Lil­lian Wald: A Biography

Mar­jorie N. Feld

  • Review
By – January 3, 2012

Although sub­ti­tled a biog­ra­phy, Feld’s real mis­sion is to parse com­pet­ing claims on Lil­lian Wald’s iden­ti­ty as a Jew­ish female reformer in the Pro­gres­sive era. Instead of offer­ing a com­pre­hen­sive study of Wald’s life, Feld focus­es on the rela­tion­ships and issues that illu­mi­nate what she iden­ti­fies as the key strug­gle of Wald’s career — bal­anc­ing the uni­ver­sal­ist phi­los­o­phy of the Pro­gres­sives against the more par­tic­u­lar­ist, Jew­ish inter­ests of her phil­an­thropic back­ers. Her dis­cus­sion of Wald’s younger years, for exam­ple, explores the assim­i­la­tion­ist bent of her Rochester, NY, Jew­ish roots and the lat­er attrac­tion of Protes­tant social gospel’ when she moved to Man­hat­tan. Wald’s con­nec­tions with phil­an­thropist Jacob Schiff and British Labour leader Ram­say Mac- Don­ald are high­light­ed, while her rela­tions with oth­er women, sex­u­al or oth­er­wise, are bare­ly men­tioned in pass­ing, pre­sum­ably because they do not speak to Feld’s uni­ver­sal­ist- par­tic­u­lar­ist the­sis. While Feld’s vision of Wald as the quin­tes­sen­tial eth­nic Pro­gres­sive’ explains some of her odd­er posi­tions, like her sup­port of Stal­in and her oppo­si­tion to Zion­ism, a fuller look at Wald’s world would have giv­en read­ers a bet­ter sense of who this woman was. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes, photographs.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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