Comps Notes: Immigration and Americanization (Early 20th C)

promised landThis post serves as a continuation of one from way back in September: Comps Notes: Theories of Citizenship & Nation. While that post discussed different theories of citizenship and the nation with some brief thoughts about immigration stories, in this post, I’m going to expound more on immigration and the way that a few early-Twentieth-Century writers on my list portray immigration and American identity. Specifically, I’m making connections between Horace Kallen’s “Democracy vs. The Melting Pot,” Hamilton Holt’s Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans, and Priscilla Wald’s reading of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans from Constituting Americans (because her thoughts are a trillion times more coherent than mine). I’m also going to round up many references to Mary Antin’s The Promised Land, because she seems to be popping up everywhere in my nonfiction works (I’ll do this as I find them, ongoing).


So, let’s start with the hard part, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. It’s inscrutable. Period. Of course. But I found Priscilla Wald’s analysis, “A ‘Losing-Self Sense’: The Making of Americans and the Anxiety of Identity” from Constituting Americans really helpful. Wald argues that Stein’s work highlights our anxious need for a cohesive, legible narrative by denying it to us at great length: “Nearly one thousand pages of unremitting wordplay leave most readers longing for a story. But that longing is her point” (237). After reading Stein, comprehensibility seems less innocent (Wald 237). Wald explains at length, through considering Stein’s context, notes, and relationship with other thinkers such as William James, how Stein shaped the text by repetitions and disruptions and the way that the disruptions encourage attention to specific aspects of the text. She asserts that “Stein theorizes a state of consciousness that explains what is at stake in the making of Americans. To the longing for comprehensibility, for coherence, she traces both the need to accommodate the immigrant within a familiar narrative of cultural identity and the need of many immigrants to be thus accommodated” (238-39). It seems, then that through the frustration of the constant disruptions, Stein draws attention to the frustrations glossed over by forcing a cohesive narrative of cultural identity out of diverse ways of becoming and American. Wald writes, “Character and culture come together not in the fear of merging but in the fear of disappearing into incomprehensibility–into an identification not with another but with an immigrant divested of the cultural narratives and the familiar terms that marked personhood” (239).

The Making of Americans engages with traditional immigrant narratives, which had the purpose of assuring an anxious native born population that the influx of immigrants was not a threat to American identity (243). And, according to Wald, the official narrative of American identity is a family story (253), so Stein’s brick…I mean book…tells an immigration story shaped by family conflict and disrupted desires. The unassimilated voices of immigrants are borne out by the fracturing of the text. The American narrative is not just a family story, it is also one of ownership, so the family conflict comes over the ownership of property. Further, the connection between agency and ownership is borne out in a marriage plot. As Wald argues, marriage is the key to Americanization (279).

I’m playing it really fast and loose with my summary here because it’s a pretty complicated argument about a really complicated book. The main point, however, is that Stein uses conventional narratives–immigration, family, and marriage plots–and uses wordplay, derived from her studies of psychology and automatic writing, to disrupt these narratives. So, on one level she lays out how the progress of the family is the progress of the nation but she frustrates you to the point where you quit reading so that it becomes clear that these tidy narratives are impossible simplifications and that coherence comes with a political agenda of merging assimilated voices into the tidy narrative.

Stein’s goal makes a lot of sense when you read a few immigration narratives. Hamilton Holt’s collection based on a newspaper series The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans as Told By Themselves (1906) features sixteen life stories by a variety of “undistinguished” Americans, most of whom are immigrants. The stories told by the immigrants follow a predictable pattern. They move to America for greater opportunities. They work hard. Many go to school. They detail their expenses, their pleasures, their jobs. It’s the familiar working class narrative of the early 20th century. They become American through hard work and assimilation. My favorite story in the book is “The Life Story of a Polish Sweatshop Girl.” She tells of immigrating to America with her mother and how she came to work in a sweatshop. Intermixed with details about her life from her weekly budget to a note about how there are two Sabbaths hers and the Christian one, she explains how she came to have her own place and go to school while also working. She also discusses her relationships with other workers and with young men. She’s in no rush to marry because then she couldn’t have fun with all the young men. My favorite part is this line about the alarm clock: “I have heard that there is a sort of clock that calls you at the very time you want to get up, but I can’t believe that because I don’t see how the clock would know.” Not all of the narratives are as happy as the Polish girl’s, but the follow the basic pattern of the genre. Movement to America, opportunities, and the process of becoming American or resisting Americanization. The genre is so predictable that it’s no wonder that stories like those by Abraham Cahan, who tragi-comedically depicts the tension between tradition and assimilation are so refreshing and funny.

When it comes to the traditional narrative of immigration, Mary Antin’s The Promised Land is probably the most famous and most critiqued example. Antin’s 1912 autobiography details at great length and in alternatingly fascinating and tedious detail, her childhood in Russia (what is now Belarus) and her eventual immigration to America and subsequent Americanization. Antin’s critics point out the way that she zealously throws off her ethnic identity in favor of the melting pot. That critique is pretty understandable given the way that Antin describes coming to America as a new birth in pretty melodramatic terms. She writes: “I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over. Is it not time to write my life’s story? I am just as much out of the way as if I were dead, for I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell. Physical continuity with my earlier self is no disadvantage. I could speak in the third person and not feel that I was masquerading. I can analyze my subject, I can reveal everything; for she, and not I, is my real heroine. My life I have still to live; her life ended when mine began.” For her, life in America was a rebirth, marking the death of her former self.

Stein isn’t the only one to critique this cohesive, generic narrative of American identity. In the February 25, 1915 edition of The Nation, Horace M. Kallen published “Democracy vs. The Melting Pot”, a piece responding to discourses that championed the idea of the melting pot as the key to American cultural citizenship. Kallen goes through various economic and cultural facets of Americanization from literature to English as the lingua franca, all of which seem to boil down to the fact that, in his time, the idea of “American” meant a white man. He points out that the narratives of those such as Jacob Riis and Mary Antin portray Americanization as a grand achievement, but each generation is subsequently Americanized through the institutions of work and school. There’s some parts about Jews as model minorities, which actually resonates with Antin.

My favorite part, however, comes when he turns toward arguments that hyphenated Americans were not true Americans. Kallen writes “At the present time there is no dominant American mind. Our spirit is inarticulate, not a cacophony, but a chorus of many voices each singing a rather different tune. How to get order out of this cacophony is the question for all those who are concerned about those things which alone justify wealth and power, concerned about justice, the arts, literature, philosophy, science. What must, what shall this cacophony become–a unison or a harmony?”  That actually sounds a bit like Stein’s work, doesn’t it?  Kallen also points out that the writers of the Declaration of Independence weren’t really forced to confront the practical issues of ethnic diversity, but their descendants are and that challenge puts the ideals of our democracy to the test. As Wald puts it, “he agrees that the new immigration had indeed rendered impossible ‘that inward unanimity of action and outlook which make a national life’. And he acknowledges that the principles of the American nation had ‘worked together with economic greed and ethnic snobbishness’ to bring about the conversion not of the immigrants bot of ‘the early American nation,’ which, consistent with the concerns of restrictionists like Ross, is ‘in the process of becoming a true federal state.” (244)

Kallen isn’t the only one to critique Antin. In American Narratives: Multi-ethnic Writing in the Age of Realism, Molly Crumpton Winter places Antin’s work within the literary context of American realism and historical discourses about immigration. Antin’s narrative stands as a counter-example to those who said that Jews were unassimilable (38). Although Winter does examine the celebration of assimilation in Antin’s work, for her it’s more complicated than Antin’s critics let on. She writes, “There are other dimensions to Antin’s narrative, however, that belie her claims that the process of assimilation is ever easy or complete. These elements connect Antin’s autobiography to other texts in the twentieth century, in which the desire for integration is often met with social, economic, and cultural barriers. Antin’s exploration of her ethnicity and the history of her people also aligns her book with multi-ethnic literary themes later in the century. Antin was one of the first writers to portray the division that immigrants experience between the world of their past and their new American lives” (33). Through examining Antin’s attitudes toward her ethnic identity, assimilation, and Jewish traditions, Winter argues that Antin shows “how precarious a proposition assimilation can be, even for one who is able to take advantage of free public education, who attains English proficiency early and easily, and who accents whole-heartedly America’s history and ideals. This complexity, finally, may be the most valuable thing about Antin’s work” (54).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s