Narrating Americanization: space and form in U.S. immigrant writing, 1890-1927
This dissertation addresses a component of U.S. immigrant writing that literary scholarship has generally neglected: the relationship between aesthetics and place. Drawing on theories of ethnicity, nation, and space, I argue that the particular features of an immigrant group and the region where it settles produce narratives that complicate how we understand processes of Americanization. I structure my analysis around three major forces of U.S. culture that appear at the intersection of immigrant literary expression and space: labor, law, and landscape. Each of these forces, I contend, exerts distinct pressures on stories of American life and determines the individualized nature of writing by different immigrant groups set in different parts of the United States. While historians and literary critics tend to espouse a unified master narrative of immigrant assimilation, this dissertation argues that multiple versions of Americanization and multiple conceptions of American space emerge as products of the localized aesthetics that the writers of immigrant experience create.To that end, this project focuses on the narratives describing settlement at the turn of the twentieth century by specific immigrant groups in three regions of the United States: stories of Jewish immigrants in New York City's Jewish ghetto (by Abraham Cahan, Rose Schneiderman, and Theresa Malkiel), stories of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco's Chinatown and Angel Island (in Songs of Gold Mountain, Island, and by Sui Sin Far), and stories of Norwegian and Bohemian immigrants on the Midwest's prairie farmland (by O. E. Rolvaag and Willa Cather). In each chapter I first examine the manner in which particular economic, sociological, legal, and political discourses define these American spaces and dictate perceptions of immigrant identities within. I then analyze the literary methods by which the writers respond to these definitions as they narrate their respective place through immigrant experience. Their work constructs what Henri Lefebvre has called "representational spaces," and in that production they reconceptualize the place and, consequently, their own Americanness. This function of immigrant literature---which, in turn, shapes its form---enriches our perceptions of American identity and our readings of the American nation.
- English