Emigration and Immigration in Literature

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Other Representative Works Of The Literature Of The U.S. Immigrant Experience

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2336

Each of the immigrant groups focused upon in this study have a rich literary heritage, an extensive body of immigrant narratives, novels and other texts that are beyond the scope of this essay. In this chapter, key representative works will be referred to and summarized, in the same order as the Hallmark Works summaries in chapter four.

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Early Italian American autobiographical narratives1 include Constantine Panunzio's The Soul of an Immigrant (1921) and Pascal D'Angelo's Son of Italy (1924). Panunzio's autobiographical work proceeds in the fashion of most immigrant autobiographies, moving from the homeland, to the new world of the US; the second half of his narrative is meta-textual (rising above the story world and commenting upon the characters or people within that world), whereby: “… Panunzio shifts away from self as subject and begins exploring the plight of the immigrant in America.” (p. 47) Critics disagree as to the extent such meta-textuality affects the narrative, although it must be pointed out that virtually all immigrant autobiographies have some level of self-reflective meta-textuality that begins to be generated by their thinking-through their new world relations and the plight of their fellow immigrants. As Gardaphé summarizes:

William Boelhower sees this shift [in the second half of The Soul of an Immigrant] as something that detracts from the narrative as story and turns the autobiography into rhetorical argument: “In taking on a public figura, he [Panunzio] sacrifices the existential dimension on the alter of the general view, and one is left with a strategy of sublimation rather than a more convincing praxis of synthesis. In this way, the second half of the autobiography becomes a sort of antinarrative, since the protagonist's movement through space is greatly diminished …” But through this shift Panunzio moves beyond his personal story and assumes a political pose as an advocate for his people.

(p. 47)

Pascal D'Angelo's Son of Italy adopts a more traditional immigrant autobiography structure, but includes a large number of pastoral poems within the text, presenting a world view which comes into conflict with the urban landscapes and foreign languages of the US.

D'Angelo's lyricism and poetic language is an important forerunner for Di Donato's 1939 immigrant bildungsroman, Christ in Concrete. The later works of Di Donato (fiction, nonfiction and drama) never achieved the popularity of his first novel, but they are important for an overview of this Italian American author; works include the critically unpopular sequel to Christ in Concrete, called This Woman (1958), as well as Three Circles of Light (1960), The Penitent (1962) and Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini (1960). As Dimoede argues: “In Immigrant Saint, Di Donato does a wonderful job of showing how Cabrini's dreams and prayers were vitally connected to her world of action. The love and sense of mystery Di Donato talks about in his own experience of life is evident in the biography of Mother Cabrini.”2 Di Donato's use of dream imagery and the vernacular (in style and rhythm) are clearly interlinked throughout his oeuvre.

John Fante's literary and nonfictional output is even more extensive than Di Donato's; apart from the hallmark work Wait until Spring, Bandini (1938), works include The Road To Los Angeles (completed 1936, published 1985), Ask the Dust (1939), a collection of short-stories called Dago Red (1941), and 1933 Was a Bad Year (1985) to name but a few of the key works. A work by another prolific Italian American writer, Jerre Mangione, called Mount Allegro (1943) offers an interesting alternative to Di Donato's and Fante's perspectives on America; as Gardaphé argues: “In Mount Allegro Jerre Mangione neither rejects the American Dream, as di Donato does, nor does he accept it, as Fante does. Through this autobiographical narrative, which describes his long trek from the ethnic ghetto into mainstream American life, Mangione debunks the melting pot myth and replaces it with the myth that the two cultures can be synthesized into a new culture, Italian America.”3 Another way of exploring Italian America is through the well-known godfather narratives (for example, Mario Puzo's The Godfather, 1969)—but these narratives are themselves countered by the “godmother” figures and narratives of female Italian American authors. Helen Barolini's Umbertina (1979) has an interesting perspective based upon her shuttling back and forth between America and Italy geographically and culturally: “Umbertina is a novel of self-discovery, a bildungsroman that spans four generations and can be read as the historical evolution of the Italian woman into the American woman …”4 Other key female Italian American works include Tina DeRosa's Paper Fish (1980) and Carole Maso's Ghost Dance (1986).5

An early work of Jewish American immigrant literature is Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917): “… published in the year of the Bolshevik Revolution … [the novel tells] the story of a diaspora Jew looking to America as the promised land and leaving shtetl life in Lithuania to search for “marvellous transformations.” Here the Columbus myth becomes a Jewish rite of passage as he shaves off beard and earlocks to follow the path from rages to riches, from the simple world of the shtetl to a new world of secularism, complex modern sexual relations, greed and alienation. It is the story of social success and moral dislocation that would find its echoes in many Jewish-American writers thereafter.”6 Michel Gold's highly politicized re-working of the Columbus myth took place not only in his most famous immigrant bildungsroman Jews without Money (1930); he also produced a significant number of plays, fictional and nonfictional works. Also published in 1917 was Elizabeth Stern's My Mother and I, a Jewish American immigrant autobiography which can be usefully read alongside Mary Antin's more well-known The Promised Land (1912), as Wendy Zierler does in her book chapter “In(ter)dependent Selves: Mary Antin, Elizabeth Stern, and Jewish Immigrant Woman's Autobiography.” Zierler asks:

What happens when Jewish women begin to write in a generic form in which there have been virtually no Jewish women's contributions in the past? What happens when this form is autobiography, a genre the definitions of which have been predominantly drawn from the ways in which remarkable men … wrote their lives? How does the Jewish woman immigrant autobiographer, a figure whose shtetl background often discouraged the development of an individualistic, autobiographical subjectivity, establish what feminist theorist Sidonie Smith has called “the discursive authority to interpret herself publicly in a patriarchal culture …”? What “anxieties” of autobiographical “authorship” … attend the writing of her autobiography, and what strategies does she develop to cope with these anxieties?7

Stern's autobiography, while more conventional perhaps than Antin's, being less assertive in a feminist sense, was re-written as such in a more critical way under the pseudonym Leah Morton, called I am a Woman and a Jew (1926); the latter narrative leads the protagonist back to a stronger sense of a Jewish identity.

Jewish American writing developed in myriad directions beyond these early autobiographical narratives and immigrant bildungsromans, via a large number of famous authors; Mark Schechner argues that fiction which reflects “… the Zionist impulse among American Jews turns out to be surprisingly small and largely concentrated in the writing of Meyer Levin.”8 Levin's fiction and autobiographical narratives include: My Father's House (1947), In Search (1950), The Settlers (1972), The Obsession (1973), The Spell of Time (1974) and The Harvest (1978). Related to the literature of the immigrant experience, Ruland and Bradbury argue that the “new Jewish-American writing”:

… concentrated on the nature of the American Dream, the rise of materialism, the experience of the modern city, the bonds that linked person to person in the moral chain. It documented alienation and disaffiliation but spoke, too, of new American opportunities and possibilities. It drew not only on the intellectual heritage of American writing and the line of naturalism, but on the Modernism of Europe, the heritage of Marx, Freud and Einstein. Many writers of lasting importance emerged: Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Delmore Schwartz, Allen Ginsberg, Meyer Levin, Herbert Gold, Edward Louis Wallant, Chaim Potok, Stanley Elkin, Joseph Heller, E. L. Doctorow, Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, Cynthia Ozick, along with critics like Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and Philip Rahv.9

There are significant numbers of early Chinese and Japanese American authors, although not all of them have received equal amounts of critical attention. Early autobiographical information about Chinese and Japanese American workers was collated by Hamilton Hold, in his The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans (1906).10 Apart from this volume, the main body of initial Chinese and Japanese American work was produced by the Ambassadors of Goodwill, such as When I Was a Boy in China, published in 1887 by Lee Yan Phou.11 Kim notes how:

Lee was brought to this country [US] at the age of thirteen as part of the Chinese Educational Mission … In When I Was a Boy in China, Lee includes discussions of his boyhood education and describes Chinese sports, games, food, clothing, folk tales, and ceremonies. He is profoundly aware of the stereotypes about China, and his book is a conscious attempt to correct these distortions, which he attributes to ignorance and which he believes can be rectified through the presentation of accurate information.12

Lin Yutang's My Country and My People (1935)13 is another fairly well-known work of the Ambassadors of Goodwill, written in an accessible and colloquial style: “… Lin tries to make the Chinese palatable to the American public and at the same time to demonstrate the urbanity and intellectual sophistication of which one educated Chinese is capable.”14 Other popular books followed, including The Importance of Living (1937), The Vigil of a Nation (1944), Chinatown Family (1948) and On The Wisdom of America (1950).15 Seeing the US from another cultural perspective proved highly successful in terms of readership and sales; key works here include America through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat by Tinfan Wu (1914), and An Oriental View of American Civilization by No-Yong Park (1934).16 Two successful immigrant autobiographies published mid-century are Pardee Lowe's Father and Glorious Descendant (1943), and Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945).17 Other Chinese American works from this period include Hazel Lin's The Physicians (1951), Eileen Chang's The Rice Sprout Song (1955), Diana Chang's Frontiers of Love (1956) and Chin Yang Lee's Flower Drum Song (1957).18 Jinqi Ling argues that: “Although these works offer complex representations of Chinese American life in the period from diverse perspectives, they are largely portrayals from upper-class points of view and consequently shed little light on the “existence of non-Christian bachelor population that represented the vast majority of Chinese Americans for nearly a century [Jeffery Chan 1979, 3].”19 Significant drama was produced by Frank Chin in 1972, with The Chickencoop Chinaman and later his The Year of the Dragon.20 Monica Sone's Japanese American internment experience narrative, Nisei Daughter (1953) is probably the best known among other internment works, such as Shelley Ayame Nishimura Ota's Upon Their Shoulders (1951), John Okada's No-No Boy (1957) and Milton Murayama's All I Asking for Is My Body (1975).21 Japanese American autobiographies in the 1960s and 1970s include Daniel Inouye's (with Lawrence Elliot), Journey to Washington (1967), Daniel Okimoto's American in Disguise (1971), Jim Yoshida's and Bill Hosokawa's The Two Worlds of Jim Yoshida (1972) and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's and James D. Houston's Farewell to Manzanar (1973).22 Much of the critical focus on Chinese and Japanese American immigrant experience narratives tends to skip quickly over the early autobiographical and fictional works; but the later literary writings are often retrospective, serious, in-depth studies of the immigrant experience, for example with the Japanese American internment and its effects. Therefore, the later literary works are still covering in effect a much earlier immigrant historical period.

Notes

  1. This Italian American section closely follows: Fred L. Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative.

  2. Matthew Diomede, Pietro Di Donato, The Master Builder, p. 30.

  3. Fred L. Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative, p. 75.

  4. Ibid., p. 125.

  5. Ibid., see chapter four for more information.

  6. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury, From Puritanism To Postmodernism: A History of American Literature, p. 334.

  7. Wendy Zierler, “In(ter)dependent Selves: Mary Antin, Elizabeth Stern, and Jewish Immigrant Women's Autobiography,” in Katherine B. Payant and Toby Rose, eds., The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature, Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1999 (Contributions to the Study of American Literature, Number 4): pp. 1-16; p. 2.

  8. Mark Schechner, “Jewish Writers,” p. 197.

  9. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury, From Puritanism To Postmodernism: A History of American Literature, p. 376.

  10. Hamilton Hold, ed., The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans (New York: James Pott & Co., 1906).

  11. Lee Yan Phou, When I Was a Boy in China, Boston: D. Lothrop Co., 1887.

  12. Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, p. 25.

  13. Lin Yutang, My Country and My People, New York: John Day Co., 1935.

  14. Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, p. 28.

  15. Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, New York: John Day Co., 1937; The Vigil of a Nation, New York: John Day Co., 1944; Chinatown Family, New York: John Day Co., 1948; and On The Wisdom of America, New York: John Day Co., 1950.

  16. Tinfan Wu, America through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat, New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1914; No-Yong Park, An Oriental View of American Civilization, Boston: Hale, Cushman & Hunt, 1934.

  17. Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter New York: Harper and Row, 1945

  18. Hazel Lin, The Physicians, New York: John Day & Co., 1951; Eileen Chang, The Rice Sprout Song, New York: Scribners, 1955; Diana Chang, Frontiers of Love, New York: Random House, 1956; Chin Yang Lee, Flower Drum Song, New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudhay, 1957.

  19. Jinqi Ling, Narrating Nationalisms: Ideology and Form in Asian American Literature, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 56.

  20. Frank Chin, The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.

  21. Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1953; Shelley Ayame Nishimura Ota, Upon Their Shoulders, New York: Exposition Press, 1951; John Okada, No-No Boy, Ritland, Ut: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1957; Milton Murayama, All I Asking for Is My Body, San Francisco: Supa Press, 1975.

  22. Daniel Inouye with Lawrence Elliot, Journey to Washington, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.,: Prentice Hall, 1967; Daniel Okimoto, American In Disguise, New York: Walker-Weatherhill, 1971; Jim Yoshida and Bill Hosokawa, The Two Worlds of Jim Yoshida, New York: William Morrow, 1972; Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar, San Francisco: San Francisco Book Co./Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973.

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