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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
Text 7. Two Wives
» Reading Guide
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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 woman, New York, 1908
New York, 1908
African American woman, Georgia, ca. 1900
Georgia, ca. 1900
Two Wives
- Abraham Cahan, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, 1896, Ch. 3-4
- Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Wife of His Youth," short story, 1900

As those flowing crowds on State Street and in New York suggest, everything in the city is in flux, including identity. While coming to a city can mark a separation from the past, it cannot always keep the past at bay, as the protagonists of these stories discover. In both Yekl and "The Wife of His Youth," a wife arrives at an inopportune moment, bringing her husband a past he is desperately trying to escape.

Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) emigrated to the United States from Russia in 1882. He settled on the Lower East Side of New York and became a writer, lecturer, and editor for the socialist and labor movements. When he was thirty-seven, he became the editor of the Forward, a socialist newspaper. His best-known feature was the "Bintel Brief" ("a Bundle of Letters"), one of America's earliest advice columns. In his novel Yekl, Jake, a Russian Jewish immigrant, has for three years resisted his wife's pleas to join him in New York. During that time he has become something of a dashing playboy. Eventually, he must relent. When Gitl arrives at Ellis Island, she is "slovenly dressed in a brown jacket and skirt of grotesque cut," her hair "concealed under a voluminous wig of a pitch-black hue." She is "uncouth and un-American," a lot like Charles Chesnutt's 'Liza Jane.

Chesnutt (1858-1932) was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents, free blacks, had migrated there from Fayetteville, North Carolina. In 1866 the Chesnutt family returned to Fayetteville, where Charles attended school. Upon graduating, he became a teacher and eventually a principal. His light skin made him a man of two races, a situation he found intolerable in the South. In 1883 he resigned his school post and moved back to Cleveland. During the 1880s, as the urge to write grew stronger in him, he vowed to create literature of "high, holy purpose" that would bring "recognition and equality" to his people. In "The Wife of His Youth," Mr. Ryder—a free-born black refugee from the slave-holding South, light enough to be a pillar in the exclusive Blue Vein Society—has groomed himself to the utmost respectability and is on the verge of his greatest social triumph. At that moment, 'Liza Jane, the woman he married years before down South, turns up looking for him. Arriving in Groveland, she wears "a blue calico gown of ancient cut," her "gray wool" protruding from a large faded bonnet. She is "a bit of the old plantation life." What the women mean and how the men respond to them suggest the price of assimilation. 21 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. How are New York and Groveland portrayed in these works?
  2. Compare Yezierska's portrayal of Jewish society in New York with Chesnutt's portrayal of African American society in Groveland. How are the problems of assimilation similar? different?
  3. How do these works define the American cultural mainstream?
  4. How does Jake enter it? How does Ryder?
  5. What does entering the mainstream mean for each man?
  6. What, for Jake and Ryder, are the dilemmas of assimilation?
  7. What do Jake and Ryder lose and what do they gain as they move into the mainstream?

» 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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Revised: May 2005