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An extraordinary popular success when it was first published in 1912, The Promised Land is a classic account of the Jewish American immigrant experience. Mary Antin emigrated with her family from the
Eastern European town of Polotzk to Boston in 1894, when she was twelve years old. Preternaturally inquisitive, Antin was a provocative observer of the identity-altering contrasts between Old World and
New. Her narrative — of universal appeal and rich in its depictions of both worlds — captures a large-scale sociocultural landscape and paints a profound self-portrait of an iconoclast seeking to reconcile her
heritage with her newfound identity as an American citizen.
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Jules Chametzky is Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is an editor and founder of The Massachusetts Review and author of "From the Ghetto: the Fiction of Abraham Cahan and Our Decentralized Literature." He recently edited "The Rise of David Levinsky" and was co-editor of "Jewish American Literature: a Norton Anthology." He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Mary Antin was born in June of 1881 in Polotzk, White Russia (what is now Belarus). She emigrated from Polotzk to Boston with her family in 1894, when she was thirteen. Her first book, describing her voyage from Russia to the United States, was published in 1899. "The Promised Land" was a bestseller when it was first published in 1912.
CHAPTER I Within the Pale
When I was a little girl, the world was divided into two parts; namely, Polotzk, the place where I lived, and a strange land called Russia. All the little girls I knew lived in Polotzk, with their fathers and mothers and friends. Russia was the place where one’s father went on business. It was so far off, and so many bad things happened there, that one’s mother and grandmother and grown-up aunts cried at the railroad station, and one was expected to be sad and quiet for the rest of the day, when the father departed for Russia.
After a while there came to my knowledge the existence of another division, a region intermediate between Polotzk and Russia. It seemed there was a place called Vitebsk, and one called Vilna, and Riga, and some others. From those places came photographs of uncles and cousins one had never seen, and letters, and sometimes the uncles themselves. These uncles were just like people in Polotzk; the people in Russia, one understood, were very different. In answer to one’s questions, the visiting uncles said all sorts of silly things, to make everybody laugh; and so one never found out why Vitebsk and Vilna, since they were not Polotzk, were not as sad as Russia. Mother hardly cried at all when the uncles went away.
One time, when I was about eight years old, one of my grown-up cousins went to Vitebsk. Everybody went to see her off, but I didn’t. I went with her. I was put on the train, with my best dress tied up in a bandana, and I stayed on the train for hours and hours, and came to Vitebsk. I could not tell, as we rushed along, where the end of Polotzk was. There were a great many places on the way, with strange names, but it was very plain when we got to Vitebsk.
The railroad station was a big place, much bigger than the one in Polotzk. Several trains came in at once, instead of only one. There was an immense buffet, with fruits and confections, and a place where books were sold. My cousin never let go my hand, on account of the crowd. Then we rode in a cab for ever so long, and I saw the most beautiful streets and shops and houses, much bigger and finer than any in Polotzk.
We remained in Vitebsk several days, and I saw many wonderful things, but what gave me my one great surprise was something that wasn’t new at all. It was the river—the river Dvina. Now the Dvina is in Polotzk. All my life I had seen the Dvina. How, then, could the Dvina be in Vitebsk? My cousin and I had come on the train, but everybody knew that a train could go everywhere, even to Russia. It became clear to me that the Dvina went on and on, like a railroad track, whereas I had always supposed that it stopped where Polotzk stopped. I had never seen the end of Polotzk; I meant to, when I was bigger. But how could there be an end to Polotzk now? Polotzk was everything on both sides of the Dvina, as all my life I had known; and the Dvina, it now turned out, never broke off at all. It was very curious that the Dvina should remain the same, while Polotzk changed into Vitebsk!
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