Mary Antin
Mary Antin. Photo by Wikimedia
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June 13, 1881, is the birthdate of Mary Antin, the Jewish girl who began writing about the immigrant experience almost as soon as she disembarked from the boat from Russia. Her 1912 memoir “The Promised Land” explained to the citizens of her new home why the “American dream” was drawing so many to their country.

Maryashe Antin was born in Polotsk, in what is today Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. Her father, Israel Pinchas Antin, emigrated to the United States in 1891, and was joined by his wife, the former Esther Weltman, and their children in Boston, three years later.

Israel had bad luck in running a small store, but he was successful in seeing to it that his children attained a good education. In the case of his second child, Mary, a mere four months after she started school in America, a teacher arranged for an essay of hers, “Snow,” to be published in an education journal. Though she started primary school at an advanced age, she sailed through in a mere four years. She later attended the Girls Latin School (today Boston Latin).

In 1899, Antin had her first book, “From Plotzk [sic] to Boston,” which she had written in Yiddish five years earlier, published in translation, thanks to Philip Cowen, the editor of the weekly magazine, the American Hebrew.

It was on a high school field trip that she met and fell in love with the young geologist Amadeus William Grabau (1870-1946), the son and grandson of Lutheran ministers. The two married in 1901, and moved to New York, where he began a teaching job at Columbia University, Mary attended Columbia Teachers College and Barnard College between 1901 and 1904. She didn’t graduate however, because she became pregnant, giving birth to Josephine Esther Grabau.

In 1911, the Atlantic Monthly published Antin’s story “Malinke’s Atonement,” and a year later, began publishing “The Promised Land,” in installments. In it, she held up herself as an example of the opportunities offered by America to immigrants who were willing to adopt the ethos of the young country.

“I thought it [a] miracle,” Antin wrote, “that I, Mashke, the granddaughter of Raphael the Russian, born to a humble destiny, should be at home in an American metropolis, be free to fashion my own life, and should dream my dreams in English phrases.” 

As a book, “The Promised Land” was a best-seller, selling some 85,000 copies. Antin traveled around the country lecturing on her experience, but also became a spokeswoman for Theodor Roosevelt, when he ran for reelection to the presidency on the Progressive ticket, in 1912.

Antin and Grabau split over U.S. participation in World War I. He was a great supporter of Germany, and was forced to leave Columbia University for it; she had become an American patriot. Grabau moved to China, where he died in 1946, after being interned in a Japanese camp during World War II.

Antin wrote less in her last two decades, especially as her health began to fail her. She worked as a hospital social worker, and also became seriously involved in Rudolph Steiner’s Theosophical movement.

Mary Antin died of cancer on May 15, 1949, in Suffern, New York, where she lived in her final years with her sisters. She was 67.

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