Object of the Month

“In the Sight of a World That Knows Them but Little”: A Letter from Mary Antin to Ellery Sedgwick

Letter from Mary Antin to Ellery Sedgwick, 1 June 1911 Manuscript

Letter from Mary Antin to Ellery Sedgwick, 1 June 1911


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    This letter, written by Mary Antin to Ellery Sedgwick on 1 June 1911, is the first of several between the two correspondents in the Ellery Sedgwick papers. Antin’s letter is in response to suggested edits and critiques of her short story, “Malinke’s Atonement.” As the editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, Sedgwick published several pieces of Antin’s in the magazine, including installments of her autobiography, The Promised Land.

    Mary Antin (1881-1949)

    Maryashe Antin was born on 13 June 1881 to Israel Pinchus and Esther (Weltman) Antin in Polotsk in the Russian Pale of Settlement, in what is now Belarus. In 1891, Israel Antin immigrated to the United States, settling in the West End neighborhood of Boston. Although he struggled to earn a living during this time, he saved enough to allow the family to join him in 1894.

    Once in Boston, Mary Antin and her siblings started school. Her father saw education as a tool that would allow his children to prosper in their new country, as Antin writes in The Promised Land:

    His children should be students, should fill his house with books and intellectual company; and thus he would walk by proxy in the Elysian Fields of liberal learning. As for the children themselves, he knew no surer way to their advancement and happiness.

    Antin proved herself an adept student and talented writer. She moved up four grades in six months and had a poem “Snow” published at the age of 13. By 1899, Antin was hailed as “Boston’s Latest Literary Prodigy” in the Boston Sunday Post for her first publication From Plotzk to Boston (the publisher misspelled the name of Antin’s hometown), in which she translated letters written to an uncle in Polotsk from Yiddish to English. Her 1901 marriage to geologist Amadeus William Grabau (1870-1946), as well as her college experiences at Columbia Teacher’s College (1901-1902) and Barnard College (1902-1904), introduced her to a wider circle of friends and supporters of her work.

    A champion of immigrants

    Antin’s experience was not a common one. She used her voice and influence, both in her writings and on the speakers’ circuit, to champion immigrants. In 1914, her third book, They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration, was published. Written at a time of rising xenophobia, Antin advocates for progressive immigration within the context of American democratic ideals. This xenophobia was also present in Antin’s Boston. As the city changed with the addition of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, Jonathan Sarna and Ellen Smith write in The Jews of Boston, “The optimistic Yankee humanitarian belief in the power of education and democracy to affect immigrant uplift gave way to a devouring fear: some members of old-line families came to believe their race, their country, and their whole way of life was imperiled.”

    But “the power of education and democracy” was embedded in Mary Antin’s ethos, and she believed in these institutions deeply. The opportunity that greeted her in Boston and America was the antithesis of the draconian Russian rule and antisemitism her family and millions of other Jews fled during this time, and she wanted others to share in the same. She frequently spoke to groups about her experience and the importance of civics and democracy and campaigned against proposed anti-immigration legislation before Congress. Attitudes towards immigration continued to move away from Antin’s own, however. In 1917, a literacy test for immigrants was passed by Congress, followed by the restrictive immigration acts of 1921 and 1924.

    The letter

    Although Antin wrote about her own experience in a largely positive way, this letter identifies some of the concerns and challenges she faced in writing about the cultural and religious lives of Eastern European Jews for a broad American public. It is unknown whether Sedgwick, from an upper-class family with deep New England roots, was familiar with this history, but he was familiar with his readers. In her letter to Sedgwick, Antin acknowledges this disconnect:

    Your praise, I must confess, flatters me; some of it surprises me. I can never know just what my Malinke or my Rösele looks like in your eyes, no matter how fully you express yourself; but what you and others have said does give me some idea of the figures my poor Jewish people make when standing detached from their overwhelming history, in the sight of a world that knows them but little. Malinke, to me, is Malinke with a thousand years of Jewish sorrows behind her, and a thousand years of empty hope. It is when I hear from my critics that I realize how little has been recorded of those centuries upon centuries. I must by all means bear in mind the fact that not all things are in the reader’s mind which are in the author’s.

    “Malinke’s Atonement” is a story of a poor young girl in Polotsk who questions Jewish law and finds her faith tested—but is rewarded for her test of faith by receiving an education with the Rabbi. It is a story about a very different way of life, one which Antin once knew but had long since left behind. That Antin has a deep sense of responsibility towards these Jewish characters—and the real people they are surrogates of—is clear in this passage. While we know from this letter Sedgwick suggested shortening the story, it is not until his response that we know he also suggested eliminating Russian terms (it is notable, however, that the Yiddish word tref, which means “not kosher,” was kept in the story). The continuing correspondence between the two highlights their mutual respect for each other’s work; from Sedgwick’s autobiography, we know he felt Antin “brought to The Atlantic abundant life from a new quarter.”

    Later years

    During World War I, Antin struggled with her husband’s pro-German loyalties while she rallied for the Allied cause. The difficulties in their marriage caused serious health issues for Antin, and she retired from public life. In 1919, Grabau left the United States for China, where he taught geology at Peking University. Antin left New York for Massachusetts, where she split her time between Boston, Winchester, and Gould Farm, a residential therapeutic community in Great Barrington. She died on 15 May 1949 in Suffern, New York.


    By Stephanie Call, Curator of Manuscripts

    Jewish history collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society

    For further reading

    Antin, Mary. From Plotzk to Boston Boston: W.B. Clarke & Co., Park Street Church, 1899.

    ----. “Malinke’s Atonement,” Atlantic Monthly, September 1911, p. 300-319.

    ----. The Promised Land Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912.

    ----. They Who Knock at our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914.

    “Boston’s Latest Prodigy,” Boston Sunday Post, 12 February 1899, p. 13. Available online through NewspaperArchive (an online database); Boston Public Library card holders may access through the BPL's Newspapers web page.

    McGinity, Keren R. “The Real Mary Antin: Woman on a Mission in the Promised Land,American Jewish History, vol. 86, no. 3 (1998), p. 285–307.

    Nadell, Pamela S. "Mary Antin," The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, Jewish Women’s Archive, 23 June 2021. (Viewed on April 22, 2024)

    Sarna, Jonathan, Ellen Smith, and Scott-Martin Kosofsky, eds. The Jews of Boston, 2nd ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005.

    Sedgwick, Ellery. The Happy Profession Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1926.