Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930

Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930

Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930

Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930

Synopsis

For many years, America cherished its image as a Golden Door for the world's oppressed. But during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, mounting racial hostility along with new national legislation that imposed strict restrictions on immigration began to show the nation in a different light. The literature of this period reflects the controversy and uncertainty that abounded regarding the meaning of "American." Literary output participated in debates about restriction, assimilation, and whether the idea of the "Melting Pot" was worth preserving. Writers advocated-and also challenged-what emerged as a radical new way of understanding the nation's ethnic and racial identity: cultural pluralism.

Excerpt

The sight of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island must have made Henry James shiver. In The American Scene, his travelogue of the nation in the early twentieth century, he says that “any sensitive citizen” who witnesses the stream of newcomers being processed for admission will take on “the outward sign of the new chill in his heart.” The chill comes from confronting the “affirmed claim of the alien, however immeasurably alien,” to partake of “one's supreme relation,” namely, “one's relation to one's country.” Farther inland, James's sensitivity to the alien quality of immigrants has the same effect. He recounts pausing to watch some recently arrived Italians at work. While coming upon such a scene in Europe would have evoked “the play of mutual recognition, founded on old familiarities and heredities,” on American soil, it produces “a chill, straight away, for the heart.” The foreboding sensation occurs yet again when James has some trouble asking an Armenian immigrant for directions, and he explains the chill as stemming from the feeling that “there is no claim to brotherhood with aliens in the first grossness of their alienism.” James could have seen these people as members of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free or, perhaps, as Americans-in-the-making. Since his own perspective was that of someone who had returned to the United States after twenty years abroad, he could even have seen them as expatriates like himself. Instead, in James's mind, they were a chilling prospect for the United States.

By 1907, when The American Scene was first published, James's literary contemporaries and predecessors had devoted only scattered attention to immigrants. That same year, an anonymous editor for Scribner's contended that immigrant characters play an insignificant role in American literature and that even Jurgis Rudkus, the protagonist of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, “dwindles into insignificance as the story is unfolded.” However, in 1912, an editor for Current Literature introduces a story spotlighting such characters by announcing, “A distinct school of American fiction is gradually growing up among those who already discern the rare opportunities thus presented in the attempts of people from many lands to readjust themselves here to their new environment and to one another.” By 1923, Henry Seidel Canby could bemoan the “habit” of looking to immigrants for literary inspiration: “A born writer cannot see a booted Russian peasant woman in a subway car without desiring to write a story about her.” Willa Cather's My Ántonia joins Sinclair's The Jungle as works from this “distinct school” that have reached canonical status. While Sinclair and Cather exemplify native-born authors portraying immigrant experience, the movement also included immigrant authors as diverse as Anzia Yezierska, Sui Sin Far, and Claude McKay.

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