The work of Anzia Yezierska presents a challenge to early-twentieth-century models of personhood, citizenship, and reading based on common assumptions regarding the nature of sympathy. Yezierska's deployment of what Mikkelsen terms “aesthetic empathy” draws on an emergent discourse about empathy that defined this concept quite differently from current usages. Rather than designating an interpersonal dynamic, this discourse considered empathy as a relation among bodies, objects, and desire within capitalism. Yezierska's fashion-conscious characters reveal a United States constituted by economically, socially, and culturally mobile, not to mention aesthetically pleasing, bodies. Both Jewish and American, these bodies serve as touchpoints for their own desiring gazes, positing a model of assimilative empathy for “native” and immigrant alike in which “looks” refer to both an act and its object, the agent blurred with the process of her continual self-invention as a hybrid of multiple cultures.
Meditating on relations between subject and object, viewer and vision, consumer and commodity, Yezierska makes plain the role of citizen as consumer. Her work crystallizes the dominance of technologies that infused the public sphere with art and beautiful images of human forms, leading the modern spectator to see others as potential reflections of herself. Mikkelsen's examination begins with a reading of the short story “Wings”; continues with a discussion of Jewish American involvement with the garment industry and high fashion as imagined in Salome of the Tenements (1922); and concludes with early theorizations of aesthetic empathy's role in motion pictures such as Hungry Hearts (1922), the film made of Yezierska's short stories.