In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mary Antin

  • Introduction
  • General and Biographical Overviews
  • Correspondence
  • Contemporary Reviews of The Promised Land

American Literature Mary Antin
Maria Karafilis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0023


Mary Antin (b. 1881–d. 1949) was born in Polotzk, Russia. Her autobiographical narrative, The Promised Land, recollects a childhood initially filled with domestic comforts, servants, tutors, and indulgence that soon gave way to illness, financial ruin, anti-Semitic violence, and pogroms. This shift prompted the Antin family to join the wave of immigration from eastern and southern Europe to the United States of America at the turn of the century. Upon their arrival in Boston in 1894, the younger Antin children enrolled in public school, which was an experience that Antin depicts as more solemn and venerable than any religious ritual. Antin excelled academically; her success became a source of pride both for herself and her larger community. That success, coupled with the influence of her friends, secured her a place in the prestigious Boston Latin Grammar School for Girls, and she planned on getting a university education. Part of Antin’s education involved joining the Natural History Club at Hale House, where she met geologist Amadeus Grabau. Antin and Grabau, a German Protestant, fell in love quickly, married in 1901, and moved to New York City. Antin’s marriage surprised many of her supporters, who were concerned that her marriage would distract her from her educational pursuits. Antin’s correspondence and writing indicate that the first decade of her marriage was a happy one and that her literary and lecture careers flourished. Between 1899 and 1914 Antin published four books and numerous essays and short fiction works. She also lectured on such topics as education, immigration, and citizenship as she explored her imbricated identities as a woman, a Jew, and an American. At the outbreak of the First World War, however, Antin’s marriage fractured, mainly due to her support of the Allied cause and her husband’s sympathy with Germany. Antin’s disintegrating marriage took a heavy toll on her. Diagnosed with neurasthenia, Antin suffered a breakdown from which she never fully recovered. She wrote and lectured only sporadically after 1916, becoming a patient of several psychiatric centers and sanitariums. Antin continued her correspondence and published occasional pieces in the last decades of her life. Her fortunes declined deeply and what is remembered of her usually stems from The Promised Land, the narrative she penned when she was not yet thirty and that makes no mention of much of her personal life (including nothing on her relationship with Grabau or the birth of their daughter). Antin died at a New York nursing home in 1949 from cancer.

General and Biographical Overviews

No extended biography of Mary Antin or book-length study of her work exists; the following texts offer concise overviews. Bergland 2000 offers perhaps the best orientation to Antin’s life and works and is an excellent place to start. Handlin 1971 and Nadell 1997 offer concise entries on Antin’s life and works. Sollors 2002 is a simpler version of his introduction to The Promised Land and also provides a good starting point.

  • Bergland, Betty. “Antin, Mary.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. American Women Prose Writers, 1870–1920. Vol. 221. Edited by Sharon M. Harris, 8–18. New York: Gale, 2000.

    Along with the Sollors’s essay in this section, this is the best place to start for a concise introduction to Antin’s life and work. This piece is especially useful because of its discussion of works besides The Promised Land.

  • Handlin, Oscar. “Antin, Mary.” In Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, 57–59. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

    A basic overview of Antin’s biography.

  • Nadell, Pamela S. “Antin, Mary.” In Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Edited by Paula E. Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore, 55–57. New York: Routledge, 1997.

    A basic overview of Antin’s biography and works.

  • Sollors, Werner. “Mary Antin: Progressive Optimism against Odds.” In Ethnic Modernism. By Werner Sollors, 65–77. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    This is an excellent overview; although it focuses primarily on The Promised Land, the chapter does mention other works as well.

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