European American Identity and Literature Analysis

European American Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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)...

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Irish American Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Irish American literature is one of the oldest and largest collections of writing produced by a European American group. Before the Revolutionary War, the English were the majority of migrants to America. After independence, it was the Irish: Between 1820 and 1930, more than 4.25 million Irish immigrants came to the United States. For their first decades, life was hard, and they faced constant discrimination. The sign No Irish Need Apply could be seen on businesses into the twentieth century. The people Henry David Thoreau mentions in Walden (1854) at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are Native Americans, black slaves, and the Irish.

In spite of their tremendous difficulties, the Irish produced a cultural legacy in the United States second to none. A number of major nineteenth century writers—Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Dean Howells among them—had Irish ancestry that played no part in their literature, but dozens of writers used that heritage in their literary work. The first Irish American writer to gain national prominence was Peter Finley Dunne, the turn-of-the-century newspaperman whose fictional Irish bartender Mr. Dooley became the most popular figure in American journalism. Up until World War I, Mr. Dooley commented in Dunne’s columns on every important American political or social event—including immigration: “As a pilgrim father that missed the first boats, I must raise me claryon voice again’ the invasion iv this fair land be th’ paupers an’ arnychists iv effete Europe. Ye bet I must—because I’m here first.” Dunne’s sharp, often fatalistic humor was characteristic of much later Irish American literature.


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Italian American Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The largest immigrant groups to arrive in the latter part of the nineteenth century were Southern and eastern Europeans. Between 1820 and 1930, more than 4.5 million Italians arrived in the United States, and, like the Irish Americans, they produced a number of writers whose work expressed particular awareness of their background.

Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete (1939) depicts the squalid world of Italian construction workers, and is the classic expression of the Italian American experience. John Fante wrote a number of novels and short stories about the Italian American experience: Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938) tells of family life in his native Colorado. Ask the Dust (1939) follows the hero, Arturo Bandini, to Los Angeles, and Dago Red (1940) includes a number of family sketches. Jerre Mangione in Monte Allegro (1943) tells of a son who returns to Sicily and feels a mystical sense of being at home. The list of successful and popular Italian American novelists runs from Paul Gallico through Mario Puzo and Evan Hunter to Don DeLillo.

Italian American writers have in fact contributed to every literary genre. Bernard De Voto was one of the most important literary critics in the middle of the twentieth century, and John Ciardi was a preeminent American poet and translator. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso were leading members of the Beat movement of the 1950’s, and contemporary poets include Helen Barolini, Rose Basile Green, Diane DiPrima, and Dana Gioia. Finally, Italian Americans have become prominent journalists. Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (1977) is one of the best accounts of the Vietnam War, for example, and Gay Talese has written a number of volumes of note, including Unto the Sons (1992), about the Italian American immigrant experience.

Immigrant literature has often dealt with the American Dream, with its promise as well as with its collapse. More than most literatures, the body of work produced by European American writers has reflected the struggles of assimilation, the loss of identity in that process, and the pain of being split between two cultures. The heroes and heroines of European American literature—David Levinsky, Studs Lonigan, and Arturo Bandini among them—are often filled with self-doubt and search blindly for their identity. In those characters and their struggles, their creators helped to expand the definition and the canon of American literature.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Banks, James A. Teaching Strategies for Ethnic Studies. Newton, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon, 1991. Useful for the student as well as the teacher; relates key themes and concepts to texts.

Bourne, Randolph. The Radical Will: Selected Writings. Edited by Olaf Hansen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. An overview of Bourne’s ideas.

Fine, David M. The City, the Immigrant, and American Fiction, 1880-1920. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1977. A starting place for study of immigrant fiction.

Fuchs, Lawrence H. The American Kaleidescope: Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1990. Comprehensive review of American culture, in the context of a non-melting-pot metaphor.

Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1963. A landmark of ethnic studies, centered on New York City but with implications for ethnic studies in all America.

Greeley, Andrew. Ethnicity in the United States: A Preliminary Reconnaissance. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1974. Ethnicity of European origin is the focus.

Novak, Michael. The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: Politics and Culture in the 1970’s. New York: Macmillan, 1971. A central work in the revival of interest in ethnicity in the 1970’s and after.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Argues that ethnic literature is the prototypical American literature.