The new world culture and old country heritage of approximately fifteen million Americans of Polish descent are among multicultural America's best kept secrets. Historically a quiet minority, they have been eager to acculturate, assimilate, and melt into the mainstream. One of the consequences of this has been a failure to acquaint other Americans with Polish culture - its history and literature - or to establish a recognized ethnic literary tradition. This is not to say that there is not a Polish presence in American letters. From the 1830s and the arrival of the first significant body of Polish emigres, primarily officers exiled after the 1831 uprising against the tzar, American writers have created Polish literary selves in plays, fiction, poems, and in prose works numbering perhaps as many as two hundred. Many of these contain abbreviated characterizations, predictably simplistic portraits, or, in some cases, merely composite Slavic cultural representations. At the same time, a few writers of classic ethnic and immigrant fiction, such as Karl Harriman (The Homebuilders 1903), Edith Miniter (Our Natupski Neighbors 1916), and Joseph Vogel (Man's Courage 1938), have sensitively explored the culture of Americans of Polish descent. Despite their efforts, what has emerged, as Thomas Napierkowski, Caroline Golab, and others have argued, is a set of stereotypes that have in certain ways attempted to transform a culture into a caricature.(1)
Beginning in the 1930s, descent writers themselves began to examine the Polish self in a multiplicity of ways when Monica Krawczyk, Victoria Janda, and Helen Bristol turned to the immigrant generation as the subject of their poetry and fiction. Two decades later Richard Bankowsky produced a remarkable tetralogy about the arrival and dispersal of a turn of the century immigrant family. Bankowsky's A Glass Rose is perhaps the best novel about Slavic immigration in all of American literature. Wanda Kubiak (Polonaise Nevermore) and Matt Babinski (By Raz 1937) have described Poles in Wisconsin and Connecticut. In a series of novels in the 1970s, Darryl Poniscan followed the fortunes of the Buddusky clan in eastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere. In fiction for children, Anne Pellowski lovingly describes growing up ethnic in the Latsch Valley of Wisconsin. In numerous poems, The Warsaw Sparks, and his soon to be published memoir, Szostak, Gary Gildner explores both old and new world selves in sensitive ways. Most recently, Anthony Bukoski looks back to a rapidly vanishing Duluth community in Children of Strangers. In short, when one also considers the "Solidarity generation" of Czeslaw Milosz, Eva Hoffman, Stanislaus Baranczak, Janusz Glowacki, W. S. Kuniczak, and others, the Polish experience in American literature becomes demonstrable if not exceptional.(2)
Even so, contemporary writers of Polish descent face complex problems, some of which are, of course, shared to some degree by all those who write about ethnicity. An ever-narrowing definition of multiculturalism that virtually excludes Eastern Europeans is one. Competing waves of Polish immigrants, dividing the ethnic community into descendants of the largely peasant immigration of 1880-1914, a post-war influx of "displaced persons," and a newer, more highly educated, urban Solidarity generation, is another. Added to these are America's general unfamiliarity with Polish culture, originating during the period of great immigration when nativists tended to lump all Slavic peoples together and to promote caricatures and stereotypes of Poles in particular.
Stuart Dybek is a case in point. The author of numerous poems and short stories, including a collection of verse (Brass Knuckles 1976) and two collections of fiction (Childhood and Other Neighborhoods 1986 and The Coast of Chicago 1990), Dybek is among the first writers of Polish descent (who write about the ethnic self) to receive national recognition. Reviewers have praised him as a regional writer (Chicago) and as a social critic who sides with those on the margin. They have compared him with Bellow and Dreiser and pointed to his city landscapes and spare, terse dialogue while, unfortunately, ignoring the ethnic dimension in his work.(3) To be sure, Dybek does indeed write about the human condition. He gives us primarily initiation stories of urban adolescent males stretching into adulthood, expressing their sexuality, bravado and intellectual independence and realigning their social identity. Chicago with its particularized ethnic neighborhoods is a marked presence in their lives.
For Dybek, who grew up in southside Chicago, ethnicity is itself a natural and integral part of the human condition. The population in his neighborhood was mainly Eastern European and Hispanic. As he describes it: "The Eastern Europeans - Poles and Czechs - were migrating out; the Hispanics were migrating in. Each group had its own bars; they shared the same churches" ("You Can't Step Into the Same Street Twice" 43). Ethnicity, moreover, is also a condition of the contemporary literary experience. If not itself the central thrust of Dybek's work, it is one of those doorways, as he prefers to describe it, that leads to "some other dimension of experience and perception that forever changes the way one sees life" (Letter). It is no surprise therefore that ethnicity is everywhere in his works. In "The River," a Ukrainian kid fiddles a nocturne. The girl in "Laughter" is Greek. The upstairs neighbors in "Chopin in Winter" speak Czech. The eccentric teacher in "Farewell" comes from Odessa. Hispanics appear in a number of stories; but Polish ethnicity is the tie that binds Dybek's protagonists together and supplies the cultural temperament in his fiction. Young men are named Swantek, Marzek, Vukovich, Kozak, and Gowumpe. Grandmothers called Busha worship in churches named St. Stanislaus. Relatives refer to soup as zupa; the neighbors listen to the Frankie Yankovitch Polka Hour; passersby speak Polish. Here and there we hear about mazurkas, Paderewski, Our Lady of Czestochowa, babushkas, and DPs, a recurring reference to non-native born Americans of Polish descent.
But what kind of ethnicity is Dybek portraying and how does he, a third generation American at some distance from his cultural roots, choose to represent his own cultural heritage? What, in effect, is Polish about these stories and what is the relationship between old and new expressions of ethnicity inside and outside Polonia? To some, Dybek's fiction may appear to be anachronistic, in that his frame of reference excludes the post-war and more recent Solidarity immigration that has transformed the Polish community in the United States, especially in Chicago, the setting for much of his work. Dybek, it could be argued, understands ethnicity almost exclusively from the point of view of the peasant generation and its descendants. In truth, the period of immigration and old world ties has long ago ended for his ethnic Poles. Consequently, he does not focus on assimilation and acculturation; nor are his characters busily collecting and preserving bits and pieces of their old world heritage. To the contrary, his protagonists are young, streetsmart, third generation Americans who know little, if anything, about Poland's past or present or the cultural nuances of the immigrant generation from which they are descended.
If anything, Dybek shows this generation resisting its ethnic impulses even as it rushes toward them. His young protagonists are updated modernists who, like Stephen Daedalus or Alfred Prufrock, wander city streets content with their own alienation and superior to the urban blight and social chaos that surround them. They are loners, eccentrics, budding intellectuals. They have no conscious sense of themselves as Polish-American or as ethnic in the usual sense of descending from a common history, religion, geography, and set of traditions. They are consumed instead with adolescence, environment, friends - with life in deteriorating and changing southside Chicago. They prefer Kerouac, the White Sox, Edward Hopper and rock music. Dybek's young Chicagoans thrive on melancholy, feast on loneliness, inhabit the "hourless times of night" (Coast 84). They are refugees from Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," which Dybek features prominently in his work. At the same time, they are acutely aware that they ache for something they cannot name "but knew was missing," as the narrator of "The River" phrases it; and that "things are gone they couldn't remember, but missed; and things were gone they weren't sure ever were there" (Coast 25). Primarily, their narratives are remembrances of youthful things past.
For them, ethnicity and memory are interwoven naturally and succinctly. Consequently ethnicity in these stories is everywhere and yet almost beyond reach. Polish culture, for example, often enters through the back door. Dybek never identifies his characters as Poles, nor do they refer to themselves as Polish or as Polish-American. Polishness is rather cumulative, dependent partly on recurring signifiers and partly on the interconnectedness of the stories themselves. In "typical" fashion, he draws attention to the presence of cultural differences in the first few lines and then proceeds to develop a generic ethnic cultural landscape which seems to have few particular Polish markers. This approach is evident even in the first story in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. The title, "The Palatski Man," itself calls attention to otherness, although only midway in the story does Dybek explain that palatski, apparently a regional American corruption of plocki, the Polish word for potato pancake, was a food once sold by vendors in southside Chicago. In the first page the reader also encounters the Slavic-sounding name Leon Sisca and the Catholic mysteries of Palm Sunday. The children attend St. Roman's grammar school, have friends named Zmiga and another named Raymond Cruz, "part Mexican" and perhaps part Polish. In addition, the children define their surroundings in terms of their parish church, which distinguishes their neighborhood from the adjoining one where "more Mexicans lived." Apart from the fact that the palatski man stammers in "foreign English," no other overt references to ethnicity in general or to Polishness in particular occur.
This approach is repeated elsewhere. In "The Wake," Dybek looks at one evening in the life of Jill, a southside Chicago teenager whose surname and particular cultural heritage remain anonymous. Dybek, however, establishes Jill's parameters, physical and psychological, within an ethnic landscape. On her way to the wake, she hears the bells of St. Kasimir's church and walks along the street that serves as a boundary between her neighborhood and St. Anne's, "an old Slavic neighborhood that had become Spanish." She heads toward Zeijek's Funeral home, "a three-story building domed with its fake Russian onion" (Childhood 108). Reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Jill eventually drives off with an intrusive Hispanic whose ethnicity poses no threat to her. We learn that the culture of Jill's neighborhood is Slavic-Hispanic. She drives by the hot tamale man with his striped umbrella; she hears radios turned to Latin stations; and she refers to the young man's car as "Pancho." There is no dominant ethnic "theme" in "The Wake," no social or generational problems, no hint of cultural oppression or collision. Ethnicity is muted, understood, and natural - an integral part of the contemporary urban experience and cultural context - but not exclusively tied to national boundaries, even though one suspects that Jill might be of Polish descent.
In other stories in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, and elsewhere, Dybek constructs a more specifically Polish ethnic identity for his characters, their neighborhood, and their frame of mind. In "The Cat Woman" and "Blood Soup," the two stories that immediately succeed "The Palatski Man," Dybek repeats the pattern of the opening story, relying primarily on names, words, and surface features to establish an ethnic landscape. At the outset, the reader learns that buzka and busha are what some people call their grandmothers. The reader also meets characters with Slavic-sounding names such as Swantek and Stefush (a Polish diminutive for Stephen). The cat woman, Swantek's grandmother, fingers her rosary and tunes her radio to the polka station. She also shares cabbage soup with her neighbor, Mrs. Panova. In stories like "The Cat Woman," the ethnic markers suggest a composite Slavic cultural landscape although discerning readers might interpret the markers as the outlines of Polish-American culture.
A distinctly Polish frame of reference becomes evident only in "Blood Soup," the third story in Childhood, where, in addition to Busha "clutching the crucifix" and references to such old world Catholic practices as the kissing of holy pictures, Dybek includes more compelling evidence of Polish ethnicity. On occasion, he uses Polish words (usiadz, dziekuje, dupa, czarnina, rozumiesz) without translation. His young hero remembers the traditional Polish custom of blessing the Easter breakfast food: colored eggs, ham, bread, kraut, horseradish, and kielbasa. More importantly, in this story Dybek moves beyond ceremonies and the surface features of ethnicity when he tries to capture something of the old world temperament that differentiates Eastern Europeans from Americans and first generation ethnics from their descendants. At one point, Stefush recognizes that his grandmother is different in more substantive ways that merely her taste for czarnina, a peasant soup made from duck's blood. He senses in her "a kind of love he thought must have come from the old country - instinctive, unquestioning like her strength, something foreign that he couldn't find in himself, that hadn't even been transmitted to his mother" (Childhood 26).
Ethnicity, particularly the culture of Americans of Polish descent, is cumulative in Dybek's writing. Often one story clarifies and extends an ethnic dimension introduced in another. For example, in order to understand fully what Dybek means in "Blood Soup" by "a kind of love" that "must have come from the old country," we must turn to "A Minor Mood," published some seven years later. This is a familiar tale of immigrants and their descendants. Joey, a young third generation American, remembers attacks of bronchitis and his granny swooping down upon him, bathing his neck with a glob of Vicks and wrapping it in her babushka, applying camphor to his chest, filling the rooms with steam, mixing honey, lemon, Jim Beam, and boiling water for him to drink (and for herself too). These were mornings, he concludes, "to be tucked away at the heart of life, so that later, whenever one needed to draw upon the recollection of joy in order to get through troubled times it would be there" (7). All of "A Minor Mood," in effect, develops and expands the ethnic temperament alluded to in "Blood Soup," although a few ethnic signifiers can be noticed.
Only once does Dybek turn to what might be called a paradigmatic ethnic tale in order to define the contemporary Polish-American self. In "Chopin in Winter," a story about the conflicting claims of descent and consent, the aging Dzia Dzia tells his own story to his grandson - his trek from Krakow to Gdansk to avoid being drafted into the tzarist army, his immigration to the coal mines of Pennsylvania and the barges of the Great Lakes. At one point, Dzia Dzia's story melts into that of another Polish immigrant and national icon, Frederick Chopin. "Chopin," he'd whisper hoarsely to Michael, pointing to the ceiling with the reverence of nuns pointing to heaven" (Coast 19). More than telling his story, the old man provides a cultural frame for the third generation, creating an image of what it means to be ethnic.
Dybek does not mean to stop here, however, with romantic and sentimental notions of heritage; he is more interested in cultural fusion, in that uniquely American acculturating process described by Werner Sollors in Beyond Ethnicity as the tension between "our hereditary qualities" and our position as "architects of our fate" (5-6). Grandfather, for instance, mentions in "Chopin in Winter" that Paderewski dearly loved Chopin; but Michael does not know Paderewski, a sign of his distance from his cultural heritage. Instinctively, Grandfather connects their American and Polish heritages in a comic but revealing and shrewd fashion, by asking, "Do you know who's George Washington, who's Joe Dimaggio, who's Wait Disney?...Paderewski was like them, except he played Chopin .... See, deep down inside, Lefty, you know more than you think" (Coast 20-21). Even in this, one of Dybek's most "Polish" stories, cultural transmission gives way to a new cultural pattern of consent and descent. For Americans of Polish descent, ethnicity means knowing about Joe Dimaggio and Paderewski, Washington and Chopin, Disneyland and Krakow.
Ethnicity also means Catholicism; in fact, Catholicism in the form of childhood experiences with the church, the parochial school, or the religious practices and attitudes of the immigrant generation permeates these stories and poems and often is the singular definer of Polish culture. Even here Dybek concentrates not on Polish but on ethnic expressions of and responses to Catholicism. In a recently published chapbook, The Story of Mist, Dybek begins by wondering what it is "about the belly button that connected it to the Old Country?" To explain, he immediately turns to religious metaphors, noting that "outside, night billowed like the habits of nuns through vigil lights of snow," while Busha's "rosary-pinched fingers" promised to lead inward. But it is the tolling of the bells from the steeple of St. Kasimir's that serves as the umbilical cord between old and new world culture. When he hears them, he knows that "Krakow is only blocks away, just past Goldblatt's darkened sign" (5).
The parish church is thus the center of vision in a significant number of stories. In "The Wake," Jill uses the church steeple to locate her whereabouts in the neighborhood. Ladies murmur the rosary in front of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa in "Neighborhood Drunk." In a fit of madness Budhardin destroys the inside of the parish church in "Visions of Budhardin." Old women walk "on their knees up the marble aisle to kiss the relics" and Eddy and Manny try to visit all the neighborhood churches in "Hot Ice." "The Woman Who Fainted" does so at the 11:15 mass. Stanley's girlfriend lives across from the Assumption Church, leading him to call her "the Unadulterated one." To the young protagonists in these stories, the church represents the mystery of old world culture - of Polishness itself.
Consequently, Dybek frequently turns to childhood experiences with the clergy, the parochial school, and the rituals and mysteries of Eastern European Catholicism in order to develop plot and theme. There is little that is peaceful, consoling, or even attractive in these memories and experiences, however. We read about the cruelty of Father O'Donnel. We meet Sister Monica who loses her teaching assignment because she becomes hysterical in front of her fifth grade class. We listen to the narrator of "The Dead in Korea," remembering how he was made to kneel on three-cornered drafting rulers in parochial school. At the same time, Dybek writes about the mystical attractions of Catholicism that draw his young people toward familiar ritual and ceremony despite their growing skepticism. This is perhaps best expressed in "Hot Ice," where Manny and Eddie reenact a childhood ritual of visiting seven churches on Good Friday afternoon. They walk from St. Roman's to St. Michael's, from St. Kasimir's to St. Anne's, from St. Pius's to St. Adalbert's, then finally to the church of St. Procopius. At first, they merely peek in and leave, "as if touching base." But soon their "familiarity with small rituals quickly returned: dipping their fingers in the holy water font by the door, making the automatic sign of the cross as they passed the life-sized crucified Christs that hung in the vestibules where old women and school kids clustered to kiss the spikes in the bronze or bloody plaster feet" (152-53).
Dybek makes it clear that the pull of Catholicism is both spiritual and cultural and that it is rooted in the immigrant experience itself. He makes this connection through the recurring presence of old people, the last of the immigrant generation. Usually these characters are grandparents engaged in helping third generation youngsters understand their cultural identity. Dzia Dzia in "Chopin in Winter," Busha in "Blood Soup," the old man in "The Apprentice," and Gran in "A Minor Mood" all help to introduce their grandchildren to Polish history, tradition, and temperament.
At other times Dybek integrates the immigrant generation into the mystique of Polish Catholicism. He does this primarily through repeated references to older women involved in one form of worship or another. The narrator of "The Woman Who Fainted," intrigued by the ritualistic fainting that often occurs at the 11:15 mass, observes the hand of an "old woman in a babushka" that darts out to correct the dress hem of the fainting lady. In "Chopin in Winter," Mrs. Kubiak joins the regulars at morning mass, "wearing babushkas and dressed in black like a sodality of widows droning endless mournful litanies" (Coast 32). And in "Good Friday," a two-page story published in Gulf Coast, the young narrator, entranced with the church organ, the statues, Sister Monica, the incense and the holy water, focuses ultimately on the "old women, babushkaed in black, weeping as they walk on their knees up the marble aisle to the altar in order to kiss the relic" (98-99). These people, Dybek implies, are nothing less than old world culture transfigured into the new world. In this sense Dybek captures both the attraction and rejection of whatever it is that Polish culture has come to mean in post-war America.
In fact, rejection and denial and the subsequent reshaping of cultural identify are essential ingredients of the ethnicization that occurs in these stories. In a very real sense all of Dybek's fiction is about social disorganization and reorganization in the classic sense of these principles outlined by Thomas and Znaniecki in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. The alienation that exists in Dybek's younger characters results as much from cultural tensions, however, as it does from socio-economics and shifting philosophical perspectives. Typically, Dybek contrasts the immigrant generation with its third generation descendants with an eye toward showing cultural transformation, or he describes the simultaneous act of acquiring and rejecting a cultural past. While "ethnicity" is still the norm by which his protagonists view the world, Dybek insists that contemporary urban ethnicity must be defined differently from that of preceding time periods. Thus he attempts to differentiate between old and new ethnicity even in his ethnically Polish characters.
For example, while Dybek on the one hand offers sympathetic portraits of grandparents and other first generation Americans of Polish descent and sensitively explores the essentials of Polish culture, he on the other hand frequently presents these cultural representatives as eccentric grotesques out of touch with the times and their adopted culture. Typically he portrays the immigrant generation as the cultural "other" rather than as the cultural norm. In fact, the more Polish the characters are, the more eccentric and grotesque they and their cultural practices tend to look to the reader. The "Palatski Man," the opening story in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, sets this tone and outlines this direction. The palatski man, not dignified with any other name, is a rather frightening and threatening figure (at least to the two youngsters in the story). He is an exotic street vendor who appears to live with the peddlers, ragpickers, and other cultural outsiders in makeshift housing near an urban dumping ground. The food he sells is culturally unrecognizable although Slavic sounding. His white clothing and white cart, while ordinary enough, are undercut by his foreign-sounding English (although we never hear him talk) and his involvement in Palm Sunday Eucharistic rituals with other ragmen. Although we do not learn the palatski man's cultural heritage, his characterization, his ragged associates, and their surreal surroundings create an atmosphere of strangeness and alienation toward the culture represented by the word palatski.
This point of view permeates those stories involving Americans of Polish descent. In "The Cat Woman," Dybek almost rushes to associate ethnicity with strangeness when he calls the woman buzka, introduces her "crazy grandson as Swantek," and then proceeds to explain that Buzka drowned the excess neighborhood kittens in her washing machine. With this introduction, the ethnicity of the immigrant generation (buzka) and those (Swantek) who remain most closely associated with their old world habits is enough to divorce it from the cultural norm. "No one," Dybek succinctly comments, "brought laundry anymore to the old woman" (Childhood 23). The story ends with grotesque images of despair and degeneration. Swantek sleeps on old drapes beside the furnace, "vomiting up cabbage in the corners and covering it with newspapers," and Buzka and her old friend Mrs. Panova blow on their spoonfuls of soup "with nothing more to say," their radio turned to the polka hour. In other stories, we meet Big Antek, the local drunk; the uncle of Tadeusz, who spends his nights picking up the debris of a culture on the move; and Slavic workers missing parts of hands and arms that have been "chewed off while trying to clean machines" ("Sauerkraut Soup" 128). Such is the price of the old ethnicity, which in this case is represented as servile labor, alcoholism, a meanness toward animals, a taste for cabbage soup, and, most importantly, as descent from an inferior national culture.
In these rather traditional interpretations of second and third generation behavior, the usual signifiers of ethnicity - language, religion, history, customs and other conventional cultural markers - lose their privileged position even though they remain as a frame of reference. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his adolescent protagonists' ambivalent relationship with Catholicism, which in Polish terms is inextricably and historically tied to nationalism. In other words a rejection of Catholicism is tantamount in these cases to a rejection of national, that is to say Polish, identity. "Visions of Budhardin," "The Long Thoughts," "The Woman Who Fainted," and "Sauerkraut Soup" all dramatize the act of coming to terms with the religion of descent. One narrator, remembering his parochial education, explains what he regarded as the fear underlying religion, and reveals that the summer "after my sophomore year in high school was the last summer I went to church" (Coast 120). Those who continue to attend do so from habit and custom. In "Hot Ice," Eddie admits that "he had given up, and the ache left behind couldn't be called grief" (Coast 155). In "Visions of Budhardin," the protagonist, in a rage of pent up resentment, ravages the church which so callously ignored his childhood needs. But Marzek in "Sauerkraut Soup" speaks for all Dybek's disillusioned Polish Catholics when he says: "I had already developed my basic principle of Catholic education - the Double Reverse: (1) suspect what they teach you; (2) study what they condemn" (Childhood 127). The words and deeds of these characters document their hostility to the culture of their ancestors and their inability to any longer understand or sympathize with this kind of ethnicity.
In effect, Dybek shows the transformation from immigrant to ethnic and beyond. Throughout, a sense of loss is coupled with an acceptance of change as his spokespersons lament the disappearance of the Polish southside. The narrator in "Blight" returns to his old neighborhood after a few years and confesses that he "was back in my neighborhood, but lost, everything at once familiar and strange, and I knew if I tried to run, my feet would be like lead, and if I stepped off a curb, I'd drop through space" (Coast 71). Dybek thus points to a condition of ethnicity that characterizes the American Polish community as the recently published stories of Anthony Bukoski (Children of Strangers) also makes clear. In Dybek's stories, as in Bukoski's, the core of old world Polish culture is almost lost. Neighborhood demographics and Parish churches have changed, and only a few Polish-born Americans are left to transmit and interpret Polish traditions and customs.(4) In "Blood Soup," Uncle Joe's meat market is full of Mexican kids and Big Antek explains to Stefush that, in regard to his efforts to help his grandma make her beloved old world soup, "we don't sell fresh blood no more" (Childhood 30). Mrs. Gowumpe (pigeon, in Polish) tells Stefush how things were: "I used to work in the yards," he explains. "All those DPs working there...Polacks, Lugans, Bohunks. People who knew how to be happy" (Childhood 45). Now Mr. Gowumpe, grandma Busha, the palatski man, and the other first generation Poles are poor, isolated, lonely, and few in number. Nonetheless, they are the voice of cultural memory.
Dybek's fiction is not elegiac, however. Ethnicity is positive, pervasive, and dynamic in these stories; and the movement is toward a new understanding of ethnicity that is based not on national origins but on a shared sense of ethnicity as a condition of Americanness. Dybek's protagonists aren't Poles; they're not even Polish-American by traditional definition. They have, paradoxically, reinvented and reinterpreted themselves (Fischer 1950). For this generation ethnicity is a socio-political reality, a sensitivity to pluralism, and, as James Clifford phrases it, "a conjunctural not essential" state of mind. More than that, ethnicity is not even a necessary condition of descent because for Stuart Dybek cultural pluralism has supplanted nationality and a new level of multicultural awareness has replaced ethnocentricity. Dybek himself calls attention to this in an essay entitled "You Can't Step Into the Same Street Twice": "Besides the ethnic tribes of Slavs and Hispanics whose language and music and food smells permeated the streets, there was another tribe, one that in a way transcended nationality, a tribe of youth, of kids born to replenish the species recently depleted by WW II" (44-45).
In his stories, Dybek replicates the tribal and cultural landscape of Chicago. Those who live in the older ethnic neighborhoods have experienced a change from a basically Eastern European population to a mixed neighborhood of Americans of Hispanic and Slavic descent, primarily Mexican and Polish. More importantly, Dybek's third generation fellow Polish ethnics are just as frequently paired with Hispanic friends as with fellow "Poles": Ziggy Zilinski and Pepper Rosado in "Blight," Eddy Kapusta and Manny and Pancho Santoro in "Hot Ice," Ray Cruz and John in "The Palatski Man." There are few instances of ethnic rivalry in this landscape. Quite the contrary, the commingling of Latino and Slav is economic, sociological, and cultural - a product of shifting demographics and resulting neighborhood changes, the result of shared environment and social class. They both identify with and like "the other." From this a new sense of ethnicity - an emblem of contemporary America - arises.
On the surface, the new ethnicity appears to be nothing more than the camaraderie of friends thrown together by demographics. In reality, the union of Pole and Chicano represents the changing face of America and of Polish Americanness. Stanley Rosado is Pepper to some and Stashu to others, reflecting his Mexican father and Polish mother. When David, the descendent of Poles, goes to a bar with a friend, he drinks a Coca-Nana rather than vodka or piwo. The Mexican music on the jukebox sounds "suspiciously like polkas." David now listens to "CuCuRuCuCu Paloma" on the radio, and Eddie Kapusta sings in Spanish. Tellingly, Eddie identifies more with Spanish than he does with the Polish language. He is struck with the word juilota (pigeon). It seems the perfect word because in it "he could hear both their cooing and the whistling rush of their wings." Equally telling, Eddie cannot remember "any words like that in Polish, which his grandma had spoken to him when he was little" (Coast 136). Eddie's relatives may likely turn out to be Hispanic in the sense that Richard Rodriguez, in Hunger of Memory, believes that he may become Asian.(5)In the words of Rosalie Murphy Baum, "multicultural contact has defeated the ethnic norm"(70).
When all is said and done, Dybek's ethnic characters seem to say that "what they are" doesn't really matter in terms of history, language, geography. The new urban ethnic accepts ethnicity while rejecting nationality. Traditional ethnic borders give way to a heightened social and moral sense that replaces geographic maps and national origins. In "Hot Ice," Eddie Kapusta arrives at this insight: "Most everything from that world had changed or disappeared, but the old women had endured - Polish, Bohemian, Spanish, he knew it didn't matter; they were the same...a common pain of loss seemed to burn at the core of their lives" (Coast 154). Grandma in "Pet Milk" is illustrative. She knows about the old country and the new, where "all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the staticky right end" of the radio dial (168). Grandma also seems to know that ethnicity in America means something more than national origin. Consequently she is happy to listen to the Greek station or the Ukrainian or the Spanish although, of course, she would prefer listening to polkas. And in "Hot Ice," Eddie elaborates on the changing face of ethnicity when he admits to himself, "Manny could be talking Spanish; I could be talking Polish.... It didn't matter. What meant something was sitting at the table together" (Coast 151).
What also matters is that in Dybek's hands the Polish ethnic self assumes what some may regard as a new identity. And Dybek emerges as a writer who offers examples of the way experience, history, and ethnicity crossbreed. To be sure, Dybek does indeed try to present the preciousness of America's Polish heritage and the exceptionalism of the ethnically Polish American. He is, at the same time, eager to resist parochialism and exclusivity. His characterization of his young heroes and heroines as romantic rebels and urbanized American versions of Keats, Proust, Dostoevsky and others whom they have read, leads him beyond mere ethnicity even though his fiction is rooted in the cultural neighborhoods of southside Chicago. While attempting to capture the unique flavor of a particular ethnic group, Dybek has created a multi-layered and multi-dimensional ethnic self. This self reflects the image of a trans-ethnic urban America, a diorama of a diverse cultural landscape where ethnicity transcends national origins but remains vital and where the ethnic and the modern self are not only compatible but are the essence of postmodernism and, as Andrew Greeley puts it, "a way of being American."
1. See Napierkowski's "The Image of Polish Americans in American Literature." Polish American Studies 40 (Spring 1983): 5-44 and Golab's "Stellaaaaaa......!!!!!: The Slavic Stereotype in American Film." The Kaleidoscopic Lens: How Hollywood Views Ethnic Groups. Ed. Randall M. Miller. Englewood, NJ: Jerome P. Ozer, 1980. 135-55.
2. I have discussed these and other American writers of Polish descent in Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves: Ethnicity in American Literature. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.
3. Dybek's reviewers have concentrated on style, noting the grotesque, the bizarre, the fantastical, the dark, and the urban. Howard Kaplan's review of Childhood and Other Neighborhoods in Commonweal (23 May 1980): 319, is typical.
4. Children of Strangers is the newest collection of stories by Anthony Bukoski, author of Twelve Below Zero, who concentrates on the descendants of Polish immigrants in the Duluth area.
5. Rodriguez speculates at one point about the course of American demographics and applies the changing cultural face of the nation to his own situation. He wonders if his presence in an Asian community might not naturally and inevitably lead to Asian descendants.
6. Greeley, writing in New Catholic World (June 1976), disposes of the notion that ethnicity is "unamerican," arguing instead that ethnicity as Americanness is a "critically important phenomenon" (111).
Baum, Rosalie Murphy. "John Williams's Captivity Narrative: A Consideration of Normative Ethnicity." A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America. Ed. Frank Shuffleton. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. 56-77.
Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.
Dybek, Stuart, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. New York: Ecco P, 1986.
-----. The Coast of Chicago. New York: Vintage, 1991.
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