All I Could Nev­er Be

Anzia Yezier­s­ka

  • Review
By – June 1, 2021

The end I seek is hon­est. I only want to live,” Fanya Ivanowa thinks to her­self mid­way through All I Could Nev­er Be, Anzia Yezierska’s 1932 nov­el. Yezierska’s own back­ground is just as pur­pose­ful as her deter­mined protagonist’s; indeed, this nov­el includes many auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal details. After arriv­ing in Amer­i­ca in 1893, Yezier­s­ka grew up on the Low­er East Side and spent her career writ­ing about the lives of female Jew­ish immi­grants. She reject­ed a lucra­tive deal writ­ing screen­plays to con­tin­ue pub­lish­ing nov­els, sto­ries, and essays that dig­ni­fied immi­grant identity.

Fanya, a young Pol­ish immi­grant, is an astute observ­er of the world around her; her dream is to write. When the phil­an­thropic intel­lec­tu­al Hen­ry Scott takes a per­son­al — and roman­tic — inter­est in Fanya, rec­om­mend­ing her for the job of trans­la­tor for an aca­d­e­m­ic project, Fanya is smit­ten. Their love affair is com­pli­cat­ed; Fanya, whose iden­ti­ty is strong­ly tied to her expe­ri­ence liv­ing in New York’s immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty, per­ceives Scott’s keen inter­est in her as com­pas­sion, but to a mod­ern read­er it looks a lot like fetishiza­tion. After it becomes clear that the affair can’t last, Fanya spends most of the next decade devel­op­ing an accom­plished career as a writer, although every suc­cess is over­shad­owed by Scott’s absence from her life.

Fanya and Scott’s affair is intrigu­ing and refresh­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly because it comes with­out a hint of guilt on Fanya’s part for her inter­faith romance. The char­ac­ters con­nect on an intel­lec­tu­al lev­el, flirt­ing over mailed poems and debates about moral jus­tice. Even­tu­al­ly, though, read­ing about their romance grew drain­ing. Fanya’s unique char­ac­ter might have been bet­ter served had Yezier­s­ka includ­ed more of Fanya’s inter­ac­tions with her fel­low cit­i­zens. In an attempt to escape the mem­o­ry of Scott, for exam­ple, she takes a job at a din­er where she hopes to union­ize her fel­low wait­ress­es. The scenes of Fanya and her cowork­ers argu­ing, over aban­doned din­ner plates, about how to best deal with a dead­beat boss, are mem­o­rable and compelling.

The most intrigu­ing char­ac­ter in the book is Hele­na Hoff­man, a librar­i­an friend and men­tor of Fanya’s. Hele­na occu­pies a space that is inac­ces­si­ble to Fanya: an old­er, sin­gle woman, atten­tive to both Jew­ish tra­di­tion and art, two ideas that Fanya seems to feel are incom­pat­i­ble. (Toward the end of the book, Fanya vis­its Hele­na on Yom Kip­pur, and notes the Rodin fig­ure on Helena’s desk.)

In the end, Fanya aban­dons New York City for a small New Eng­land vil­lage. The scenes in which she strug­gles to deter­mine her role in the unfa­mil­iar town (whose inhab­i­tants have dis­ap­point­ing­ly famil­iar bias­es) are intrigu­ing. Fanya feels dis­tant from her neigh­bors — not because she is Jew­ish, as one might expect, but because of their dis­dain for the poor. The strength of Fanya’s char­ac­ter, espe­cial­ly giv­en the time peri­od, is remark­able. Her gen­der nev­er pre­vents her from speak­ing up against injustice.The read­er can imag­ine that Fanya, like Yezier­s­ka, will con­tin­ue seek­ing hon­est ends through extra­or­di­nary means.

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