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New York City: «Gilt Cage» or «Promised Land»?

Representations of Urban Space in Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska

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Irene Billeter Sauter

New York City plays a significant, albeit previously neglected, role in the urban narratives of Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska at a time when the city was as new and central to the American experience as had been the Western frontier. New York City was the epicenter of the late 19th and early 20th century world at large; its constantly shifting landscape caused by urbanization, industrialization, women’s emancipation, and immigration found its representation in the extremes of the urban spectrum on Fifth Avenue and the Lower East Side. Narrating the domestic sphere from widely diverging vantage points, native Edith Wharton and immigrant Anzia Yezierska present a polarized city where domesticity is always a primal and existential concern. By analyzing exterior and interior city representations in Wharton’s and Yezierska’s New York literature, the author shows how urban space greatly affects, influences and alters questions of identity, assimilation, acculturation, and alienation in protagonists who cannot escape their respective settings. Edith Wharton’s «millionaire» heroines are framed by «conspicuous consumption» in the gilt interiors of their New York City while Anzia Yezierska’s «immigrant» protagonists hunger for a «Promised Land» of knowledge and learning in the perpetually changing urban landscape.

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7 Illustrations New York and Environs, 1859 Lithograph by John Bachmann By permission of the Museum of the City of New York, Gift of James Duane Taylor ........................................................................................... 9 Aerial View, Lower Manhattan, 1921 By permission of the Museum of the City of New York ........................................ 16 Panorama of Madison Square, New York, N.Y. between 1910 and 1915 Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, LC-D4-15953 .................... 30 View South through Loggia Arch of Barbizon Hotel, ca. 1930 Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho By permission of the Museum of the City of New York, The Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Gift of the artist ............................................. 34 Waterfront [Skyline], 1937 Photograph by David Robbins By permission of the Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Federal Works Agency, Work Projects Administration, Federal Art Project ....................................................................................................... 44 New York City, including the Lower East Side, from Manhattan Bridge, 1917 Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Miscellaneous Items in High Demand Collection, LC-USZ62-113340.................. 78 5th Ave. Ap’t. House, between ca. 1910 and 1915 Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Bain Collection, LC-DIG-ggbain-15185 ..................................................................... 84 [Broadway – North from Cortland St.], 1898 By permission of the Museum of the City of New York, Byron Company Collection ...................................................................................... 108 8 Street Scenes, Hester Street, Jewish Quarter, 1898 By permission of the Museum of the City of New York, Byron Company Collection, Gift of Percy Byron, 1942 ......................................... 118 Edith Wharton, ca. 1910 By permission of Watkins/Loomis, agents for the Edith Wharton Estate....

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