Why is the theme of loss of identity common in immigrant literature?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While the very early immigrants were from the Great Britan, their plight is not considered so much in immigrant literature as those who arrived in the hulls of the Colonial ships, or later at Ellis Island. Besides the Irish, who did speak English, the majority of these immigrants who came to America in the early 1900s were Eastern Europeans or Southern European, all of whom lacked the money to live anywhere but in slums or barren and remote areas.  They were forced by their poverty to take the most menial of jobs in the big cities of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and the like.  There, they were marginalized and subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment that certainly cost them any identity.  Having come from foreign countries, their cultural identity was lost except in the small pockets where others of their nationality were located, and, as poor immigrants, they held no political power that could improve their conditions. 

On the other hand, the Scandinavian immigrants who came to America after the Civil War and moved to more remote areas of American such as Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and the like were able to resist Americanization.  For instance, Ole Edvart Rölvaag wrote the two volumes of his masterpiece about surviving in the wilderness, I de Dage (1924) and Riket Grundlægges (1925), entirely in Norwegian, volumes became best-sellers in Norway.

But, because most immigrants dwelt in large cities where they lived in the impoverished areas with other people from other countries, much of their cultural heritage melted into the ghetto life of the city. So, one of the themes of immigrant literature became tenement life. Another theme was the hard facts of the immigrants as evidenced in such works as Stephen Crane's Maggie:  A Girl of the Streets about an Irish immigrant who goes to work in the New York sweat shops.  Another recurrent theme in immigrant literature is the struggle for justice.  Certainly, Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, exposes the conditions under which the Czech workers at the Chicao Stockyards endured.

As the immigrants lost their former identities, they struggled to attain a new identity, that of an American.  One author who treats this subject of assimilation is a Jewish Russian immigrant, Elias Tobenkin.  His second novel, The House of Conrad (1918), treats assimiliation into American society and intergenerational conflicts. These conflicts are also the topic of Amy Tan's family.