Immigrant Fiction: Exploring an American Identity

by Phillip Lopate

Oath of Allegiance of Mikael Amerikian, 1931 (NARA ARC # 595054)Strictly speaking, all American novels (with the exception of those written by Native Americans) are in one way or another immigrant fiction. But we usually think of immigrant fiction more narrowly as the encounter of the foreign-born with a presumably dominant Anglo-American culture. Thematically, this fiction is the site where self-invention encounters its limits, where compromise and accommodation wrestle with the unappeasable. Linguistically, it is a fertile estuary infusing the Puritans’ English with the dialect seasonings, syntactical corkscrews, and passionate utterances of the Other.

In these novels, the immigrant experience often begins in a spirit of wild, open-ended adventure, as their protagonists fling themselves halfway around the world, breaking dramatically with past lives to settle in a big country full of promise, though soon enough the sphere contracts to an urban ghetto or small town, where they are thrown into an introverted, claustrophobic self-protectiveness amidst their own kind. The immigrating family distills the tensions from within and without: On the one hand, it shields its members against a hostile or indifferent environment; on the other hand, it entraps them in a prison where sibling rivalries, oedipal struggles, and marital discords have little opportunity for diffusion. The sensitive child (often the author-surrogate) can escape through education, and, indeed, immigrant novels are filled with the romance of schooling, but once freed from the familial coils of emotional blackmail through learning and assimilation, the individual is faced with a new loneliness, and guilt for leaving his or her people behind.

A particularly rich trove of examples can be found in Jewish-American immigrant novels. Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) is a classic first-person narrative about a penniless immigrant who chases the American dream and actually grasps it, becoming a millionaire garment manufacturer. But immigrant novels are often about trade-offs, and Cahan’s is no exception. David, the likable (if sometimes ruthless) narrator, a refugee from oppression who risks all to make his fortune, finds that the price of success has been self-alienation, a forfeiture of soul, which had been more rooted than he realized in the folk, shtetl traditions back home.

While The Rise of David Levinsky flows along with a ruefully retrospective, smoothly telling style, Henry Roth’s literary masterpiece, Call It Sleep (1934) plunges us into the choppy, Joycean here-and-now of its child-hero’s stream of consciousness. Rarely has a novel taken us so directly, so viscerally into the fear, panic, and shame of childhood. The book opens with an unforgettable scene of the already-migrated father meeting his wife’s and son’s boat at Ellis Island, and quarreling brutally with them. The family soon realizes that one can be as poor in the new country as in the old, especially since the angry, idealistic printer-father never adjusts to the American way of pragmatically getting along.

Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925) tells the story of a rabbinical patriarch who refuses to compromise his pious spiritual studies in the face of the New World’s materialistic culture—which is fine, except he expects his daughters to support him, and has no hesitations about ruining their happiness for tradition’s sake. Yezierska’s proto-feminist perspective adds a new dimension to the theme of individual vs. community, while her comic, Yiddish-inflected idioms and ardent, noisy characters make the novel throb with life on every page. Her narrator-heroine is the one daughter who rebels successfully against her father’s tyranny and goes off to college, only to discover that she cannot shed him or her ghetto background so easily.

A few other Jewish-American immigrant novels should be noted in passing: Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), another vivid tale of growing up on the Lower East Side; Lore Segal’s Her First American (1985), a small, delicate gem about the romantic encounter between a refugee from Hitler’s Germany and an African American; and I.B. Singer’s magnificent, sardonic, excoriating Shadows on the Hudson (1998), which shows a group of Holocaust survivors and transplanted refugees manically carrying on, like the living dead, in the borrowed time and country that history has loaned them.

Before he became famous for The Godfather, Mario Puzo wrote perhaps the finest of Italian American immigrant novels, The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965). Set in Depression-era New York, it shows the remarkable degree to which some transplanted families were able to reconstitute the Old World in the urban jungle:

Each tenement was a village square; each had its group of women, all in black, sitting on stools and boxes and doing more than gossip. They recalled ancient history, argued morals and social law, always taking their precedents from the mountain village in southern Italy they had escaped, fled from many years ago.

At the center of this family novel is the commanding matriarch, Lucia Santa, holding her children in line, suspicious of American ways that threaten to erode communal ties, even as she knows that it is inevitable that her offspring will become “members of a different race. It was a price that must be paid.”

The powerful mother is a common pivotal figure in immigrant fiction, just as the sensitive child, torn between this matriarchal authority and a weaker, less adaptive father, often assumes the book’s central consciousness. Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), certainly fits the pattern, with its tense mother-daughter duo, Silla and Selina. Silla is the archetypal strong Barbadian woman who will scrub floors, work day and night, and save every penny to own someday a piece of America, a brownstone house, even if it means crushing her husband’s island-returning dreams in the process. Selena, her articulate, precocious daughter, seeks her own individual identity, with or without the approval of the community. (It is worth noting how many immigrant novels fit this Bildungsroman pattern of tracing the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a youthful main character: The émigré group’s inexperience in the new country and the young protagonist’s viewpoint seem to dovetail nicely.) Marshall’s vivid, earthy prose thrillingly depicts the speech and singular folkways of the Barbadian colony, both its strivers and the idlers, as it re-roots itself in a Brooklyn ghetto.

Another, later West Indian immigrant novel, Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy (1990), has its nineteen-year-old protagonist leave her family and provincial background without a qualm to take off for Manhattan, as the au pair girl in a middle-class liberal household, only to discover herself hit by a profoundly unsettling homesickness:

What a surprise this was to me, that I longed to be back in the place that I came from, that I longed to sleep in a bed I had outgrown, that I longed to be with people whose smallest, most natural gesture would call up in me such a rage that I longed to see them all dead at my feet.

Lucy discovers that the privileged white household in which she has been invited to consider herself “one of the family” is no safe haven, but another dysfunctional familial unit, with its own heartbreaks and betrayals. Kincaid is a fiercely truthful writer, and she brings her astringent audacity to this first-person account, which sustains a breathtaking balance between bitterness and tenderness.

Moving from cramped city block to open prairie would seem to yield an entirely different sort of immigrant fiction. Yet two of the greatest immigrant novels, O. E. Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1925) and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), demonstrate that the dilemmas of the transplanted, reinvented self are less conditioned by outer than inner space. In Rölvaag’s solidly constructed, wise, and compassionate novel (written in Norwegian and translated into English) Per Hansa, the Norwegian farmer who moves his family out to the Great Plains, is the prototypically resourceful, optimistic pioneer for whom no challenge seems too great; his wife, Beret, is his opposite, fatalistic, pessimistic, and driven crazy by the endless expanse of flat, unpopulated land. Moreover, she cannot chase away her guilt at having left everything behind, “parents, home, fatherland, and people.” Her husband belatedly comes to the sad conclusion that “There are some people, I know now, who never should emigrate, because, you see, they can’t take pleasure in that which is to come—they simply can’t see it!”

My Ántonia is an unusual immigrant novel, being from the perspective of an Anglo-American youth observing the newcomers—in this case, a family of Czech farmers, who arrive in the Midwest with virtually no English and almost no money. Willa Cather is, of course, one of America’s greatest writers, and every sentence here reverberates with lyrically precise landscape description or stingingly accurate character analysis. The narrator, Jim Burden, sees the foreign girl, Ántonia, as an embodiment of the life-force, especially in comparison to the more blandly reserved stock from which he issues, which makes all the more poignant his inability to woo her or protect her from the harsher blows of life. Ántonia, however, is grateful for whatever attentions she receives from this fine young gentleman, who reminds her of her father. That parent, a cultivated Bohemian, commits suicide out of economic futility, homesickness, and a failure to adjust to his neighbors’ limited intellectual horizons. (The shallowness of the New World’s culture compared to the Old World’s has been, like it or not, a recurrent theme in many immigrant novels until fairly recently.)

Finally, for a twist on the usual up-from-poverty immigrant novel, we can turn to that modern prose master, Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita (1955) may be read in part as the Old World (Humbert Humbert) seduced by and seducing the New (the eponymous young heroine). Criss-crossing the American landscape, its diners and motels, drive-in theaters and suburban parties in pursuit of his obsession, the ultra-European snob Humbert submits, perhaps inadvertently, to the process of the making of an American. Less perverse but equally illuminating is Pnin (1957), Nabokov’s felicitous, charming novel about a refugee Russian scholar transplanted to American academia. If Professor Pnin strikes many readers as such an attractive exemplar of the life of the mind, it may be because American intellectuals secretly regard themselves as permanent immigrants or “resident aliens” in the dominant popular culture, trying to uphold values from an older, increasingly discarded way of being.

This preliminary sketch of the immigrant novel, which I have provided here, is intended to be more suggestive than thorough, and should be taken as merely a jumping-off point for further investigations in an ever-expanding field. The past twenty-five years alone have witnessed a major scholarly emphasis on multiculturalism in American studies, and a flood of new immigrant novels, reflecting the shifting demographics of United States immigration patterns. Among those new novels deserving serious consideration, I would include Oscar Hijuelos’s exuberant, sensual The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Life, Chang-rae Lee’s spare Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, Bharati Mukherjee’s colorful Jasmine, Vikram Seth’s verse-novel Golden Gate, Sandra Cisneros’s linked-stories The House on Mango Street, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Gish Jen’s Typical American, and, last but by no means least, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and China Men, which keep being re-categorized as fiction or non-fiction, but remain marvels of imaginative writing about the immigrant experience either way.


Phillip Lopate is the director of the nonfiction graduate program at the Columbia University School of the Arts and the author of novels, novellas, and collections of essays and poems, as well as a personal memoir of his teaching experiences, Being with Children: A High-Spirited Personal Account of Teaching Writing, Theater, and Videotape (2008; orig. 1975).

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