“Oy Weh!” cry the operatic striving women in Anzia Yezierska’s short stories of Lower East Side life. Coping with scholarly dependents and chiseling landlords, chafed by the class system, ravenous for learning and desperate for beauty, Anzia Yezierska’s protagonists have emotions they express in great, big, attention-getting gestures. Her matrons wail their woes in butcher shops and literally rip the wallpaper off the walls; their daughters, though, may burst the bonds of the ghetto to claw their way uptown where a girl can gorge herself on books and cafeteria coffee and take a lover, too. Louis B. Mayer was so taken by Yezierska’s stories he brought her to Hollywood: The film adapted from Hungry Hearts is about as loud as silent cinema gets.
Elisa New is the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard.