English 417:  Topics in American Literature

The Literature of Immigration

Spring 2010

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The path of immigration into the United States extends from the halls of Ellis Island to the globalized migration of the twenty-first century.  First-generation immigrants are often driven to these shores by the blight of poverty or the sting of religious or political persecution; hope to make for themselves a fabled but often factitious “better life”; and are riven between the desire to retain old-world customs and language and the appeal of new-world comforts and technological advances.  Second-generation immigrants face the duality of a national identity—striving to become recognized as “real Americans”—and an ethnic heritage that they wish to honor and sustain but which marks them as always an “other.”  Here we encounter the hyphenated status of the preponderance of “natural born” American citizens.  The third-generation descendent will have only indirect or acquired familiarity with his or her ethnic heritage; the loss of bilinguality or at best a second language acquired in school; and frequently a multi-ethnic identity resulting from the complex scrabble of American life in a mobile, suburban, and professionalized surrounding.

We will read a selection of both fiction and memoir that reflect the immigrant experience in this country.  Jacob Riis documents the penury and hardship of tenement life among the newly arrived underclass in How the Other Half Lives (1890).  Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925) treats the conflict between a devout, old-world Jewish father and a daughter who wishes to be a modern independent woman.  In Pnin (1957), the bilingual writer Vladimir Nabokov features a professor of Russian at a thinly-disguised American college who becomes embroiled in academic conspiracies.  Unto the Sons (1992) is Gay (Gaetano) Talese’s magisterial, multi-generational saga of his family’s emigration from Southern Italy to coastal New Jersey and the dual betrayal of the Italian government and the American military in the second World War.  In his long career as an English teacher and barroom raconteur, Frank McCourt preserved the harrowing story of his youth in New York and Limerick, Ireland for Angela’s Ashes (1997); like so many immigrant families, the McCourts re-emigrated between transatlantic failures.  Junot Díaz, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), follows the “Ghetto Nerd,” his voluptuous sister and hot-tempered mother between urban-industrial Paterson, New Jersey and their Dominican homeland.

Additional readings may be assigned subject to availability and change without prior notice; no refunds or exchanges.  Course requirements include two intermediate length papers and a final critical essay that will integrate non-fiction, cultural and literary sources.

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Last revised on Wednesday, March 24, 2010.
Copyright © 2010 Joseph M. Conte. All Rights Reserved.