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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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5. Appendix:A Brief History of New York City until 1900 - 255


5. Appendix: A Brief History of New York City until 1900241 5.1. Earliest Evidence: 1524–1621 It is believed that European fishermen had visited the waters around Manhattan and ventured up the Hudson River in the first decade of the sixteenth century. A first record was kept by Giovanni da Verrazzano who, under orders of King Francis I of France, was piloting the “La Dauphine” to find a northern route to China. “La Dauphine” briefly anchored in the Narrows in March 1524 before sailing further north. A year later, Esteban Gomez, of Portuguese descent, sailed up the Hudson River, but decided that it did not lead to China. Fur traders are thought to have followed these explorers in the following decades, especially after the French had discovered the St. Lawrence River Valley in 1535. The traders must have ventured up the Hudson River to trade with the local Lenape Indians well before Henry Hudson anchored off Sandy Hook in September of 1609 with his “Halve Moon”, a Dutch ship sent by the East India Company. Looking for a shortcut to the Indies, Hudson also turned around some ninety miles upstream the river later named for him. Nevertheless, the fertile land and the beaver furs he brought back convinced Dutch merchants and captains that it would be worthwhile their efforts to sail across the Atlantic for furs and pelts. 241 For this historical summary, I am deeply indebted to Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace and their concise and interesting work:...

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