European American Identity
Critics and scholars began to talk about ethnic literature only at the end of the period of unrestricted immigration, when the closed doors into the United States threw the assimilative process into a sharper, harsher focus. Probably the keystone work in this regard is Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, published in 1917. As David M. Fine has written in The City, the Immigrant, and American Fiction, 1880-1920 (1977), the noveloccupies a pivotal position in the history of American literature. It . . . stands at the head of a long line of twentieth-century novels which would portray modern urban America from the eyes of the city’s non-Anglo component. The novel’s ambitious mixture of material success and spiritual failure, its insistence on the high cost of assimilation, and its concern with the identity crisis bred by the Americanization process place it squarely in the forefront of twentieth-century “minority voice” fiction.
The themes that Fine lists permeated all immigrant literature, in nonfiction (essay, autobiography) and in fiction (short story, novel), through the twentieth century. Repeatedly after 1917, European American writers depicted in depth and detail the painful process of assimilation, the pull between native and adoptive cultures, the mixed feelings of insecurity and hope. Where does my identity come from—the protagonists of dozens of plays and novels and autobiographies asked—from which of my two selves? A whole range of replies were given, from full assimilation to marginality, but under the hegemonic hold of melting-pot theory, more often than not the replies were unclear and confused.
In 1916, the critic Randolph Bourne posed the basic problem in his essay “Trans-National America” by citing the failure of the melting pot. “We are all foreign-born or the descendants of foreign-born,” the Anglo-Saxon Bourne argued, and assimilation has clearly failed. “Assimilation, in other words, instead of washing out the memories of Europe made them more and more intensely real.” Bourne’s call for a truly multicultural and pluralistic “Trans-National America” would not be heeded for more than half a century.
Mary Antin’s The Promised Land (1912) is a sensitive and touching account of a young Jewish woman’s journey from rural Russia to urban America, and represents one end of the assimilative continuum, since it is an autobiography arguing for total Americanization. Her vivid description of the assimilation process is told through stories like the one of her father accompanying his children to their first day of school—and following his dream: “The boasted freedom of the New World meant to him far more than the right to reside, travel, and work wherever he pleased; it meant the freedom to speak his thoughts, to throw off the shackles of superstition, to test his own fate, unhindered by political or religious tyranny.”
Other autobiographers of the period were less sure of the truth of the American Dream. The Danish-born journalist Jacob Riis, who in How the Other Half Lives (1890)...
(The entire section is 1276 words.)