Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves

Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves

Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves

Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves

Synopsis

This book is a case study of the way in which ethnic identities are created and shaped by literature, focusing on the American image of the Pole from the 1830s to the present. Using a vast range of writings, some well known and others long neglected, Thomas S. Gladsky shows how the nineteenth-century view of the Pole as kindred spirit or "beau ideal" was supplanted by other literary models--anarchist, peasant, proletarian, antisemite--and culminated in the present-day idea of ethnicity as the heart of "Americanness". Part One traces the history of Polish ethnicity through the literary inventions of "host-culture" American writers, showing how these surrogates of "otherness" served the needs of a developing national literature. Gladsky deals tactfully with the delicate relationships between Poles and Jews in an extended chapter on Isaac Singer and other Jewish-American writers. He also offers extensive treatments of the writings of William Styron, Nelson Algren, Tennessee Williams, James Michener,and Jerzy Kosinski. In Part Two, Gladsky explores the Polish self through the lens of contemporary "descent" writers such as Gary Gildner, Anthony Bukoski, Stuart Dybek, Richard Bankowsky, and Anne Pellowski, who have created their own literary images while reflecting on their ethnic heritage. Throughout the book Gladsky links changing perceptions of Polish ethnicity to broader social and historical currents, showing how the Polish literary self has been a repository of American cultural history.

Excerpt

Can American literature help define the meaning of ethnicity? --WERNER SOLLORS

The ambiguity of the term "ethnic literature" is apparent in the definitions offered by contributors to one of the standard works on ethnic literary history, Ethnic Perspectives in American Literature (1983): Edward Ifkovic insists that ethnic literature must convey universal human concerns; Rose Basil Green argues that it must project continuing values unique to the group; Iniko Molnar Basa, speaking about Hungarian American literature, believes that it must be written by a member of the group; and Richard Tuerk states that Jewish American literature need not deal with the ethnic dimension at all as long as it is consciously concerned with the author's Jewishness. Others continue the debate largely on the grounds of inclusivity versus exclusivity. Objecting to ethnic exclusivity and biological insiderism, Werner Sollors has campaigned for a broader definition. In Beyond Ethnicity, he defines ethnic literature as works "written by, about, or for persons who perceived themselves, or were perceived by others, as members of ethnic groups" (7), to which he later adds, "including those nationally and internationally popular writings by 'major' authors and formally intricate and modernist texts" (243). However, Sollors's definition, which I have basically embraced in this study of Polish literary selves, is not without problems. According to him, the children's stories of Maia Wojciechowska and the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, even though they do not speak directly to the notion of ethnicity, are ethnic literature while two texts about the ethnic self--William Styron Sophie's Choice and Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire--are not. I recognize the danger of disclaiming Milosz, the voice of a transplanted Pole, but Milosz's poetry and his public comments stake no claim to the ethnic Polish self.

The question that occupies me is not so much what is ethnic literature and who is the ethnic writer but rather what and where is literary ethnicity. That is to say, I differentiate between "ethnic literature" and "literary ethnicity," in that the latter term helps to avoid the pitfalls inherent in the definitions offered in Ethnic Perspectives and other works. Literary ethnicity provides us with an approach to texts not . . .

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