Acculturation as a Literary Theme Analysis

Acculturation and Identity

Writers dramatize the contrasts and tensions of people, cultures, and societies manifested in the process of acculturation. The literary works that pursue the theme of acculturation can be grouped into three categories.

The first category is the acculturational experiences depicted by writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville. These experiences are based on encounters between colonized natives and European colonizers. What is unique about this type of acculturation is that, as part of the Western overseas expansion, such acculturation was a unidirectional imposition of the minority but dominant culture upon the “host” but conquered society, and that such acculturation was a confrontation between two different racial and cultural identities. Disgusted with attempts to justify colonization by means of stereotypes such as that of the savage, Cooper and Melville were more keenly interested in the encounter, and interplay between the representative of indigenous culture and the representative of what may be called an advancing civilization. Even though both writers used some clichés of the time in portraying their “uncivilized” characters, critics generally believe that neither Cooper nor Melville was inherently hostile toward the Indians. While the acculturative process in Cooper’s Leatherstocking series and in Melville’s Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) mostly occurs in the form of natives learning to conform to...

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Acculturation and Choice

The second category is the depiction of the two-directional acculturation between Europeans and Americans. Around the turn of the century, a substantial number of Americans, many of whom were writers and artists, lived in Europe. At the same time America itself experienced a tremendous influx of immigrants from Europe. Works such as Henry James’s The American (1877) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881) present adventures of Americans who acculturate themselves to the codes and customs of the Old World in order to maintain a niche in its upper-class circle. For the generally poor immigrants to America, acculturation was not easy either. The nostalgia, deprivation, and hardship of immigrant acculturation are vividly featured in works such as Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918) and Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1955). One work of this category that is particularly noteworthy is the trilogy written by William Carlos Williams: White Mule (1937), In the Money (1940), and The Build-Up (1952). In this trilogy, Williams offers readers a close look at the ambivalent feelings the immigrants had toward, and the hard choices they made between, the Old and New Worlds. What the Stetcher family goes through represents a standard Americanization story, an acculturational process full of dreams, conflicts, hard choices, compromises, and frustrations.

Acculturation and Ethnicity

The third category is the exploration of a more mutual acculturation between European American and non-European American cultures, with the issue of ethnicity as the focus. Readers may also find the literary treatment of similar themes in other regions’ literature, especially in postcolonial writings. Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God (1964), Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), Samuel Selvon’s The Housing Lark (1990), and Simi Bedford’s Yoruba Girl Dancing (1991) are examples of this category of acculturation stories. No country, however, has produced more literary works addressing ethnic identity as a dimension of acculturation than the United States. Considering the United States’ identity as a melting pot and the fact that the life of most of its citizens is affected in one way or another by acculturation, there is nothing surprising about the volume, diversity, and intensity in the literature of acculturation in the United States. After 1965, there was a sharp increase of minority population in America. This increase has been the result of immigration: Immigrants bring languages and customs that differ from the values of the dominant population. The act of immigration turns people into “ethnics” and leads to cultural disorientation. There is a duality in immigrant identity that is based on the doubling of social realms. Immigrants have to deal, typically, from an economic, social, and political position...

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Suggested Readings

Buenker, John D, and Lorman A. Ratner, eds. Multiculturalism in the United States: A Comparative Guide to Acculturation and Ethnicity. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. A detailed study of how American culture was shaped from the cultures of all the major ethnic groups in America.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. An illuminating book on the issues of African American literature and multiculturalism.

Gordon, Milton M. Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964. A source book for the definitions of key terms in the study of acculturation.

Gutmann, Amy, ed. Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Presents diverse views on the importance of recognition and the tensions between personal and ethnic identities.

Herskovits, Melville J. Acculturation: The Study of Culture Contact. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958. Widely regarded as a landmark book on this subject, defining the basic concepts and patterns in the study of acculturation.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. An insightful view of the acculturational interactions between cultures.

Sollors, Werner, ed. The Invention of Ethnicity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. A collection of interdisciplinary essays, discussing the cultural construction of ethnicity in American literature.