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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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3. New York City Interiors inEdith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska - 127


3. New York City Interiors in Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska “I’ve never been in a city where there seems to be such a feeling against living in des quartiers excentriques. What does it matter where one lives? I’m told this street is respectable.” “It’s not fashionable.” (AOI, 65) Not surprisingly, the interior New York City spaces of both Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska offer tremendous opportunities to refute any lingering “melting pot” theories. As has been pointed out, “space is hierarchical”; it can be “zoned, segregated, gated” and can either allow “freedoms” or put up “restrictions”.126 Inte- rior spaces, unlike public spaces and streets, are simply not ac- cessible to everyone, they are generally spaces of exclusion rather than inclusion. Connected with the definition and understanding of these particular interior cityscapes is the absence of a “crowd”, a city feature I have looked at in the last chapter. In addition, questions of noise and silence as well as the quality and quantity of space all matter when discussing urban interiors. Quite expectedly, the interior spaces of Edith Wharton’s mil- lionaires and Anzia Yezierska’s immigrants are generally to be found at the opposite end of the real estate spectrum, though not exclusively so. Naturally, those interiors also tend to be located on opposite sides of the metropolis. The Lower East Side neighbor- hoods are usually home to Yezierska’s characters; the areas from Washington Square up north, usually located on the East Side of Central Park and only occasionally on...

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