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

Representations of Urban Space in Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska


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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Preface - 11


Preface There is an island surrounded by rivers, and about it the tide scurries fast and deep. It is a beautiful island, long, narrow, magnificently populated, and with such a wealth of life and interest as no island in the whole world before has ever possessed.1 Perhaps it was my very own experience as a modern immigrant working on the lofty floors of a banking institution just off Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan that got me started on my theme. I cannot exactly recall how I finally settled on this particular topic, but I do remember that walking to work every morning through city streets provided me with images, impressions, thoughts, ideas and questions that could not be quenched or suppressed once I entered the gleaming lobby and rode the elevator up to the 40th floor to address a by no means stimulating banking job. On sunny days, the view up there was fabulous. Pretending that I had to run an errand, I would often circle the entire floor in order to steal a peek at the city’s views in all directions. Admiring Manhattan island from high above was awe-inspiring every sin- gle time; looking down and into the distance from my banking tower let me be a part of the city while being an isolated and pri- vileged spectator nevertheless. Aside from me, the only other person who was probably as taken by the city and its views was Sonja, the old German-Jewish receptionist who – fleeing the Holocaust with...

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