Emigration and Immigration in Literature

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JOHN FANTE (1909-1980)

The intergenerational experiences of an Italian-American family were fully lived by John Fante, who was born in Denver, Colorado on the 8th of April, 1909. Fante's mother, Mary Capolungo was American born, but her father was an immigrant from Potenza in the Italian region of Basilicata; Fante's father Nick had grown up in Abruzzi in Italy, moving to America in 1901.1 John Fante grew up in an environment of increasing suspicion held towards immigrants and their families, particularly towards Roman Catholics who were at the time the dominant immigrant group in Colorado. The American Protective Association had attempted to interfere with all aspects of Roman Catholic life during the turn of the century, and by the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan were becoming ever more powerful.2 As Fante's biographer notes, the Roman Catholic Church was depicted by racists as “… an oily foreign presence bent on subverting the American way of life … engaged in a secret program of infiltration of the country's most cherished institutions—its neighborhoods, its local governments, its schools—all in the cause of ultimate world subjugation.”3 John Fante experienced these institutions from the Italian-American perspective (he attended the Sacred Heart school and the Jesuit run Regis High School and College), yet he also became aware of ethnic diversity and difference, through the problems of poverty and marked cultural behaviour of Italian Americans that he knew, including most powerfully his own father.

Although Fante attended the University of Colorado for one term, the fictional image of himself that he had projected (a slightly older, “brighter” man from an academic perspective) could not last long, and he had to withdraw from his studies. The urge to become a writer led Fante back to university in 1928, but mixed results again led to an early termination of his studies in 1929. The next major move in Fante's life was to hitchhike to California, where he undertook work in the cannery industry as well as temporary or “casual” laboring jobs at the shipping docks. These raw labor experiences, including the racist divisions that were often part of the immigrant working man's life, were worked into several pieces of fiction, perhaps the most powerful being the description of the cannery in The Road To Los Angeles (completed 1936, published 1985). One of the most powerful literary influences on Fante was H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) a journalist and literary critic who had founded the American Mercury in 1924. Mencken had published a critique of organized religion in his book Treatise on the Gods and was a supporter of Bergson and Nietzsche (see his 1908 publication The Philosophy of Freidrich Nietzsche). Fante's intellectual and emotional investment in this writer who was offering him a completely new perspective to that of his Roman Catholic background was such that he started to write to Mencken in 1930, getting brief but supportive letters in response. Fante immersed himself in philosophy, reading the works of Bergson, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Spengler. These heavyweight philosophers were some of the leading secular thinkers of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, with ideas such as Nietzsche's ‘death of God’ and Marx's influential political analyses of economy and society. But Fante wanted to be a fiction writer, not a philosopher, and his readings of mainly German writers found their way into the short-stories and longer novels that he was working on. Examples of Fante's short-stories include “The Still Small Voices,” and “Jakie's Mother,” written in early 1933 while he was living in Long Beach, “Washed in the Rain,” which appeared in Westways (October, 1934)...

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and early versions of the novels, such as “Change It,” which appeared inScribner's Magazine (April, 1937).4

Another important influence on Fante's progression as a writer, was a teacher he studied with at Long Beach Junior College, where he had enrolled in 1931 for the fall semester. The teacher, Florence Carpenter, was a graduate of Cornell and Berkeley, teaching a section of English at Junior College called ‘Public Speaking.’ She also ran the ‘Skalds,’ the campus literary society which met every month.5 Carpenter's workshop approach to creative writing gave students the opportunity to express themselves and learn from their peers' feedback; one such occasion was when he gained appreciative feedback over his ‘confessional’ short-story called “Alter Boy”; encouraged to attempt to get the story published, Fante sent it to Mencken, who accepted it. “Alter Boy” was Fante's first serious literary publication, and it generated enough interest to lead to Alfred A. Knopf's request that he be sent any longer manuscript that Fante might be working on.

In 1932 Fante moved to Los Angeles, where he looked for work and a place to live. He visited the ‘hobo’ writer Jim Tully, who gave him advice on his short-story writing, leading to publication in the Mercury (“First Sacraments”). While serious writing was the aim, screenwriting's potential income also appealed; through new Hollywood contacts, Fante was soon attempting to move into the world of movie-scripts at the same time securing a contract with Alfred A. Knopf for his first, projected novel, called initially Mater Dolorosa. Fante used his experiences in Los Angeles to good effect; in Ask the Dust (1939) a central scene is an earthquake, based on the one which Fante and many others endured on March 10, 1933. A collection of Fante's short stories, called Dago Red was published in 1940, while screenwriting continued to make an important contribution to his income, his contacts in the industry in part leading to the film adaptation of his novel Full of Life (the rights to the novel having been bought by Columbia Pictures). Fante was now working for Columbia on a regular salary.

Although he suffered severe illness as he aged, Fante's work went through a process of rediscovery and publication by the Black Sparrow Press. His work also began to receive far more critical recognition from the general public, academics and other writers, most notably Charles Bukowski. Fante was involved in the revised interest in his work until his death at the age of seventy-four, on May 8th, 1983.


Di Donato's most famous novel, Christ in Concrete, closely follows elements of his own life; he was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1911, his parents coming from Abruzzi in Italy, a region between the Apennines and the Adriatic. Di Donato's father was a construction worker and his death, on Good Friday in 1923, became a defining moment in his son's life and vision as a writer. Initially, Di Donato became a bricklayer, but he was also writing about his father's death in a short story called “Christ in Concrete.” The story was first published in Esquire (March, 1937), reprinted in 1938 and then expanded into its novel form. As Gardaphé comments, Di Donato's best-selling novel “… was chosen over John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath as a main selection of the 1939 Book-of-the-Month Club.”6 The occasion of his father's death has haunted Di Donato ever since; in an interview with Matthew Diomede, he discusses catharsis, but also recounts the ongoing dreams that are generated by the trauma of such an event: “Why did I write Christ in Concrete? Because I dream every night and I'm on jobs … I'm always laying bricks, I'm always falling off scaffolds, I'm always saving my father …”7 The initial critical reception to Christ in Concrete was mixed:

In an early review, E. B. Garside calls him “a shining figure to add to the proletarian gallery of artists” [review in Atlantic, 1939] (292) … Louis Adamic, more sensitive, perhaps, to di Donato's immigrant characters, saw that Christ in Concrete was unlike the staple fare of the laboring class, “reflections of the economic treadmill on the tenuous cheesecloth fabric of an ideology” [review in the Saturday Review, August 26, 1939] (5). […] Warren French's The Social Novel at the End of an Era (1966) is the only book-length study of the literature of the 1930s to even mention di Donato. Yet while French acknowledges the “fresh and vigorous viewpoint” that Christ in Concrete brought to the American social scene,” he portrays di Donato as an example of “the very irresponsibility that destroyed the age.”


The latter is a reference to the fact that Di Donato was a member of the Communist party, which he had joined at the age of sixteen; the portrayal of the central protagonist, Paul, in Christ in Concrete through Marxist and Catholic perspectives, is one of the novel's unique features.

Di Donato continued to write after the publication of his first novel in a number of genres: his play The Love of Annunziata was published in 1941, two more novels following: This Woman (1959) and Three Circles of Light (1960). Nonfiction included two major works, The Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini (1960) and The Penitent (1962) as well as the widely read “Christ in Plastic” which appeared in Penthouse in December, 1978. In much of Di Donato's writing there is a sense in which the loss of childhood, suffered through the death of his father, comes to be a burden aligned with spiritual, social and sexual responsibility. In an interview Di Donato writes self-reflectively, but in the third person, of the loss of childhood: “He has no adolescence, no boyhood. You know that he is going to be indelibly, indelibly affected with the most responsible, profound, paternal sense—an almost godlike paternal sense—of responsibility …”9 Many of the themes of Christ in Concrete were returned to in the play The Love of Annunziata, which Di Donato started in Havana, completing only one act. He showed the work-in-progress to William Kozlenko who argued that the play was complete in itself, choosing to include it in American Scenes in 1941.10 With This Woman, Di Donato performed another act of catharsis, this time concerning not the unforgettable death of his father, but his own jealousy for his wife's previous sexual relations with her first husband. Di Donato recounts that during the Second World War he was a conscientious objector, moving from New York to a Quaker camp in Cooperstown; it was there that he met his future wife, Helen, who he subjected to intense questioning about her past: “When was the first time you had sex, this and that and everything else. Then she showed me pictures of her husband … I had absorbed all those facts that I should not have found out.”11 After transferring to another camp outside Philadelphia, Helen followed Di Donato, and again to a camp in Maryland. Eventually the couple were married, but Di Donato remained consumed with retrospective jealousy. The publisher Bennett Cerf suggested that Di Donato write about his bizarre jealousy and the resulting text was This Woman, published by Ballantine. However, the novel received mainly negative reviews and, apart from some more recent critical recuperation, did not sell well.

Di Donato's nonfiction includes work originally put together for a film version of a life of St. Mother Francesca Xavier Cabrini; the film never got made, but Di Donato utilized his material for a book version. As Matthew Diomede notes, the book was the main selection for both the Catholic Book Club and the Maryknoll Book Club in 1961.12 A darker, more powerful novel from a secular point of view is The Penitent. Based upon the true story of a young man who had attempted to rape, then murdered, a twelve-year-old girl, di Donato completed his research for the book by visiting the people involved in Italy, after receiving a book contract for the project. In both of these works of nonfiction, di Donato examines the spiritual and cultural contexts or backgrounds of Italian Immigrant beliefs and mythology, such as the incredible sense of forgiveness explored in The Penitent. Daniel Orsini argues that di Donato: “… subverts, even as he transcends, linguistic codes and fictional influence alike, not only through the self-presence of a transparent voice but also through the inner life that he projects out of that voice onto his characters and that is, ultimately, more intuitive than textual, more expressive than indicative.”13


MARY ANTIN (1881-1949)

The transformation of her name from Maryashe (Mashke for short) to Mary when she arrived in America signaled the biggest change that was the main feature of Antin's life: becoming an American. She was born on June 13, 1881 in Polotzk, Poland, at the time part of the Russian Empire. Her parents, Israel and Esther Weltmann Antin, initially had a comfortable lifestyle, inheriting a family business. However, through a series of illnesses that cost a great deal of money to treat, the business collapsed and the family were reduced to poverty. Israel Antin decided to emigrate to the United States and, three years later, in 1894, his family followed. Timothy Parrish argues that: “Besides her family, Mary Antin brought with her to America a Jewish identity which was already showing cracks in its traditional shape.”14 The issue of how Jewish identity is transformed by the immigrant experience is central to Antin's writings.

After a limited education in Polotzk, American schooling came as a welcome opportunity for Antin. Shortly after the voyage to America, she had documented the momentous event in letter form, suggesting an early ability at composing narratives: “In accordance with my promise to my Uncle, I wrote, during my first months in America, a detailed account of our adventures between Polotzk and Boston. Ink was cheap, and the epistle, in Yiddish, occupied me for many hot summer nights.”15 Yiddish was soon replaced by English in the public school, Antin quickly showed her talents, leading eventually to her acceptance into the prestigious Boston Latin School for Girls. Antin's earliest publication from her public school days was a piece called “Snow.” Her teacher, Miss Dillingham, submitted the childish piece to an educational journal (Primary Education) as an example of the impressive speed with which a “Russian” child could acquire the English language. Antin wrote of the moment when she first saw her words in print, as being transformative, marking the point where she consciously decided to become a writer. Miss Dillingham also encouraged the translation of Antin's Yiddish letter to her uncle, into English; in 1899 the English version was published as From Plotzk to Boston, misspelling her home town of Polotzk. The intersection of language acquisition and ambition was further transformed by an act of patriotism to the new homeland: Antin wrote a poem celebrating George Washington, reading it to her entire school. While the poem reflected again childish hyperbole and straining for effect, it was another cultural transition; as Antin wrote: “Naturalization, with us Russian Jews, may mean more than adoption of the immigrant by America. It may mean the adoption of America by the immigrant.”16 The publication of the poem in the Boston Herald was marked as a joyous occasion by Antin's family, although Antin later realized that her public notoriety was more about being ‘in the newspapers’ than having much to do with her expression of patriotic fervor in relation to George Washington.

While at the Boston Latin School for Girls, Antin came in to contact with Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) through the South End Settlement House. Becoming active in the local Natural History Club, Antin also met her future husband, Amadeus William Grabau (1870-1946) who was a geologist. Antin and Grabau married in 1901 in Boston, moving to New York, Grabau taking up a professorial post at Columbia University. Because Antin had not completed her studies at the Boston Latin School she was only allowed to audit courses at Barnard College of Columbia University, which she did from 1901 to 1904. However, her writing career was building strength; first with the serialization in five shortened installments of her autobiography The Promised Land in The Atlantic Monthly (starting in 1911), and then with its publication in book form in 1912. In 1914, Antin also published They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration. Werner Sollors notes that:

Antin's autobiography was exceptional among Jewish immigrant writing in the United States by becoming a big popular success. Reviews were often enthusiastic, and the book's welcoming reception in public libraries and educational institutions was especially remarkable … The Promised Land was also published in special educational editions with teacher's manuals and student questions … It has been taken, together with Abraham Cahan's fiction, as the beginning of Jewish literature in America …17

Antin became a spokesperson in support of immigration, working as a lecturer and political campaigner, keeping up a wide-ranging social life and correspondence, with political figures such as Theodore Roosevelt. While life was lived with intellectual intensity and commitment by both Antin and her husband, one of the most damaging events to their relationship was the outbreak of war. As Sollors comments, Grabau: “… argued for a neutralist position with some sympathy toward the German side in the war, lost his position at Columbia, [and] accepted an invitation to become director of research for the China Geological Survey and Professor of Paleontology at the National University in Peking …”18 Antin, however, strongly supported the Allied cause. As Antin's marriage gradually fell apart, she suffered a psychiatric collapse, and was taken in to care. When she emerged, her entire world had changed: no longer in a mutually supportive relationship and financially ruined, she turned to other strong causes, such as Zionism and mysticism, living the rest of her life in some poverty. Antin will be remembered by critics and readers, who may find themselves taking different critical stances towards her fiction (some people arguing for assimilation, some arguing for the need to express cultural difference, and so on), for her groundbreaking account of the early Jewish immigrant experience.

MICHAEL GOLD (1893-1967)

This prolific writer of proletarian literature and criticism, was born Itzok Granich on the 12th of April 1893 on Chrystie Street, New York. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Bessarabia, who were struggling financially, his father working as a peddlar and suspender maker.19 It was this poverty-stricken life that would form the backdrop to Gold's most famous novel, Jews without Money, yet it is important to note that rather than the immigrant “success story,” Gold writes a socialist critique of American capitalism. Such a critique could be seen as the American dream gone wrong, or, as embodying the liberal society that allows for alternative viewpoints and ideologies among its fellow citizens.

At the age of twelve, Gold left school to relieve his parent's poverty, gaining work at the Adams Express Company, where he served as a night porter, a clerk and a driver. Gold attempted to continue his education via public school (where he was known as Irwin Granich), with mixed results. A sojourn to New York University where he undertook one year of classes (1912-13) led to a semester at Harvard (1914). The year 1914, marks Gold's realization that socialist radical thought was the ideology that best explained the world's iniquities. In “The Writer in America” Gold narrates his conversion to socialism: “[he] … stumbled into a big demonstration of the unemployed in Union Square. I listened to the speakers … An army of cops attacked out of nowhere. I saw a women worker slugged to the ground. I rushed impulsively to help her and was slugged by a sweaty cop with the eyes of a killer.”20 Such an initiation was given political content via his reading of the Masses, and his ensuing membership of the American Communist Party.21 The Red Scare of 1919-1920 led to the further change of name from Irwin Granich to Michael Gold, a name he used for the rest of his life. Richard Twerk argues that Gold's radicalism is a damaging component of his otherwise fine writing abilities: “… in story after story and essay after essay, Gold allows Communist doctrine to interfere with his abilities as a writer, just as in his literary criticism he judges writers not on the basis of their ability to handle words but on the basis of their treatments of the working classes and their calls for an end to the Capitalistic system.”22 Such a critical perspective is fairly accurate for a large part of Gold's output. For example, the one-act play Money (1929), set in a tenement basement, contains some psychological insight, but also fairly crude pedagogic statements and performances concerning “money” as essentially being the evil behind the world's problems. The latter perspective also led at times to a hyperbolic opinion of the achievements of the Communist Soviet Union, for example in the essay “Can a Subway Be Beautiful?” where Gold describes the new Moscow Subway: “That express rushing out of the darkness of the tunnel was a locomotive of the future. An Express of Socialism. Its engines were throbbing with a different purpose. The open throttle was the speed with which the new life of the Russian masses was being built.”23 Gold calls the industrial Soviet landscape the base upon which “… the miracle of a Socialist society is being firmly reared.”24

Gold's writing life began well before publication of Jews without Money (1930); he had published an autobiographical fragment in the Masses in 1917, and further extracts of his work-in-progress appeared in the New Masses,Menorah Journal and American Mercury.25 But it was in his journalism and theatre that Gold thought he could really make a difference; not only had he been contributing to the Masses from 1914, as well as the Socialist New York Call, but he was also editing the Liberator (on editorial board 1920, one of three editors 1922 and editor in 1928).26 Theatre was an aesthetic form that could reach out to a wide range of people, as well as providing an intimate social space where political ideas could be performed. Plays written by Gold, such as the one-act Down the Airshaft (1916) and Money (1920) were produced by the Provincetown Players, where Gold met Eugene O'Neill.27 An important influence on Gold's dramatic aesthetic was a trip to the Soviet Union in 1925, where he experienced, and was influence by, Constructivist Theatre. In Constructivist performance, Vsevolod Meierkhold had developed a system of acting called “biomechanics” that “… aimed at removing superfluous or unproductive gestures and expressions from the actor's technique, thereby inaugurating a kind of theatrical Taylorism.”28 In other words, Constructivist Theatre emulated the factory production line and an increasingly industrialized society in its performances, expressing “lessons” learnt by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequent Socialist experiences. As Meierkhold argued: “We are always dealing in art with the organisation of material. Constructivism demands that the artist become an engineer as well. Art must be based upon scientific principles …”29 Upon his return from the Soviet Union, Gold attempted to put some of the Constructivist principles into practice. He was involved in the foundation of the New Playwrights Theatre in New York, where his Hoboken Blues was produced in 1928. However, it was not to be Gold's theatre that had a memorable afterlife, rather his far more powerful prose-fiction.

Jews without Money was published in 1930 to much critical acclaim. The book would later be translated into several languages and was reprinted as a paperback in 1965. Gold's use of realist descriptions and autobiographical knowledge was part of the proletarian approach to literature, rejecting the experimentalism of modernists such as Gertrude Stein. In an essay called “Gertrude Stein: A Literary Idiot,” Gold lambasted modernists for being representative of bourgeois thought and corruption. In Gold's opinion, the modernists had “… destroyed the common use of language.”30 In contrast to this subjectivist approach, Gold believed in blunt critical analysis and an aesthetic based upon everyday speech. He put his principles into practice in a number of ways, the most sustained outlet being his journalism published in the Daily Worker from 1933 until his death in 1967. Many of Gold's Socialist analyses now appear crudely reductive, especially from a post-Cold War perspective; however, Gold's contribution to proletarian literature was vital and he remains of historical importance and relevance.

HENRY ROTH (1906-1995)

Roth's biography is in some ways unusual for a writer who has made such an impact on the literature of the immigrant experience, because large parts of his life are to do with anything but writing; however, Roth's literary career is also quite unusual, because his reputation stems from a single novel: Call It Sleep (1934). Henry Roth was born in Tysmenitsa, Galicia in 1906, his father, Herman Roth, emigrating to the US to earn the money for the passage of his wife Leah and son. As Bonnie Lyons suggests: “As in the novel [Call It Sleep], before the mother and child arrived, the parents were emotionally estranged, for Henry Roth's birth date and paternity were in question, as is that of David Schearl, the novel's protagonist.”31 The Roth family initially lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn, moving in 1910 to Roth's much-loved Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the family lived until 1914. For Roth, the shift from a close-knit Jewish American community within the Lower East Side, to life in the multicultural neighborhood of Harlem was painful and problematic.32 This sense of the ground being pulled from beneath his feet informs the writing of Call It Sleep at many levels, not just those of social and geographical relocation in the novel, but also in myriad other ways, such as the shock of learning about the physicality of sexuality. In Harlem, the large Irish American population presented Roth with a different set of cultural codes and conventions to negotiate. Roth responded to this challenge by retreating into the safer world of literature, especially fairy tales: “The influence of fairy tales on Roth's work is apparent in two ways. First the gripping narrative line of the fairy tale is apparent in the narrative strength of Call It Sleep. Second, fairy tales often embody archetypal patterns of initiation, as does the novel, particularly in the climactic chapter.”33 Roth's schooling was fairly conventional, and he showed an interest in the biological sciences, enrolling in the City College of New York in 1924. However, two formative events literally changed Roth's initial direction in life: the successful publication in the college journal Lavender of a well-written essay called “Impressions of a Plumber” and, more importantly, contact with New York University poet and professor Eda Lou Walton, who also ran a literary club. Roth eventually moved in with Walton, joining a literary and intellectual milieu far removed from his Lower East Side Working Class Jewish origins.

It was in 1930 that Roth began to write Call It Sleep in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where Walton and her friends were gathered. Originally written following the typical structure of an immigrant autobiography, narrated in the first person, the book was gradually transformed into a powerful immigrant bildungsroman. The novel was completed in 1933 and sent to publishers in 1934, eventually being published by Ballou in the same year. As Lyons notes:

When Call It Sleep appeared in December 1934 the critical reception was, in general, extremely favorable, especially for a first novel. Considering the times [the Depression years], the novel sold well, going through a first printing of fifteen hundred copies and a second of twenty-five hundred. The chief adverse criticism the novel received was for its frank language and sexual descriptions. The liberal press gave Call It Sleep remarkably adulatory reviews, but particularly noteworthy is the wide variety of things the critics found to praise, including its realism, vision, use of language, characterization, and plot.34

Roth began writing a second novel in 1935 publishing a fragment called “If We Had Bacon” in Signatures: Work in Progress (1936). But Roth then abandoned his novel, destroying his working notes and manuscript. His relationship with Walton was deeply problematic: he suffered guilt for relying on her financially. In 1938, he started a relationship with Muriel Parker, whom he met at Saratoga Springs in New York. While Roth did initially continue to write short-stories, he eventually abandoned the writing life for a teaching post at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, where he taught until becoming a precision metal grinder in 1940. With his family, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1945, and then to Montville, Maine in 1946, where he had purchased a 110-acre farm. Roth grew increasingly close to his family and only sporadically wrote literary material. What followed this lifestyle has become a part of American literary history: the rediscovery of Call It Sleep initiated by Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler in the American Scholar in 1956 (critics were asked to write about forgotten novels/novelists), followed by the republication of Call It Sleep in 1960 in hardback (Cooper Square) and the more popular paperback edition in 1964 (Avon Books). The result of this republication was the novel's growing critical acclaim, public interest and widespread popularity. Roth responded to his newfound fame, and extra income, by travelling and turning once more to more serious writing projects; he moved to Albuquerque with his wife in 1968 after discovering their love of the area while visiting on a D. H. Lawrence fellowship. But this move was no retirement; Roth continued to write, publishing his Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle, A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park in 1994, A Diving Rock on the Hudson in 1995, and eight months after his death, From Bondage (1996). The final posthumous volume of the cycle, Requiem for Harlem, appeared in 1998. However, there is more material in manuscript form, and Roth's literary executors and editors may yet publish this material. Roth's extraordinary writing career thus ended with a substantial body of work that will undoubtedly be receiving sustained critical attention for many years.

THOMAS BELL (1903-1961)

Thomas Bell's father, Michael Belejcak, emigrated from the Austro-Hungarian village of Tvarosc in 1890, moving to Braddock in Pennsylvania where Thomas was born on March 7th, 1903. As with his most famous semi-autobiographical novel Out of This Furnace, the Belejcak family moved en masse to America, as David Demarest notes:

During the next decade, Michael's three younger brothers—Joseph, John, and Paul—followed him to Braddock, leaving behind a widowed mother but apparently no siblings. At least two Belejcak cousins in the village took the same route. Why so many in the same family chose to migrate—why so many others from Tvarosc and Sarisa found their way to Braddock—is a matter of speculation …35

Michael Belejcak was a steel worker, then became a bartender and ran a cigar store. He had strong religious beliefs and was very active in the church. Thomas Bell followed in the family tradition by working in the mills, but he also had a desire to write: “His cousin, Raymond Shedlock, remembers how he [Thomas Bell] would work the twelve-hour shift in the Donora mill, come home and pound the typewriter till four in the morning, sleep a couple of hours, and then go back to the mill.”36 Bell wrote briefly for the Braddock News-Herald, but needed a wider world than Penn State; he left Braddock in 1922, working first in the merchant marines and then moving to New York where he developed his writing.37Out of This Furnace was Bell's fourth novel: the first, called The Breed of Basil had been published in 1930, followed by The Second Prince (1935) and All Brides Are Beautiful (1936). After Out of This Furnace (1941) Bell published the highly regarded Till I Come Back to You (1943) which was made into a Broadway Play, and his final novel, There Comes a Time (1946). The novel All Brides Are Beautiful was turned into a film in 1946 called From This Day Forward (RKO), directed by John Berry, starring Joan Fontaine. Bell's final book was his memoir In the Midst of Life (1961) which he wrote in the knowledge that he had terminal cancer; the book was published in the year of his death. David Demarest argues that there are two themes which dominate Bell's works:

One is romantic—the centrality of the love story … The second theme is the argument for social justice, the critique of exploitative capitalism, and the support of unionism. Both All Brides Are Beautiful and Till I Come Back to You end, much like Out of This Furnace, with their heroes articulating political credos. The union theme is particularly effective in Out of This Furnace because it grows so logically out of prior circumstances, because Dobie can pick it up as such a natural fulfillment of his father's idealism.38

Bell's works are rich in historical detail, lived experiences and a profound knowledge of social and personal relations.



A complex heritage is reflected in the two names written instead of one: Sui Sin Far and Edith Maude Eaton. Born in England, with a Chinese mother and British father, Sui Sin Far emigrated first to Canada in 1873, and then to America in 1898. Of Sui Sin Far's parents, critic Annette White-Parks notes:

As a Chinese woman converted by the Christian mission movement invading nineteenth-century China, her mother, Lotus Blossom Trefusis, was among the colonized. As a British silk merchant, one of many exploiting China's silk coast, her father, Edward Eaton, was of the colonizer. Their two countries were at perpetual war, and their populations were segregated. Yet Lotus Blossom and Edward met, married, and had fourteen children. Sui Sin Far was the second child and the eldest daughter.39

Lotus Blossom Trefusis was a woman who had been taken to England and educated for the Christian mission abroad; she had returned to China where her religious training continued, interrupted by her meeting with Edward Eaton who had been set up in business by his family. The two married, unconventionally for the period, and returned to the silk industry town of Macclesfield in England. Little is known of this period, except for the fact that the family migrated to Jersey City in the US in 1867; they soon returned to Macclesfield, where they lived until 1871/2 when they again moved to the United States before going to Canada. Life in Macclesfield was problematic; with parents of mixed heritage at a time when ‘hybrid’ cultures were looked down upon, Sui Sin Far experienced varying levels of racism and intolerance. The precise factors behind the family's migration are not known; this was a time when many British people were suffering from unemployment and poverty. As Annette White-Parks speculates: “Perhaps North America's size and heterogeneous populations made it seem easier for a family that had violated social taboos to hide there than in a small English village. Perhaps the depression in the silk trade between England and China in the 1870s caused a slump in the family business, adding a financial incentive. Or perhaps Edward's family asked them to leave.”40

Living in Montreal, the Eaton family would still have been considered different from other westerners, and indeed the children suffered from racism and ongoing interest in their cultural difference, even though the main ethnic dividing lines in their neighborhood were between the English and the French. The family were quite poor, but Sui Sin Far did receive an education in school and then at home, before being forced to turn to work (selling homemade lace and her father's paintings) to help support her ever increasing number of siblings. By the age of eighteen, however, she was working in the offices of the Montreal Daily Star as a compositor and learning shorthand to become a stenographer. It was in American newspapers—such as Peck's Sun,Texas Liftings and the Detroit Free Press—that Sui Sin Far first began to publish her own humorous articles, followed by short-stories and essays in the Canadian Dominion Illustrated. Sui Sin Far initially published under her European name of Edith Eaton, but she gradually went through a self-politicization process and began to foreground her Chinese background. In 1896, in the Montreal Daily Star (21 September, 1896) she argued against raising the “head tax” on Chinese immigrants, and that same year, she was signing stories about Chinese existence in American journals with “Sui Seen Far.” All this was a preliminary for her leaving the family home in search of independence, first staying in Jamaica where her sister Winifred was working as a stenographer. Recovering from Malaria back in Montreal in 1898, Sui Sin Far worked for the Montreal Daily Star as a stenographer, until told to leave the East for her health: she traveled to San Francisco where her sister May was living.41 This was a period of great struggle; while some short stories were being published in Land of Sunshine and Overland Monthly, she was attempting to build a network of editorial contacts and other publishing outlets such as the Chicago Evening Post; her traveling between East and West coasts did enable her to build a considerable network, although she suffered from many rejections and disappointments; she constantly changed her home address, living in a number of towns such as Seattle and Boston. In 1907, much of Sui Sin Far's writing was destroyed in a train accident; she writes: “Through a wreck on the Great Northern Railway in North Dakota last Sunday night I have lost everything save life, my trunk containing all my manuscripts, scrap books etc., having been destroyed in the fire caused by the accident.”42 She did recover from this calamity eventually, and it may have even helped her start again with an authentic and powerful voice emerging; from 1909 she published her most acclaimed work starting with “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” in the Independent (66, 21 January 1909) and then a series of articles dealing with Chinese immigration and Americanization in the Westerner.43 In June 1912, the publisher A. C. McClurg printed Mrs. Spring Fragrance to some acclaim; during 1911 to 1913, further stories appeared in the New England Magazine and the Independent. As Annette White-Parks writes: “After this, Sui Sin Far appears to have vanished from the public scene altogether. No more letters or names in public directories have been located.”44 Sui Sin Far died on 7th April 1914 in Montreal.

Sui Sin Far's legacy to the literature of the immigrant experience is a body of writing that reveals the struggle involved in producing something new, something that went beyond the literature of the Ambassadors of Goodwill: a Chinese-American literature. S. E. Solberg argues that Sui Sin Far “… had to find a mode [of writing] that would enable her to deal with her own experience … but to do that meant to fall outside of the ‘maincurrents’ of American writing.”45 Ning-Yu argues that Sui Sin Far did have a literary role model: the pioneer author Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton).46 What these critical debates suggest is that Sui Sin Far needs to be read not only within the literary contexts of the time, but also through the biographical complexities of her life.


TOSHIO MORI (1910-1980)

Living through some of the most momentous events of the twentieth-century, Toshio Mori managed to convey profound historical change in his finely sketched descriptions of mainly ordinary Japanese American people, leading everyday lives, doing everyday tasks. Mori was born in Oakland in 1910, and grew up in San Leandro, in California. His appetite for reading, while a child, is one of the most powerful early images we have of his life. As Elaine H. Kim notes: “Toshio Mori had been a voracious reader of popular novels from the age of seven or eight, devouring between five hundred and one thousand library books each year. When he came across serialized versions of Marquand's Mr. Moto [Little, Brown & Co., 1936] and Kyne's The Pride of Palomar [Cosmopolitan Book Corp., 1921] in the library, he became acutely aware of the prevalent stereotypes of Japanese in American fiction.”47 Later on in his life, Mori became concerned to work against these stereotypes. Library books were not the only influence on Mori: his mother's stories, drawn from Japanese culture and told to him throughout his youth, clearly had a major impact. Combined with a healthy respect for the immigrant generation, oral culture shaped the stories Mori would eventually write. Mori's voracious appetite for stories extended across the canon: critics have noted the influence not only of French and Russian writers in his work, but also his admiration for the American writer Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), who had influenced more mainstream writers such as Hemingway and Faulkner. Anderson himself was particularly influenced by Gertrude Stein, forging an important link between modernist experimentalism and the literature of everyday, of common speech. He was also celebrated for his short-stories; as the critics Ruland and Bradbury note: “… Sherwood Anderson's cycle of linked short stories Winesburg, Ohio [1919], … did for a small Midwestern town what James Joyce had done for Ireland's capital in Dubliners …”48

Mori's life, for the most part, was fairly uneventful, living mainly in the San Francisco Bay area. But Japanese American existence, however peaceful, was rudely interrupted by the events of the Second World War, in particular the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941. By this time Mori was a reasonably established short story writer, having published his first stories in 1938 in Coast magazine: “By 1941, he had been published in the Clipper,Common Ground,Writer's Forum,Matrix, and the Iconograph …”49 In 1941, Mori's first major work had been contracted for publication by Caxton: his short story collection Yokohama, California. Scheduled for publication the following year, this may have appeared to be the beginning of some fame, if not fortune, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor put a stop to virtually all such Japanese American activities, and Yokohama, California would not appear in print until 1949. While he was nisei, a man born and raised in America, the Second World War meant an end to such subtleties in the minds of the American government. Mori was relocated, undergoing, as with some many others, a transformation of his identity: “In the camps, Toshio became, among other things, a government ward, an evacuee, an internee, a relocatee, a resident of Topaz Camp, Millard County, Utah. By 1949, he was simply a former this and that—of assembly centers, of evacuation camps, of concentration camps, of whatever, all under the jurisdiction of the War Relocation Authority, Department of the Interior …”50

Lawson Inada thus argues that the entire relocation process affected how Mori's reading public would receive him, leading to the imposition of an additional range of images and stereotypes upon the text, creating another layer of reader-response complexity. For Inada, this layering had a profound effect: “By 1949, as Toshio had become less of an author [because of all these additional stereotypes], the book had become less than literature—it was not to be read so much as inspected. It had been tarnished, not burnished, by time, and was lucky to have snuck back into print the way it did.”51Yokohama, California was thus, according to Inada, destined for obscurity, and indeed it did not initially sell well, even though it got some good reviews. Mori continued to write for the rest of his life, remaining virtually unknown until his recuperation in the 1970s: he was “… honored at Asian American Writers' Conferences in Oakland in 1975, in Seattle in 1976, and in Honolulu in 1978.”52 The Isthmus Press published Women from Hiroshima in 1978 and an anthology of his works, called The Chauvinist and Other Stories was prepared and published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center in 1979. In 1985, the University of Washington Press reprinted Yokohama, California, with a new introduction by Lawson Inada. Mori had been planning new stories until the moment of his death in 1980.


  1. Stephen Cooper, Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante (Edinburgh: Rebel Inc, 2000), p. 12.

  2. Ibid., pp. 24-25.

  3. Ibid., p. 25.

  4. Stephen Cooper, ed., The Big Hunger: Stories, 1932-1959 (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 2000), pp. 309-311.

  5. Stephen Cooper, Full of Life, pp. 80-81.

  6. Fred L. Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative, p. 66.

  7. Matthew Diomede, Pietro Di Donato, The Master Builder (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press/London: Associated University Presses, 1995), p. 102.

  8. Fred L. Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative, pp. 66-67.

  9. Matthew Diomede, Pietro Di Donato, The Master Builder, pp. 126-127.

  10. Ibid., p. 142.

  11. Ibid., p. 143.

  12. Ibid., p. 23.

  13. Daniel Orsini, “Rehabilitating Di Donato, A Phonocentric Novelist”

  14. Timothy Parrish, “Whose Americanization? Self and Other in Mary Antin's The Promised Land,Studies In American Jewish Literature, 1994, 13: 27-38, p. 34.

  15. Mary Antin, The Promised Land (London and New York: Penguin, 1997), p. 134.

  16. Ibid., p. 179.

  17. Ibid., pp. xxxi-xxxii.

  18. Ibid., pp. xli-xlii.

  19. See, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 9, American Novelists, 1910-1945, Part 2 (Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research, 1981) and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 28, Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, Ed. Daniel Walden (Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research, 1984).

  20. DLB 28, pp. 83, 84.

  21. Ibid., p. 84.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Michael Gold, Change the World! (London: Lawrence and Wishart, No Date), p. 135.

  24. Ibid., p. 136.

  25. DLB 28, pp. 85-86.

  26. Ibid., p. 85.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Christina Lodder, Russian Constructivism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 170.

  29. Quoted in Christina Lodder, Russian Constructivism, p. 170.

  30. Michael Gold, Change the World!, p. 23.

  31. Bonnie Lyon, “Henry Roth, 8 February (1906?-)” in, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume Twenty-eight, Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, ed. Daniel Walden, Detroit, Michigan, Gale Research Co., 1984, p. 257.

  32. Ibid.

  33. Ibid., p. 258.

  34. Ibid., p. 260.

  35. Thomas Bell, Out of This Furnace, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981, p. 416.

  36. Ibid., p. 421.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Ibid., p. 423.

  39. Annette White-Parks, Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), p. 10.

  40. Ibid., p. 17.

  41. Ibid., p. 36.

  42. Ibid., pp. 46-47.

  43. “The Chinese in America, by Sui Sin Far (Edith Eaton): Intimate Study of Chinese Life in America, Told in a Series of Short Sketches—An Interpretation of Chinese Life and Character.” Westerner, 10-11 (May to August, 1909).

  44. Annette White-Parks, Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography, p. 48.

  45. S. E. Solberg, “Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton: First Chinese-American Fictionist.” MELUS, 8, 1 (Spring 1981): 27-39; p. 32.

  46. Ning Yu, “Fanny Fern and Sui Sin Far: The Beginning of an Asian American Voice.” Women and Language, 19, 2 (Fall 1996): 44-47.

  47. Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, p. 163.

  48. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury, From Puritanism To Postmodernism: A History of American Literature, p. 274.

  49. Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, p. 168.

  50. Toshio Mori, Yokahama, California (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1985), Introduction to the 1985 Edition by Lawson Inada, p. xx.

  51. Ibid., p. xx.

  52. Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, p. 168.


Essay: Introduction


Literary Relevance Of The Literature Of The Immigrant Experience