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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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2. Cityscape in Edith Wharton’s and Anzia Yezierska’sFictional New York - 31


2. Cityscape in Edith Wharton’s and Anzia Yezierska’s Fictional New York The glory of the city is its variety. The drama of it lies in its extremes.29 New York City is the epicenter of the modern world at the turn of the 20th century. This is the historical background when Edith Wharton started publishing her first works and it is also the me- tropolis that Anzia Yezierska encountered when she first immi- grated to New York in the 1890s. I would like to take the Empire City as the starting point of my discussion of Anzia Yezierska’s and Edith Wharton’s urban literature. Having been born into New York upper class society in 1862, Edith Wharton eventually became its chronicler and social critic. Wharton started to write at an early age and tried her art in many different fields, from poetry to The Decoration of Houses, which she wrote with the architect Ogden Codman, Jr. Published in 1897, that book offered a first look into the private homes of New York City’s society and was also a judgment of the then predominant architectural style. As R. W. B. Lewis has argued in his extensive biography of Edith Wharton, “The Decoration of Houses [was] a paying off of scores against the physical surroundings Edith had grown up in […].”30 This early work, even though not yet a work of fiction, already shows the importance that settings had for Wharton and how she clearly had a well developed sense of archi- tectural space...

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