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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: People: Assimilation and the Crucible of the City
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: People
Text 1. The American Metropolis
Text 2. Coney Island
Text 3. Horatio Alger, Jr., Ragged Dick
Text 4. Lewis W. Hine photographs
Text 5. Jacob Riis, How the Other Lives
Text 6. Anzia Yezierska, Russians
» Reading Guide
•  Link

Text 7. Two Wives
Text 8. Lee Chew, The Biography of a Chinaman
Text 9. Exclusion
Text 10. Zitkala-Sa, Native Americans

RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
Jewish family, New York tenement, 1912
Jewish family, New York tenement, 1912
Anzia Yezierska, "The Lost Beautifulness" and "Soap and Water," short stories in Hungry Hearts, 1920

Jacob Riis would have approved of the way the protagonists in Anzia Yezierska's stories tried to improve themselves because their efforts involved paint, soap, and water. Yezierska (ca. 1885-1970) came to the United States from Poland and grew up in New York's Jewish enclave on its Lower East Side. She received a scholarship to Columbia University's Teacher's College and taught school upon graduation. In 1913 she began to write fiction. The two stories included here reflect her early experiences as a laundress, maid, and night school student. In "The Lost Beautifulness," Hannah Hayyeh's aspirations to middle-class respectability express themselves as several coats of paint on her kitchen walls. When her landlord, seeing the improvement, raises her rent, she vents and rages with a passion both admirable and frightening. Similar to this emotional display is that of the young teacher in "Soap and Water." The breakdown of each character complicates the role that personal cleanliness and domestic respectability played in the Americanization of immigrants. Despite following the rules, both Hannah and the teacher encounter successive barriers to living the "golden dream" they interpret as the pinnacle of American democracy; yet hope for a better life is still capable of assuaging some of their losses. 13 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. How does Yezierska portray the city in these stories?
  2. Compare the aspirations of Yezierska's protagonists to those of Alger's Dick Hunter.
  3. In "The Lost Beautifulness" how are Hannah's relationships with her son, husband, and neighbors influenced by the vision she has for her kitchen?
  4. What does Mrs. Preston represent to Hannah?
  5. How is Hannah an artist?
  6. What do both the creation and dismantling of the kitchen mean for Hannah's dreams?
  7. What role does Miss Whiteside play in the story?
  8. Why does the narrator in "Soap and Water" dream of going to college even though she doesn't like the work required of her?
  9. What is the teacher's relationship to Miss Van Ness?
  10. What does the conclusion to "Soap and Water" suggest about the narrator's future?
  11. What do the protagonists of these stories gain and lose through assimilation?

» Link

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How was the American cultural mainstream defined at this time?
  •  What messages and strategies of socialization did the government and other culture brokers extend to immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans during this period?
  •  What benefits and costs for these groups were associated with a strategy of assimilation?
  •  How did the city function as a site of assimilation?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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