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Immigrants in Mainstream American Literature
Lina Unali
Ethnic Literature and Culture in the U.S.A. and Culture ed. by Igor Maver, Peter Lang, Frankfurt an Main, 1996

Immigrant characters are conspicuously present both in the pages of American writers of recognized non American origin such as Jerre Mangione's Mount Allegro 1 and in writers who are traditionally considered within the context of twentieth century American Literature as the most representative – from Theodore Dreiser to Edith Wharton, from Willa Cather to F.S. Fitzgerald, to Jack Kerouac, from Philip Roth to Saul Bellow, and, to mention only one American poet, William Carlos WilIiams. Since the time in which the first waves of European migration reached America, that is since about the nineteen forties, but mainly since the eighteen seventies, immigrant characters have often conspicuously supplanted those of more acclaimed British origin. The tendency of not taking this aspect into consideration is perhaps due to a certain ethnic bias on the part of critics and to the inveterate mental habit of not fully appreciating life styles and experiences different from one's own.


In order to alert the reader to the vast presence of immigrants in mainstream American literature, I here take as the point of departure Theodore Dreiser's famous novel Sister Carrie, published in 1900 and as a paint of arrival Frank Conroy's Body and Soul, published in 1993. The former is known to all students of American Literature, as one of the masterpieces of American naturalism, the latter was awarded the title of American Book of the Year 1993 by the British Encyclopaedia. It has more recently appeared in paperback edition and is still to be seen on bookstores shelves. Although not striking in either originality of style or contents, it is worth reading at least for its being written with the aim of catching the attention of the contemporary reader.


Between the time in which Theodore Dreiser published Sister Carrie and Frank Conroy's Body and Soul, we may distinguish several phases of literary production corresponding to different epochs of migration to America . Broadly speaking, a first phase may be considered as covering the period from the first migrations en masse, at the end of the nineteenth century, to the Great Depression of 1929; a second phase from 1929 to the middle fifties; a third from the middle fifties up to the present. Of course, the history of immigrant settlements on the territory of the United States may suggest other kinds of subdivision but what mainly concerns us now is not so much the vicissitudes of the settlers as their representation in American literature – the immigrants experience which the contemporary literary talents were able to understand and imaginatively reconstruct in writing.


In what might be defined as a first phase, Theodore Dreiser is not alone. Willa Cather is equally worth considering. To illustrate the second phase, we may choose a novel written by the most famous representative of the beat generation, Jack Kerouac and in particular his narrative entitled On the Road. To explain a few characteristics of the third phase, Conroy's book may do. Many other titles and the names of other outstanding authors might be added in a study of larger scope. This would ideally start from a consideration of the first Irish immigrants in the pages of Thoreau's Walden, with the writer's nasty observations on the building of railways and on the uselessness of labour. In the narratives of Edith Wharton (1862­-1936), those Irish first generation immigrants to America have sometimes become rich ambitious drugstore owners such as Denis Eady of Starkfield , Massachusetts , in the novel entitled Ethan Frome, published in New York in 1911.

A close rereading of Dreiser's novels leads to rather surprising results. In Sister Carrie the female protagonist is introduced – in a subdued way – as the descendant of immigrants who is going to Chicago with vague hopes of changing her destiny. She is totally unprepared for the difficulties of life in the big city. We might say that Sister Carrie moves from the silence of an ethnic niche in which her family is still immersed – notwithstanding its transplantation in the American soil – to the great variety of experiences and noises in new America multi-ethnic grounds. The place where Carrie comes from, although not extensively described, can be imagined by the reader as reproducing some of the characteristics of the little European town or village back home, its most relevant aspect being its distance from what may synthetically be defined as modernity.


Dreiser seems to be fully aware of the fact that his narrative can be read as a tragic experience of ethnicity and noise. We learn that Caroline Meeber – that is Sister Carrie – is of immigrant origin through the following sentence: "She was a fair example of the middle American class – two generations removed from the emigrate" (2). It is possible to argue that Sister Carrie's ancestors had come to America in the 1870s, 1880s. But Carrie seems to have no conscious connections with her roots, to be unaware of any kind of ethnic conditioning. She seems instead to fluctuate – at least since her departure from home – in a state of cultural emptiness which allows the reader soon to forget her original condition of immigrant descendant. This aspect may provide a further reason for the critics' general neglect of the immigrant origins of Dreiser's characters.


We are reminded of the immigrants' world which is always in the background of the Sister Carries merely through brief notations scattered here and there. The first person whom Sister Carrie meets on the train informs her that he is of French origin (2). Of Carrie's brother in law who lives in Chicago we are told that he is of Swedish origin. His name Sven Hanson adequately suggests it. Chicago is viewed as "a giant magnet (...) a city of 500,000, with the ambition, the daring, the activity of a metropolis of a million" (15). But as an outcome of the process of attraction, we learn that instead of producing a new kind of freedom, it produces a new kind of confinement (27). To synthesize the reader's reaction to Dreiser's narrative, we might say that the characteristics of this new America to the descendants of immigrants are noise at an acoustic level and confinement at a psychological one. When Sister Carrie enters a factory for the first time in her life, the verbs used to convey the character of her acoustic perceptions are clacking, rattling. The whirring of wheels predominates in the new environment and onomatopoeia and alliteration reproduce it in writing: "The wheels began to whir again" (44). In this phase of the United States industrial and social history, the destiny of the descendants of people who went to the United States from different corners of Europe to improve their material condition is projected in Dreiser's pages as one of misery and despair. What Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer would have described as the fittest do encounter many hardships in their attempt to survive. Ethnic disharmony among the various immigrant groups may also be an ingredient of no inferior relevance.


That Theodore Dreiser was interested in the formation of what is now called a multi-ethnic society is demonstrated by other works of his. In A Book about Myself , we have a brief description of Chicago in the very first page "with those foreign neighborhoods of almost all nationalities." From Dreiser's introduction to The Colour of the Great City , we may quote a longer passage containing a meticulous partition of New York into sectors according to the different immigrant groups which had not long ago come to inhabit it: "And one had only to wander casually and not at any great length to come upon the Irish in the Lower East and West Sides, the Syrians in Washington Street – a great mass of them, the Greeks around 26th, 27th, and 28th Streets in the West Side, the Italians around Mulberry Bud, the Bohemians in East Side Street and thereabouts. The Jews were chiefly off the East Side " (7). The passage shows that Dreiser did not simply entertain a vague idea of foreign nationals having invaded the Great American City , but that he was acquainted with their condition and precise whereabouts. He fully realized that the old city had been ethnically transformed. The writer portrays himself as fascinated by "These varying nationalities and their neighborhoods, I was given for the first year or two of my stay here to wandering among them" (viii). A more artistic rendering of the subject is given in the pages of the novel itself where some of the data are treated – as is in general the case with artistic texts – by imagination and learning: "From all points of the world they are pouring into New York City: Greeks from Athens and the realms of Sparta and Macedonia, living six, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, in one room, sleeping on the floor and dressing and eating and entertaining themselves God knows how; Jews from Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Balkans, crowding the East Side "and the inlaying sections of Brooklyn and huddling together in thick gummy streets, singing in street crowds around ballad­mongers of the woes of their native land, seeking with a kind of divine, poetic flare a modicum of that material comfort which their natures so greatly crave, which their previous condition for at least fifteen hundred years has scarcely warranted; Italians from Sicily and the warmer vales of the South, crowding into the great sections of Washington, Germans, Hungarians. French. Polish, Swedish, Armenians, all with sections of their own and all alive to the joys of the city" (7). What we may conclude about the vision of the whole phenomenon of migration to America which this passage expresses is that it is the result of a deep apprehension of the phenomenon of migration on the part of a writer who was himself the son of poor German immigrants in a country in which material comfort was, notwithstanding all hopes, so difficult to achieve. Far from looking at the immigrants as weird people coming out of nowhere, Dreiser establishes a relationship between their personal adventures through the States and the European countries from which they come and finally with the complex history of European civilization.


In Dawn published in 1931, the main character's self introduction closely follows Dreiser's own autobiography: "My father was German by birth, a native of that region which borders on Belgium , the Duchy of Luxembourg and France of the Alsace-Lorraine region. Mayeu on the Moselle was his birthplace fifteen miles from Koblenz . He came to America in 1844 to escape conscription and make his fortune – the latter, a lamentable desire which he was only partially able to fulfill. He was a weaver by trade(...)." Not only the German past of the family on his father's side is mentioned but also " Moravia , in Czechoslovakia , whence my mother's parents derived" (9). Behind many of Dreiser's characters there is the life story of Dreiser himself, the son of a poor immigrant from Germany who was most of the time unemployed. His mother was of Czech Mennonite origin. For a while the family moved from one little town to another and then to Chicago . As the son of a poor immigrant, Dreiser had very little formal education and could afford only one year of college at the University of Indiana . His masterpiece, Sister Carrie, was published in 1900 by Doubleday, on the advise of Frank Norris who was at the time the firm reader. The Spencerian theory of forces and of the concept of the waif attracted into their field, expressed in Dreiser's main novel, might be revisited as poetically reproducing both Dreiser's life story and – more generally – his understanding of the movements of large sections of the immigrant population.


The other American writer who cannot be ignored if we wish to consider – even briefly – the representation of the immigrant in mainstream American literature is Willa Cather (1876-1940). What the two writers have mainly in common is their sympathy for the immigrants' phenomenon and their curiosity for its implications in the development of American society. Their divergence lies in the respective models of society to which their ideologies conform. To outline them synthetically, we may say that Dreiser accepts modern city life and modernity tout court as natural conditions and that the countryside is in his pages almost obliterated. He sees the suffering and misery produced by the modern urban agglomerate but the agrarian world is for him as forgotten as the village in the Midwest where Carrie departs from for her Chicago adventure. The immigrants of Willa Cather's books – on the contrary – especially those of her well-known pioneer trilogy, My Antonia, O Pioneers! The Song of the Lark, lead their lives in impossibly uncomfortable places on the border between territorial entities which the author almost mythically describes as separated by the frontier between country and land – that is between the cultivated soil and the wild. The American city is psychologically far away and seldom mentioned. Most of the characters are like Ivan in O Pioneers! who had settled in the far country inhabited by only a few Russian families and who found contentment in the solitude he had sought out for himself.


WilIa Cather's My Antonia is one of the signs that the American population has definitely changed since the time in which – just to give a single instance of homogeneity of population within the American territory the Puritan congregation and the population of a New England village almost coincided perfectly. In Willa Cather's American frontier novels most of the frontiersmen are – to our surprise – first generation immigrants. It is really an amazing discovery. The conquest of the West is their occupation and their duty. Their original nationalities are Austrian, Bohemian, Ukrainian, Scandinavian, Russian, even Swiss. Their religious observances are extremely diversified. Their mind is revealed as filled with images of the country back home, also with its past tragedies and winters' tales. There is constant reference in the novel to the fact that they speak foreign languages and have little experience of the English tongue, as shown in the following phrase: "my grandmother always spoke in a very loud tone to foreigners, as if they were deaf” (22). Of the Bohemian Mr. Shimerda it is, on one occasion, said: "(...) He took a book out of his pocket, and showed me a page with two alphabets, one English and the other Bohemian. He placed this book in my grandmother's hands, looked at her entreatingly, and said, with an earnestness which I shall never forget, Te-e-ach, te-e-ach, my Antonia!" (27). My Antonia 's narrator provides several samples of Antonia's speech such as "My papa find fiends up north, with Russian mans. Last night he take me for see, and I can understand very much talk. Nice mans (...)" (32-33); "My tatinek make me little hat with the skins, little hat for winter!" (41); "My mamenka have nice bed (...)" (75). Antonia announces that her father does not feel well – he will soon afterwards die – with the following words: "My papa sad for the old country. He not look good. He never make music any more. At home he play violin all the time; for weddings and for dance. Here never. When I beg him for play, he shake his head no. Some days he take his violin out of his box and make with his fingers on the strings, like this, but never he make the music: He don't like the Kawn-tree" (89). The passage also furnishes a good example of the immense nostalgia for the old country and – as in the case of Antonia's father – the incapacity of adjusting to the new environment. For certain immigrants it is as though in the passage to the New Continent the taste of life were lost forever. Of Antonia's father we also read in My Antonia: "I knew it was homesickness which had killed Mr. Shimerda, and I wondered whether his released spirit would not eventually find its way back to its own country" (101). Instead of Dreiser's machines or rather what he called automatons filling the urban jungle with their noise, we have the rattlesnakes of the wild prairie, the wolves, wild rabbits, quail, red bugs, gophers and red howls "disappearing in the earth" (30). Some of the passages concerning the land of the Indian and the buffalo which the pioneers, mostly European immigrants, are trying to conquer, contain the kind of observations we can find in travel books which relate adventures in exotic and tropical lands. They may even be read as journalistic reports of an extraordinary inroad into the wild. We encounter also the character of a black man from the South which makes the reality of the pioneers still more complex and ethnically varied. In order to rediscover the America of her childhood, Willa Cather undertakes a sort of archaeological survey of the West and finds among other monuments of memory a Norwegian cemetery, curious Russian thistles "growing across the uplands and piling against the wire fences like barricades" (370), rustic Bohemian house interiors where the reference to recipes of strange food is mingled with the immigrants' difficulties to confront the frontier – the borderline with the wild where the only characters which represent the State are the coroner and the priest.


A further difference between Dreiser's and Cather's way of portraying the life of foreign settlers is that while in Dreiser's city, life does not suggest ethnic harmony, here ethnic harmony and cooperation – ­notwithstanding the little quarrels and misunderstandings of everyday life – ­tend to predominate.


In the last book of Cather's trilogy of the pioneers entitled The Song of the Lark, published in 1915, we read once again stories of immigrants such as that of Peter Kronborg who was "born in an old Scandinavian colony in Minnesota (...) had been sent to a small Divinity school in Indiana by the women of a Swedish evangelical mission (...)" (15). It must be added that on the whole, characters of immigrants abound in the pages of Willa Cather – also in narratives other than the pioneer trilogy. Another example – almost taken at random – may be found in a collection of short stories which go under the general name of Obscure Destinies. In that entitled "Neighbor Rosicky," we learn about the tailor called Rosicky had a shelf where he kept his Bohemian papers and that before going to America had spent some years in London near Cheapside , intensely disliking the English capital. He was twenty when he landed in New York and he thought that the great American city was the finest, richest, friendliest in the world. Close to the tailor's shop where he worked there was a small furniture factory, where an old Austrian, called Loeffer, employed a few skilled men. The common American people of Cather's stories are as usual mostly foreign immigrants with no pretensions of hiding their past or even of forgetting it.


The world described in Dreiser's novel and in Cather's trilogy will have for several decades an almost homogeneous character with a few turning points. At the World Fair of 1930 the driving project was that of a better world for tomorrow, its symbol being the car. The automobile and the noise it produced stood somehow for progress. The Fair exhibited a kind of virtual reality with all the new pikes and multi-lane freeways in which the speed of the cars was automatically regulated. If we leave Dreiser's naturalism and Cather's agrarian patterns of both immigrant and pioneer behavior and proceed in a survey of American fiction, we find another exemplary narrative entitled On the Road by Jack Kerouac – the author who was defined on one of the covers of his most famous novels as the most authentic voice to rise above the fifties and sixties, the wildest Child of the Beat Generation. On the Road can be provocatively read as a lower middle class epic of the machine and of the motorway. Kerouac is the descendant of French-Canadian immigrants and if we carefully read his famous narrative, we find that notwithstanding all its American jargon, the names of his main characters do not sound exactly old American: Sal is probably a nickname for Salvatore and Rocco is generally far from being considered an English name. It sounds rather like a Southern Italian name, probably Sicilian or Calabrian. Also Aunt Charity with her twelve children scattered all over the V.S. is probably an Italian zia Carità. But we shall deal with the subject later on.


A reading of Kerouac's biographies such as Charter's and Mac Nally's leads us to the main consideration in this context that the writer himself belonged to a minority group. At the time in which On the Road was published little or nothing was known of him. Some thought that he was originally from Eastern Europe because his name sounded vaguely Eastern European. But his biographies and his other works after On the Road make it quite clear that he was of French Canadian origin. His family was second generation American. His grandfather on his father's side had established himself in New Hampshire , but he had maintained some aspects of the immigrants' behavior. During his adolescence Kerouac lived in an area of Lowell which was mainly inhabited by French Canadians. He spoke Canadian French at home. The writer always called his mother memère. He was baptized in the Catholic church as Jean and at home was normally called Ti Jean, that is Petir Jean, Little John.


Before the age of primary school age, one of the most popular authors of this century in America could only speak French. He laboriously learnt to speak and write English as one would a foreign language at the nuns' convent of St. Joseph 's Brothers. As he himself writes in The Subterraneans – first published in 1958 – at sixteen he still spoke with a foreign accent (5). The school life of this Little John of Breton origin continued at the Horace Mann High School which he attended with some sense of inferiority with the sons of the American upper class. His relationship with them seems to have been quite difficult – even though he was the one from whose papers they all copied. The fluency in writing of an author who might in a way be considered as doubly a foreigner and immigrant – his family having moved from France to Canada and from Canada to the United States – is astonishing. His vocabulary and phrasing are extremely rich. Far from showing any linguistic impediment, Kerouac's narratives follow the freely invented patterns of improvised jazz production – originally the music of outcasts. As with jazz, expert improvisation may be said to be the source of Kerouac's literary production.


The boy who felt himself to be at the margins of American society fell in love with writing and jazz. He started to write intensively from his first year at Columbia University , where – as at Horace Mann High School – ­he went with scholarships which rewarded his capacities as a football player.


In some of Kerouac's novels, the life of the French-Canadian community in the industrial city of Lowell , Massachusetts , is described in sad tones and with unpleasant images. In Doctor Sax, for instance, the scenes of childhood parade like a pageant of shrouds. The word shroud frequently recurs in the novel's pages. The narrative is set in the shabby and grey interiors of horrid neighborhoods amid squalid human bodies. In the author's little volume entitled Safori in Paris, the figure of the mythical French ancestor – Baron Lebris de Kerouac – the first person to whom were apparently assigned the lands in Canada in the eighteenth century, may be read as a writer's idealized projection on a distant aristocratic European past. Notwithstanding its zen Buddhist title, the book mainly deals with European genealogies and the exhalation of Jack's personality. Among other things, he was the first in the family to return to France after the perilous migration to the American continent. The conclusions we may draw after reading the book may be of interest to the students of migration to America : the immigrant's son with no social prestige in American society tends to identify both with the Indian – the above mentioned Baron married a Mohawk – and with an European Baron. The degradation of the immigrants' city sectors is overcome by self-glorification.


In Visions of Cody, published in New York in 1972, the character of Dulouz is that of a French Canadian with a sense of exile (155-157).


One of the possible ways of reading On the Road is that of considering it as the epic tranche de vie of a young man of Italian origin along the highways of America . As already mentioned, behind the name of Sal Paradiso emerges after the first ninety pages another name which is truer to Italian Southern onomastic tradition – that of Salvatore Paradiso brother of Rocco Paradiso as in Rocco and his Brothers, the famous Italian movie. The point of departure and sometime that of return after all adventure is the house of an Italian aunt. At an artistic and literary level, the descendant of French Canadian immigrants transfers his own life story and identity on the character of other immigrants with the same problems of dislocation and displacement. Thus the immigrant's condition can be said to determine the mode of Kerouac's writings. Let us quote a passage from the beginning of Part II, where the narrator clearly reveals himself as of Southern Italian origin. He recalls a day in which "all our Southern relatives were sitting around the parlour in Testament, gaunt men and women with the old Southern soil in their eyes, talking in low, whining voices about the weather, the crops and the general weary recapitulation of who had a baby, who got a new house (…)" (109-110). But the sharing of the house with his family on the part of the main character does not imply communication or affinity. The South at which the mind of the characters of On the Road aspire is certainly not that represented by the Southern Italian village with its perpetual condition of sorrow and mourning, but a cultural entity which can be phrased with the words the warm womb of the world or the equatorial centre to be found somewhere on the earth.


The third phase is that of the electronic era, starting approximately in the late sixties. The general tendency on the part of the immigrants is towards uniformity of behavior, and American writers tend to portray them and they to see themselves as normal American – even though there are many flaws in such normality. This is only in apparent contrast with the resurgence of the ethnic spirit in the late seventies. The means of production and the new media now prevalent in the U.S.A tend to produce an uniformity within all ethnic groups which goes together with the new habits of socialization of the children of children of the immigrants. The descendants of immigrants no longer lead their lives within the limited boundaries of their original groups, they always aim at overcoming them, at conforming to general American standards. In the literary production of the last two decades, the presence of characters of ethnic origin, is often simply determined by their name, but sometimes these new characters may even enjoy international fame such a Paganini, or Toscanini. Their destiny is neither that of working on the assembly line nor at the sand quarries of Port Washington as many Sardinian immigrants did for almost half a century. Theirs is a new case of caché, submerged, ethnicity. They seem to belong more to scattered groups of strangers, each living in a separate quarter of the city. It is more likely for them to be regarded by other members of the nation as foreign nationals and sometimes even as people of dual nationality. I would like to mention again only one artistic experience of what might be called new ethnicity or in acoustic terms, resistance to noise: the music produced by Claude Rawlings in the novel entitled Body and Soul by Frank Conroy, published in 1993. It is an outcry of commotion against the unpleasantness of noises. Although this book is set in a period immediately after the second world war, it can be taken as a sign of our times. It is all about sounds, noises and people of British and non British origin normally considered as part of the American landscape, as New York citizens. New York is mostly a city of foreigners. Of Claude's mother we are told that she had “A Slavic face although her people had been Irish" (6). America is artistically approached as a sort of third world or rather as an extension of it, the inhabitants of which come from all over who – though sometimes inhabiting shabby basement apartments enjoy the internationality of music. There is a foreign director, an Italian piano master called Menti with his pervasive sadness, some small Italian girls playing in the streets. The emphasis on foreign nationality is stronger than that on ethnicity. Things keep evolving and changing.




l Cp. L. Unali, " Mount Allegro and the Euro-American Common Denominators," in The Future of American Modernism, Ethnic Writing Between The Wars, ed. by William Boelhower. Amsterdam : VU, Amsterdam Press, 1990. Here Mangione is seen as an American writer of Italian origin who adopts mainstream European and American culture in order to formulate a valid alternative to the too isolated condition of ethnic writer. In An Ethnic at Large. A memoir of America in the Thirties and Forties. New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1978, Mangione describes himself as "becoming an ethnic at large, with one foot in my Sicilian heritage, the other in the American mainstream."