American Narratives: Multiethnic Writing in the Age of Realism

American Narratives: Multiethnic Writing in the Age of Realism

Molly Crumpton Winter

In American Narratives, Molly Crumpton Winter examines the intersections between immigrant, African American, and Native American writing at the beginning of the 20th century, also considering the role they play in the development of American realism. She asserts that “The works of these ethnic authors have never been collectively evaluated for their contributions to the literature of the nation” (1). In examining the works of Sui Sin Far, Zitkala-Sa, Mary Antin, and Sutton E. Griggs, she hopes to move our understanding of their roles in shaping American literature from the margins to the center. She writes that although the works of ethnic writers has often been mentioned in passing in the history of American realism, “their centraility to the movement only becomes apparent when the themes of ethnicity and citizenship are recognized as essential elements in the literature of social analysis” (7). She also describes how looking at the works of these authors in dialogue with one another helps to reveal a dialogue about the way that American culture demanded assimilation from ethnic minorities while also upholding policies (segregation, Chinese exclusion, literacy tests, boarding schools) that limited their ability to participate in civic life (7).

On Mary Antin:

  • “While pro-American rhetoric and Antin’s joy in regard to her acculturation dominate the book’s tone, Antin also carefully delineates her reasons for transforming herself into a U.S. citizen, and she includes some of the pressures and difficulties she experienced in her new country along her path to citizenship” (30)
  • The Promised Land portrays the tension of negotiating a path to citizenship in a society that often gave immigrants conflicting signals, and Antin’s positive tone comes from pride in having come through this process to gain success in her adopted country” (30-31).
  • Antin is one of the first American writers who describes immigrant experience as divided between their past and present lives. (33)
  • She attributes much of her success in assimilating to the public education she receives
  • English and her love of it becomes the sign of her assimilation
  • She aligns her story with George Washington, Ben Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Horatio Alger
  • “Immigrants’ pre-American lives would be important only as signifiers of what had been escaped, adding to the nation’s glory by comparison” (35).
  • It’s important to read Antin within the context of the discourse of her time, which both said that assimilation was the key to citizenship and that eastern Europeans were inassimilable. Therefore, Antin’s text works to counter the latter in order to assert that immigrants like her could be American citizens
  • “The uncompromising optimism of The Promised Land also masks an undercurrent of solitude and alienation.” (52)
  • Creating a new identity as an American immigrant necessitates concealing inconsistencies and cracks in the facade.

On Zitkala-Sa

  • hoop dance between traditional stories and Western genres of writing
  • “Zitkala-Sa’s narratives reveal the larger culture’s fundamental disregard of American Indian cultures even as the U.S. government instituted programs intended to accelerate the assimilation of Native Americans, and her texts express deep-seated ambivalence toward the notion of national belonging” (7)
  • “a rejection of American identity coexists with a sense that a traditional tribal identity is no longer viable once the process of assimilation begins” (55)

Sui Sin Far

  • develops a notion of citizenship in which individual belonging is not dictation by national character (7)
  • Of British-Chinese descent, and an immigrant to the US via Canada, with a Western education, Sui Sin Far disrupts the white/other binary
  • stories focus on the ethical choices of the characters and concern for those around them

Winter, Molly Crumpton. American Narratives: Multiethnic Writing in the Age of Realism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2007.

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