The Immigrant Experience


In a nation of immigrants, picking ten 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 task 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 immigration is so different from other immigrant narratives that I feel their stories deserve their own category, or that they should be included under 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, among others. I think that all of them would be better off in a separate, “colonial America” category. These early colonists were the first immigrants, of course, but their experiences were also fundamentally different from those who came after them—being stories of conquest and expansion, rather than those 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 the peoples or the literature in question. Rather, it is due to the fact that 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 can 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 ten best books about the immigrant experience. What one prefers in immigrant books usually depend 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 per force 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 plodding, academic nonfiction on the subject.

With all these caveats in mind, my selections are as follows:
How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis. No top ten list of immigrant books would be complete without it. How the Other Half Lives is that rare book which 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 multi-media work. Jacob Riis was trained as a journalist, and his understated prose and relentless statistics make an irresistible case for social reform. But it is his pictures that really strike at the heart. He was an amateur photographer, and more than once came close to setting his subjects’ homes on fire with the primitive flash technology their cave-like, tenement interiors required. But what images he produced! Here is the teenaged 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 twelve-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’s, and his book would help 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 most 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, by Tyler Anbinder, is also about a number of different immigrant groups, though by focusing on the old Five Points neighborhood of New York it ends up concentrating by necessity on the first wave of Irish immigrants, in the period before and just after the Civil War. Five Points is an academic work, published just last year, but it is lively and well-told—and blessedly 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 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 century. 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.

Easily the richest trove of immigrant writing is that by and about American Jews, and no book in this genre quite compares to The Rise of David Levinsky, by Abraham Cahan. Immigrating from Lithuania at 22 as a wanted revolutionary, Cahan would serve for over fifty years as the imperious editor of that great engine of assimilation, the Yiddish-language newspaper, The Forward—a daily with a circulation of over 200,000 during its heyday in the 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 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-a-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 own tragic, rags-to-riches-to-rags story would make an epic in itself. I selected her memoir, Red Ribbon on a White Horse, over her generally autobiographical story collections, The Bread Givers, How I Found America, and Hungry Hearts—though all are worth reading for the story of a woman trying to make her way not only as a Jewish immigrant in gentile America, but also as a woman in the thoroughly male writing world of the 1920s.

Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete was the first book ever written about the Italian-American experience to be a Book-of-the-Month club selection, back in 1940. It is a bold, sentimental, Joycean tearjerker of a novel, one that brought its subject into the consciousness of many Americans for the first time.

William V. Shannon’s The American Irish is a little dated now, having been published in 1966, but it is a very well written, insightful look at 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, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s Memoirs of a Woman Warrior are both unforgettable renderings of the Chinese-American immigrant experience since World War II, told particularly from the women’s perspective. Both are relatively recent works, of course, and I have little to add to the encomiums they have received, and which are well-deserved. Ultimately, I could not choose between them, and so I have included both books. Together, they have done much to spark a whole new era of writing about American immigration.

Besides the near-misses I have mentioned 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, 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 Sandor’s The Downtown Jews, Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd, Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, David Von Drehle’s Triangle, Henry L. Feingold’s Zion in America, Stanley Feldstein’s The Land That I Show You, Annelise Orelick’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 Morreau’s La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience; Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, Ronald Takaki’s anthology, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans; Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, Oscar Hijuelos’s The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love; Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Anne Fadiman’s Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Bharati Makherjee’s Jasmine, Marina Budhos’s Remix; and finally, Aiiieeeee: An Anthology of Asian American Writers.

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