Representation of Immigrants in Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Representation of Immigrants in Literature

Manner in which immigrants were portrayed as simplistic stereotypes or oppressed minorities in fiction, drama, and poetry of the nineteenth century.

The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century brought millions of immigrant laborers to America in a short span of time. This large influx of laborers created a sharp distinction between “settlers” and “immigrants,” causing many observers to be concerned with how these new arrivals would fit in to American society. The ideal of the melting pot was confronted by vast hordes of unskilled, uneducated refugees from unfamiliar places, and both established Americans and newcomers were uncertain about the desirability—much less the possibility—of assimilation.

Immigration increased dramatically around 1845, and between 1870 and 1900, approximately 12 million immigrants came to the United States. In the early decades of this influx, the majority of immigrants were Irish, German, and English. Over time groups came from Eastern Europe, including Russia and Poland, and from southern Europe, especially Italy. Each group brought with them foreign accents and manners that often threatened so-called “native” Americans (not American Indians, who were generally grouped with immigrants as ethnic “others”). One of the most popular ways for Americans to deal with their fears was through humor, in stage shows or other forms of entertainment that relied on ethnic stereotypes for laughs. Jews were lampooned for their perceived love of money and unusual dress, Italians were portrayed as lazy but sociable, the French as oversexed, and the English as foppish. The indolent, drunken, hot-tempered Irishman, however, was one of the most consistent character types, appearing as early as the 1850s and remaining a theatrical and literary staple well into the twentieth century. Ethnic humor, while appealing to the audience's desire to distinguish themselves from the foreign eccentricities of the immigrant, also made immigrants seem harmless in some respects, which some critics suggest was a positive result of such portrayals. For example, theatre scholar James H. Dormon has argued that “popular acceptance of the benign stereotype made it easier for the newcomers (or at least for their children) to be come ‘Americanized’ by undermining the potential for active resistance to their acceptance.”

As the immigration era continued, dovetailing with the Progressive Era at the close of the nineteenth century, sympathy for the plight of poor immigrants flourished in some circles, reflected in serious fiction detailing the squalor in which many immigrants were forced to live. Writers often reveal the ambivalence of established American society: the cycle of poverty entrapping many immigrants reflected poorly on the national image as the land of opportunity, yet even the most sympathetic of reformers were not always certain that full incorporation of the immigrants into society was a goal to be pursued. Well-meaning activists promoted “Americanization,” while Old World immigrants ridiculed those who abandoned their own culture for what they saw as the materialism and hedonism of American society. Both the journalism and the fiction of the era often depicted immigrants and long-term Americans working through this dilemma, sometimes in sentimental “tenement tales,” at other times in Progressive activist rhetoric.

For many, the crux of the “immigrant problem” was not national identity, but economics. Immigrants primarily came to America for work; their presence influenced the productivity of American industry, the formation of unions, and the employment of American-born workers. Often, immigrants were considered simply too lazy to be productive or to rise beyond the level of the unskilled worker, and their impoverishment seemed to be proof of their incompetence by the standards of America's work ethic. Walden author Henry David Thoreau echoed the sentiments of many Americans when he called the Irish laborers of the mid-century “shiftless” and hopelessly mired in their “boggy ways.” Yet, as Thoreau also feared, cheap labor from groups like the Irish made possible an explosion of industrialization, driving the American tendency toward excess and commercialism. Thus in the Northeast, immigrants were cast in the dual roles of boon to capitalist progress and thieves of American vitality. In California, the roles were much the same but racial issues heightened the tension: Chinese “coolies” brought to work on the transcontinental railroad and other projects were far more alien than the Europeans in New York and New England. Even literature sympathetic to the plight of exploited Chinese laborers raised the threat of miscegenation, innocent white girls seduced by men who were nearly of another species. Some writers, however, thought that Chinese workers could be the stepping stone for white workers, allowing them to move up into higher positions while the Chinese did the drudge work. As the Chinese migrated east after the completion of the railroad, several essayists proposed them as the “industrial reserve army” described by Karl Marx, meeting the needs of capital by enabling expansion and breaking union strikes.

The dynamics of immigration in England were quite different from those in America. England was not, as America was, in the process of establishing its identity as a new nation during the nineteenth century, nor was immigration a particularly new phenomenon. As the seat of the British Empire, England dealt with quite different tensions: British imperialism throughout the nineteenth century dominated large parts of the globe under the aegis of the “white man's burden.” Considering themselves to be racial superiors, the British felt obliged to rule over the lesser races, including Indians, Africans, Chinese, and their long-time colonists the Irish. The pseudo-science of physiognomy promoted this notion and allowed British scientists to group the Irish racially with Negroes, whose skulls were supposedly more apelike, a classification adopted by caricaturists, stage-players, and authors in Victorian England. Physiognomy was also a weapon turned against Jews, as the illustrations of Dickens's Fagin in Oliver Twist demonstrate. Generally speaking, however, Jews as a group fared better in England, and were able to advance their financial status in a way that eluded many Irish immigrants. The Jews and the Irish were among the older ethnic groups in England. The many revolutions in Europe during the nineteenth century also brought a wave of political refugees. Many were attracted by the relative stability of Victorian England, and England was relatively accepting. Among the groups seeking asylum in the nineteenth century were the French, German, Italian, Polish, and Russian, some of whom returned home, while others, particularly the Russians, were forced to stay for the sake of self-preservation. Political refugees were sometimes romanticized as adventurers, other times feared as the bearers of radical philosophies, but in either case they were the foreign Other, outside the firm boundaries of English identity.