Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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 Smith, JohnJohn Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (which was first published in 1624 and included the story of Pocahontas) or William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (1630)–were accounts of immigration and settlement in the New World.LiteratureLiterature[cat]LITERATURE;Literature[03250][cat]CULTURE;Literature[03250][cat]COMMUNICATIONS;Literature[03250]

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.

(Gay Brothers)

Many of the classic works of American literature were in fact written by Europeans first venturing to America: Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. John deJ. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, whose Letters from an American Farmer (1782) so accurately describes the new country and its inhabitants, was born in France. Paine, ThomasThomas Paine, who wrote effectively in support of the American Revolution, was born in England. Bradstreet, AnneAnne Bradstreet, considered the first American poet, was also born in England and immigrated to Massachusetts with her husband in 1630. []Olaudah EquianoThe Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) was the start of a long line of African Americans;literature ofAfrican American literature, much of it Slave trade;in literature[literature]the story of forced immigration during slavery. Even some of the classic works of the nineteenth century are tales of immigration. One of the most popular works by the poetLongfellow, Henry WadsworthHenry Wadsworth Longfellow was Evangeline (1847), which recounts the expulsion of French Canadians from Nova Scotia and their move to Louisiana;French immigrantsLouisiana during the eighteenth century, while the three central characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) are all recent English immigrants working out their fates in early Boston.

Literature of Second-Wave Immigration

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 Statue of Liberty;dedication ofStatue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor in 1886, and the lines from the Jewish American poet Lazarus, EmmaEmma Lazarus graced its base:

Give me your tired, your poorYour huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

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 Davis, Rebecca HardingRebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills” (1861), a story of Welsh immigrants;in literature[literature]Welsh factory workers in Virginia and the first in a line of exposés of the industrial exploitation of immigrants that would lead to Jungle, The (Sinclair)Sinclair, UptonUpton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), the story of Lithuanian immigrants;in literature[literature]Lithuanian immigrants scraping out a living in the meatpacking industry in Chicago (and a novel that helped enact the country’s first Pure Food and Drug Act).

Works such as Antin, MaryMary Antin’s Promised Land, The (Antin)autobiography The Promised Land (1912) described how the dream of Americanization could come true for European immigrants. Most accounts of immigration during the late nineteenth century tended to focus on the hardships of the process: The Danish-born journalist How the Other Half Lives (Riis)Riis, JacobJacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890), for example, documented unsafe conditions in crowded New York City tenements. Even when life was not physically hard, as in Chopin, KateKate Chopin’s novel The Awakening (1899), set in Creole areas around New Orleans, the conflict of different cultural codes could cause tragedy.

In 1916, "Melting pot" theory[melting pot theory];critiques ofthe critic Bourne, RandolphRandolph Bourne wrote in his essay “Trans-national America” that the idea of the melting pot was misleading. The first settlers did not have to assimilate into any existing culture, Bourne argued; immigrant cultures have always given vitality and variety to the country, and recent immigrants should hold on to their distinctive cultural habits. Many of the literary works of the period confirmed Bourne’s assumptions, even while most Americans ignored his plea. The protagonists in Cahan, AbrahamAbraham Cahan’s Yekl (1896) and The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) are RussianRussian immigrants;in literature[literature] Jews who end up lost between two worlds, their culture of origin and the country where they dream of success. Yezierska, AnziaAnzia Yezierska’s stories and novels, such as Hungry Hearts (1923), depict similar difficulties of assimilation, especially for eastern European Jews.My Àntonia (Cather)[My Antonia]Cather, WillaWilla Cather’s My Ántonia (1918) fictionalizes the hardships of Czech immigrants;in literature[literature]Bohemian (Czech) immigrants trying to eke out a living on the Western plains, while Norwegian immigrants;in literature[literature]Rölvaag, O. E.O. E. Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1927) is also set on the Western prairie and involves the difficulties for Norwegian immigrants trying to farm that harsh land.

Assimilation and Celebration

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 Civil Rights movement;and ethnic literature[ethnic literature]Civil Rights movement after the 1940’s had created a new ethnic awareness, a consciousness of ethnic contributions to so many areas of life in America.

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 Gold, MikeMike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930) and Roth, HenryHenry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934), for example, strongly autobiographical accounts of immigrant Jewish family life in New York’s lower East Side, were rediscovered during the 1960’s, while a decade later Bulosan, CarlosCarlos Bulosan’s classic autobiography of Filipino immigrants;in literature[literature]Filipino immigration, America Is in the Heart (Bulosan)America Is in the Heart (1943), was first reprinted (1973). During that same period, Kingston, Maxine HongMaxine Hong Kingston’s powerful fictional memoirs []Woman Warrior, The (Kingston)The Woman Warrior (1976) and China Men (1980) werepublished, as well as Mexican immigrants;in literature[literature]Galarza, ErnestoErnesto Galarza’s Barrio Boy (1971), an account of his family’s migration from Mexico to the United States.

Historians started to question the underlying assumptions and the very terms used to describe immigration and assimilation: Namely, Glazer, NathanNathan Glazer and Moynihan, Daniel PatrickDaniel Patrick Moynihan in Beyond the Melting Pot (Moynihan and Glazer)Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City (1963) and Novak, MichaelMichael Novak in The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: Politics and Culture in the Seventies (1971). The renewed interest in ethnic and immigrant literature led to new studies–for example, Klein, MarcusMarcus Klein’s Foreigners: The Making of American Literature (1981) and Sollors, WernerWerner Sollors’s Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (1986)–which in turn led to a number of new ways of viewing American literature. Ethnic literature, Sollors argued, is the pattern for American literature; according toKlein, most twentieth century American writers are “foreigners,” immigrants or the heirs of immigrants who reshaped the century’s literature.

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: Momaday, N. ScottN. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1969 for House Made of Dawn (1968), Walker, AliceAlice Walker in 1983 for The Color Purple (1982), and Morrison, ToniToni Morrison five years later for Beloved (1987). Writers emerged to tell the stories of every ethnic thread in the historical quilt of the United States. This discovery of ethnicity’s centrality in American life, as in the literary canon, meant that Americans increasingly embraced their immigrant backgrounds, often making or maintaining close contact with their countries of origin. Rather than producing stories of being torn between cultures, as in so many earlier twentieth century accounts of immigration, writers by the end of the century increasingly celebrated their ability to live in two cultures, to transcend borders and boundaries. Irish immigrants;inliterature[literature]Angela’s Ashes (McCourt)McCourt, FrankFrank McCourt’s popular memoir of his impoverished Irish childhood, Angela’s Ashes (1996), was both a celebration of the strengths of his Irish mother in the face of grinding poverty and a tribute to his success in the United States. Increasingly, writers could view both their pasts and their futures without fear or tension.

Israel Zangwill, author of the 1908 play that introduced the concept of the “melting pot” to the English language.

(Library of Congress)

Any survey of American literature of the previous century or so confirms these trends. Such an examination might begin with the English Jewish writer Zangwill, IsraelIsrael Zangwill’s popular 1908 play Melting-Pot, The (Zangwill)The Melting-Pot, which described the immigration process at the same time that it coined a misnomer to describe it. Dunne, Finley PeterFinley Peter Dunne, the Chicago newspaper columnist, created the fictional Irish bartender Mr. Dooley, who commented on every social and political event up to World War I, including immigration. A Dutch immigrant to the United States called his autobiography Bok, EdwardThe Americanization of Edward Bok (1920), while an immigrant from Slovenian immigrants;in literature[literature]Slovenia, Adamic, LouisLouis Adamic, published Laughing in the Jungle: The Autobiography of an Immigrant in America in 1932 and My America in 1938. Irish immigration was touched on inStuds Lonigan (Farrell)Farrell, James T.James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy (1935); Italian American life in Donato, Pietro diPietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete(1939) and Fante, JohnJohn Fante’s Wait Until Spring and Bandini (1938). Bell, ThomasThomas Bell wrote Out of This Furnace (1941), a novel detailing the hardships of immigrant Slovak immigrants;in literature[literature]Iron and steel industry;Slovak immigrantsSlovak laborers in western Pennsylvania steel mills, while Saroyan, WilliamWilliam Saroyan made comedy out of the difficulties of his Armenian immigrants;in literature[literature]Armenian family in Fresno, California, in The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934) and My Name Is Aram (1940). All ofthese works explored, in various degrees, the struggles of assimilation, the loss of individual identity in that process, and the pain of being torn between two cultures.

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 Roots: The Saga of an American Family (Haley)Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), which traced Haley, AlexAlex Haley’s ancestors back to Africa before slavery, became an enormously popular Television;Rootstelevision series and helped to encourage similar discoveries in other ethnic histories. After Haley, new ethnic literary groups emerged, and new attitudes toward immigrant history were born. Older European immigrant groups would continue to be represented in the more diverse American literary range–for example, Polish American Kosinski, JerzyJerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird (1965) or Italian American Puzo, MarioMario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969)–but more immigrant literature was coming from other continents.

Caribbean Literature

Caribbean immigration actually rose during the 1920’s, when the flow from Europe was slowing. Early writers such as West Indian immigrants;in literature[literature]McKay, ClaudeClaude McKay, who migrated from Jamaica in 1912, became a part of the African Americans;literature ofAfrican American literary boom of the Harlem RenaissanceHarlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. McKay’s poetry was collected in Harlem Shadows (1922), and his novel Home to Harlem was published in 1928. The next generation helped to carve out a more distinctive Caribbean identity. Marshall, PaulaPaula Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) is her best-known novel, but she published fiction for the next four decades, novels and short stories in which her characters (often women) work out their identities in a conflict between New York City and the West Indies.

The literary outpouring since the 1960’s has been even more prolific, and almost every Caribbean island-state has been represented. Cuban immigrants;in literature[literature]Cuban American writers have included Garcia, CristinaCristina Garcia, whose novel Dreaming in Cuban appeared in 1992, and Fox, PaulaPaula Fox, who has written adult fiction (such as her novel A Servant’s Tale, in 1984) but who is better known as a children’s writer. Her book The Slave Dancer (1973) received the Newbery Medal. Hijuelos, OscarOscar Hijuelos has written a series of novels set in both Cuba and the United States, and Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, The (Hijuelos)The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Writers who have immigrated from the Dominican Republic include Alvarez, JuliaJulia Alvarez, who wrote the How the García Girls Lost TheirAccents (Alvarez)novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), and Díaz, JunotJunot Díaz, whose short-story collection Drown (1996) was favorably reviewed, and whose first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

Jamaica Kincaid, JamaicaKincaid West Indian immigrants;in literature[literature]was born in Antiguan immigrantsAntigua in the West Indies in 1949 and came to the United States when she was seventeen. She has written often of the Caribbean immigrant experience: in the novels Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), and The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), as well as in short stories (At the Bottom of the River, 1983) and essays (A Small Place, 1988). Haitian Americans have been represented by Danticat, EdwidgeEdwidge Danticat, the highly respected writer whose novel Breath, Eyes, Memory was published in 1994, whose collection of short stories Krik? Krak! (1995) was nominated for a National Book Award, and whose memoir of her family’s dual citizenship, Brother, I’m Dying (2007), was given the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Puerto Rican writers have includedThomas, PiriPiri Thomas, whose Down These Mean Streets (1967) has become a classic coming-of-age urban memoir, and Mohr, NicholosaNicholosa Mohr, whose El Bronx Remembered (1975) and In Nueva York (1977) fictionalized the coming-of-age struggles of poor Puerto Rican women in New York. Ortiz Cofer, JudithJudith Ortiz Cofer published poetry, a novel (The Line of the Sun, 1988), and a memoir (Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, 1990) in which two cultures and languages are only part of the mix of ethnic, class, and gender West Indian immigrants;in literature[literature]issues.

Asian Literature

Even Literature;Asian AmericanAsian American immigrants;literaturegreater diversity and richness have characterized immigrant Asian American literature of the last decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, as the numerous anthologies and studies of this ethnic literature attest: for example, Chinese immigrants;in literature[literature]Hagedorn, JessicaJessica Hagedorn’s collection Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Asian American Fiction (1993) and Lim, Shirley Geok-linShirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling’s Reading the Literatures of Asian America (1992). Although Chinese immigrants have long been a part of American history, their literature was not always available (for example, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, published in 1980). It was not until the appearance of Kingston, Maxine HongMaxine Hong Kingston and then Tan, AmyAmyTan that Chinese American literature blossomed. Tan’s popular novels Joy Luck Club, The (Tan)The Joy Luck Club (1989) and Kitchen God’s Wife, The (Tan)The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) highlighted the conflicts between assimilation and the desire for ethnic identity, and between generations. A flurry of Chinese American fiction dealing with these immigrant conflicts quickly followed: Jen, GishGish Jen’s Typical American (1991), Lee, GusGus Lee’s China Boy (1991), Louie, David WongDavid Wong Louie’s Pangs of Love (stories, 1992), and Ng, Fae MyenneFae Myenne Ng’s Bone (1993).

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 Japanese American internment;in literature[literature]Japanese Americans, who were interned in camps in the West during World War II, and that horrific experience has colored the fiction since then, including Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and Houston, JamesJames Houston’s Manzanar;in literature[literature]Farewell to ManzanarFarewell to Manzanar (Houston) (1973), Yamamoto, HisayeHisaye Yamamoto’s Seventeen Syllables, and Other Stories (1988), and Kadohata, CynthiaCynthia Kadohata’s The Floating World (1989).

Korean Korean immigrants;in literature[literature]American literature–such as Kim, RonyoungRonyoung Kim’s Clay Walls (1987) andLee, Chang-RaeChang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker (1995)–has highlighted the hardships of immigration and the difficulties of dual identity. The same can be said for Asian American immigrants;in literature[literature]Indian American fiction–namely Mukherjee, BharatiBharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989), and the works of Lahiri, JhumpaJhumpa Lahiri, whose collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2000, and whose novel The Namesake (2003) was made into a Asian American immigrants;literaturepopular film.

Immigration and the American Literary Canon

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, James, HenryHenry James based many of his novels and stories in Europe, often dramatizing the clash between nineteenth century American innocence and European experience. Both Pound, EzraEzra Pound and Eliot, T. S.T. S. Eliot spent most of their careers writing in Europe. James and Eliot eventually became British subjects; Pound died in Italy. African Americans;literature ofAfrican American writers Wright, RichardRichard Wright and Baldwin, JamesJames Baldwin found France a more congenial environment after World War II than an America they experienced as racially oppressive.

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.Literature

Further Reading
  • 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.

Alvarez, Julia

Antin, Mary

Art

Asian American literature

Danticat, Edwidge

The Jungle

Lahiri, Jhumpa

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin

Mukherjee, Bharati

My Ántonia

Santiago, Esmeralda

Sidhwa, Bapsi

Tocqueville, Alexis de

Yezierska, Anzia

Categories: History Content