Emigration and Immigration in Literature

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The Literature Of The U.S. Immigrant Experience As Studied

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1496

Critical courses which involve the study of the literature of the US Immigrant experience take diverse approaches. For example, an immigrant experience book may simply be placed at the beginning of a long chronological list of American authors, or, a particular ethnic group may be studied, with one or two immigrant experience books acting as precursors to later, more contemporary work. Courses which focus purely on past immigrant experience literature often organize book lists by looking at a particular region or place (say, Penn State and in particular Pittsburgh, or New York) where immigrant groups congregated for work and social reasons, or, courses organize book lists purely by ethnicity. Another approach which is gaining in popularity, is to look at immigrant writings from a comparative perspective, especially in relation to shared or related immigrant experiences between the US and Canada; key immigrant authors within Europe and elsewhere also have related experiences which are worth studying in comparison.

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Often, courses which look at the hallmark works of the literature of the immigrant experience, are supplemented by documentary materials, for example, memoirs, recollections and historical archival materials, to give a wider framework to the study of the Great Wave of immigration, the Exclusion period, or the internment experiences. For example, a course examining Mary Antin's The Promised Land and Michael Gold's Jews without Money, might be supplemented by journalistic materials contained in edited collections, such as Allon Schoener's Portal to America: The Lower East Side, 1870-1925,1 as well as anthologized selections of immigrant reminiscences, such as Rhoda Hoff's (ed.) America's Immigrants: Adventures in Eyewitness History.2 For an historical overview, such material may be further supplemented by selections from a series such as “The Jewish People in America,” a five volume sequence of history books from the First Migration of 1654-1820, through to “American Jewry since World War II.”3

Courses which focus purely on one ethnic group, may compare the earlier literature of the immigrant experience with later outputs. For example, Sui Sin Far's short-stories and other writings may be compared with Jade Snow Wong's immensely successful Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945) and No Chinese Stranger (1975). Early Italian American writings, such as John Fante's or Pietro di Donato's works may be compared with later ‘Godfather’ narratives such as Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969), Gay Talese's Honor Thy Father (1971) or Giose Rimanelli's Benedetta in Guysterland (1993).4 Gardaphé goes further in his study of Italian-American literature to examine even more contemporary novels, such as Gilbert Sorrentino's Steelwork (1970), Splendide-Hôtel (1973) and Mulligan Stew (1979), Don DeLillo's Americana (1971), and Mary Caponegro's Tales from the Next Village (1985) and Star Café (1990).

Comparative approaches to immigrant experience narratives are increasingly popular, in part because they show an awareness of interconnected experiences and encounters in different nations. For example, the debates concerning Sui Sin Far's nationality—is she to be classified as American or Canadian?—reveal the importance of studying Chinese and Japanese American immigrant narratives in relation to Chinese and Japanese Canadian works. Important Canadian critical works, anthologies and edited collections, studied usefully alongside Chinese American materials, include: Edgar Wickberg's (ed) From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada,5 Kay J. Anderson's Vancouver's Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada: 1875-1980,6 Anthony B. Chan's Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World,7 and Evelyn Huang and Lawrence Jeffrey's Chinese Canadians: Voices from a Community.8 Important Canadian critical works, anthologies and edited collections, studied usefully alongside Japanese American materials, include: Roy Ito's We Went to War: The Story of the Japanese Canadians Who Served during the First and Second World Wars,9 Tomoko Makabe's Picture Brides: Japanese Women in Canada,10 Takeo Ujo Nakano's Behind the Barbed Wire Fence: A Japanese Man's Account of His Internment in Canada,11 Keibo Oiwa's edited anthology Stone Voices: Wartime Writings of Japanese Canadian Issei,12 and Ann Gomer Sunahara's The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians During the Second World War.13 The Japanese American and Japanese Canadian internment experience after Pearl Harbor has produced a powerful body of literature, including work by a non-Japanese author, David Guterson, in his award winning novel Snow Falling on Cedars (1994). However, one of the most celebrated Japanese Canadian novels covering this subject is Joy Kogawa's Obasan (1981), a novel which is most often studied alongside earlier Japanese American works such as Miné Okubo's Citizen 13660 (1946). Kogawa re-wrote Obasan for younger readers in a version called Naomi's Road (1986). Other Canadian works that are used in comparative studies include the Chinese Canadian Wayson Choy's short-story “The Jade Peony” originally published in 1979,14 reprinted in 1985, in the anthology Vancouver Short Stories15 and anthologized over twenty times since, as well as forming the basis of a novel with the same title.16 Italian Canadian and German Canadian immigrant narratives have received critical attention, for example in a study by Alexander Freund and Laura Quilici, called “Exploring Myths in Women's Narratives: Italian and German Immigrant Women in Vancouver, 1947-1961.”17 The maturing and significance of Italian Canadian artistic works can be compared with Italian American narratives, for example in a special issue of the Canadian Theatre Review on Italian Canadian Theatre.18

Comparative approaches to immigrant literatures can be productive in relation to Europe; one major Jewish British author will be mentioned here, Amy Levy (1861-1889). As Melvyn New notes:

In her twenty-seven years she had been the first Jewish woman admitted to Newnham College, Cambridge; had published three short novels and three slim collections of poetry; and had become a contributor to several major literary magazines, including Temple Bar and The Gentleman's Magazine, as well as to the “leading and almost universally read weekly newspaper among British Jews,” The Jewish Chronicle.19

Amy Levy's novels are The Romance of a Shop (1888), Reuban Sachs: A Sketch (1888) and Miss Meredith (1889); her short stories include “The Recent Telepathic Occurrence at the British Museum” (1888) and “Cohen of Trinity” (1889). Essays include “The New School of American Fiction” (1884), “Middle-Class Jewish Women of To-Day” (1886) and “Jewish Children” (1886). In Miss Meredith an Italian character migrates to America; in Reuban Sachs, Levy studies the rise of working class Jewish peoples to the middle classes in England, and examines them through what might now appear a dated perspective, although it is one of historical interest and importance. Melvyn New notes that the concern with the new waves of immigrants is dealt with mainly off stage.20 Levy can be studied alongside the rising “classes” of German Jewish peoples in America, and in relation to their initial fears about the new waves of Russian and other generally poorer Jewish immigrants; she is also an important early feminist immigrant author, and as such, can be compared with other key women immigrant writers in the US from the beginnings of the Great Wave of migration.

Notes

  1. Allon Schoener, Portal to America: The Lower East Side, 1870-1925, New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1967.

  2. Rhoda Hoff, (ed.), America's Immigrants: Adventures in Eyewitness History, New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1967.

  3. “The Jewish People In America,” General Editor, Henry L. Feingold; Volume I, Eli Faber, A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820; Volume II, Hasia R. Diner, A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820-1880; Volume III, Gerald Sorin, A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880-1920; Volume IV, Henry L. Feingold, A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream, 1920-1945; Volume V, Edward S. Shapiro, A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II; all published Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

  4. See Fred L. Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative, chapter three.

  5. Edgar Wickberg, (ed), From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982.

  6. Kay J. Anderson, Vancouver's Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada: 1875-1980, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991.

  7. Anthony B. Chan, Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World, Vancouver: New Star, 1983.

  8. Evelyn Huang and Lawrence Jeffrey, Chinese Canadians: Voices from a Community, Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1992.

  9. Roy Ito, We Went to War: The Story of the Japanese Canadians Who Served During the First and Second World Wars, Stittsville, ON: Canada's Wings, 1984.

  10. Tomoko Makabe, Picture Brides: Japanese Women in Canada, trans. Kathleen Chisato Merken, Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1985.

  11. Takeo Ujo Nakano, Behind the Barbed Wire Fence: A Japanese Man's Account of His Internment in Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

  12. Keibo Oiwa, Stone Voices: Wartime Writings of Japanese Canadian Issei, Montreal: Vehicule, 1991.

  13. Ann Gomer Sunahara, The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians During the Second World War, Toronto: Lorimer, 1981.

  14. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia Alumni Chronicle, 1979.

  15. Carole Gerson, ed., Vancouver Short Stories, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1985.

  16. See, for example, the anthology, David Stouck and Myler Wilkinson, eds., West By Northwest: British Columbia Short Stories, Victoria: Polestar, 1998.

  17. Alexander Freund and Laura Quilici, “Exploring Myths in Women's Narratives: Italian and German Immigrant Women in Vancouver, 1947-1961,” BC Studies 105-106 (Spring/Summer 1995): 159-182.

  18. Canadian Theatre Review, Theme Issue: Italian Canadian Theatre, edited by Maria DiCenzo, 104 (Fall 2000).

  19. Melvyn New, ed., The Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy, 1861-1889, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993; p. 1.

  20. Ibid., p. 30.

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