The Making of a Citizen
ON the day of the Washington celebration I recited a poem that I had composed in my enthusiasm. The applause with which this was received by my teachers and schoolmates, and the counsels of my admiring family, induced me to offer the verses to the Boston Herald for publication. Years passed before I understood that the editor printed my verses as a curiosity and space-filler. At the time I saw in their publication a just acknowledgment of my literary talent, and especially of the patriotic ardor which inspired me. Very satisfying, too, was the effect of my success on the minds of my neighbors. On the street, in the schoolyard, I was pointed out: ‘That’s Mary Antin. She had her name in the paper.’ And my quickened sense expanded this reticent expression to its noblest terms. ‘This is she,’ I understood the people to say, ‘who loves her country and worships George Washington.’
While I was well aware that I was something of a celebrity, and took all possible satisfaction in the fact, I gave my schoolmates no occasion to call me ‘stuck up.’ My vanity did not express itself in strutting or wagging the head. I played tag and puss-in-thecorner in the schoolyard, and did everything that was comrade-like. But in the schoolroom I conducted myself gravely, as befitted one who was preparing for the noble career of a poet.
I am forgetting Lizzie McDee. I am trying to give the impression that I behaved with at least outward modesty during my schoolgirl triumphs, whereas Lizzie could testify that she knew Mary Antin as a vain, boastful, curly-headed little Jew. For I had a special style of deportment for Lizzie. If there was any girl in the school besides me who could keep near the top of the class all the year through, and give bright answers when the principal or the school committee popped sudden questions, and write rhymes that almost always rhymed, I was determined that that ambitious person should not soar unduly in her own estimation. So I took care to show Lizzie all my poetry, and when she showed me hers I did not admire it too warmly.
Lizzie, as I have already said, was in a Sunday-school mood even on weekdays; her verses all had morals. My poems were about the crystal snow, and the ocean blue, and sweet spring, and fleecy clouds; when I tried to drag in a moral, it kicked so that the music of my lines went out in a groan. So I had a sweet revenge when Lizzie, one day, volunteered to bolster up the eloquence of Mr. Jones, the principal, who was lecturing the class for bad behavior, by comparing the bad boy in the schoolroom to the rotten apple that spoils the barrelful. The groans, coughs, ‘a-hems’, feet-shufflings, and paper pellets that filled the room as Saint Elizabeth sat down, even in the principal’s presence, were sweet balm to my smart of envy: I did n’t care if I did n’t know how to moralize.
When my teacher had visitors I was aware that I was the show pupil of the class. I was always made to recite, my compositions were passed around, and often I was called up on the platform — oh, climax of exaltation! — to be interviewed by the distinguished strangers; while the class took advantage of the teacher’s distraction, to hold forbidden intercourse on matters not prescribed in the curriculum. When I returned to my seat, after such public audience with the great, I looked to see if Lizzie McDee was taking notice; and Lizzie, who was a generous soul, her Sunday-school airs notwithstanding, generally smiled, and I forgave her her rhymes.
It was not always in admiration that the finger was pointed at me. One day I found myself the centre of an excited group in the middle of the schoolyard, with a dozen girls interrupting each other to express their disapproval of me. For I had coolly told them, in answer to a question, that I did not believe in God.
How had I arrived at such a conviction? How had I come, from praying and fasting and Psalm-singing, to extreme impiety? Alas! my backsliding had cost me no travail of spirit. Always weak in my faith, playing at sanctity as I played at soldiers, just as I was in the mood or not, I had neglected my books of devotion and given myself up to profane literature at the first opportunity, in Vitebsk; and I never took up my prayer-book again. On my return to Polotzk, America loomed so near that my imagination was fully occupied, and I did not revive the secret experiments with which I used to test the nature and intention of Deity. It was more to me that I was going to America than that I might not be going to Heaven. And when we joined my father, and I saw that he did not wear the sacred fringes, and did not put on the phylacteries and pray, I was neither surprised nor shocked, remembering the Sabbath night when he had with his own hand turned out the lamp. When I saw him go out to work on Sabbath exactly as on a week-day, I understood why God had not annihilated me with his lightnings that time when I purposely carried something in my pocket on Sabbath: there was no God, and there was no sin. And I ran out to play, rather pleased to find that I was free, like other little girls in the street, instead of being hemmed about with prohibitions and obligations at every step. And yet, if the golden truth of Judaism had not been handed me in the motley rags of formalism, I might not have been so ready to put away my religion.
It was Rachel Goldstein who provoked my avowal of atheism. She asked if I was n’t going to stay out of school during holy-days, and I said no. Was n’t I a Jew? she wanted to know. No, I was n’t; I was a Freethinker. What was that? I did n’t believe in God. Rachel was horrified. Why, Kitty Maloney believed in God, and Kitty was only a Catholic! She appealed to Kitty.
‘Kitty Maloney! come over here. Don’t you believe in God? — There, now, Mary Antin! — Mary Antin says she does n’t believe in God!’
Rachel Goldstein’s horror is duplicated. Kitty Maloney, who used to mock Rachel’s Jewish accent, instantly becomes her voluble ally, and proceeds to annihilate me by plying me with crucial questions.
‘You don’t believe in God? Then who made you?’
‘Nature made me.’
‘Nature made you! What’s that?’
‘It’s — everything. It’s the trees — No, it’s what makes the trees grow. That’s what it is.’
‘But God made the trees, Mary Antin,’ from Rachel and Kitty in chorus. — ‘ Maggie O’Reilly! listen to Mary Antin. She says there is n’t any God. She says the trees made her! ’
Rachel and Kitty and Maggie, Sadie and Annie and Beckie, made a circle around me, and pressed me with questions, and mocked me, and threatened me with hell flames and utter extinction. I held my ground against them all obstinately enough, though my argument was exceedingly lame. I glibly repeated phrases I had heard my father use, but I had no real understanding of his atheistic doctrines. I had been surprised into this dispute. I had no spontaneous interest in the subject; my mind was occupied with other things. But as the number of my opponents grew, and I saw how unanimously they condemned me, my indifference turned into a heat of indignation. The actual point at issue was as little as ever to me, but I perceived that a crowd of Free Americans were disputing the right of a Fellow Citizen to have any kind of God she chose. I knew, from my father’s teaching, that this persecution was contrary to the Constitution of the United States, and I held my ground as befitted the defender of a cause. George Washington would not have treated me as Rachel Goldstein and Kitty Maloney were doing! ‘This is a free country,’ I reminded them in the middle of the argument.
The excitement in the yard amounted to a toy riot. When the schoolbell rang and the children began to file in, I stood out there as long as any of my enemies remained, although it was my habit to go to my room very promptly. And as the foes of American Liberty crowded and pushed in the line, whispering to those who had not heard it that a heretic had been discovered in their midst, the teacher who kept the line in the corridor was obliged to scold and pull the noisy ones into order; and Sadie Cohen told her, in tones of awe, what the commotion was about.
Miss Bland waited till the children had filed in, before she asked me, in a tone encouraging confidence, to give my version of the story. This I did, huskily but fearlessly; and the teacher, who was a woman of tact, did not smile or commit herself in any way. She was sorry that the children had been rude to me, but she thought they would not trouble me any more if I let the subject drop. She made me understand, somewhat as Miss Dillingham had done on the occasion of my whispering during prayer, that it was proper American conduct to avoid religious arguments on school territory. I felt honored by this private initiation into the doctrine of the Separation of Church and State, and went to my seat with a good deal of dignity, my alarm about the safety of the Constitution allayed by the teacher’s calmness.
My father, in his ambition to make Americans of us, was rather headlong and strenuous in his methods. To my mother, on the eve of departure for the New World, he wrote boldly that progressive Jews in America did not spend their days in praying; and he urged her to leave her wig in Polotzk, as a first step of progress. My mother, like the majority of women in the Pale, had all her life taken her religion on authority; so she was only fulfilling her duty to her husband when she took his hint, and set out upon her journey in her own hair. Not that it was done without reluctance; for the Jewish faith in her was deeply rooted, as in the best of Jews it always is. The law of the Fathers was binding to her, and the outward symbols of obedience inseparable from the spirit. But the breath of revolt against orthodox externals was at this time beginning to reach us in Polotzk from the greater world, notably from America. Sons whose parents had impoverished themselves by paying the fine for non-appearance for military duty, in order to save their darlings from the inevitable sins of violated Judaism while in the service, sent home portraits of themselves with their faces shaved; and the grieved old fathers and mothers, after offering up special prayers for the renegades, and giving charity in their name, exhibited the significant portraits on their parlor tables. These were the signs of the times, and they had their effect on my mother’s mind. Deeply troubled in her inmost soul, she quietly prepared to accept the new order of things, under which her children’s future was to be formed; and therein she showed her native adaptability, the readiness to fall into line, which is one of the most charming traits of her gentle, self-effacing nature.
My father gave my mother very little time to adjust herself. He was only three years from the Old World, with its settled prejudices. Considering his education, he had thought out a good deal for himself, but his line of thinking had not as yet brought him to include woman in the intellectual emancipation for which he himself had been so eager even in Russia. This was still in the day when he was astonished to learn that women had written books — had used their minds, their imaginations, unaided. He still rated the mental capacity of the average woman as only a little above that of the cattle she tended. He held it to be a wife’s duty to follow her husband in all things. He could do all the thinking for the family, he believed; and being convinced that to hold to the outward forms of orthodox Judaism was to be hampered in the race for Americanization, he did not hesitate to order our family life on unorthodox lines. There was no conscious despotism in this; it was only making manly haste to realize an ideal the nobility of which there was no one to dispute.
My father did not attempt to touch the fundamentals of my mother’s faith. He certainly did not forbid her to honor God by loving her neighbor, which is perhaps not far from being the whole of Judaism. If his open denials of the existence of God influenced her to reconsider her creed, it was merely an incidental result of the freedom of expression he was so eager to practice, after his life of enforced hypocrisy. As the opinions of a mere woman on matters so abstract as religion did not interest him in the least, he counted it no particular triumph if he observed that my mother weakened in her faith as the years went by. He allowed her to keep a Jewish kitchen as long as she pleased, but he did not want us children to refuse invitations to the table of our Gentile neighbors. He would have no bar to our social intercourse with the world around us, for only by freely sharing the life of our neighbors could we come into our full inheritance of American freedom and opportunity. In the holy-days he bought my mother a ticket for the synagogue, but the children he sent to school. On Sabbath eve he let my mother light the consecrated candles, but he kept the store open until Sunday morning. My mother might believe and worship as she pleased, up to the point where her orthodoxy began to interfere with the American progress of the family.
The price that all of us paid for this disorganization of our family life has been levied on every immigrant Jewish household where the first generation clings to the traditions of the Old World, while the second generation leads the life of the New. Nothing more pitiful could be written in the annals of the Jews; nothing more inevitable; nothing more hopeful. Hopeful, yes; alike for the Jew and for the country that has given him shelter. For Israel is not the only party that has put up a forfeit in this contest. The nations may well sit by and watch the struggle, since humanity has a stake in it. I say this, whose life has borne witness, whose heart is heavy with revelations it has not made. And I speak for thousands; oh, for thousands!
My gray hairs are too few for me to let these pages trespass beyond the limit I have set myself. That part of my life which contains the climax of my personal drama I must leave to my grandchildren to record. My father might speak and tell how, in time, he discovered that in his first violent rejection of everything old and established he cast from him much that he afterwards missed. He might tell to what extent he later retraced his steps, seeking to recover what he had learned to value anew; how it fared with his avowed irreligion when put to the extreme test; to what, in short, his emancipation amounted. And he, like myself, would speak for thousands. My grandchildren, for all I know, may have a graver task than I have set them. Perhaps they may have to testify that the faith of Israel is a heritage which no heir in the direct line has the power to alienate from his successors. Even I, with my limited perspective, think it doubtful if the conversion of the Jew to any alien belief or disbelief is ever thoroughly accomplished. What positive affirmation of the persistence of Judaism in the blood my descendants may have to make, I may not be present to hear.
It would be superfluous to state that none of these hints and prophecies troubled me at the time when I horrified the schoolyard by denying the existence of God, on the authority of my father; and defended my right to my atheism on the authority of the Constitution. I considered myself absolutely, eternally, delightfully emancipated from the yoke of indefensible superstitions. I was wild with indignation and pity when I remembered how my poor brother had been cruelly tormented because he did not want to sit in heder and learn what was, after all, false or useless. I knew now why poor Reb’ Lebe had been unable to answer my questions; it was because the truth was not whispered outside of America. I was very much in love with my enlightenment, and eager for opportunities to give proof of it.
It was Miss Dillingham, she who helped me in so many ways, who unconsciously put me to an early test, the result of which gave me a shock that I did not get over for many a day. She invited me to tea one day, and I went in much trepidation. It was my first entrance into a genuine American household; my first meal at a Gentile — yes, a Christian — board. Would I know how to behave properly? I do not know if I betrayed my anxiety; I am certain only that I was all eyes and ears, that nothing should escape me which might serve to guide me. This, after all, was a normal state for me to be in, so I suppose I looked natural, no matter how much I stared. I had been accustomed to consider my table manners irreproachable, but America was not Polotzk, as my father was ever saying; so I proceeded very cautiously with my spoons and forks. I was cunning enough to try to conceal my uncertainty: by being just a little bit slow, I did not get to any given spoon until the others at table had shown me which it was.
All went well, until a platter was passed with a kind of meat that was strange to me. Some mischievous instinct told me that it was ham — forbidden food; and I, the liberal, the free, was afraid to touch it! I had a terrible moment of surprise, mortification, self-contempt; but I helped myself to a slice of ham nevertheless, and hung my head over my plate to hide my confusion. I was furious with myself for my weakness. I to be afraid of a pink piece of pig’s flesh, who had defied at least two religions in defense of free thought! And I began to reduce my ham to invisible atoms, determined to eat more of it than anybody else.
Alas! I learned that to eat in defense of principles was not so easy as to talk. I ate, but only a newly abnegated Jew can understand with what squirming, what protesting of the inner man, what exquisite abhorrence of myself. That Spartan boy who suffered the stolen fox hidden in his bosom to consume his vitals, rather than be detected in the theft, showed no such miracle of self-control as did I, sitting there at my friend’s tea-table, eating unjewish meat.
And to think that so ridiculous a thing as a scrap of meat should be the symbol and test of things so august! To think that in the mental life of a half-grown child should be reflected the struggles and triumphs of ages! Over and over again I discover that I am a wonderful thing, being human; that I am the image of the universe, being myself; that I am the repository of all the wisdom in the world, being alive and sane at the beginning of this twentieth century. The heir of the ages am I, and all that has been is in me, and shall continue to be in my immortal self.
The stretch of weeks from June to September, when the schools were closed, would have been hard to fill in, had it not been for the public library. At first I made myself a calendar of the vacation months, and every morning I tore off a leaf, and comforted myself with the decreasing number of vacation days. But after I discovered the public library I was not impatient for the reopening of school.
The library did not open till one o’clock in the afternoon, and each reader was allowed to take out only one book at a time. Long before one o’clock I was to be seen on the library steps, waiting for the door of Paradise to open. I spent hours in the reading room, pleased with the atmosphere of books, with the order and quiet of the place, so unlike anything on Arlington Street. The sense of these things permeated my consciousness even when I was absorbed in a book, just as the rustle of pages turned and the tiptoe tread of the librarian reached my ear, without distracting my attention. Anything so wonderful as a library had never been in my life. It was even better than school in some ways. One could read and read, and learn and learn, as fast as one knew how, without being obliged to stop for stupid little girls and inattentive little boys to catch up with the lesson. When I went home from the library I had a book under my arm; and I would finish it before the library opened next day, no matter till what hours of the night I burned my little lamp.
What books did I read so diligently? Pretty nearly everything that came to my hand. I daresay the librarian helped me select my books, but, curiously enough, I do not remember. Something must have directed me, for I read a great many of the books that are written for children. Of these I remember with the greatest delight Louisa Alcott’s stories. A less attractive series of books was of the Sundayschool type. In volume after volume, a very naughty little girl by the name of Lulu was always going into tempers, that her father might have opportunity to lecture her and point to her angelic little sister, Gracie, as an example of what she should be; after which they all felt better and prayed. Next to Louisa Alcott’s books in my esteem were boys’ books of adventure, many of them by Horatio Alger; and I read all, I suppose, of the Rollo books, by Jacob Abbott.
But that was not all. I read every kind of printed rubbish that came into the house, by design or accident. A weekly story-paper of a worse than worthless character, which circulated widely in our neighborhood because subscribers were rewarded with a premium of a diamond ring, warranted I don’t know how many karat, occupied me for hours. The stories in this paper resembled, in breathlessness of plot, abundance of horrors, and improbability of characters, the things I used to read in Vitebsk. The text was illustrated by frequent pictures, in which the villain generally had his hands on the heroine’s throat, while the hero was bursting in through a graceful drapery to the rescue of his beloved. If a package came into the house wrapped in a stained old newspaper, I laboriously smoothed out the paper and read it through. I enjoyed it all, and found fault with nothing that I read. And, as in the case of the Vitebsk readings, I cannot find that I suffered any harm. Of course, reading so many better books, there came a time when the diamond-ring story-paper disgusted me; but in the beginning my appetite for print was so enormous that I could let nothing pass through my hands unread, while my taste was so crude that nothing printed could offend me.
Summer days are long, and the evenings, we know, are as long as the lamp-wick. So, with all my reading, I had time to play; and, with all my studiousness, I had the will to play. My favorite playmates were boys. It was but mild fun to play theatre in Bessie Finklestein’s back yard, even if I had leading parts, which I made impressive by recitations in Russian, no word of which was intelligible to my audience. It was far better sport to play hide-and-seek with the boys, for I enjoyed the use of my limbs — what there was of them. I was so often reproached and teased for being little, that it gave me great satisfaction to beat a five-foot boy to the goal.
Once, a great, hulking colored boy, who was the torment of the neighborhood, treated me roughly while I was playing on the street. My father, determined to teach the rascal a lesson for once, had him arrested and brought to court. The boy was locked up over night, and he emerged from his brief imprisonment with a respect for the rights and persons of his neighbors. But the moral of this incident lies not herein. What interested me more than my revenge on a bully was what I saw of the way in which justice was actually administered in the United States. Here we were gathered in the little courtroom, bearded Arlington Street against wool-headed Arlington Street; accused and accuser, witnesses, sympathizers, sightseers, and all. Nobody cringed, nobody was bullied, nobody lied who did n’t want to. We were all free, and all treated equally, just as it said in the Constitution! The evil-doer was actually punished, and not the victim, as might very easily happen in a similar case in Russia. ‘ Liberty and justice for all.’ Three cheers for the Red, White and Blue!
There was one occasion in the week when I was ever willing to put away my book, no matter how entrancing were its pages. That was on Saturday night, when Bessie Finklestein called for me; and Bessie and I, with arms entwined, called for Sadie Rabinovitch; and Bessie and Sadie and I, still further entwined, called for Annie Reilly; and Bessie, etc., etc., inextricably wound up, marched up Broadway, and took possession of all we saw, heard, guessed, or desired, from end to end of that main thoroughfare of Chelsea.
Parading all abreast, as many as we were, only breaking ranks to let people pass; leaving the imprints of our noses and fingers on plate-glass windows ablaze with electric lights and alluring with display; inspecting tons of cheap candy, to find a few pennies’ worth of the most enduring kind, the same to be sucked and chewed by the company, turn and turn about, as we continued our promenade, — loitering wherever a crowd gathered, or running for a block or so to cheer on the fire-engine or police ambulance; getting into every - body’s way, and just keeping clear of serious mischief, — we were only girls, — we enjoyed ourselves as only children can whose fathers keep a basement grocery store, whose mothers do their own washing, and whose sisters operate a machine for five dollars a week. Had we been boys, I suppose Bessie and Sadie and the rest of us would have been a ‘ gang,’ and would have popped into the Chinese laundry to tease ‘Chinky Chinaman,’ and been chased by the ‘cops’ from comfortable doorsteps, and had a bully time of it. Being what we were, we called ourselves a ‘set,’ and we had a lovely time, as people who passed us on Broadway could not fail to see — and hear. For we were at the giggling age, and Broadway on Saturday night was full of giggles for us. We stayed out till all hours, too; for Arlington Street had no strict domestic programme, not even in the nursery, the inmates of which were as likely to be found in the gutter as in their cots at any time this side of one o’clock in the morning.
There was an element in my enjoyment that was yielded neither by the sights, the adventures, nor the chewing candy. I had a keen feeling for the sociability of the crowd. All plebeian Chelsea was abroad, and a bourgeois population is nowhere unneighborly. Women shapeless with bundles, their hats awry over thin, eager faces, gathered in knots on the edge of the curb, boasting of their bargains. Little girls in curl-papers and little boys in brimless hats clung to their skirts, whining for pennies, only to be silenced by absent-minded cuffs. A few disconsolate fathers strayed behind these family groups, the rest being distributed between the barber-shops and the corner lamp-posts. I understood these people, being one of them, and I liked them, and I found it all delightfully sociable.
Saturday night is the workman’s wife’s night, but that does not entirely prevent my lady from going abroad, if only to leave an order at the florist’s. So it happened that Bellingham Hill and Washington Avenue, the aristocratic sections of Chelsea, mingled with Arlington Street on Broadway, to the further enhancement of my enjoyment of the occasion. For I always loved a mixed crowd. I loved the contrasts, the high lights and deep shadows, and the gradations that connect the two, and make all life one. I also saw many, many things that I was not aware of seeing at the time. I only found out afterwards what treasures my brain had stored up, when, coming to the puzzling places in life, light and meaning would suddenly burst on me, the hidden fruit of some experience that had not impressed me at the time.
How many times, I wonder, did I brush past my destiny on Broadway, foolishly staring after it, instead of going home to pray? I wonder, did a stranger collide with me, and put me patiently out of his way, wondering why such a mite was not at home and abed at ten o’clock in the evening, and never dreaming that one day he might have to reckon with me? Did some one smile down on my childish glee, I wonder, unwarned of a day when we should weep together? I wonder — I wonder.
A million threads of life and love and sorrow was the common street; and whether we would or not, we entangled ourselves in a common maze, without paying the homage of a second glance to those who would some day master us; too dull to pick that face from out the crowd which one day would bend over us in love or pity or remorse. What company of skipping, laughing little girls is to be reproached for careless hours, when men and women on every side stepped heedlessly into the traps of fate? Small sin it was to annoy my neighbor by getting in his way, as I stared over my shoulder, if a grown man knew no better than to drop a word in passing that might turn the course of another’s life, as a boulder rolled down from the mountain-side deflects the current of a brook.
So went the life in Chelsea, for the space of a year or so. Then my father, finding a discrepancy between his assets and liabilities, on the wrong side of the ledger, once more struck tent, collected his flock, and set out in search of richer pastures.
There was a charming simplicity about these proceedings. Here to-day, apparently rooted; there to-morrow, and just as much at home. Another basement grocery, with a freshlypainted sign over the door; the broom in the corner, the loaf on the table — these things made home for us. There were rather more Negroes on Wheeler Street, in the lower South End of Boston, than there had been on Arlington Street, which promised more numerous outstanding accounts; but they were a neighborly folk, and they took us strangers in — sometimes very badly. Then there was the school three blocks away, where ‘America’ was sung to the same tune as in Chelsea. It was impossible not to feel at home.
And presently, lest anything be lacking to our domestic bliss, there was a new baby in a borrowed crib; and little Dora had only a few more turns to take with her battered doll-carriage, before a life-size vehicle with a more animated dolly was turned over to her constant care.
The Wheeler Street neighborhood is not a place where a refined young lady would care to find herself alone, even in the cheery daylight. If she came at all, she would be attended by a trusty escort. She would not get too close to people on the doorsteps, and would shrink away in disgust and fear from a blear-eyed creature careering down the sidewalk on many-jointed legs. The delicate damsel would hasten home to wash and cleanse and perfume herself, till the foul contact of Wheeler Street was utterly eradicated, and her wonted purity restored.
And I do not blame her. I only wish that she would bring a little soap and water and perfumery into Wheeler Street next time she comes; for some people there may be smothering in filth which they abhor as much as she, but from which they cannot, like her, run away.
I found no fault with Wheeler Street when I was fourteen years old. On the contrary, I pronounced it good. We had never lived so near the car tracks before, and I delighted in the moon-like splendor of the arc lamp just in front of the saloon on the corner. The space illumined by this lamp and enlivened by the passage of many thirsty souls was the favorite playground for Wheeler Street youth.
On Wheeler Street there were no real homes. There were miserable flats of three or four rooms, or fewer, in which families that did not practice racesuicide cooked, washed, and ate; slept from two to four in a bed, in windowless bedrooms; quarreled in the gray morning, and made up in the smoky evening; tormented each other, supported each other, saved each other, drove each other out of the house. But there was no common life in any form that means life. There was no room for it, for one thing. Beds and cribs took up most of the floor-space, disorder packed the interspaces. The centre table in the ‘parlor’ was not loaded with books. It held, invariably, a photograph album and an ornamental lamp with a paper shade; and the lamp was usually out of order. So there was as little motive for a common life as there was room.
The yard was only big enough for the perennial rubbish-heap. The narrow sidewalk was crowded. What were the people to do with themselves? There were the saloons, the missions, the libraries, the cheap amusement places, and the neighborhood houses. People selected their resorts according to their tastes. The children, let it be thankfully recorded, flocked mostly to the clubs: the little girls to sew, cook, dance, and play games; the little boys to hammer and paste, mend chairs, debate, and govern a toy republic. All these, of course, are forms of baptism by soap and water.
Our neighborhood went in search of salvation to Morgan Memorial Hall, Barnard Memorial, Morgan Chapel, and some other clean places that lighted a candle in their window. My brother, my sister Dora, and I were introduced to some of the clubs by our young neighbors, and we were glad to go. For our home also gave us little besides meals in the kitchen and beds in the dark. What with the six of us, and the store, and the baby, and sometimes a ‘greener’ or two from Polotzk, whom we lodged as a matter of course, till he found a permanent home — what with such a company, and the size of our tenement, we needed to get out almost as much as our neighbors’ children. I say almost; for our parlor we managed to keep pretty clear, and the lamp on our centre table was always in order, and its light fell often on an open book. Still, it was part of the life of Wheeler Street to belong to clubs, so we belonged.
I did n’t care for sewing or cooking, so I joined a dancing club; and even here I was a failure. I had been a very good dancer in Russia, but here I found all the steps different, and I did not have the courage to go out in the middle of the slippery floor and mince it and toe it in front of the teacher. When I retired to a corner and tried to play dominoes, I became suddenly shy of my partner; and I never could win a game of checkers, although formerly I used to beat my father at it. I tried to be friends with a little girl I had known in Chelsea, but she met my advances coldly. She lived on Appleton Street, which was too aristocratic to mix with Wheeler Street. Geraldine was studying Elocution, and she wore a scarlet cape and hood, and she was going on the Stage by and by. I acknowledged that her sense of superiority was wellfounded, and retired further into my corner, for the first time conscious of my shabbiness and lowliness.
I looked on at the dancing until I could endure it no longer. Overcome by a sense of isolation and unfitness, I slipped out of the room, avoiding the teacher’s eye, and went home to write melancholy poetry.
What had come over me? Why was I, the confident, the ambitious, suddenly gown so shy and meek? Why did I, a very tomboy yesterday, suddenly find my playmates stupid, and hide-and-seek a bore? I did not know why. I only knew that I was lonely, and troubled, and sore; and I went home to write sad poetry.
I shall never forget the pattern of the red carpet in our parlor, —we had achieved a carpet since Chelsea days, — because I lay for hours face down on the floor, writing poetry on a screechy slate. When I had perfected my verses, and copied them fair on the famous blue-lined note-paper, and saw that I had made a very pathetic poem indeed, I felt better. And this happened over and over again. I gave up the dancing club, I ceased to know the rowdy little boys, and I wrote melancholy poetry oftener, and felt better. The centre table became my study. I read much, and mooned between chapters, and wrote long letters to Miss Dillingham.
For some time I wrote to her almost daily. That was when I found in my heart such depths of woe as I could not pack into rhyme. And finally there came a day when I could utter my trouble in neither verse nor prose, and I implored Miss Dillingham to come to me and hear my sorrowful revelations.
But I did not want her to come to the house. In the house there was no privacy; I could not talk. Would she meet me on Boston Common at such and such a time?
Would she? She was a devoted friend, and a wise woman. She met me on Boston Common. It was a gray autumn day — was it not actually drizzling? — and I was cold, sitting on the bench; but I was thrilled through and through with the sense of the magnitude of my troubles, and of the romantic nature of the rendezvous.
Who that was even half awake when he was growing up does not know what all these symptoms betokened? Miss Dillingham understood, and she wisely gave me no inkling of her diagnosis. She let me talk and kept a grave face. She did not belittle my troubles,— I made specific charges against my home, members of my family, and life in general,— she did not say that I would get over them; that every growing girl suffers from the blues; that I was, in brief, a little goose stretching my wings for flight. She told me rather that it would be noble to bear my sorrows bravely, to soothe those who irritated me, to live each day with all my might. She reminded me of great men and women who have suffered, and who overcame their troubles by living and working. And she sent me home amazingly comforted, my pettiness and selfconsciousness routed by the quiet influence of her gray eyes searching mine.
This, or something like this, had to be repeated many times, as anybody will know who was present at the slow birth of his manhood. From now on, for some years, of course, I must weep and laugh out of season, stand on tiptoe to pluck the stars in heaven, love and hate immoderately, propound theories of the destiny of man, and not know what was going on in my own heart.
In the intervals of harkening to my growing pains I was, of course, still a little girl. As a little girl, in many ways immature for my age, I finished my course in the grammar school, and was graduated with honors, four years after my landing in Boston.
Wheeler Street recognizes five great events in a girl’s life, namely, christening, confirmation, graduation, marriage, and burial. These occasions all require full dress for the heroine, and full dress is forthcoming, no matter if the family goes into debt for it. There was not a girl who came to school in rags all the year round who did not burst forth in sudden glory on Graduation Day. Fine muslin frocks, lacetrimmed petticoats, patent-leather shoes, perishable hats, gloves, parasols, fans — every girl had them. A mother who had scrubbed floors for years to keep her girl in school was not going to have her shamed in the end for want of a pretty dress. So she cut off the children’s supply of butter, and worked nights, and borrowed, and fell into arrears with the rent; and on Graduation Day she felt magnificently rewarded, seeing her Mamie as fine as any girl in the school. And in order to preserve for posterity this triumphant spectacle, she took Mamie, after the exercises were at an end, to be photographed, with her diploma in one hand, a bouquet in the other, and the gloves, fan, parasol, and patent-leather shoes disposed in full sight around a fancy table. Truly, the follies of the poor are worth studying.
It did not strike me as folly, but as the fulfillment of the portent of my natal star, when I saw myself, on Graduation Day, arrayed like unto a princess. Frills, lace, patent-leather shoes — I had everything. I even had a sash with silk fringes.
Did I speak of folly? Listen, and I will tell you quite another tale. Perhaps when you have heard it you will not be too hasty to run and teach The Poor. Perhaps you will admit that The Poor may have something to teach you.
Before we had been two years in America, my sister Frieda was engaged to be married. This was under the old dispensation: Frieda came to America too late to avail herself of the gifts of an American girlhood. Had she been two years younger she might have dodged her circumstances, evaded her Old World fate. She would have gone to school, and imbibed American ideas. She might have clung to her girlhood longer, instead of marrying at seventeen. I am so fond of the American way, that it has always seemed to me a pitiful accident that my sister should have come so near, and missed by so little, the fulfillment of my country’s promise to women. A long girlhood, a free choice in marriage, and a brimful womanhood are the precious rights of an American woman.
My father was too recently from the Old World to be entirely free from the influence of its social traditions. He had put Frieda to work out of necessity. The necessity was hardly lifted when she had an offer of marriage, but my father would not stand in the way of what he considered her welfare. Let her escape from the workshop, if she had a chance, while the roses were still in her cheeks. If she remained for ten years more bent over the needle, what would she gain? Not even her personal comfort; for Frieda never called her earnings her own, but spent everything on the family, denying herself all but necessities. The young man who sued for her was a good workman, earning fair wages, of irreproachable character and refined manners. My father had known him for years.
So Frieda was to be released from the workshop. The act was really in the nature of a sacrifice on my father’s part, for he was still in the woods financially, and would sorely miss Frieda’s wages. The greater the pity, therefore, that there was no one to counsel him to give America more time with my sister. She attended the night school; she was fond of reading. In books, in a slowly ripening experience, she might have found a better answer to the riddle of a girl’s life than a premature marriage.
At the time, my sister’s engagement pleased me very well. Our confidences were not interrupted, and I understood that she was happy. I was very fond of Moses Rifkin myself. He was the nicest young man of my acquaintance, not at all like other workmen. He was very kind to us children, bringing us presents and taking us out for excursions. He had a sense of humor and he was going to marry our Frieda. How could I help being pleased?
The marriage was not to take place for some time, and in the interval Frieda remained in the shop. She continued to bring home all her wages. If she was going to desert the family, she would not let them feel it sooner than she must.
Then all of a sudden she turned spendthrift. She appropriated I do not know what fabulous sums, to spend as she pleased, for once. She attended bargain sales, and brought away such finery as had never graced our flat before. Home from work in the evening, after a hurried supper, she shut herself up in the parlor, and cut and snipped and measured and basted and stitched, as if there was nothing else in the world to do. It was early summer, and the air had a wooing touch, even on Wheeler Street. Moses Rifkin came, and I suppose that he also had a wooing touch. But Frieda only smiled and shook her head; and as her mouth was full of pins, it was physically impossible for Moses to argue. She remained all evening in a white disorder of tucked breadths, curled ruffles, dismembered sleeves, and swirls of fresh lace; her needle glancing in the lamplight, and poor Moses picking up her spools.
Her trousseau, was it not? No, not her trousseau. It was my graduation dress on which she was so intent. And when it was finished, and was pronounced a most beautiful dress, and she ought to have been satisfied, Frieda went to the shops once more and bought the sash with the silk fringe.
The improvidence of the poor is a most distressing spectacle to all rightminded students of sociology. But please spare me your homily this time. It does not apply. The poor are the poor in spirit. Those who are rich in spiritual endowment will never be found bankrupt.
Graduation Day was nothing less than a triumph for me. It was not only that I had two pieces to speak, one of them an original composition; it was more because I was known in my school district as the ‘smartest’ girl in the class, and all eyes were turned on the prodigy, and I was aware of it. I was aware of everything. That is why I am able to tell you everything now.
The assembly hall was crowded to bursting, but my friends had no trouble to find seats. They were ushered up to the platform, which was reserved for guests of honor. I was very proud to see my friends treated with such distinction. My parents were there, and Frieda, of course, and Miss Dillingham, and some others of my Chelsea teachers. A dozen or so of my humbler friends and acquaintances were scattered among the crowd on the floor.
When I stepped up on the stage to read my composition I was seized with stage fright. The floor under my feet and the air around were oppressively present to my senses, while my own hand I could not have located. I did not know where my body began or ended, I was so conscious of my gloves, my shoes, my flowing sash. My wonderful dress, in which I had taken so much satisfaction, gave me the most trouble. I was suddenly paralyzed by a conviction that it was too short, and it seemed to me that I was standing on absurdly long legs. And ten thousand people were looking up at me! It was horrible!
I suppose I no more than cleared my throat before I began to read, but to me it seemed that I stood petrified for an age, an awful silence booming in my ears. My voice, when at last I began, sounded far away. I thought that nobody could hear me. But I kept on, mechanically; for I had rehearsed many times. And as I read, I gradually forgot myself, forgot the place and the occasion. The people looking up at me heard the story of a beautiful little boy, my cousin, whom I had loved very dearly, and who died in far-distant Russia some years after I came to America. My composition was not a masterpiece; it was merely good for a girl of fifteen. But I had written that I still loved the little cousin, and I made a thousand strangers feel it. And before the applause there was a moment of stillness in the great hall.
After the singing and reading by the class, there were the customary addresses by distinguished guests. We girls were reminded that we were going to be women, and happiness was promised to those of us who would aim to be noble women. A great many trite and obvious things, a great deal of the rhetoric appropriate to the occasion, compliments, applause, general satisfaction — so went the programme. Much of the rhetoric, many of the fine sentiments did not penetrate to the thoughts of us for whom they were intended, because we were in such a flutter about our ruffles and ribbons, and could hardly refrain from openly prinking. But we applauded very heartily every speaker and every would-be speaker, understanding that by a consensus of opinion on the platform, we were very fine young ladies, and much was to be expected of us.
One of the last speakers was introduced as a member of the School Board. He began like all the rest of them, but he ended differently. Abandoning generalities, he went on to tell the story of a particular school-girl, a pupil in a Boston school, whose phenomenal career might serve as an illustration of what the American system of free education and the European immigrant could make of each other. He had not got very far when I realized, to my great surprise and no small delight, that he was telling my story. I saw my friends on the platform beaming behind the speaker, and I heard my name whispered in the audience. I had been so much of a celebrity, in a small local way, that identification of the speaker’s heroine was inevitable. My classmates, of course, guessed the name, and they turned to look at me, and nudged me, and all but pointed at me, their new muslins rustling and silk ribbons whispering.
One or two of those nearest me forgot etiquette so far as to whisper to me.
‘Mary Antin,’ they said, as the speaker sat down, amid a burst of enthusiastic applause, ‘Mary Antin, why don’t you get up and thank him?’
I was dazed with all that had happened. Bursting with pride I was, but I was moved, too, by nobler feelings. I realized, in a vague, far-off way, what it meant to my father and mother to be sitting there and seeing me held up as a paragon, my history made the theme of an eloquent discourse; what it meant to my father to see his ambitious hopes thus gloriously fulfilled, his judgment of me verified; what it meant to Frieda to hear me all but named with such honor. With all these things choking my heart to overflowing, my wits forsook me, if I had any at all that day. The audience was stirring and whispering so that I could hear, ‘Who is it?’ ‘Is that so?’ And again the girls prompted me: —
‘Mary Antin, get up. Get up and thank him, Mary.’
And I rose where I sat, and in a voice that sounded thin as a fly’s after the oratorical bass of the last speaker, I began,—
‘I want to thank you —5
That is as far as I got. Mr. Snow, the principal, waved his hand to silence me; and then, and only then, did I realize the enormity of what I had done.
My eulogist had had the good taste not to mention names, and I had been brazenly forward, deliberately calling attention to myself, when there was no need. Oh, it was sickening! I hated myself, I hated with all my heart all the girls who had prompted me to such immodest conduct. I wished the ground would yawn and snap me up. I was ashamed to look up at my friends on the platform. What was Miss Dillingham thinking of me? Oh, what a fool I had been! I had ruined my own triumph. I had disgraced myself, and my friends, and poor Mr. Snow, and the Winthrop School. The monster vanity had sucked out my wits, and left me a staring idiot.
It is easy to say that I was making a mountain out of a molehill, a catastrophe out of a mere breach of good manners. It is easy to say that. But I know that I suffered agonies of shame. After the exercises, when the crowd pressed in all directions in search of friends, I tried in vain to get out of the hall. I was mobbed, I was lionized. Everybody wanted to shake hands with the prodigy of the day, and they knew which it was. I had made sure of that; I had exhibited myself. The people smiled on me, flattered me, passed me on from one to another. I smirked back, but I did not know what I said. I was wild to be clear of the building. I thought everybody mocked me. My roses had turned to ashes, and all through my own brazen conduct.
I would have given my diploma to have Miss Dillingham know how the thing had happened, but I could not bring myself to speak first. If she would ask me — But nobody asked. Nobody looked away from me. Everybody congratulated me, and my father, and mother, and my remotest relations. But still the sting of shame smarted; I could not be consoled. I had made a fool of myself; Mr. Snow had publicly put me down.
Ah, so that was it! Vanity was the vital spot again. It was wounded vanity that writhed and squirmed. It was not because I had been bold, but because I had been pronounced bold, that I suffered so monstrously. If Mr. Snow, with an eloquent gesture, had not silenced me, I might have made my little speech — good heavens! what did I mean to say? — and probably called it another feather in my bonnet. But he had stopped me promptly, disgusted with my forwardness, and he had shown before all those hundreds what he thought of me. Therein lay the sting.
With all my talent for self-analysis, it took me a long time to realize the essential pettiness of my trouble. For years — actually for years — after that eventful day of mingled triumph and disgrace, I could not think of the unhappy incident without inward squirming. I remember distinctly how the little scene would suddenly flash upon me at night, as I lay awake in bed, and I would turn over impatiently, as if to shake off a nightmare; and this so long after the occurrence that I was myself amazed at the persistence of the nightmare. I had never been reproached by any one for my conduct on Graduation Day. Why could I not forgive myself? I studied the matter deeply — it wearies me to remember how deeply — till at last I understood that it was wounded vanity that hurt so, and no nobler remorse. Then, and only then, was the ghost laid. If it ever tried to get up again, after that, I only had to call it names to see it scurry back to its grave and pull the sod down after it.