The Immigrant Experience

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Luc Sante’s Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991; Farrar, Straus and Giroux) makes up a third in this trilogy of Lower Manhattan, the red-hot center of the American immigrant experience. His book is not per se about immigrants so much as it is about the underside of urban culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But he ends up writing so much about immigrants—and writing so beautifully—that I have included it here. Low Life is a more sweeping, idiosyncratic book than either Five Points or How the Other Half Lives , but as such it provides a wonderful overview of working-class immigrant life.

The richest trove of immigrant writing is that by and about American Jews, and no book in this genre quite compares with The Rise of David Levinsky, by Abraham Cahan (1917; many editions). Immigrating from Lithuania at 22 as a wanted revolutionary, Cahan would serve for more than 50 years as the imperious editor of that great engine of assimilation the Yiddish language newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward —a daily with a circulation of over 200,000 during its zenith in the late 1920s. It was also a vocation that may have cost Cahan a place in the very first rank of American letters. Levinsky is a dark and superbly written novel, one that spells out the cost of immigrant success in the material rise and spiritual descent of a young man. I chose it over Cahan’s fine novellas Yekel and The Imported Bridegroom only because it is a more complete work.

Charles Reznikoff’s By the Waters of Manhattan (1930; Markas Weiner Publishers) is a melancholy immigrant “success” story in the same vein, beautifully crafted. I selected it, only after much agonizing, over Michael Gold’s turbulent memoir-disguised-as-novel Jews Without Money, Henry Roth’s coming-of-age novel Call It Sleep, and Samuel Ornitz’s Allrightnik’s Row (Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl).

The passionate heart of Jewish immigrant writing, though, belongs to Anzia Yezierska, whose tragic rags-to-riches-to-rags story would make an epic in itself. I selected her memoir, Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950; Persea Books), over her generally autobiographical story collections How I Found America and Hungry Hearts and her novel The Bread Givers, though all are worth reading for her story of a woman trying to make her way not only as a Jewish immigrant in gentile America but also as a female in the thoroughly male writing world of the 1920s.

Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete (1939; many editions) beat out John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It is a bold, sentimental, Joycean tearjerker of a novel about the Italian-American experience, one that brought its subject into the consciousness of many Americans for the first time.

William V. Shannon’s The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait (1966; Longman) is a little dated, but it is a very well-written, shrewd study of the Irish immigrant experience in its entirety, including wonderful portraits of leading Irish politicians, prelates, and artists, and a telling look at Irish-American folkways.

Finally, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989; Oxford) and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976; Vintage) are both unforgettable renderings of the Chinese-American immigrant experience since World War II, told from a woman’s perspective. They are relatively recent works, of course, and I have little to add to the well-deserved encomiums they have received. Ultimately, I could not choose between them, so I have included both. Together they have done much to spark a whole new era of writing about American immigration.

Besides the near-misses I mention above, there were many other works that I seriously considered but did not select, either because their main focus was somewhat removed from the immigrant experience itself or because I liked other books just a little bit better.