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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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1. Introduction - 17


1. Introduction New York simply meant peace and freedom to me: it was coming home.2 Almost everybody the world over has some claim on the city of New York. This, sadly, is even more so after the terrible events of 09/11 have forever engraved the collapsing Twin Towers in our collective memory. Our rather naïve hopes of an always better to- morrow, mirrored in the lofty designs of the city’s skyscrapers and the endless possibilities of a never sleeping city, were instantly shat- tered. But even such a traumatic, unimaginable event as that has shown us one thing: New York is still standing, it has not vanished from the map and has shown the world that it will endure. We all have some prior knowledge of New York City, we have acquired textual or visual images of it that may have been personally experienced or gained from another source. New York City, and more specifically Manhattan, is more than just a place; it often is what we imagine it to be, too. This cosmopolitan city sees itself with no modesty as the very center of the world and the innumerable representations of it in the arts attest to that. By lo- cating itself like this, New York City allows everyone the right to superficial access and understanding. But Manhattan’s layers and nuances are many. While knowledge can be gained by circumfe- rential acquaintance with just a few of its offerings, the richness of it all becomes evident only to...

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