The Promised Land is an exceptional book in many respects.
Mary Antin was a distinguished writer in her time, and her account of the immigrant experience is unique on several levels.
The first half of the book deals with her childhood in Russia, before emigrating. The second half describes her experience assimilating into American life, and her struggles with religion and daily interactions.
One thing obvious to me was the fact that Antin seems to project two faces. One face emanates the face of her cultural background resulting from her upbringing in Russia. The other face is her face that she projects within her new environment in America, as she tries to settle in and not be defined as a “greenhorn”.
Although Antin seems to be a bit self-centered at times, I still feel that the book is an excellent resource into the immigrant experience. She is cognitive of her appearance, her attitude and her ability to show two sides of herself. That does not diminish the fact that she continues to interact in that manner. It is her way of assimilating into her external surroundings, and her way of retaining some of her cultural heritage at home.
Antin’s descriptions are filled with clarity, and considering the era in which the book was written, I found it to be an excellent example of an immigrant trying to find her way in a new land, a new cultural environment and world.
She was a fast learner, and she endeavored to be seen as an American in every facet. She shed her Russian background as quickly as possible, shed her accent as best she could, and succeeded in displaying herself naturally fitting into her new environment.
Her public education was her starting point, and from there she became involved in social causes. She rallied for the allies, she rallied for immigration rights, other causes, and her voice was a beacon for the immigrant.
The Promised Land was a successful book for its time, and Antin revealed how a young girl managed to survive and respond to the new life presented her, and to the cultural situations she faced.
Some may find the book uninteresting, and find it to be lacking or boring. I read it with the knowledge it was written in 1912, and kept that perspective throughout the book. I found it to be an autobiography written by a woman who realizes she is self-centered, and admits it within the pages. Yet, in my opinion, within the pages is a story that is fascinating regarding the immigrant experience. Therein lies the uniqueness. Her self-absorption conveys her efforts and the trials incurred while trying to assimilate into American culture.
Mary Antin was lauded for her writing, in her own life time.
I recommend The Promised Land for its important historical and cultural content.