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Modernist Pedagogy: Educational Experiments in Immigrant Fiction; or Making Jewish Immigrants American in the Progressive Era


By analyzing scenes of instruction and the instructive literary techniques of Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, I introduce a new connection between ethnic modernism and immigrant education in the Progressive era. I assert this connection by establishing what I call modernist pedagogy—the instructional component these novels share at the level of narrative, style, and reading practice. Thematically and formally, these three novels educate scholars and lay readers about immigrant experiences, and my analysis of education in these novels crosses public (Metropolitan museum, university, city streets, immigrant night school) and private (Hebrew school or heder, governesses in the family home) spheres. I demonstrate how Jewish immigrant modernist Bildungsromanen—constructed through formal experiments with English, Yiddish, and Hebrew as well as thematic experiments with immigrant education—enrich our understanding of assimilative discursive formations that shaped education and reform in the Progressive era.

In addition to examining the pedagogical themes and practices these novels engage, I consider how these works and the meta-discourse of their creators exemplify generational modernism—the synthesis of formal experimentation and the older literary theme of family history. All three modernists purported to take immigrant experiences—their own fictionalized stories as Jewish émigrés or the stories of their ancestors—and represent those experiences with new forms. My interlocking analytical frameworks of generational modernism and modernist pedagogy connect literature known for its experimental aesthetics to representations of immigrant experiences that engage readers in unfamiliar reading experiences that inspire readers to question the certainty of what makes them American—and how they learned to be that way. Thus, Modernist Pedagogy provides a framework to examine imaginative experimentation as a proxy for societal restraints on immigrant education; explores the construction of American identities; and invites interdisciplinary scholarship that bridges literary studies, Judaic studies, immigration studies, pedagogical practice, educational theory, and American cultural history.

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