Emigration and Immigration in Literature

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What positive and negative aspects of the immigrant experience did Anna Maria Klinger describe in her letters home to Germany?

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The immigrant experience can be a dialogue between personal agency and acculturation—the desire to seek a better life while dealing with the challenges of adapting to a new culture. Immigrants in the United States have expressed this experience through various forms of communication, including the process of learning English, letters,...

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The immigrant experience can be a dialogue between personal agency and acculturation—the desire to seek a better life while dealing with the challenges of adapting to a new culture. Immigrants in the United States have expressed this experience through various forms of communication, including the process of learning English, letters, social clubs, works of art, diaries, and dreams. The documents generated from these events and organizations provide students with a unique archive through which to examine US history.

Anna Maria Klinger’s letters to her parents provide a firsthand account of personal experiences and social observations during a significant wave of German immigration to the US in the nineteenth century. While she could find jobs as a domestic worker with other German families, Klinger discovered that learning English was the path to better employment. In her letters, Klinger expressed the need to learn English through immersion in English-speaking environments instead of remaining with families who only spoke German.

After establishing herself, Klinger supported the immigration of her brothers and sisters to America. In her following letters, Klinger celebrated the news of her sister Barbara’s job at a bakery and the developing English language skills of the children.

As she worked and confronted the issues of income and language, Klinger also continued the dialogue between agency and acculturation in her dreams. She shared these dreams in letters to her parents, commenting on a feeling of homesickness yet, at the same time, feeling a sense of gladness at establishing herself in America.

Further Reading:

Hoerder, Dirk and Jörg Nagler, eds. People in Transit: German Migrations in Comparative Perspective, 1820-1930. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Wehner-Franco, Silke. Deutsche Dienstmädchen in Amerika 1850-1914. Münster, Waxmann, 1994.

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One problem that would be expected for an immigrant in Klinger's situation is the issue of money—her position as a housemaid would certainly put her at risk of monetary problems and losses, but this is shown not to be the case. Klinger even goes so far as to describe her salary as ideal for a housemaid of her position. What's more, Klinger even sees upward mobility in terms of her economic position, for becoming bilingual would earn her around twice the amount that she currently earns. However, as with any immigrant experience, personal alienation and depersonalization proves to be a problem for her, as she is expected to work hard and earn less than the general population. Her impoverishment in this capacity positions her on the fringes of society, and it is lonely for her.

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Klinger, in a letter home to her parents in Württemberg, describes wages (she worked in the home of a German family) as being higher than in her home country. She is "content for now," she says, with her wages of four dollars a month, which is not bad for a house servant who does not speak English. She also sees room for upward mobility, claiming that she could earn up to 10 dollars a month for the same job if she learns English. She does, however, decry the loneliness and alienation that she says is an almost universal part of the immigrant experience, especially for those people who did not come with their families. 

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