Emigration and Immigration in Literature

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The Issue

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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.


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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 America with oppression in Europe, he experienced that reality differed greatly from the American Dream. During the Revolutionary War, for refusing to take sides, he lost his farm, was imprisoned, and fled for England. On his return, he found that his farm was ruined, his wife dead, and his children missing. His book, however, recounts the promise of a nation in which such disturbances would not be the norm. The book remains as the tale of what America has always meant to immigrants.

Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle (1906) about Polish immigrants working in Chicago’s meatpacking plants. With its depiction of the immigrants’ squalid living and working conditions, Sinclair’s novel fits squarely into the tradition of naturalism. Willa Cather wrote about Swedish immigrants in Nebraska in O Pioneers! (1913) and about Bohemian immigrants to the same prairie in My Ántonia (1918). She also wrote about French missionaries in New Mexico in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). O. E. Rölvaag’s I de dage (1924) and Riket grundlgges (1925, translated together as Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie, 1927) are about Norwegian immigrants to the Dakotas. Kate Chopin wrote about the Creole culture in New Orleans in her novel The Awakening (1899) and in her short stories.

Internal Migrations

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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...

(This entire section contains 319 words.)

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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 novelInvisible 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

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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 twentieth centuries, Henry James wrote many of his novels and short stories about Britain and Europe; James found the tensions of Europe’s class system engrossing. Also in the early twentieth century, Ezra Pound, who was born in Idaho, found Europe a necessary aesthetic stimulus for writing poetry. Pound was particularly fond of Italian culture, especially opera, as is evident in his Cantos (1970). Pound aligned himself politically with Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Fascist dictator, for which Pound was charged with treason at the end of World War II. T. S. Eliot was another North American poet whose attraction for the Old World was aesthetic and political. Born in St. Louis and educated at Harvard, Eliot became a British subject, as did James.

Pound and Eliot were part of the lost generation, a group of American writers who, in the aftermath of World War I, found themselves emotionally and culturally adrift. The group included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane, John Dos Passos, and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, for one, set most of his greatest novels in Europe, with American protagonists who find themselves unmoored in events large and small. Fitzgerald was less influenced artistically by his time abroad than the other members of the lost generation, although his novel Tender Is the Night (1934) has a French setting. The Canadian writer Morley Callaghan was one of the lost generation. He and Hemingway met while both wrote for the Toronto Star, and they were in Paris together.

Many African Americans have emigrated to Europe in order to enjoy greater personal and artistic freedom than they experienced in the United States. James Baldwin and Richard Wright are best known for their works about the oppression suffered by African Americans in the United States, but both lived in France for extended periods. Other African American writers felt thwarted artistically in their own country because, as African Americans, they were expected to write about racial issues and they could not be appreciated on strictly aesthetic grounds. Chester Himes, who had great difficulty getting published in the United States, emigrated to France to write detective novels, and Frank Yerby left for Europe to write historical novels.


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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.


Critical Essays