Emigration and Immigration in Literature Analysis

The Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Much North American literature has been written by or about immigrants. Additionally, a significant number of North American authors have emigrated to other continents and written about their adopted homes.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Native Americans are only a small percentage of the population of North America, so it can be argued that virtually all North American literature has been written by immigrants from other continents. Chroniclers of the founding of the English colonies in the 1500’s and 1600’s were John White, John Smith, and William Bradford. The best collection is that of Richard Hakluyt, entitled Divers Voyages Touching the Discovery of America (1582). The Puritans Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor came in the seventeenth century from England to New England, where both wrote poetry. Another poet, Phillis Wheatley, was taken as a slave to Boston from Africa in the eighteenth century. England was denounced before the Revolutionary War by native son Thomas Paine, an immigrant to Virginia.

There were some voyage narratives written in French also. Jesuit missionaries to North America in the seventeenth century wrote reports in French that have come to be known as the Jesuit relations. These missionaries were great scholars and produced dictionaries and religious literature in various Native American languages. In addition, the seventeenth century produced voyage narratives in Dutch and Swedish.

Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecur left Normandy for New York, where as J. Hector St. John he wrote Letters from an American Farmer (1782) about the metamorphosis of a Frenchman into an American. Although Crèvecur contrasted favorably freedom in...

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Internal Migrations

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s long poem Evangeline (1847) is about the migration of the French Canadians from Nova Scotia to Louisiana after they were expelled from their homeland, Acadia, by the British in the eighteenth century. The Harlem Renaissance was a literary and musical movement instigated by African Americans who had migrated from the Southern United States to New York to find employment during and after World War I. The Harlem Renaissance also attracted many immigrants of African heritage from the West Indies. One such immigrant was the poet Claude McKay, whose British education in his native Jamaica resulted in a formal poetic style that was distinctive from the innovative jazz rhythms of Langston Hughes, an African American poet who migrated to New York during the Harlem Renaissance.

Another Jamaican who went to New York during the Harlem Renaissance was Marcus Garvey, who became leader of a movement that proposed to take all black people in North America and the West Indies back to Africa. Garvey is fictionalized in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952).

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is about people who are made to feel like immigrants within their own country during the Depression. When drought results in agricultural disaster and widespread foreclosure in Oklahoma, the farmers must leave to find work as migrant workers in California. After the Civil Rights movement in the United States in the 1960’s, American literature became an amalgam of books by and about immigrants from continents other than Europe. Many of the authors of these books were born in the United States, but their parents’ or grandparents’ tales of immigration form the basis for much of this literature. Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976) and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989) are classics of Asian American literature. Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo are notable voices of Latin American culture, as are Rudolfo A. Anaya and Rolando Hinojosa.

Emigrants from North America

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Many North American writers have, for various reasons, felt compelled to venture abroad. Some have traveled to seek adventure and cultures different from that of North America. Many have traveled to Europe in order to experience the culture that has most influenced North American literature. Others have traveled to escape prejudice and lack of opportunity.

In the early nineteenth century, Washington Irving was the United States’ first diplomatic officer stationed in Spain. The Alhambra (1832) is a collection of stories inspired by Irving’s life in Spain. Irving also wrote A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809) about Dutch immigrants in New York. Longfellow traveled in Europe, where his study of languages and literature was preparation for his position as the first professor of Romance languages at Harvard.

Later in the nineteenth century, Mark Twain took a tour of Europe and sent back journalistic accounts of his travels to a newspaper. Later collected as The Innocents Abroad (1869), these accounts reflect Twain’s opinion that Europe’s artistic traditions were stifling. In the work, Twain states his preference for the artistic freedom afforded him in North America, where there is no preexisting tradition to which he must conform.

Other North American authors have differed with Twain. In the late nineteenth and early...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Alba, Richard D. Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. Cites the decline of national origin as a basis for social division among European Americans and the maintenance of the line between European and non-European Americans in social division.

Boelhower, William Q. Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Adopts the stance that literature by minorities and immigrants should be assimilated into mainstream American literature.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan D. Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980. Contains interviews with fourteen authors.

Cheung, King-Kok, and Stan Yogi, comps. Asian American Literature: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988. Focuses mostly on primary sources, which are divided into Chinese American, Japanese American, Filipino American, and so on.

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. Debunks many widely held myths about the immigrant experience. Bibliography, index.

Fabre, Michel. From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Includes discussions of many notable African American writers.

Fender, Stephen. Sea Changes: British Emigration and American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Analyzes reasons for British emigration to America from colonial times until World War II.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. Distinguishes between Asian and Asian American identities, and between first and second generation immigrants.

Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. Discusses works by José Antonio Villarreal, Anaya, Hinojosa, and others.

Simone, Roberta. The Immigrant Experience in American Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. Arranges primary and secondary sources alphabetically according to immigrant group, from Armenian to Yugoslavian.

Sollors, Werner, and Maria Diedrich, eds. The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. A collection of essays, most of which focus on the diaspora as the defining moment in African American identity.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. Cites literary sources to describe the Asian immigrant experience.

Wilentz, Gay. Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Discusses three novels by African women and three by African American women.