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The Immigrant Experience

May 2024
6min read

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.

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.

These would include—in rough order of immigration wave—Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York, Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, Jack Beatty’s The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, 1847–1958, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Beyond the Melting Pot, George Washington Plunkitt and William L. Riordon’s Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, Peter Quinn’s Banished Children of Eve, Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, Iver Bernstein’s The New York City Draft Riots, Ronald Sanders’s The Downtown Jews, Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York, Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed a Nation, Henry L. Feingold’s Zion in America: The Jewish Experience From Colonial Times to the Present, Stanley Feldstein’s The Land That I Show You: Three Centuries of Jewish Life in America, Annelise Orleck’s Common Sense and a Little Fire, Leon Stein’s collection Out of the Sweatshop, Milton Hindus’s anthology The Old East Side, Hutchins Hapgood’s The Spirit of the Ghetto, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Patrick J. Gallo’s Old Bread, New Wine: A Portrait of the Italian-Americans, Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale’s La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience, Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, Ronald T. Takaki’s Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, Oscar Hijuelos’s The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine, Marina T. Budhos’s Remix: Conversations With Immigrant Teenagers, and finally Aiiieeeee: An Anthology of Asian American Writers, edited by Frank Chin.

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