The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature: Carving out a Niche

The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature: Carving out a Niche

The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature: Carving out a Niche

The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature: Carving out a Niche

Synopsis

Although many studies have been done of individual authors, at present few works exist which compare different immigrant literatures from the past and present. This work draws broad conclusions about the changes in American attitudes toward immigration and diverse cultures that are reflected in the literature. This book examines the representation of the immigrant experience in North American literature. Most of the chapters discuss the portrayal of particular ethnic groups by specific authors during a century of American and Canadian history. The introductory and concluding essays provide historical, cultural, and literary contexts for a comparative approach to the experiences of different ethnic groups.

Excerpt

More than forty years ago, in his now-classic study The Uprooted, the historian Oscar Handlin declared that when he set out to write a history of immigration in the United States, he discovered that the "immigrants were American history" (3). Today in the field of literary criticism it is commonplace to say that "ethnic literature" (of which immigrant literature is a part), in the past seen as a tributary or branch of the mainstream of American literature, is American literature. In fact, it is frequently argued that terms such as "ethnic," "immigrant," or the currently fashionable "multicultural" tend to ghettoize this literature and therefore devalue it (Ferraro 1; Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 8). As early as 1940, Caroline Ware in The Cultural Approach to History stated that the culture of immigrants "is American culture, not merely a contributor to American culture" (87).

Despite such positive support, the fact is that literature about immigration has had a long struggle to be accepted as worthy of scholarly study, and it is still seldom taught as an integral part of the canon of American literature. As Thomas Ferraro points out in his 1993 study of ethnic narratives, the first critical studies of Jewish immigrant fiction done by scholars such as Leslie Fielder and Irving Howe tended to dismiss this writing as "regional," narrowly parochial, and defensive, being overly concerned with prejudice and thus suffering aesthetically (2). In 1964 Daniel Aaron suggested that an immigrant writer could come into his own only by "dehyphenating" himself through coming out from "behind the minority barricade," and becoming a writer in a "universal republic" of letters (215). Such an artist did not have to give up ethnic subject matters, but somehow he had to universalize his material. In all of this criticism, there was the tacit assumption that ethnic subjects could not be universal, of interest to audiences outside the ethnic groups, or part of the main body of American literature.

In the 1970s, with the birth of the "new ethnicity" influenced by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, ethnicity suddenly became acceptable, in some circles . . .

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