Successive waves of immigration to the United States have produced myriad literary works by immigrants. Likewise, native-born writers have also traveled and lived abroad throughout the country’s history and have written from the unique perspective of being far from home. In both fiction and nonfiction, the literature of immigration highlights issues that are at the heart of the American experience: the search for self, the conflict between ethnic or national roots and individual identity, and the clash between cultures and generations.
Whatever metaphor is used to describe the ethnic makeup of the country–symphony, salad bowl, or patchwork quilt–the United States has been a nation of immigrants since its founding, and immigration has been a constant subject and theme of its literature. The very first works of American literature–such as
According to John Smith’s account of the settling of Virginia, the Native American chief Powhatan was about to have him executed when Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas intervened to save his life. This story became part of American lore, but some modern scholars believe that Pocahontas may merely have acted out a prearranged role in a tribal ritual that Smith did not understand.
Many of the classic works of American literature were in fact written by Europeans first venturing to America:
The first great wave of immigration after the founding of the republic occurred between 1830 and 1860 and was northern European in origin, including English, Irish, and German settlers. However, it was during the second major wave–from the 1880’s to the 1920’s and mainly from southern and eastern Europe–that the literature of immigration became a distinct literary form. The
In 1892, Ellis Island began operating as the port of entry, and millions of immigrants from Greece, Italy, Poland, and other Slavic countries poured into East Coast ghettos.
Clearly, to the more established residents of the United States, these new travelers–darker complexioned and speaking different languages–were the true immigrants, and the literature they produced only confirmed their foreign origins. Books by and about the new immigrants highlighted their struggles. One of the first works of American realism was
Works such as
Restrictive federal legislation enacted in 1921 and 1924 limited immigration through more than one-half century. When immigration picked up again after 1965, the main points of debarkation were not European but Asian, Caribbean, and Central American. At the same time, the
This new pride in turn spawned the rediscovery of older works of immigrant literature, and the creation of a new generation of ethnic writers. Both
Historians started to question the underlying assumptions and the very terms used to describe immigration and assimilation: Namely,
During the last decades of the twentieth century, the American literary canon was transformed, as publishers rushed to include forgotten or rediscovered writers in their anthologies. Ethnic writers stepped forward to claim literary prizes:
Israel Zangwill, author of the 1908 play that introduced the concept of the “melting pot” to the English language.
Any survey of American literature of the previous century or so confirms these trends. Such an examination might begin with the English Jewish writer
With the rise of a new ethnic consciousness after World War II, immigrant literature underwent an enormous transformation. The change was marked by the publication of
Caribbean immigration actually rose during the 1920’s, when the flow from Europe was slowing. Early writers such as
The literary outpouring since the 1960’s has been even more prolific, and almost every Caribbean island-state has been represented.
Puerto Rican writers have included
These themes of dual identity, the conflict between the desire for both ethnic roots and individual identity, characterize other Asian American literatures as well. The hardships of immigrant life were magnified for the
Literature and art do not recognize national borders as walls or fences but, like ideas, flow easily back and forth from one country or continent to another, and this is particularly true in the literature of immigration and emigration. In addition to immigrants writing about their experiences coming to the United States, writers throughout American history have emigrated to other countries and written from that perspective. For example,
Both immigrant and emigrant fiction and memoir record the lasting tension between ethnic or national roots and the desire for assimilation, the sense of living between two worlds. In the increasingly globalized, shrinking world of the twenty-first century, the literature of immigration can describe the movement of people between countries and cultures and thus make the journey for readers before they attempt their own. For this and other reasons, the literature of immigration will undoubtedly continue as a valuable and vital form in the American literary canon.
Ferraro, Thomas J., ed. Ethnic Passages: Literary Immigrants in Twentieth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Includes essays on Mario Puzo, Anzia Yezierska, and Maxine Hong Kingston, among other immigrant writers. Fine, David M. The City, the Immigrant, and American Fiction, 1880-1920. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1977. Fine studies the literature of the early twentieth century, when European immigrants crowded into urban ghettos–for example, Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). Klein, Marcus. Foreigners: The Making of American Literature, 1900-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. Literary history of the first half of the twentieth century from a radical perspective, which emphasizes its ethnic and proletarian nature. Concludes with detailed analyses of Mike Gold, Nathanael West, and Richard Wright. Payant, Katherine B., and Toby Rose, eds. The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Contains a dozen essays, including studies of O. E. Rölvaag and Paule Marshall, Jewish immigrant women’s autobiographies and Asian American narratives. Prchal, Tim, and Tony Trigilio, eds. Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2008. Anthology of selections from key writers of the Progressive Era, when immigration increased and debates about it likewise rose. Simone, Roberta, ed. The Immigrant Experience in American Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1994. More than six hundred entries describe individual authors, anthologies, and secondary sources for more than forty immigrant groups–from Armenian, through Irish and Italian and Jewish, to West Indian. Whitlark, James, and Wendell Aycock, eds. The Literature of Emigration and Exile. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1992. Includes essays on American female immigrants in Canada, Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, and a dozen other topics and writers.
Asian American literature
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin
Tocqueville, Alexis de