Representation of Immigrants in Literature
Representation of Immigrants in Literature
Manner in which immigrants were portrayed as simplistic stereotypes or oppressed minorities in fiction, drama, and poetry of the nineteenth century.
The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century brought millions of immigrant laborers to America in a short span of time. This large influx of laborers created a sharp distinction between “settlers” and “immigrants,” causing many observers to be concerned with how these new arrivals would fit in to American society. The ideal of the melting pot was confronted by vast hordes of unskilled, uneducated refugees from unfamiliar places, and both established Americans and newcomers were uncertain about the desirability—much less the possibility—of assimilation.
Immigration increased dramatically around 1845, and between 1870 and 1900, approximately 12 million immigrants came to the United States. In the early decades of this influx, the majority of immigrants were Irish, German, and English. Over time groups came from Eastern Europe, including Russia and Poland, and from southern Europe, especially Italy. Each group brought with them foreign accents and manners that often threatened so-called “native” Americans (not American Indians, who were generally grouped with immigrants as ethnic “others”). One of the most popular ways for Americans to deal with their fears was through humor, in stage shows or other forms of entertainment that relied on ethnic stereotypes for laughs. Jews were lampooned for their perceived love of money and unusual dress, Italians were portrayed as lazy but sociable, the French as oversexed, and the English as foppish. The indolent, drunken, hot-tempered Irishman, however, was one of the most consistent character types, appearing as early as the 1850s and remaining a theatrical and literary staple well into the twentieth century. Ethnic humor, while appealing to the audience's desire to distinguish themselves from the foreign eccentricities of the immigrant, also made immigrants seem harmless in some respects, which some critics suggest was a positive result of such portrayals. For example, theatre scholar James H. Dormon has argued that “popular acceptance of the benign stereotype made it easier for the newcomers (or at least for their children) to be come ‘Americanized’ by undermining the potential for active resistance to their acceptance.”
As the immigration era continued, dovetailing with the Progressive Era at the close of the nineteenth century, sympathy for the plight of poor immigrants flourished in some circles, reflected in serious fiction detailing the squalor in which many immigrants were forced to live. Writers often reveal the ambivalence of established American society: the cycle of poverty entrapping many immigrants reflected poorly on the national image as the land of opportunity, yet even the most sympathetic of reformers were not always certain that full incorporation of the immigrants into society was a goal to be pursued. Well-meaning activists promoted “Americanization,” while Old World immigrants ridiculed those who abandoned their own culture for what they saw as the materialism and hedonism of American society. Both the journalism and the fiction of the era often depicted immigrants and long-term Americans working through this dilemma, sometimes in sentimental “tenement tales,” at other times in Progressive activist rhetoric.
For many, the crux of the “immigrant problem” was not national identity, but economics. Immigrants primarily came to America for work; their presence influenced the productivity of American industry, the formation of unions, and the employment of American-born workers. Often, immigrants were considered simply too lazy to be productive or to rise beyond the level of the unskilled worker, and their impoverishment seemed to be proof of their incompetence by the standards of America's work ethic. Walden author Henry David Thoreau echoed the sentiments of many Americans when he called the Irish laborers of the mid-century “shiftless” and hopelessly mired in their “boggy ways.” Yet, as Thoreau also feared, cheap labor from groups like the Irish made possible an explosion of industrialization, driving the American tendency toward excess and commercialism. Thus in the Northeast, immigrants were cast in the dual roles of boon to capitalist progress and thieves of American vitality. In California, the roles were much the same but racial issues heightened the tension: Chinese “coolies” brought to work on the transcontinental railroad and other projects were far more alien than the Europeans in New York and New England. Even literature sympathetic to the plight of exploited Chinese laborers raised the threat of miscegenation, innocent white girls seduced by men who were nearly of another species. Some writers, however, thought that Chinese workers could be the stepping stone for white workers, allowing them to move up into higher positions while the Chinese did the drudge work. As the Chinese migrated east after the completion of the railroad, several essayists proposed them as the “industrial reserve army” described by Karl Marx, meeting the needs of capital by enabling expansion and breaking union strikes.
The dynamics of immigration in England were quite different from those in America. England was not, as America was, in the process of establishing its identity as a new nation during the nineteenth century, nor was immigration a particularly new phenomenon. As the seat of the British Empire, England dealt with quite different tensions: British imperialism throughout the nineteenth century dominated large parts of the globe under the aegis of the “white man's burden.” Considering themselves to be racial superiors, the British felt obliged to rule over the lesser races, including Indians, Africans, Chinese, and their long-time colonists the Irish. The pseudo-science of physiognomy promoted this notion and allowed British scientists to group the Irish racially with Negroes, whose skulls were supposedly more apelike, a classification adopted by caricaturists, stage-players, and authors in Victorian England. Physiognomy was also a weapon turned against Jews, as the illustrations of Dickens's Fagin in Oliver Twist demonstrate. Generally speaking, however, Jews as a group fared better in England, and were able to advance their financial status in a way that eluded many Irish immigrants. The Jews and the Irish were among the older ethnic groups in England. The many revolutions in Europe during the nineteenth century also brought a wave of political refugees. Many were attracted by the relative stability of Victorian England, and England was relatively accepting. Among the groups seeking asylum in the nineteenth century were the French, German, Italian, Polish, and Russian, some of whom returned home, while others, particularly the Russians, were forced to stay for the sake of self-preservation. Political refugees were sometimes romanticized as adventurers, other times feared as the bearers of radical philosophies, but in either case they were the foreign Other, outside the firm boundaries of English identity.
Charles Follen Adams
Leedle Yawcob Strauss and Other Poems (poetry) 1878
Lucia True Ames
Memoirs of a Millionaire (novel) 1889
The Poor of New York (play) 1857
The Irish Emigrant (play) ca. 1857
The Irish Yankee; or the Birth-day of Freedom (play) ca. 1855-60
Yekl. A Tale of the New York Ghetto. (novel) 1896
Rebecca Harding Davis
Life in the Iron Mills (novel) 1861
The Emigrant Train, or Go West (play) 1879
Henry Blake Fuller
The Cliff-Dwellers. A Novel. (novel) 1893
With the Procession. A Novel. (novel) 1895
Comrades (novel) 1896
The Chinese Must Go (play) 1879
Charles H. Harris
Der Leedle Vanderer (satire) 1871
Carl Pretzel's Komikal Speaker (satire) 1873
*Harte's Complete Works (poetry, short stories) 1929
The American Scene (novel) 1907
King Lager, or Ye Sons of Malt (play) 1857
How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (nonfiction) 1890
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SOURCE: Wittke, Carl. “The Immigrant Theme on the American Stage.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 39, no. 2 (September 1952): 211-32.
[In the following essay, Wittke classifies the representation of immigrants in American theatre in the last half of the nineteenth century, including Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish Americans.]
The contact of successive immigrant waves with a New World environment is one of the central themes of American history, for the United States represents the experience of many peoples from many lands, speaking many tongues, in a republic with political unity and cultural diversity, and where there are other tests for a patriot than a man's accent, birthplace, or the color of his skin.
One of the still largely unexplored phases of the history of American immigration is the characterization of the immigrant for purposes of comic relief and dramatic entertainment on the American stage, and the emergence of certain immigrant stereotypes which still affect the thinking of many Americans about their fellow countrymen from other lands. Americans have not only been concerned about immigrants, but amused by their deviations from the standard American pattern. By 1850, when the American melting pot boiled over for the first time from the immigrant tide from Europe, the American stage began to exploit the peculiar and the ludicrous in the lives of the...
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Criticism: Immigrants In America
SOURCE: Harap, Louis. “American Journeys of the Wandering Jew.” In The Image of the Jew in American Literature: From Early Republic to Mass Immigration, pp. 239-55. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974.
[In the following essay, Harap traces the origins of the concept of the “wandering Jew” from Biblical interpretations to the mid-century novel by Eugène Sue, Wandering Jew, and American versions of the legend.]
In retrospect there is a certain inevitability to the legend of the Wandering Jew. Did not the Christian world believe for centuries—as many still do—that, in Longfellow's words, “the Jews, the tribe accursed, / Mocked him, scourged him, crucified him”?1 And for this did not the Jews deserve to suffer, at least until Christ returned in the Second Coming? And while awaiting his return and in penance for their sin, should not the Jews wander endlessly in dispersion?
In actuality, however, it was not until in the early eighteenth century that the Wandering Jew as a symbol of the Jewish people first received articulation. It is Johann Jacob Schudt, in his Judische Merkwurdigkeiten (1714-18), who advances this idea as the only cogent manner of interpreting the legend, since he argues rationally against the historicity of the Wanderer. Schudt says that Christ was too gentle and forgiving to impose such a cruel sentence;...
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SOURCE: Fine, David M. “Reformers, Americanizers, and Cosmopolitans: The Case for the Immigrant.” In The City, The Immigrant, and American Fiction, pp. 16-37. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1977.
[In the following essay, Fine analyzes the writings of those who sought to assimilate rather than exclude American immigrants. Focusing on “tenement tales” of the late nineteenth century, Fine explores the development of the “melting pot” ideal in which some immigrants would be indoctrinated into American values.]
To the urban reformers of the eighties and nineties the tenement house, the slum environment, and the sweatshop were the factors most directly responsible for the failure of the recent immigrant to assimilate with the native population. To those who saw the need to “elevate” the immigrant by exposing him to the best in American life, the overcrowded and squalid living conditions of the newcomer stood as the chief obstacle. Behind the concern for tenement reform was the belief that slums were to blame for crime, disease, sexual immorality, and alcoholism among the immigrant youth. Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children's Aid Society, expressed this attitude in The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years Work Among Them (1872). The immigrant children, he maintained, uprooted from parental guidance in overcrowded slum neighborhoods and growing up among thieves and...
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SOURCE: Kersten, Holger. “Using the Immigrant's Voice: Humor and Pathos in Nineteenth Century ‘Dutch’ Dialect Texts.” MELUS 21, no. 4 (winter 1996): 3-17.
[In the following essay, Kersten details the use of the German immigrant character in nineteenth-century humor and proposes that the humorous immigrant provided a safe medium for satiric observations on American culture.]
The nineteenth century, and particularly its second half, was a period in American literature in which enormous interest in linguistic variation was displayed. Writers experimented with language and used just about every form of expression that fell into their hands. In a sense, they were recorders of the huge linguistic variety that characterized America. Many of these language experiments were disseminated in small, cheaply made paperback anthologies produced by publishing houses such as Beadle and Adams. Often the subtitles of the publications indicated the scope of these little volumes, which typically included writings in “Dutch, French, Yankee, Irish, Backwoods, Negro and other dialects” (Beecher). All literary genres were represented in these compilations, but the texts were usually short, the longest hardly exceeding four pages of print. Anecdotes and short narratives stood beside poems, dramatic dialogues and similar pieces, many of them intended for recitation.
It seems that the entertainment...
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Criticism: Immigrants And Labor
SOURCE: Takaki, Ronald T. “The ‘Heathen Chinee’ and American Technology.” In Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, pp. 215-40. New York: Knopf, 1979.
[In the following excerpt, Takaki discusses the manner in which literature depicting stereotypical Chinese laborers influenced American attitudes towards them.]
A surplus labouring population … forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost. … [I]t creates, for the changing needs of the self-expansion of capital, a mass of human material always ready for exploitation. … The industrial reserve army, during periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active labour-army; during the periods of over-production and paroxysm, it holds its pretensions in check.
In 1851, six years before Hinton Helper would issue his inflammatory appeal for the overthrow of the planter class and the forced removal of all blacks from America, he traveled to California where he was appalled to see so many Chinese living and working in the recently conquered territory. Like Jefferson, Helper believed society should be homogeneous. “Certain it is,” he wrote in his book The Land of Gold, “that the greater the diversity of colors and qualities of...
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SOURCE: Gleason, William. “Re-Creating Walden: Thoreau's Economy of Work and Play.” American Literature 65, no. 4 (December 1993): 673-701.
[In the following essay, Gleason examines the influence of the influx of Irish immigrants on Thoreau's writing. Gleason finds that Thoreau's anxiety about immigrants and how they might change the character of the nation is reflected in his varied, sometimes contradictory treatment of Irish characters in Walden.]
It is in obedience to an uninterrupted usage in our community that, on this Sabbath of the Nation, we have all put aside the common cares of life, and seized respite from the never-ending toils of labour. …
—Charles Sumner, The True Grandeur of Nations
On 4 July 1845, as Thoreau (“by accident”) “took up [his] abode in the woods,”1 Charles Sumner exhorted Sabbath-seizing Bostonians to honor the “venerable forms” of the “Fathers of the Republic” in his Independence Day oration. “Let us imitate what in them was lofty, pure and good,” declared Sumner. “Let us from them learn to bear hardship and privation.”2 Although in one sense Thoreau was engaged in precisely the opposite project—rejecting the “wisdom” of his “Mentors” (W [Walden], 9) by beginning (on the national day of rest) his own...
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SOURCE: Doriani, Beth Maclay. “New England Calvinism and the Problem of the Poor in Rebecca Harding Davis's ‘Life in the Iron Mills.’” In Literary Calvinism and Nineteenth-Century American Women Authors, edited by Michael Schuldiner, pp. 179-224. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Doriani argues that Davis's story of the immigrant poor took its readers beyond the widespread opinion that the poor were responsible for their own poverty to what Davis considered a more Christian worldview.]
In 1857, a group representing New England's cultural elite founded what would become the nation's most prestigious magazine of its day: the Atlantic Monthly. With a cast of editors, publishers, and contributors more interested in the propagation of ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual values than in showing Christian kindness to the poor, the Atlantic of the 1850s and 60s hardly seems the place for the publication, four years later, of the grimly realistic portrayal of the immigrant underclass in Rebecca Harding Davis's “Life in the Iron Mills.” After all, these “Yankee humanists” (as one scholar calls them) who sustained the Atlantic presumed “that in higher cultures the primary purpose of life itself, as of education, was not social prestige, entertainment, sensual experience, power, or even promoting social welfare but specifically the...
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Criticism: Immigrants In England
SOURCE: Curtis, L. Perry, Jr. “Physiognomy: Ancient and Modern.” In Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature, pp. 1-15. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Curtis discusses the role of physiognomy in shaping cultural beliefs about the Irish in Victorian England. Physiognomy was applied in nineteenth-century novels and graphic satire, and its semi-scientific nature appeared to lend credibility to English beliefs about the mental and moral inferiority of the Irish.]
In the year 1880 Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912), the Belgian political economist and radical essayist, published a series of epistolary articles on the condition of Ireland in the Journal des Débats. Molinari's survey of the Irish scene may not have equaled Gustave de Beaumont's notable inquiry of the 1830s in breadth of knowledge and depth of insight, but there was one passage in his appraisal of Anglo-Irish relations which shows him to have been a perceptive observer of social and political realities. England's largest newspapers, he wrote, “allow no occasion to escape them of treating the Irish as an inferior race—as a kind of white negroes [sic]—and a glance at Punch is sufficient to show the difference they establish between the plump and robust personification of John Bull and the wretched figure of lean and bony Pat.”1
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SOURCE: Guillaume, André. “Jewish Immigrants in Mayhew's London.” Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens 48 (1998): 119-58.
[In the following essay, Guillaume discusses Henry Mayhew's observations about Jewish immigrants living in London, focusing on issues of labor and trade. Guillaume notes that Mayhew expressed sympathy for the poor “street Jews” in the lower classes and contempt for wealthy Jews whom he considered greedy and selfish.]
The “Condition of England Question”, the social disruption caused by accelerating urbanization and industrialization in Victorian Britain was a major theme of contemporary literature, with such famous novels as Dickens's Oliver Twist (1837-38), David Copperfield (1849-50), Hard Times (1854), Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848), North and South (1854-55), and Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke (1850). Henry Mayhew, a minor writer of plays, fairy tales and cheap novels, was also a freelance journalist of genius, who contributed sociological series on London labour for the Morning Chronicle in 1849-1850, which he later published in book form (London Labour and the London Poor, London, J. Howden, 1851, 3 vol.; and Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1861-62, 4 vol.). As a social investigator of the London lower classes and underworld, he proved a pioneer in applied sociology. He did not write like Engels, a...
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SOURCE: Slatter, John. “Bears in the Lion's Den: The Figure of the Russian Revolutionary Emigrant in English Fiction, 1880-1914.” The Slavonic and East European Review 77, no. 1 (January 1999): 30-55.
[In the following essay, Slatter describes the various roles played by Russian immigrant characters in English fiction, including the oppressed victim, the ideologue, and the heroic adventurer.]
During the course of the nineteenth century, the century of revolutions, a succession of political events in continental Europe drove waves of revolutionary exiles to Britain, attracted by Britain's attitude of liberal tolerance and societal equanimity towards foreign residents.1 French, German, Italian, Polish and Russian refugees2 came to Britain, turning up on its shores in waves whose timing has everything to do with the vicissitudes of continental politics: the landmark dates are 1821, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1881 and 1878-90, dates which have relatively little resonance in terms of British politics but are the climactic points of that century of mainland European revolutions, be they nationalist, liberal or socialist.3 Victorian Britain, with its relative political stability and contempt for the opinion of foreign dictators, was an indifferent haven to the oppressed of all countries.
But whereas the Italians, French, Germans and others were able to return home...
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Buelens, Gert. “The Jewish Immigrant Experience.” Journal of American Studies 25 (1991): 473-79.
Bibliographic essay describing texts written about and by Jewish immigrants.
Peck, David R. American Ethnic Literatures: Native American, African American, Chicano/Latino, and Asian American Writers and Their Backgrounds: An Annotated Bibliography. Pasadena: Salem Press, 1992, 218 p.
Focuses on writings by immigrants and other minorities, including primary and secondary works.
Simone, Roberta. The Immigrant Experience in American Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1995, 203 p.
Focuses on literature by immigrants through several centuries.
Baumgarten, Murray. “Seeing Double: Jews in the Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot.” In Between Race and Culture: Representations of “the Jew” in English and American Literature, edited by Bryan Cheyette, pp. 44-61. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
Distinguishes the solitary, outcast Jewish characters in the works of Dickens from the Jews depicted in works by Anthony Trollope and George Eliot.
Buelens, Gert. “James's ‘Aliens’: Consuming,...
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