Mary Antin wrote a poem praising George Washington just a few years after she arrived in Boston a poor, 13-year-old Russian Jew who spoke only Yiddish. She published her first book at 18. At 30 she wrote a national best-seller that launched her into political circles that included President Theodore Roosevelt.
Mary Antin became famous as a symbol of the immigrant who achieved the American Dream. But she also discovered the dark side to the dream, and that fame doesn’t necessarily bring happiness.
To some, her rags-to-riches story seemed too pat, too easy. Later in life, Mary Antin hinted at her embarrassment about winning wide acclaim for a slim accomplishment.
“[S]he considered her position a false one and suffered a nervous breakdown as a consequence,” wrote Sarah Blacker Cohen.
Maryashe Antin was born June 13, 1881, to Israel Pinchus and Esther (Weltman) Antin in the shtetl of Polotzk in the Pale of Settlement. The Pale, a western region of Imperial Russia, was crowded with impoverished Jews evicted from the cities. Antisemitism made life dangerous for them.
The Antin family at first prospered in the Pale, with a large house and servants. As a traditional Jewish girl, Mary Antin received an inferior education to her brother. Later, in a short story, she wrote, “What are daughters worth? They’re only good to sit in the house, a burden on their parents’ neck, until they’re married off.”
When illness destroyed her father’s business, the family ended up living in a room. “We had absolutely no reliable source of income, no settled home, no immediate prospects,” she wrote.
Coming to America
In 1891, her father borrowed money to get to Germany. There an emigrant society helped bring him to Boston. To Mary, America became the Promised Land. Three years after he left, their father sent them a letter saying he’d saved enough money to bring them to America.
Her mother read the letter aloud. “There was an elation, a hint of triumph, such as had never been in my father’s letters before,” she wrote in her book, The Promised Land. “He saw something — he promised us something. It was this “america.” And “America” became my dream.”
In 1894, Mary Antin left for America.
In a book of her letters (now an audio book), she described how her family traveled in packed, airless fourth-class railroad cars. They encountered corrupt crossing guards and German officials who crudely disinfected them. They were locked in quarantine until finally they took the steamer across the Atlantic and reunited the family in Boston.
Mary’s father’s attempts to make money failed, and the family moved from slum to slum: Chelsea and Boston’s West and South ends. They lived in gloomy tenements filled with “unkempt, half-washed, toiling, unaspiring foreigners, pitiful in the eyes of social missionaries, the despair of boards of health,” she wrote.
But her father had hope for Mary, frail and clearly intelligent. He enrolled her in the local public school in Chelsea, called the Williams School. Said to be the largest school in New England, it had many non-English-speaking immigrant students.
Because she spoke no English, Mary Antin had to wedge herself into a kindergarten desk. After four months, a composition she wrote called Snow impressed her teacher. The teacher sent Snow to an education journal, Primary Education, which printed it. And so Mary Antin determined to follow a writer’s career.
She wrote a poem called “My Country,” which described her thrill at sharing citizenship with George Washington. Then she went to Newspaper Row and found an editor willing to publish it.
Mary learned quickly, and her teachers held her up “as an illustration of what the American system of free education and the European immigrant could make of each other.” Many people wanted to hear that story, and Mary Antin made a career of telling it.
Her bestselling book, The Promised Land, offered up a romanticized version of the immigrant’s assimilation and rise through public education.
In the book, Mary found a way to glorify their South End tenement on Wheeler Street, which ran crookedly between brothels on Corning Street and a saloon on Shawmut Avenue.
“I delighted in the moonlike splendor of the arc lamp just in front of the saloon,” she wrote.
She also rhapsodized about the hours she spent reading and dreaming in the Boston Public Library. “That I who was born in the prison of the Pale should roam at will in the land of freedom was a marvel that it did me good to realize. That I who was brought up to my teens almost without a book should be set down in the midst of all the books that ever were written a miracle as great as any on record. That an outcast should become a privileged citizen, that a beggar should dwell in a palace–this was a romance more thrilling than poet ever sung,” she wrote.
Her patriotism would later cost her her marriage.
Mary’s sister Frieda went to work at 14, which allowed Mary to attend Girls’ Latin School, Boston’s premier public prep school for girls.
Lina Hecht, a Jewish philanthropist, took notice of Mary Antin. Hecht arranged to have her letters about her journey to America translated from Yiddish and published. So in 1899, 18-year-old Mary published her first book, From Plotzk to Boston. (The printer misspelled the name of her home town, Polotzk.) The precocious scholar-immigrant thus achieved local celebrity.
Mary’s life took another turn on a field trip with the Hale House, a South End settlement house sponsored by Edward Everett Hale.
The trip was led by Amadaus Grabau, who studied at Harvard and worked at the Boston Society of Natural History. Their attraction to each other may have seemed unlikely – she, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who wrote poetry; he, an American-born son of a Lutheran minister who studied geology. Not to mention the 11-year difference in their ages.
They married on Oct. 5, 1901. She was 20, he was 31. Her marriage outside her faith cost her some friendships, though her family stood by her.
Mary had dreamed of going to Radcliffe. But after marrying Grabau she followed him to New York, where he had gotten a job as a professor of geology at Columbia University. They lived in university housing on Morningside Heights and then in Brooklyn, a far cry from the dingy South End tenements she knew in Boston.
Mary attended Columbia Teacher’s College and Barnard, but didn’t graduate. They had a daughter, Josephine Esther, on Nov. 21, 1907.
At Columbia, Grabau had a reputation as a loner and a workaholic. His marriage to a 20-year-old Jewish immigrant writer and his failure to develop friendships with his colleagues marked him as an outsider.
Mary Antin, Celebrity
Then in 1912, when Mary was 32, she published the wildly successful The Promised Land. It made her a celebrity. Former president Theodore Roosevelt wrote her letters. He credited her — along with Jane Addams and Frances Kellor — with lighting a fire under him to support women’s suffrage.
Mary sent her daughter to boarding school and embarked on a national lecture tour about immigration. On Dec. 12, 1912, 1,000 people came to listen to her at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Then from 1913 to 1918 she lectured on “The Responsibility of American Citizenship,” “How You and I Can Serve Our Country” and “The Public School as a Test of American Faith.”
Her goal was to prove that immigrants could become good American citizens during a time of rising anti-immigrant feeling.
By the time her lecture tour ended, World War I broke out – in Europe and in her home.
World War I
Despite virulent anti-German sentiment during World War I, Grabau didn’t hide his attachment to the German culture. That contributed to the loss of his job at the university and to the end of his marriage.
Their daughter, Josephine, remembered their battles during World War I. “We fought the World War right in our house in Scarsdale. Mother was for the Allies and Father was for the Germans. Mother hung the Allied flag out her study window and Father put the German flag out his study window. They fought the war upstairs and downstairs, into the attic and into the cellar. It was too much for me and I fell apart. They saw what they were doing to me and finally agreed to separate for my sake.”
After they separated, he moved to China, where he played a key role in establishing Chinese geology. Along with expatriates and Chinese academics, Grabau recruited and trained Chinese geologists and set up institutions devoted to geology. He never reconciled with his wife, and he only returned to the United States once for the 1933 International Geological Congress.
Their separation marked the beginning of Mary’s decline. Her third book didn’t have nearly the success of The Promised Land. She wrote no fourth book. She withdrew from her friends and family, and suffered from health problems – both physical and mental.
Mary spent several years at the Austen Riggs Psychiatric Center in Stockbridge, Mass. From 1922 to her death in 1949, she checked in and out of the Gould Farm, a healing community for people “experiencing emotional and psychiatric vulnerabilities” in the Berkshire mountains.
In 1930 she wrote to a friend, “I have so little mastered the art of tranquil living that wherever go I trail storm clouds of drama around me.”
She eventually followed of Meher Baba, an Indian mystic who claimed he was the avatar. Baba stopped speaking on July 10, 1925 and communicated using hand gestures or an alphabet board for the rest of his life. He traveled to Hollywood in the 1930s, where he enjoyed the attention of celebrities like Gary Cooper and Tallulah Bankhead.
Antin then followed Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian clairvoyant who founded another esoteric spiritual movement, anthroposophy.
She died in 1949 of cancer. By then, The Promised Land had gone through 34 editions. The book opened with a bold statement: “I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over.”
But perhaps Mary Antin had wanted more than to be an assimilated immigrant. “One of the best novels I never wrote is called The Unwilling Celebrity,” she wrote in a letter. “It deals with the embarrassment of a woman who never succeeded in reconciling a large measure of public recognition with her insufficient achievement.”
With thanks to Sarah Blacker Cohen in Mary Antin’s “The Promised Land”: A Breach of Promise in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Winter 1977-78.
Also Keren R. McGinity in The Real Mary Antin: Woman on a Mission in the Promised Land, American Jewish History Sept. 1998.
This story updated in 2021.