The notion of identity in Mary Antin's "The Promised Land"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2006 12 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

I. A short abstract of Mary Antin’s biography:

II. The notion of identity in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land
1. Disambiguation of “identity”
2. Polotzk: Identity as a given attribute
3. Boston: Identity as a hybrid construction

III. Possible reasons for Mary Antin’s exhaustive closing
with her past

IV. Works of Reference

“I was born, I have lived, I have been made over. Is it not time to write my life's story? I am just as much out of the way as if I were dead, for I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell.”

(Mary Antin: The Promised Land, Introduction)

I. short abstract of Mary Antin’s biography

In order to be able to grasp the dimension of the role identity plays in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land, one has to take into consideration the author’s biographical background, as the first part of her life differs completely from the later years. She is born by the name of Maryashe Weltman on the 13th of June 1881 in the Jewish Polotzk near Witebsk in White Russia. Initially relatively rich, Antin’s family impoverishes due to her father’s long- winded disease and growing business competition in Polotzk: Upon the Russian Czar’s orders, Jews are bound to move to and stay within certain Pales, such as Antin’s hometown.

In 1891, her father Israel Weltman leaves Russia for Boston wherefrom he arranges the family’s emigration in 1894. After the Antins (formerly: Weltmans) have to move several times for financial and business- orientated reasons, Mary receives solid school education and manages to have her first poem published in the Boston Herald at the age of fifteen. With the help of diligence, natural ability, curiousness and luck, Mary Antin advances from her proletarian neighbourhood to higher educated circles, where she meets her future husband Amadeus Grabau, a professor of the Columbia University. Antin publishes several essays, short stories and poems, gives lectures on the immigration of Russian Jews and on Americanism and gets involved with the loosening of laws restricting immigration. In 1918, she withdraws from public life due to a disease, and on the 15th of May 1949, she dies in New York[1].

Already at the age of twenty, Mary Antin writes her autobiography The Promised Land (formerly published under the name of From Polotzk to Boston), which describes her childhood in Russia, her immigration to America, the initial problems in her new homeland and her success in gaining ground. Especially the preface causes attention, as she calls her life “unusual, but by no means unique. (…) [A] concrete illustration of a multitude of statistical facts”[2], while she is distancing herself from her former life as Maryashe Weltman in Polotzk. The high degree of self- reflexiveness and the dispartment of her own person into at least two identities predestine her book as a subject of inquiry by means of sociological investigation in the field of identity research.

II. The notion of identity in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land

Before discussing Mary Antin’s notion of identity, it is required to outline the term itself. Within the last decades, this concept has become central to social science and it has turned from a technical term to an almost redundantly used catchphrase in virtually every field of everyday life. Thus, the perception of identity is as subjected to historical, social, political and emancipational changes as every other term referring to the self- reflexion of an individual, which also develops according to altering circumstances.

4. Disambiguation of “identity”

To put it simple, identity is an answer to the question “Who am I?” This query is the very basis of identity research, formulated by Antonio Blasi, a North American social scientist[3]. Of course, the circumstances are not as plain as this – at least, not any more: The topic of identity grows more and more complex, as the opportunities provided for a human being expand. Social layers have become penetrable, females obtained liberties of many kinds, education has become accessible regardless of gender and religion, professions become more and more nonrigid and some jobholders are expected to be flexible and all purpose all-rounders.

According to Heiner Keupp, identity results from a dialogic process involving both the individual human being and society.[4] Concerning this matter, sociologists offer a diversity of views, which can be scaled down to two opposite approaches:

a) Identity is given
b) Identity is constructed

In the first case, identity is understood as the substance of a person, comprising unchangeable attributes like gender, ethnicity and social status. This approach assumes that each human being has one identity for his or her lifespan, which does not – or even cannot – undergo a change. The second proposal takes into consideration quite different aspects of personality: Identity is ascribed to a person by others, or put simply: You are what others make you. Thus, identity can change according to the way one presents oneself in public. Hence, a person can not only have one unchangeable identity for life, but one is able to take over various roles in succession or even at the same time, as exemplified in the case of a person’s public and private identity. In this context, Keupp introduces the term “individual life- collages”[5].

Those two poles of identity are exemplarily detectable in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land. In her autobiography written at the age of twenty, the author describes both the first thirteen years of her life in her hometown Polotzk in White Russia and her emigration to America, but not until she distances herself from “the person whose story [she has] to tell”[6]. She even refers to herself in the third person in places. Thus, already the beginning of her book suggests that Antin does not hold the view of identity as a given quality of a person. Still, her dissociation from her Russian past in her autobiography does not settle the matter: Taking a closer look at her book shows that not only her picture of herself undergoes a radical change after her emigration, but also her interpretation of identity advances.

In her book The Promised Land (published in 1912) Mary Antin uses the term “identity” only one time. Astonishingly enough, this happens in chapter IX, named after the book’s title, in which Antin describes her arrival in America after the “Exodus”[7] from her Russian hometown Polotzk. Still, the notion of “identity” is both problematic and central in her book: In the first place, she distances herself from her life before the emigration to the United States, and secondly, her religion makes her meet the problem of being both a Jewess and a Russian.

5. Polotzk: Identity as a given attribute

Antin’s feeling like a stranger starts even before she emigrates: “When I was a little girl, the world was divided into two parts; namely Polotzk, the place where I lived, and a strange land called Russia. (…) We must not be found outside the Pale, because we were Jews”[8]. She witnesses anti- Semitism coming from her Gentile playmates without being able to answer back, as her mother resignedly tells her: "How can I help you, my poor child? (…) The Gentiles do as they like with us Jews”[9]. As Mary grows older, she also tries to ignore these kinds of offences, beginning to comprehend that she is fighting a losing battle.


[1] http://www.bikonline.de/histo/antin.html.

[2] Antin, Mary: The Promised Land, Introduction.

[3] Höfer, Renate and Heiner Keupp: Identitätsarbeit heute, p 7.

[4] Keupp, Heiner. Diskursarena Identität, p. 11.

[5] “individelle[...] Lebens- Collagen ”, ibid., p. 17.

[6] Antin, Mary: The Promised Land, Introduction.

[7] The Exodus: Title of chapter VIII.

[8] Antin, Mary: The Promised Land, Chapter I.

[9] Ibid.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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533 KB
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Institution / College
University of Regensburg – Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Philosophische Fakultät
Mary Antin Promised Land Hauptseminar Amerikanistik




Title: The notion of identity in Mary Antin's "The Promised Land"