Emigration and Immigration in Literature

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Literary Relevance Of The Literature Of The Immigrant Experience

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4408


The diverse literature of the U.S. immigrant experience provides the reader with a wealth of information: historical, cultural, financial, psychological, but most of all, and most importantly, personal information. General historical data concerning the Great Wave of Immigration often consists of facts and figures, statistics and charts; the literary texts of the immigrant experience, be they autobiographical or fictional, share one central feature: the use of narrative, of story-telling, with character development, asides, anecdotes, colorful detail and observations rich in emotion. In other words, the literary texts can do more than complement so-called objective historical research: they can at times provide first-hand testimonials and give a sense, from a human perspective, of the immigrant experience itself, as it was endured and lived.

A key moment for virtually all first-generation immigrants was the passage or the crossing from the Old to New world; in the literary texts, the crossing at times looms like a nightmare, at other times is experienced as a release with the potential new life in America fast-approaching. The crossing included more than just the sea-journey, although boarding ship was inevitably the central moment; it also included the journey to port, often across vast European or Asian lands, across borders and nation states. This land-locked journey was often one of intense confusion and anxiety, as the potential for disaster was great. Mary Antin, in The Promised Land, notes how her journey to the United States quickly went wrong:

At Versbolovo, the last station on the Russian side, we met the first of our troubles. A German physician and several gendarmes [police] boarded our train and put us through a searching examination as to our health, destination, and financial resources. As a result of the inquisition we were informed that we would not be allowed to cross the frontier unless we exchanged our third-class steamer ticket for second-class, which would require two hundred rubles more than we possessed. Our passport was taken from us, and we were to be turned back on our journey.1

Eventually, the family receive assistance from one Herr Schidorsky, a man with connections within an emigrant aid association, and they proceed onwards to Germany, via an exceptionally uncomfortable and unpleasant train journey, during which the emigrants are crowded together like animals. They pass through Berlin and arrive in a deserted place, upon which they are rushed into a building where they are inspected, washed, and returned to the train; as Antin writes after this experience: “Oh, so we really won't be murdered! They are only making us ready for the continuing of our journey, cleaning us of all suspicions of dangerous sickness. Thank God!”2 Eventually the port and the sea-journey are upon her, which she describes in a letter to her uncle from her “inexperienced” perspective: “The perils of the sea were not minimized in the imaginations of us inexperienced voyagers. The captain and his officers ate their dinners, smoked their pipes and slept soundly in their turns, while we frightened emigrants turned our faces to the wall and awaited our watery graves.”3 Many journeys were harsh, with stormy conditions and poor provision on board the ships for the passengers; although conditions did later improve, these early experiences should not be discounted. as Irving Howe has asserted: “… the suffering [during the crossing] was real, it was persistent, and it has been thoroughly documented.”4 In Rosa, there are descriptions of stormy conditions, during which two people die and many are sea-sick; most shocking, in light of her Catholic, small-town sensibility, is the fact that “The girls...

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and women and the men had to sleep all together in the same room.”5 Yung Wing, in My Life in China and America, describes the crossing as mainly uneventful, with one severe storm: “There was no accident of any kind, excepting a gale as we doubled the Cape of Good Hope. The tops of the masts and ends of the yards were tipped with balls of electricity. The strong wind was howling and whistling behind us like a host of invisible furies.”6 Once in New York, most immigrants continued to go through confusion and some misery: common experiences included intense anxiety that they would not pass the health inspections at Ellis Island in New York (in which case, they could be sent back to Europe), the prolonged detention at Angel Island in San Francisco for Chinese as their immigration claims were investigated by officials, the shock of being received coldly by partners already in the U.S. (often because a husband is embarrassed by his wife's lowly, “foreign” appearance in terms of dress-codes, or because husband and wife have become alienated by time and distance), and the embarrassment at being conned by fraudsters in large cities such as New York, often by men from the same ethnic group who purport to be ‘good Samaritans’ but are, in reality, criminals ready to deprive gullible or simply disoriented newcomers of their last few dollars.

Other types of value than the purely historical are found in the literature of the U.S. immigrant experience; in his foreword to Rosa, for example, Rudolph J. Vecoli argues that: “… Rosa has literary as well as historical value.”7 Comparisons are made to other authors: “Rosa has more in common with Willa Cather's Antonia or Ole Rölvaag's Beret than with Mary Antin or Bella V. Dodd.”8 The point being made here is that sometimes autobiographical texts lack the poetic or literary qualities of fiction, but this is not always the case, especially in a text such as Rosa which sticks closely to indigenous speech patterns and phraseology. Helen Barolini places Rosa into a specifically Italian, aesthetic context: “Rosa, the natural storyteller, was the low-born counterpart to the high tradition of improvisation and recitation that flourished in Italy and was made memorable in Mme deStael's Corinne, the novel of an improvisatrice. Rosa's art has ancient roots and is in the great tradition of the commedia dell'arte, which still persists in Italy.”9 Barolini also argues that books such as Rosa play a crucial part in providing information about the female immigrant experience. But Rosa is not an unmediated narrative: it was written down, from Rosa's reminiscences, by Marie Hall Ets sticking closely to the original dialect; however, this initial lack of mediation caused problems for the western reader:

Since Mrs. C could read and write no English and very little Italian, she could make no notes. She just had to tell me things as she remembered them, and let me put them in order. First I took down her words in heavy dialect, as she spoke them. But this proved too difficult for the reader. Thus in the more recent version I have corrected and simplified the text, trying at the same time not to lose the character and style of her spoken words.10

The editing process, however well done, raises questions about the “authenticity” of the final product in a text such as Rosa; however, this does not reduce the importance of such a project in terms of oral history and feminist research. Questions of literary value and mediation raise, inevitably, the subject of different languages and dialects; regardless of the original language of the immigrant, the end-product, if it is to reach a wide audience, is usually written in English (the main exception here being the Yiddish texts that thrived for a considerable period within the US). Writing in English, however, was not a neutral act: it resonated with all kinds of meanings, not least the implications of the mastery of the English language itself by someone who had traveled far from his or her original culture. Yet the mastery of English did not mean the abandonment of a rich linguistic heritage: quite the opposite, as English words penetrated foreign languages and foreign words penetrated English. Irving Howe sketches out such an exchange in relation to Yiddish:

The Yiddish literary people … feared that a mass invasion of English vocabulary would overwhelm them. […] Hundreds of English words—some because there were no Yiddish equivalents, some because they served so efficiently, some because they symbolized a rapid absorption into American life—invaded Yiddish speech in the early years of the century. Hello, all right, good-bye, please, shut up (the universal sharrap), icebox, paint, landlord, tenant, sale, haircut, teacher, pants, graft, bum, crook, gangster, dinner, street, walk, floor were quickly taken, with whatever twistings of pronunciation, into immigrant Yiddish and accepted by Yiddish editors with varying degrees of tolerance.11

Of course this was a two-way process, and Yiddish words made their way into English, especially ones used as slang.

From an Italian American perspective, one of the most interesting instances of the interpenetration of languages, dialects and oral styles, is Di Donato's Christ in Concrete. At first, the pronounced stylistic devices used in the writing of the novel may be found slightly off-putting by the reader, yet gradually a rhythmic quality is noticed, patterns of language use, certain phrases, slang-words and loan-words, which begin to work as a whole. Critics have argued that Di Donato's language expresses underlying ethnic beliefs, be they derived from a physical or mythical notion of Italy. Viscusi argues that “… the mythical Italy is a universal presence that Italian American writers devote themselves to, sometimes unconsciously.”12 Orsini analyses language-use as a stream-of-consciousness:

The plethora or [sic] words here [in Christ in Concrete] … emphasizes the flow of Luigi's consciousness. […] By fracturing conventional grammar, punctuation, and syntax, and also by using—and exploiting—dialectical cliches, Di Donato strips away the façade of his immigrants' American identity in order to reach their authentic Italian identity and thereafter their universal status as human beings. For this reason, he catalogues not only the people of Paul's world, but also the sundry phenomena of that immigrant world, including its objects, events, acts, images, and symbols.13

Orsini's overall point is that Di Donato foregrounds “phonocentric” language use, that is to say, language which is closely related to and expressive of bodily, material activities, such as work, as well as the primacy of the voice (Italian oral culture) over writing (other western traditions of written narratives and histories). Contemporary critical sensibilities can come into conflict with such a mode of writing; in particular, the critical approach known as ‘deconstruction’ argues strongly that phonocentrism is a fallacy, and that all language, even spoken language, is a form of writing, even if it apparently seems to have a bodily, self-presence. This suspicion of language being somehow expressive of the inner, ethnically authentic “self” or subject is examined below, in relation to autobiography.

The study of immigrant literature involves an expanded awareness of the American literary canon, and a more complex notion of how literary genres have developed over time. Clearly, in the case of the literature of the U.S. immigrant experience, studying the works also means studying historical and political contexts and cultural changes within the U.S.; immigrants have long played a vital role in the expansion of the American economy, yet their important role in literature has not always been fully recognized. Ironically, many immigrant authors are now being recuperated as a reaction against assimilation and national unification as people rediscover their past histories, and past family connections, and academics focus more closely upon ethnicity, heterogeneity (differences, divisions, fragmentation) and new notions of postcolonialism.


There is a long tradition of autobiographical texts and related genres within English and American literatures. Going back even further than the beginnings of these two closely related national literatures, the genre of western autobiography is generally thought to have begun with Saint Augustine's Confessions (c. AS 398-400). While this deeply Christian, spiritual text may seem a long way from the literature of the U.S. immigrant experience, the model of a unified “self” which it provides, clearly relates to the whole problematic of “unification” for immigrant autobiographies and immigrant bildungsromans, where the ideal is an assimilated individual, and the reality is often one involved in the difficult task of mediating between two cultures, perhaps one which is deeply religious and one which is moving towards secularization. Karl Weintraub argues that a central tenet of autobiographical writing is the self-reflective moment, when the human subject asks “who am I?” and “how did I become what I am?”14 As such, the autobiography follows, on the surface, an obvious chronological progression: from naivete to self-knowledge, usually through the maturing of the author via key life-processes and events. Yet, less obviously, there is also the fact that the autobiography is written retrospectively, by the author who has already reached a point of self-knowledge or maturity. This “author” may read back into his or her earlier life experiences gained at a later stage; therefore, the reader must be alert to the “doubled” nature of the text.

Within autobiographies, there is a narrational structure quite different from the novel. In the novel, critics generally agree that there are three main narrational agents: the author, the narrator and the central protagonist; contemporary critics generally argue that each of these agents are constructs, that is to say, they are usually placed in positions of textual authority, but are also constituted in ways akin to fictional characters. In other words, if an intrusive narrator in a novel says “I like ice-cream” critics no longer assume that such a statement is a direct reflection of the author's likes. With autobiography, as Philippe Lejeune has shown, there is “… identity between the author, the narrator, and the protagonist.15 Furthermore, such identity is firmly based upon actual, rather than fictional, experiences. This leads to any number of definitions of autobiography, although Lejeune's is widely quoted, where autobiography is: “A retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focusing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality.”16 Key autobiographies that conform to this definition are John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Simmers (1666), Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (1770; published 1781-1789) and William Wordsworth's autobiographical poem, The Prelude (completed 1805). One of the most famous biographies in history, relating closely to the discussion of autobiography here, is James Boswell's monumental The Life of Johnson (1791).

Autobiographical narratives have also played a major part in the development of English and American literatures; an influential text that precedes both of these national literatures is Cervante's Don Quixote—a picaresque novel, whereby the humorous exploits of an insane protagonist and his sidekick are documented. The importance of the picaresque is that plot development is generated by the individual, whereas in the preceding romance tradition, plot was largely pre-established and key events mapped out in advance. The rise of the English novel in the eighteenth-century was largely based upon the rejection of the traditional romance in favor of picaresque-style plots, meaning that the individual was key. In England, this shift in narrative towards the individual took place at a time of new classes coming into existence (the rise of the middle class) through changes in society and economics as well as rising colonial power. Novels such as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Roxana (1724), Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Francis Burney's Evelina (1778) all purport to be about their protagonist's life-experiences, for example with Robinson Crusoe being shipwrecked, and his life on an island that follows, or Gulliver's travels around the world, clearly relating to the new world being explored by British colonial explorers (Brobdingnag is what we now call Alaska and British Columbia). However, it is important to note that such eighteenth-century novels blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction: they might purport to represent the protagonist's life, but in reality, they were fictional constructs. Ian Watt has argued that “… the only likely analogues of Defoe's fiction are provided by some biographical form of writing, that all these forms consist of a loose stringing together of incidents in chronological sequence, and that they derive whatever unity they possess from the fact that all these incidents happen to the same person.”17 In other words, fiction gains structure from biographical writing, however minimalist that biographical structure might be. As the novel developed in England, through the analyses of society, hierarchy and place in the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century novels, through the great romantic heroines such as Catherine in Wuthering Heights, through to the exploration of the interior subject with modernism, character and plot became richer and richer. In a very brief timescale, immigrant autobiographies of the Great Wave of Immigration developed in terms of literary style, and character complexity, with the shift from first to second generation narratives, from immigrant autobiographies to immigrant bildungsromans. How was this rapid development possible? One answer is that not only did the immigrant author have a rich European literary tradition to draw upon, but also a thriving American literary canon.

During the seventeenth century, a popular form of narrative was the “spiritual autobiography” (or biography), a type of writing that brought together the individual's life, within a historical and religious framework of meaning. As Michael McKeon argues:

One of the formal advantages of spiritual autobiography is its capacity to maintain the basic biographical dynamic between individual life and overarching pattern through a more subtle narrative balance between present action and retrospective narration. The balance is registered as a structural interplay between the sinful present of the Character and the repentant retrospection of the Narrator, who, incorporating God's omniscience, knows how the story will end. This interplay lends itself, of course, to a very traditional sort of Christian pedagogy.18

Immigrant autobiographies can be thought of in an analogous way, whereby the “sinful present of the Character” is replaced by the unassimilated immigrant, and the “repentant retrospection of the Narrator” to the now assimilated narrator who has become an integrated part of American society. But this is to jump too far ahead. The real significance of these early spiritual autobiographies is in relation to the Puritan tradition of writing that was exported to America. The sermon and the personal journal were of far more importance than any deliberately fictional mode of expression (which is not to say that sermons and journals were devoid of literary expression: both drew strongly upon the Bible, a text rich with poetic imagery and multiple genres). Spiritual autobiographies were one of the earliest and most important modes of American literature:

Central to the Puritan's life was the question of individual election and damnation, the pursuit by each man of God's works, the relation of private destiny to predestined purpose. Besides the history and the sermon, there was the journal, the recording of the individual life. […] This commitment to self-scrutiny and conscience gives us, in the many journals, a remarkable access to the Puritan's inward life, their balance of self and society. In journals like Bradford's and Winthrop's, the public account, the history, of America begins … History and theology merge with autobiography in the Calvinist way, and autobiography—especially spiritual autobiography—became an accepted Puritan form, often intended for public circulation, from the personal accountings of the Reverend Thomas Shepard to the Spiritual Travels of Nathan Cole.19

While the novel, and dramatic, forms were being developed in England, nonfiction dominated the spiritual world of New England. While colonialism was generating new wealth, new class structures, and new novels in England, American prose-writing analysed in considerable depth the effects of being a colony, as well as political alternatives to British rule. One of the greatest American analytical autobiographies of all time was written between 1771 and 1788 (and published in 1791 and 1818) by Benjamin Franklin. Simply called The Autobiography this remarkable book was: “… not simply a personal narrative or even a classic story of self-help and individual progress, but a central document of the evolutionary growth and the intellectual motion of America itself.”20The Autobiography is in part an immigrant text (Franklin's family derives from England) and in part bridges the spiritual Puritan world of New England and the material, secular world of internationally powerful America, as well as the successful individual/author himself. In other words, The Autobiography provides a template for what is later called The American Dream: it is a success story, progressing through the positive development of the self: it is “… the story of the making of a self through useful employment of the world of things.”21


The majority of the texts categorized as immigrant experience autobiographies or novels were written during the rise of modernism which became the dominant literary movement in the west. Yet immigrant experience writing largely followed a realist mode of expression. The relationship with modernism can help elucidate the internal development of the immigrant experience narratives.

The notions of “authenticity” and “factuality” that are founding facets of autobiographical writing have increasingly come under attack by contemporary critics; through a rejection of the liberal humanist unified self, critics have placed under suspicion any type of writing that claims some kind of authorial control over the representation of self and meaning. However, immigrant autobiographies are all about making sense of the self via a process of intense dislocation and at times forced dismantling of values and beliefs, alongside the need to learn new ways of living and thinking. In the immigrant experience, the subject undergoes a three-part process: first, the “unified self” from the old world experiences disillusion and/or dissolution via the processes that lead to emigration (or emigration itself); second, the now “unstable self” (or “transitory self”) has to renegotiate the present realities of the U.S., as well as past-cultural contexts and future dreams and desires; third, if a success-story model is being followed, a new “stable self” emerges, often via assimilation or other signs of achievement. It is important to note that the third stage in this summary may be achieved via the successes of the children of immigrants: the second generation. Broadly speaking, contemporary criticism has been pre-empted by immigrant autobiographies, because the liberal humanist unified self is shown to be a myth by immigrant writers, as the self is intensively dismantled and reconstructed. Immigrant autobiographies do not always follow the route of the success-story, and even when they do, they reveal great psychic destabilization and anxiety generated by the demands of the new industrialized, largely secularized world.

In all of the above processes of dismantling and reconstruction, a realist mode of writing is usually stuck to: this is because, regardless of how aware we are of the rhetorical devices and structural focal points of immigrant autobiographies (i.e., the ‘key moments’ that appear in nearly all of the texts), such texts anchor themselves in the lived experiences of individuals. Regardless of the extent to which, as critics, we believe in the factual or fictional status of immigrant autobiographies, these texts represent, for their authors, their facts, their lives, their experiences. For the modernists in Europe and America, realism was no longer a genre that could express adequately the lived experiences of the machine age, of the city, industrialization and the horrors of the First World War. Modernists believed that the inner psyche or subjectivity needed to be explored in greater depth, and that literary and other modes of artistic expressed, needed to be developed to not only cope with, but be a constituent part of, that exploration. Authors, such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, all developed unique new ways of writing that have since become seen as some of the finest achievements of modernist writing. Such experimental modes of writing, especially the stream-of-consciousness, a key element of the modernist novel, are not entirely ignored by immigrant experience authors—instead, at times immigrant experience authors utilize new techniques, but in a way that makes them a part of the autobiographical or immigrant bildungsroman approach. An example of the latter is Roth's Call It Sleep, a narrative which crosses generic boundaries between American naturalism and modernism. The closing chapters of the book are an interweaving of precisely these two generic approaches, with the interweaving of local dialect and street-talk with the protagonist's stream-of-consciousness. Hana Wirth-Nesher relates this generic hybridity to cultural hybridity: “His [the protagonist's] hybrid Jewish-American identity … is forged in the clash of languages and dialects coursing through his consciousness in the book's climactic chapters. […] “He might as well call it sleep,” the evocative opening sentence of the book's last paragraph, moves into another indeterminate space, between waking and sleeping, that signifies the indeterminate cultural spaces David inhabits so uneasily.”22 The second-generation immigrant bildungsromans do tend towards the analysis of interior subjectivity in a way that immigrant autobiographies do not; for example, with the work of John Fante, the various protagonists, while having biographical connections to Fante's life and ethnic background, explore the construction of self via writing, or, aesthetic production. Fante's protagonists write themselves into existence, usually as a series of fictional constructs or characters; the protagonist as author is at times put across as a fantasy, at other times, a reality. But either way, the protagonist's identity is frail, fragile and quickly reverts to a childish, adolescent state of reaction and excess. While not, strictly speaking, adopting many of the literary procedures of modernism, second generation immigrant writing has an analogous concern with the interior subject, with exploring the twists and turns of the psyche's contradictions, and the fictionalizing tendencies and strategies of the unconscious/conscious mind.


  1. Mary Antin, The Promised Land (London and New York: Penguin, 1997), p. 135.

  2. Ibid., p. 139.

  3. Ibid., p. 141.

  4. Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers, p. 39.

  5. Marie Hall Ets, Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970), p. 163.

  6. Yung Wing, My Life In China and America (New York: Henry Holt, 1909), p. 21.

  7. Marie Hall Ets, Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant, p. vi.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid., p. xv.

  10. Ibid., p. 7.

  11. Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers, p. 226.

  12. Quoted in Fred L. Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative, p. 69.

  13. Quoted in Fred L. Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative, p. 199.

  14. Quoted in Linda Anderson, Autobiography (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 19.

  15. Quoted in Linda Anderson, Autobiography, p. 2.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ian Watt, The Rise of The Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (London: Hogarth Press, 1995), p. 106.

  18. Michael McKeon, The Origins of The English Novel, 1600-1740 (London: Radius, 1987), p. 95.

  19. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury, From Puritanism To Postmodernism: A History of American Literature, p. 17.

  20. Ibid., p. 42.

  21. Ibid., p. 45.

  22. Hana Wirth-Nesher, “Call It Sleep: Jewish, American, Modernist, Classic,” p. 395.


Representative Writers


Hallmark Works