Emigration and Immigration in Literature Essay: Introduction

Essay: Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dr. Richard J. Lane (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Lane, Dr. Richard J. “An Analysis of the Literature of the U.S. Immigrant Experience.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 162, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.

[In the following essay, Lane examines the history and diversity of literature written by authors who immigrated to the United States, focusing on the unique ethnic attributes and perspectives that the various immigrant groups have brought to the body of American literature.]


A basic question needs to be asked at the outset: why did so many people emigrate to the Unites States of America? One simple answer is that many people were driven from, or decided to leave, their countries of origin either for economic reasons (they lived in poverty or could see no future for themselves at home) or because of political, religious and/or racial persecution. America is a land of immigrants: they are the driving force of the economy, bringing intense ambition, a hunger to better oneself, a willingness to work, and most of all a relentless self-motivation that can be expressed in diverse ways, from the results of raw labor to those of education and cultural expression. The industries of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America needed a vast labor force who would work for relatively low wages (although these wages need to be put into the context of lands left behind, where poverty and even lower incomes were often the norm). Many of these industries are no longer essential today, being replaced by cheaper production elsewhere in the Developing World or having simply been superseded by the importance to the US economy of more advanced technologies such as the production of computer software. But for a time, it was so-called primary industries such as the manufacture of steel and the associated consumer products that were of importance. This historical phase, known as the Industrial Revolution, was responsible for worldwide shifts in people's modes of behaviour and existence. In Europe, the Industrial Revolution was responsible for the rapid acceleration of labor movement or migration from rural environments to the expanding manufacturing cities. Working conditions were appalling, with infant or child workers, unhealthy and dangerous repetitive working conditions and unsanitary homes. As the famous British writer George Orwell notes while exploring the industrial towns of Northern England, shortages of even the worse houses was also a problem: “… that is the central fact about housing in the industrial areas: not that the houses are poky and ugly, and insanitary and comfortless, or that they are distributed in incredibly filthy slums around belching foundries and stinking canals and slag-heaps that deluge them with sulphurous smoke … but simply that there are not enough houses to go round.”1 Industrialization in European countries may have lead to higher wages, but not necessarily an improved standard of living; in Britain, for example, the various Enclosures Acts meant that many people were forced from the land into the cities and it was this loss of lifestyle that lead to deprivation; even in the previous poverty of rural life, access to freshly grown food or illegally hunted game, for example, was sometimes to be had. At the same time, it would be incorrect to idealize the rural past, where opportunities for change within rigidly hierarchical societies were virtually nil. But once in the new cities, opportunity could be stifled by other demands, such as the heavy taxes that were a continual burden, often leading to a ‘catch 22’ situation where an increase in income could be quickly lost as governments took taxes for military expansion, among other things.2 The historian Hugh Brogan foregrounds the uneven development of the Industrial Revolution across Europe. In other words, not all European countries went through industrialization at the same time or at the same rate. Britain, France and Germany were the first countries to industrialize, and as conditions worsened for working people, emigration rates increased. As rising wages and improved working and living conditions developed, emigration numbers from these countries began to decline, just as numbers from Italy and Poland, began to increase, as they were not so industrially advanced.3

The immigrant experience was not entirely one of negative impetus and reasoning. Another basic question needs to be asked: what were the positive reasons for coming to America? The psychology of emigration from one's ancient homeland is complex: decisions may be based upon a mixture of fact and fiction. One fact was that the cost of travel to the US decreased significantly during the period of the Great Migration. Another fact was that many jobs waited for people in the rapidly expanding industries. But there was also at times the fantasy or fiction that life would necessarily improve immeasurably overnight, that great wealth would be made instantly and that success would be guaranteed for all newcomers. There is no doubt that many immigrants would in time achieve great success, but for many more, the immigrant experience was a long, hard process of work in primary industries and ‘sweat shops,’ often a process which eventually saw success with the next generation, through the education of the children who would not have to live by manual labor alone. John Bodnar argues that there was great diversity in the experiences of immigrants: “… not all newcomers behaved in a similar fashion … varying degrees of commitment to an assortment of cultures and ideologies were evident. …”4 Immigrants came from vastly different economic, political and religious backgrounds, expressing these differences upon arrival in the United States: “Some individuals pursued modern forms of life and livelihood while others valued more traditional patterns. Workers existed who championed socialism and others died for their attachment to Catholicism. Some immigrants came to America and acquired large fortunes, and many more simply went to work everyday with no appreciable gain.”5 Historians such as John Bodnar have long argued that the emergence of a strong capitalist economy in the United States went hand-in-hand with immigration, for example, not just through the availability of a large workforce, leading to a depression of wages (which is good from a capitalist standpoint), but also in terms of the increased skill and knowledge base: “Without immigration in the first century of American capitalism, the United States work force would have been only 70 percent of what it was by 1940.”6


Before moving on to an overview of the different immigrant literatures covered in this essay, it is essential to have a basic grasp of the experiences and histories of the ethnic groups under discussion. In what follows, Italian, Jewish (and East European), and Asian (Chinese and Japanese) historical experiences and narratives of migration will be briefly explored. Many of these narratives are autobiographical or ‘pseudo-autobiographical,’ that is to say, crossing the boundaries between fact and fiction. The fictional genre that is most closely related to such autobiographical writing is that of the bildungsroman, or novel of education and development. Martin Gray calls the bildungsroman “… a novel which describes the protagonist's development from childhood to maturity.”7 He cites as famous examples Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. What the autobiography and bildungsroman clearly have in common is a focus upon life-experience, education (either formal or through more subjective means), character formation and a sense of identity.8 One form (autobiography) purports to be factual, documenting actual life experiences, the other form (bildungsroman) purports to be fictional, but may have some basis in the author's own life. Both the autobiography and the bildungsroman often stress key transformative moments in an individual's life: these key moments usually follow a predetermined pattern of events that may be dictated by nature as much as nurture (for example, the onset of puberty, first sexual experiences, aging, and so on) or they may have social or historical agency (such as the outbreak of war disrupting an otherwise peaceful life). While immigrant experience narratives are often written using these two genres, they also develop them in distinctive ways, in particular through the fact that the formation of new immigrant identities usually takes place not only through formative experiences and the construction of the new, but also involving the deconstruction or dismantling of the old identity belonging to the country and/or nationality of origin. For example, the adoption of, or learning about, an American way of life may also involve the painful and disturbing dismantling of earlier modes of existence. That is not to say that such a ‘dismantling’ does not take place in the standard autobiography or bildungsroman, rather that it is a profoundly important component of the immigrant narratives, which focus not so much upon the construction of identity as the reconstruction of identity.


The complex society of Italy can be divided into two main groups for the purposes of studying emigration to the United States: northern and southern (or Mezogiorno) Italians, with the latter suffering extreme poverty in the nineteenth century. The Italian component of the Great Wave of immigration was largely made up of people from the south: “Between 1880 and 1920 the largest percentage of immigrants came from Sicily (29.9 percent), then from near Naples (27.4 percent), Abruzzi and Molise (16.2 percent), Calabria (13 percent), Apulia (7.4 percent), and Basilicata (5.8 percent).”9 These were people who had suffered repressive draft laws, heavy taxation and at times low pay and poor living conditions.10 Ben Morreale and Robert Carola note that in 1880, “… when the flood tide of Italian emigration to the United States began, the average Italian consumed only 28 pounds of meat in a year, while the average United States resident consumed 120 pounds a year.”11 Many other factors contributed to the desire to leave Italy for a fresh beginning; Morreale and Carola mention the cholera epidemics between 1884 and 1887, the overseas competition for the citrus fruit market (ironically, being surpassed by growers in California and Florida), the near destruction of the wine-industry due to phylloxera infestation as well as the difficult climate and terrain in terms of agricultural production.12 Emigration was not immediately directed towards the United States; indeed, Northern Italians favored initially South America as well as other European countries where they could establish themselves as professionals; Southern Italians favored the US initially, in part, because of a suspension of emigration to Brazil (due to outbreaks of yellow fever) and growing political and economic uncertainty in Argentina and Paraguay.13 Many Italians were not actually making a one-way journey: they shuttled back and forth between locations, becoming known as ‘birds of passage,’ moving from country to country according to seasonal work opportunities. Emigrants also poured money back into the Italian economy, sometimes as a way of funding further family emigration, but also through the buying of favored Italian goods and produce.14 In Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant, there is an exploration of the complex processes of financial and family struggle when it came to emigrating, since Rosa has been sent money by her violent husband Santino to join and support him in the iron mines in Missouri, while she longs to stay with her baby and her parents in Italy, a country and environment she is comfortable with.15 Many people longed to escape to the New World, but many also dreaded and feared the upheaval and the unknown future.

Once in the United States, many Italian immigrants headed straight for places of work and settlement alongside other Italians. In New York, Italian locations included Mulberry Bend, Hell's Kitchen, Italian Harlem and, after the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, south Brooklyn: “As small colonies of Italian immigrants called ‘Little Italys’ sprang up in major American cities, Italians from different regions of Italy were often forced to live together, a practice they had avoided in the old country. Italian immigrants adopted the American customs that were useful to them, yet held on to many of the old regional ways they were not yet ready to give up.”16 Major centres of Italian residence included not only New York, but also Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia; close family ties and social support led to the rapid adoption of new immigrants within Italian communities. The positive side to Italian cultural and geographical cohesion could also lead to difficulties for second generation Italian Americans, for example, with the need to speak English to get on in the wider outside world. The importance of the English language and westernized education for second generation Italian Americans also came into conflict with the largely oral Italian culture that was passed on by the first generation through spoken narratives and anecdotes. The new world of the English language belonged primarily to written, rather than oral, narratives, and was in some instances seen as a threat to family cohesion (as well as the power of the church) as parents struggled to speak anything apart from their native tongue, and encouraged their children to remain within their known world. However, more positively, oral cultures also provided the bridge between Italy and America in the formation of a new Italian-American literature, expressed at first in what critic Fred L. Gardaphé calls the “poetic mode of narrative development,” that is to say, writing “… strongly connected to the oral traditions of Italian preindustrial culture.”17 Following Walter Ong, Gardaphé lists the distinctive characteristics of oral-based narrative; these include a focus on agonistic behaviour and lifestyle, with strong emphasis upon character and memorable events, a simple sentence structure that accumulates detail as an aide-mémoire, the use of repetition and the present tense, and the foregrounding of concrete events rather than abstract concepts.18 As Gardaphé notes:

In the villages and towns of Italy, the cantastorie, or ‘history singers,’ were (and in many cases still are) the custodians of local tradition. Within the family, children learned by listening, watching, and imitating. Books were not part of peasant life in southern Italy, nor were they an integral part of Italians' adaptation to American life. In America, Italian oral culture collided with the literary traditions of Anglo-Saxon culture, and for a long time learning how to write (more often than not for the first time) in the language of the adopted country would be synonymous with becoming American. Creating texts through narrative contributed to the re-creation of selves forged out of the elements of Italian and American cultures.19

Examples of the “poetic mode” include Constantine Panunzio's The Soul of an Immigrant (1921), Pascal D'Angelo's Son of Italy (1924) and Rosa Cavalleri's autobiography recollected orally to Marie Hall Ets, called Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant (1970). Moving on from the “poetic mode,” to continue with Gardaphé's comprehensive and useful critical model, the next phase is called the “early mythic mode” representing a shift from the autobiographical narrative to the “autobiographical fiction” or immigrant bildungsroman. Written by the second generation of immigrants, these texts interrogated the myths not only of the American Dream, which contributed to their parents upheaval and arrival on American shores, but also the myths and stereotypes of the Italian in America. Further, this type of immigrant bildungsroman involved as much dismantling as construction: “… the children of Italian immigrants used their writing both to document and to escape the conditions under which they were born and raised.”20 Examples include Pietro Di Donato's Christ in Concrete (1939), Jerre Mangione's Mount Allegro (1943) and the now widely available novels and short-stories of John Fante, including The Road to Los Angeles (written 1933, published posthumously in 1985), Wait until Spring, Bandini (1938), and Ask the Dust (1939). Moving beyond the focus of this study, Gardaphé also examines the “middle mythic mode” (Godfather narratives), the “later mythic mode” and the “philosophic mode” of Italian American writing.21


Complex economic, social and historical forces led to the huge numbers of Jewish peoples entering the United States during the Great Wave of Immigration. Irving Howe, one of the leading historians of the East European Jewish immigrant experience, opens his World of Our Fathers with the statement that “The year 1881 marks a turning point in the history of the Jews … On March 1, 1881, Alexander II, czar of Russia, was assassinated by revolutionary terrorists; the modest liberalism of his regime came to an end; and within several weeks a wave of pogroms [organized persecution and/or extermination of an ethnic group] … spread across Russia.”22 Where were the Jewish peoples to go? Some had already begun emigrating to America, because of oppressive economic factors, persecution by the government, such as the more than six hundred anti-Jewish decrees effected in the period 1825 to 1855 under the reign of Nicholas I, and other forms of religious persecution.23 Jewish peoples lived for the most part in a strictly apportioned area, called the Pale of Settlement, yet the aim of the anti-Jewish decrees was in fact a form of assimilation. Under Alexander II, conditions for Jewish peoples had improved somewhat, for example reducing the period of military service, but this is not to suggest that life was still not a struggle for many millions, who lived in reduced circumstances in the small towns, known as shtetlekh. As Gerald Sorin argues: “… poverty was the general condition in the shtetl from at least as far back as the 1650s, and became worse in the late eighteenth century and through the nineteenth century.”24 Jewish peoples, marked by exterior features of difference or otherness (such as their distinctive dress code), known for their coherent, strong religious and ethical beliefs, were ongoing targets for abuse: “Jews who ventured outside the shtetl to peddle considered themselves lucky if they were not set upon and beaten. Even within the town, Jews were vulnerable to the invasions and excesses of the occasional drunken mob or discontented peasants intent on violence.”25 The shtetl was a close-knit religious community where Jewish codes and conventions, or laws, written in the Torah, were followed for many centuries. Education was of key importance, and this involved religious schooling (the schools were known as kheyder) in the Torah and the vast commentary text known as the Talmud. Poorer boys often gained community support to receive religious instruction. Girls were generally expected to receive their education at home, in preparation for married life, but some young women did receive education where their parents had a liberal or modernizing perspective upon life. Ironically, for some boys their education was enforced, experienced as a form of psychological torture, while some girls longed to receive a formal period of intellectual training and stimulation. Shtetl life began to feel the immense strain of anti-Jewish behaviour during the 1800s, leading to huge internal migrations between villages, towns and larger cities, due to mainly economic necessity. While the move to city life and activity did lead to the emergence of a new Jewish proletariat, and various forms of socialism, the culture of the shtetl remained strong: “In the midst of oppression and dislocation, shtetl culture experienced a reawakening and a reweaving into creative and vibrant forms in urban contexts.”26 This is an important point to consider in the context of the eventual Jewish settlement in large urbanized areas of the United States, and the complex, and at times contradictory, ties of family, religion, education, socialism and secularism. While arguing that pogroms were clearly not the only driving force for mass emigration, Sorin does concede that after 1881, “… Jews had to face anti-Semitism not simply as a permanent inconvenience but as a threat to their very existence.”27 But we should not perceive the emigration to the United States as merely a negative ‘fleeing’ of their persecutors: the Jewish peoples were going to America to build a new society that would in turn be a complex mixture of the traditional and the modern.

The narrative bridge between the old world and the new was built, initially, with the reinvigorated use of Yiddish. Critic Mark Schechner has argued that: “… the Yiddish linguistic and cultural renaissance, which occurred during the late nineteenth century … laid the groundwork for a secular, imaginative Jewish fiction even before the emigration to America. In the waning years of the nineteenth century there emerged in Europe and America a flourishing Yiddish press, theater, literature, and scholarship, urged on by the promptings of cultural nationalism and the various brands of labor socialism, which elevated Yiddish from the position of a despised popular jargon to that of a respected and resourceful language.”28 Yiddish was the language of the Jewish ‘here and now’ in America, which is not to devalue its role in comprehending the new circumstances that Jews found themselves in, in relation to the old or previous worlds: quite the opposite—Yiddish functioned precisely to help make sense of the new, to experiment with attitudes and potential ideologies, to educate and to provide an alternative forum for debate. Yiddish was also a language within which a gradual relocation of ‘redemptive’ desires took place. As Gerald Sorin notes, prior to emigration: “Much of Jewish theology looked to the future, which was envisaged as a return to the good, older times … this future was assumed to be far off. Meanwhile, the community derived its religion, its values, and its very meaning from the past. In some ways, then, [traditional, pre-immigration] Jewish society had no present.”29 The present consisted of adherence to “tradition” and the advancement of learning.30 As Franz Rosenzweig suggests in The Star of Redemption, “… redemption is thus wholly and solely something yet to come, is—future.”31 The growth of a Yiddish literature explored the possibility that the focus on the future had to be shifted to the present as a mode of survival, and with a glimmer of hope that the redemptive could be achieved through personal and social achievements in the secular world. Initially, Yiddish writings in the United States mainly appeared in newspapers. Irving Howe argues that the newfound circumstances of Eastern Europeans “… made the immigrants ripe for a new kind of literary expression, a poetry and fiction blunt in speech, fiery in politics, breaking away from the passivity of traditional folk material.”32

The first major Yiddish literary movement in the US, during the 1880s and 1890s, was the “sweatshop poets” or writers, the leading figures being Morris...

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