The Immigrant Experience

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In a nation of immigrants, picking 10 books about the immigrant experience is no easy task. One could plausibly argue that any book about post-Columbian America concerns the immigrant experience. Therefore, I established a few basic guidelines in order to make the job a little more feasible. Some of these, I think, rest on pretty solid ground. I have not, for instance, included any books on slavery. While slaves were certainly immigrants of a sort, their brutal and coerced journey is so different from other immigrant narratives that I think their stories properly belong in a collection of works on the African-American experience.

Other delineations were more subjective. I have not included any accounts of the Plymouth Plantation or Jamestown or the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania. The early colonists were the first immigrants, of course, but their experiences were also fundamentally different from those of everyone who came after them, being stories of conquest and expansion rather than of adaptation and assimilation.

I have, as well, largely slighted writing about most of the newest immigrants, which means mostly Asian and Hispanic Americans. This is not meant to imply any disrespect or indifference toward these peoples or the literature in question. Rather, it is because these stories are so new that it is not yet possible to get any real historical perspective on them. I apologize for any disappointment this may cause, but it is a situation that will easily be rectified a few years down the road. It is my hope that here in America we will always have to revise the immigrant story.

This also leads us to another problem with selecting any 10 best books about the immigrant experience. What one prefers in immigrant books usually depends on what immigrants one wants to read about; very little has been written on “immigrants” in general. I am interested in all immigrant groups myself, but I must admit that my own professional efforts have centered disproportionately around two peoples—namely, Jewish and Irish Americans. I apologize as well for any partiality that this experience may reflect.

My other professional prejudice is toward fiction. Of course, in immigrant literature the line between fiction and nonfiction is especially blurred. Memoirs are frequently disguised as novels—or embellished with novelistic touches. And “purely” fictitious works are often able to get closer to the truth of the immigrant experience than some of the more dogged academic nonfiction on the subject.

With all these caveats in mind, here are my selections:

How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York

by Jacob Riis (1890; many editions). No top-10 list of immigrant books would be complete without it. How the Other Half Lives is that rare book that not only recorded history but changed it. It is also an exception in the genre in that it is not about any one immigrant group, but about how all the different nations that crowded into lower Manhattan in the late nineteenth century lived and worked.

It is, as well, America’s first great multimedia work. Jacob Riis was trained as a journalist, and his understated prose and relentless statistics make a powerful case for social reform. But it is his pictures that really strike at the heart. He was an amateur photographer, and more than once he came close to setting his subjects’ homes on fire with the primitive flash technology their cavelike tenement interiors required. But what images he produced! Here is the teenage girl pausing in a Ludlow Street sweatshop, smiling through a pair of scissors held up to her mouth. Here is a man celebrating the Sabbath in his tenement basement, looking utterly exhausted. Here is a 12-year-old string puller, his hollowed eyes and emaciated face showing what has already been a lifetime of work.

Riis would become an intimate of Teddy Roosevelt, and his book helped spur the progressive movement, providing it with a devastating testament of human degradation. How the Other Half Lives is not free of some of the pernicious stereotypes of the day (“the Chinaman…is by nature as clean as the cat, which he resembles in his traits of cruel cunning and savage fury when aroused”; “Thrift is the watchword of Jewtown, as of its people the world over”), but he at least took notice of many neglected ethnic groups, including African-Americans and American Indians. His book is, all in all, indispensable.

Five Points: The 19th-century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum

by Tyler Anbinder (2001; Penguin), is also about a number of different immigrant groups, though by focusing on the old Five Points neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, it ends up concentrating on the first wave of Irish immigrants, before and just after the Civil War. Five Points is an academic work, published just three years ago, but it is lively and well told—and free of Riis’s prejudices. Anbinder starts every section with a colorful story or biography and proceeds from there to paint a sweeping portrait of one aspect or another of immigrant slum life in the decades before Riis’s time.