The Euro-American Immigrant Experience - Long Fiction Analysis

The “old immigrants”

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

After 1820, European immigration to the United States began to increase greatly. Those who arrived between 1820 and the Civil War (1861-1865) are often referred to as the “old immigrants,” in contrast to the “new immigrants,” who began to arrive in the decades between the Civil War and World War I. Many of these immigrants came either from Germany, already the main country of origin for Americans who spoke a language other than English, or from Ireland. Germany, in particular, continued to supply the greatest number of immigrants to the United States, so that nearly one-fourth of Americans of European origin in 1990 reported that they were primarily of German ancestry. German was widely spoken in the United States until World War I, and many German American communities had their own newspapers and schools. Some of the earliest literary expressions of the Euro-American immigrant experience, therefore, were produced by Germans.

One of the most important early immigrant writers from the German-speaking area of Europe was the Austrian Karl Postl, who changed his name to Charles Sealsfield after his arrival in New Orleans in 1823. Among his other writings, Sealsfield published a widely readhistorical novel, Tokeah: Or, The White Rose (1828), set in the Neches River area of Texas. Later in the nineteenth century, another major German American writer, August Siemering, also wrote about the experiences of Texas Germans during the Civil War in...

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Scandinavian immigrants

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although Swedes and Finns settled in North America as early as 1638, when colonists established New Sweden at the mouth of the Delaware River, people from the countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland did not begin to arrive in the United States in large numbers until after the Civil War. Driven by political troubles and crop failures in their homelands, Scandinavian immigrants were exceptions to the general trends in immigration in two respects. First, they came from northern Europe, while most other immigrants at the time came from southern and eastern Europe; second, many of the Scandinavians settled in rural areas of the Midwest and became farmers, while immigrants from elsewhere generally settled in cities.

Establishing their own ethnic communities in isolated regions, Scandinavians were often able to resist Americanization and cling to their languages and traditions. They often wrote in languages other than English. The best-known Scandinavian American novelist, O. E. Rölvaag (1876-1931), wrote the two volumes of his masterpiece, I de Dage (1924) and Riket Grundlægges (1925), entirely in Norwegian. These two volumes became best sellers in Norway. They were combined in a single book for the English translation called Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie (1927). The English version became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and also a best seller in the United States, making the author a celebrity in both Norway and America. Rölvaag’s novel and its two sequels deal with the struggle to wrest a living from the American wilderness, and they exhibit nostalgia for the old country. These themes are embodied in the first book’s main characters, Per Hansa, possessed by the urge to conquer the wilderness, and Beret Holm, a woman homesick for the land and traditions of Norway.

The best-known Scandinavian writer who worked in English was the Danish American Sophus Keith Winther, who arrived in the United States as a small child and grew up on a Nebraska farm. Winther, like Rölvaag, wrote about the difficult lives of immigrant farmers in novels that include Take All to Nebraska (1936), Mortgage Your Heart (1937), and This Passion Never Dies (1938). It is interesting to note that while Rölvaag is still considered a classic American author and is widely read in courses on American literature, Winther’s work has been almost forgotten.

The “new immigrants”

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Most of the “new immigrants,” those who arrived after the Civil War, settled in cities. The United States industrialized rapidly at the end of the nineteenth century, creating jobs in urban areas. New York City, in particular, became a center for Italians and Jews from Eastern Europe. Unfamiliar with American ways and frequently impoverished, immigrants settled in some of the poorest neighborhoods of American cities. The term “ghetto,” an Italian word that referred to Jewish areas in Italian cities, came to mean an urban concentration of minority-group members of any ethnicity. The earliest novels about immigrants, then, concern life in the ghetto.

Abraham Cahan spent his childhood in a Lithuanian Jewish village and arrived in the United States without a cent in 1882. Cahan worked in New York sweatshops, became active in labor unions, educated himself, and became known as a cultural leader in the ghetto of the Lower East Side. He published his first novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, in 1896. Published just three years after Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Cahan’s novel is frequently compared to Crane’s, because both writers were dedicated to realism in the portrayal of the hard facts of urban life. Among other novels in the “tenement fiction” genre—writing concerned with the social problems of the urban immigrant ghetto—are James Sullivan’s Tenement Tales of New York (1895), about the Irish of New York’s West Side; Julian Ralph’s People We Pass (1896), about German and Irish youth in a New York tenement; and Isaac Kahn Friedman’s The Lucky Number (1896), about an immigrant community in Chicago.

One of the recurrent themes of immigrant fiction in the years before World War I is the struggle of immigrant laborers for social justice. David M. Fine, author of The City, the Immigrant, and American Fiction, 1880-1920 (1977), argues that the proletarian novel of the 1930’s grew out of the immigrant labor novel. One of the greatest immigrant labor novels, The Jungle (1906), about immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry, was written by a nonimmigrant, Upton Sinclair (1878-1968). Isaac Kahn Friedman produced another notable novel about immigrant labor in By Bread Alone (1901), a dramatic story of strikes in a steel mill.

The predominant theme among urban immigrant writers of the early twentieth century was the struggle to fit into American society. The Jewish Russian immigrant Elias Tobenkin treats this subject in Witte Arrives (1916), which tells the story of Emile Witte. Tobenkin’s hero had left Russia for America as a boy and managed to enroll at a university and then become...

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Later European immigrants

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The U.S. Congress passed legislation limiting immigration to the United States in 1924. As a result, immigration dropped drastically in the following years. In 1965, Congress changed the law to allow more people to enter the country, but the largest numbers of immigrants after 1965 came from Latin America and Asia, rather than from Europe. This meant that the immigrant experience in America largely ceased to be a European one. With the exception of older writers such as Henry Roth, most American authors of European Jewish, Italian, Scandinavian, or German ancestry in the 1960’s and after had grown up in English-speaking families who had planted roots in the New World.

Some native-born American writers did look back at the immigration experiences of their families. For example, in his memoir-history Unto the Sons (1992), the Italian American Gay Talese looks at his own family’s immigrant background. Among Jewish Americans, the mass murder of European Jews by the Nazis led to an intensified awareness of European Jewish heritage. American writers such as Philip Roth (born 1933), Bernard Malamud (1914-1986), and Saul Bellow (born 1915) present portraits of Jewish immigrants in the United States. Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) was one of the few Jewish American writers working in the second half of the twentieth century who was himself an immigrant. Born in Poland, Singer fled Europe for the United States in 1935, when he was thirty-one years old. He was a prolific author, and he composed many of his works in Yiddish, despite his fluency in English. Most of Singer’s novels are set in Jewish villages before World War II, but he did sometimes write about immigrant life in the United States. In Meshugah (1994; crazy), Singer describes the encounters of Polish immigrant Aaron Greidinger with Holocaust survivors in New York during the 1950’s.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Bilik, Dorothy S. Immigrant-Survivors: Post-Holocaust Consciousness in Recent Jewish American Fiction. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1981. Bilik examines the new-immigrant novel, specifically Jewish immigrant novels after the 1950’s. Argues that the Jewish immigrant, largely missing from American fiction after the 1930’s, began to reappear around 1957. Whereas older works about immigrants are concerned with the efforts of Jews to fit into American society, the new writing is haunted by memories of the Holocaust.

Di Pietro, Robert J., and Edward Ifkovic, eds. Ethnic Perspectives in American Literature: Selected Essays on the European Contribution—A Sourcebook. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1983. Collection of scholarly essays, each devoted to the literature of one European immigrant group in the United States. The essays examine literature both in English and in other languages.

Fine, David M. The City, the Immigrant, and American Fiction: 1880-1920. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1977. Still one of the best studies of American immigrant fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sets this writing in the context of U.S. immigration history and offers a particularly useful chapter on the writing of Abraham Cahan.

Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made. New ed. New York: New York University Press, 2005. In this classic book, Howe tells the history of the immigration of more than two million Jews from East Europe from the 1880’s to the 1920’s. Discusses their efforts to maintain a Yiddish culture while establishing themselves in the United States.

Prchal, Tim, and Tony Trigilio, eds. Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2008. Anthology of selections from key writers of the Progressive Era, when immigration from Europe increased and debates about it likewise rose.