into this world? It was a hodgepodge of chaos, sentimental slush without beginning, without end.

And yet all that formless confusion about nothing at all was me — me, more real than the Anzia Yezierska that sweated in laundries and slaved in shops. Sometimes, I would lose myself in a fairy tale: how I would weave out this rag-bag of dreams, stories so new, so different, so full of real life, that the whole world would rush to read my stuff.

This haunting vision of finished stories out of my groping confusion was to my starved mind what the vision of a full, square meal was to my starved body. It kept me wound up with hope, on tiptoes with excitement to reach up beyond my reach.

The short stories I wrote from time to time were little pieces of emotional junk from this rag-bag of experience. The utmost I could achieve at the beginning was to work into clearness a little fragment at a time.

Three years ago, I decided to get this elephant of confusion out of my way. While searching hopelessly for a few things to save, the idea for Bread Givers suddenly came to me. If I could only show Reb Smolinsky to the world! What a sublime fool! His innocence, his cruelty, his burning faith in God, his inhumanity to his own children.

I could not see the novel yet. What I sensed was veiled in thick mist. Reb Smolinsky, his wives, and his children stood out clearer and clearer. They set fire to my imagination till I could see and hear and feel nothing but these people burning me to come out into life. 

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Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska

Bread Givers on* and Amazon*
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I realized that all the notes on Reb Smolinsky that I had gathered almost all my life were useless in the form in which they had been written. I saw him now in a newer, truer light. The fancy phrases, the grand rhetoric, the gushing excitement of my immature youth was useless to me now. I felt a new simplicity of language stirring in me. And so, I threw away all my notes to follow my new version, to possess myself fully of any new inspiration.

At first, the loss of my precious notes left a hole in my heart. I experienced the feeling of the scientist who spend years and years experimenting to get at a certain fact. Suddenly he comes upon a new clue, to a new truth. And he must throw away all the years of toil to follow the flash. I now see those years of experimenting with worlds were not wholly wasted. I had to go through all that seemingly sterile effort to know and select what was what.

When I finally began my novel, I often spent weeks and months on a chapter only to destroy it and begin all over again when something better occurred to me. Sometimes it took all morning to write one page — sometimes only a paragraph or a sentence. Many times the morning passed with nothing but despair for my labors. 

After two years I thought I had finished Bread Givers. I took it to an understanding critic, a friend.

      “Only the first half of your novel is finished,” he said. “The last part is a series of essays, not fiction. You must do the last half again.”
      “Do it again? I’m dead. I’m a wreck of exhaustion.”
      “You’ve crashed through the first part of your novel. But you’ve grown tired and lost fire toward the end.”
      “Blood was in my eyes before I saw the end of this,” I replied. “How can I ever do it over again?”

I began again. But it was another year of anguished writing before Bread Givers was ready for publication. Now my only regret is that I allowed the American hurry to produce rush me into print too soon.

More about Bread Givers

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