LITR 4340 American Immigrant Literature

Course Objectives

(organizing themes & terms for discussions, presentations, and exams)

All Americans are "created equal," but every American identity has a unique history
or background that shapes its past, present, and future.
In dialogue together, these unique stories define our multicultural landscape.

The immigrant narrative is the standard by which the American multicultural landscape is measured.


Overall Objective 1: To identify the immigrant narrative as a defining story, model, or social contract for American culture and to recognize its relations to "the American Dream” and other multicultural narratives or identities. Such relations identify four multicultural identities or narratives for the United States of America.

The standard immigrant story of escaping the Old World and assimilating to the New World and its dominant culture; two great historical waves of American immigration:

  • late 1800s to early 1900s: southern, eastern, and central Europeans including Jews

  • late 20th-early 21st century: Asian Americans + New World Immigrants in late 20th-early 21st century

  • (Jews and Asian Americans sometimes called "model minorities" for assimilation to American economics, esp. education, professions, and capitalism; also "STEM.")


Minority narratives (African Americans, Native Americans) are NOT immigrant stories (i.e., voluntary participation and assimilation) but stories of involuntary contact and exploitation, resisting assimilation (or being denied opportunities) and creating an identity more or less separate from the dominant culture. (Color code as wild-card factor.)


The New World immigrant (Hispanic/Latin@ and Afro-Caribbean) constitutes a large wave of contemporary immigration and combines immigrant and minority narratives: voluntary immigration from the Caribbean / West Indies or MesoAmerica but also often experience of exploitation by USA in countries or origin, or through identification with minorities (Indians and Blacks) via color code.


The Dominant or "Settler" Culture of early immigrants from Northern and Western Europe to which later immigrants assimilate. Despite their predominance and power, this group appears hardest to identify because of its "unmarked" status: often identified with whiteness but also middle-class modesty, plainness, and cleanliness. Analogous to the Exodus story, the dominant culture does not assimilate to pre-existing cultures but displaces earlier traditions. Two major strains: middle-class Puritans (Pilgrims) emphasizing education, community, and progress, and Scots-Irish, hillbilly, or redneck culture emphasizing common-sense traditions, family honor, warrior culture, evangelical religion, and resentment of elites.


These categories are far from exclusive, absolute, or definitive, but only proximate efforts to represent informal classifications that are practiced by our society and evidenced in our literature. Borders or boundaries of human identities are always more or less fluid and blendable, and social contracts are constantly renegotiated.

Objective 2. Dynamics, variations, and stages of the immigrant narrative.


o No single text tells the whole story of immigration, but the larger narrative is always implicit.

o Most Americans are broadly conscious of the immigrant narrative’s prominent features and values.

o Examples with variations are provided by any ethnic group whose people write about move and adapting to America: Irish, Italians, Chinese, Salvadorans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Japanese, Ukrainians, modern Nigerians, Vietnamese, Germans, Hindu, Pakistani . . . a list too numerous and growing ever to complete!

o Two ethnic groups DO NOT FIT the immigrant story: African Americans and Native Americans. (obj. 4 on minority)


2a. Essential terms: Assimilation (& resistance), melting pot, and "minority"

Assimilation and the melting pot:

o To assimilate means to become similar. The term loosely describes a process by which immigrants "become American" or "Americanize."

o Ethnic or cultural differences diminish or disappear through intermarriage, use of a common language, and shared institutions, opportunity, or ideology.

o Assimilation can work both ways: the dominant culture sometimes absorbs practices and products brought by immigrants or other ethnic groups, such as values, language, food, etc., or it attempts to restrict or reject values, language, behavior associated with minorities.

o The primary metaphor for assimilation has been "the melting pot." That is, the American experience of public schools, intermarriage, common language and ideology mix and "melt" our differences as in a great cooking vessel. The product of the melting pot is "the new American" who bears no marks of ethnic or tribal identification.


o Assimilation is suspect to many multicultural scholars and activists because it erases difference rather than celebrating difference.

o The melting pot metaphor may be limited where racial minorities are considered, leading to alternative metaphors like “the rainbow,” “quilt,” or "salad bowl."


2b. The “Model Minority” label is often applied to an ascendant immigrant group that exemplifies ideals implicit in the immigrant narrative. (Minority” is used loosely in popular speech, journalism, and government.)

o A century ago Jewish immigrants were the “model minority” immigrant group, as their children became well-educated professionals. Asian Americans now fit this pattern.

o These “ideal immigrants” take advantage of economic and educational opportunities (often associated with music, math, and medicine).

o Assimilation? Such groups may assimilate economically and educationally while maintaining ethnic identity in religion and ethnic customs (helping family stability). Such resistance to assimilation imitates the dominant culture (obj. 4).

o “Model minorities” are often contrasted with true minority groups like African and Native Americans—so-called “problem minorities”—in arguments against affirmative action. (“Model minority” concept confuses race / ethnicity with class / history.)

o An identifying distinction between immigrants and minorities is that immigrants will often resist identification with true minorities, identifying instead with the dominant culture.


2c. Stages of the Immigrant Narrative (many variations)

 Stage 1: Voluntarily leave the Old World (“traditional societies” in Europe, Asia, or Latin America). (Minorities do not leave voluntarily)

 Stage 2: Journey to the New World (here, the USA & modern culture)

 Stage 3: Shock, resistance, exploitation, and discrimination (immigrant experience here overlaps with or resembles the minority experience)

 Stage 4: Assimilation to dominant American culture and loss of ethnic identity (departs or differs from minority experience)

 Stage 5: Rediscovery or reassertion of ethnic identity (usu. only partial)


2d. Character by generation. What are standard identities for distinct generation? (These numbers aren’t fixed—variations occur in every family’s story)

first-generation: “heroic” but “clueless”

second-generation: “divided” between traditional identities of homeland or ethnic group and modern identity of assimilated American; bi-cultural and bi-lingual

third generation: “assimilated” (Maria becomes Kristen, Jiang becomes Kevin [most popular Chinese-American boy's name])


2e. Narrator or viewpoint: Who writes the immigrant narrative?

o First-generation? (rare, except among English-speaking peoples)

o Second-generation? (standard: children of immigrants learn English, usually in public schools, and use the language to explore conflicts between ethnic and mainstream identities)


2f. Setting(s): Where does the immigrant narrative take place?

o Homeland? Journey? America? Return to homeland?


2g. How much does the Immigrant Narrative overlap or align with the American Dream narrative? Are they one and the same, or simply co-formal? In what ways are they potentially distinct from each other? What values (such as individualism, aspiration, modernization) do they share?

Objective 3. To compare and contrast the immigrant narrative with the minority narrative—or, American Dream versus American Nightmare:

3a. Differences  between immigrants and minorities: The two least-assimilated or most enduring minority groups, African Americans and Native Americans, were NOT IMMIGRANTS.

o Native Americans were already here, and immigration was the “American Nightmare” instead of the American Dream.

o African Americans, unlike traditional immigrants, did not choose to come to America, but were forced; instead of opportunity, they found slavery. (See African American history as minorities and immigrants.)

These differences between immigrant and minority histories create different “social contracts.”


3b. Origins and choice:

o Since immigrants voluntarily chose to come to America, they are expected to conform to the American Dream story of freedom and opportunity.

o Minorities did not freely choose the American Dream and may speak of exploitation instead of opportunity.

o These distinct origins may form a different social contract for minorities than the immigrant contract of "work hard & get ahead" (e.g., "work hard for someone else to get ahead," or "get ahead by whatever means are available"


3c. Assimilation or resistance:

o Immigrants typically assimilate and lose their ethnic identity within 1-3 generations.

o Minorities remain distinct or maintain separate communities. (ghettoes, red-lined subdivisions, reservations)

o Immigrants often measure themselves against or distance themselves from minorities as a means of assimilating to the dominant culture.

o For historical, cultural, or color-code reasons, however, some immigrants (especially New World immigrants) risk “downward assimilation”: instead of climbing the dominant culture's educational-economic ladder , any ethnic group (including whites) may assert difference by choosing separatism, tradition, male privilege, separate language, and other behaviors that resist assimilation and advancement. (These groups increasingly include alienated working-class whites.)


3d. Overlap between immigrant and minority identities:

o Immigrants may experience “minority” status in early generations.

o Immigrants may suffer discrimination and marginalization by the dominant culture on account of racial and cultural differences as long as those differences are visible or audible.

o With few exceptions, the only immigrants who are treated as minorities are those who are not yet assimilated.

o "internal migration," e.g. the "Great Migration" of African Americans from southern farms to northern cities; the American Indians' Trail of Tears; Scots-Irish migration from Appalachia to the industrial midwest

3e. (after Midterm1) “New World Immigrants,” including Mexican Americans, other Latinos, and Afro-Caribbeans, may create an identity somewhere between or combining immigrant and minority patterns.

o “New World” or “Western Hemisphere” immigrants have dominated recent immigration to the U.S., altering the model implicit in the “model minorities / immigrants” developed by Jewish Americans and Asian Americans.

o In contrast to ideal immigrants’ commitment to American national identity and opportunity, New World immigrants may stay loyal to their nearby home countries and remember historical resentments or mixed feelings toward the USA.

o Mexican American immigrant experiences and identities relative to the USA are unique in ways that may make them more ambivalent regarding assimilation to the dominant American culture. Mexican immigration is unique in scale, so there's more of an alternative community. Assimilation proceeds, but maybe at a slower pace.

o Other Hispanic immigrant groups like Puerto Ricans may have similarly ambivalent attitudes toward assimilation and difference.

o For Afro-Caribbeans, immigrant experience may be compromised by association with the African American minority through the "Color Code." On the flip-side, Afro-Caribbeans' experiences as the majority on the islands may cultivate more assertive public identities and attitudes.

Objective 4. To identify the United States' “dominant culture”: “What kind of culture do immigrants assimilate to?”

This subject is so vast, historically deep, and ubiquitous that it resists identification and analysis; therefore another variation of the immigrant narrative termed National migration.”

o Unlike the normal immigration pattern of individuals or families immigrating with intentions or expectations of assimilating to their new home, some groups immigrate as communities with the intention of not assimilating.

 o These groups may be identified by religion, but religion is interwoven with other community aspects like economics (Protestant Work Ethic, community support) and ethnic relations (x-intermarriage).

 o Some of these groups may become the dominant culture of a nation or area.

Examples of national migration and dominant culture for objective 4

o Our deep historical model for “national migration” is the ancient Jews who migrated from Egypt to Canaan in the Bible’s Exodus story. Whereas the standard immigrant story concerns families and individuals who strive to adapt to the prevailing culture, the Jews moved to the Promised Land as a group and resisted assimilation and intermarriage with the Canaanites. American Jews have followed this pattern until recent generations, when intermarriage has increased.

o Our American historical model for “national migration” and the dominant culture is the “Great Migration” of English Pilgrims and Puritans to early North America, where they imitated the Jews in Canaan by refusing to intermarry with or assimilate to American Indian culture. This English culture became the basis for the USA’s dominant culture. In brief, this is the primary culture to which American immigrants assimilate.

 o A relatively recent internal example of “national migration” might be that of the Mormons in the 1800s from the Midwest to Utah, where they became the local dominant culture.

o Some elements of national migration and correspondence to Exodus may also appear in the “great migration” of African Americans from the Old South to the urban North during slavery times, in the early twentieth century, and in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

o An alternative dominant culture to the Puritans is the Scots-Irish of the Appalachian region. In contrast to the elite educations and community lifestyles developed by New England Puritans, the Scots-Irish practice rugged individualism marked by unwritten codes of family honor and armed violence. Lacking a politically correct term, popular names for this group include "hillbillies" and "rednecks" (but such terms may be resisted by suburban evangelicals descended from Scotch-Irish southerners).

Objective 5. To observe and analyze the effects of immigration and assimilation on cultural units or identities:

o family: In traditional Old World, extended families prevail. In modern New World, assimilated people live in nuclear families (often divorced) or by themselves.
>Because immigrants often come from small, traditional communities with strong family identities, and because immigrants often immigrate with their families, immigrants reinforce America's "stress on the family" as society's main organizing unit. However, when immigrants enter a modern society like the USA (especially its cities of millions of strangers), families have difficulty adapting to rapid change and equality of genders, generations, etc.

o gender: Old World gender identities tend to be traditional, with clear divisions of power, labor, and expression. In New World, gender may be de-emphasized in favor of equality, merit, and other gender-neutral concepts.

o community and laws: Old World culture is often organized by traditional or family laws and a distant, autocratic state. New World culture conforms to impersonal laws and a democratic, regulated, but self-governing state.

o religion: In traditional societies of the Old World, religion and political or cultural identity are closely related. Modern cultures of the New World tend toward a secular state and private religion. (Religion is often the ethnic identity factor that resists assimilation the longest—but not necessarily forever. Catholic, Islamic, or Hindu immigrants may generally conform to mainstream dominant culture while resisting conversion to the Protestant or Evangelical Christianity of the dominant culture.)

o Population demographics: Immigrants often come from third-world, traditional, or subsistence societies that value high rates of childbearing in the face of high infant mortality and short life spans. In contrast, first-world cultures like blue-state America, Canada, western Europe, and Japan limit numbers of children for the sake of prolonging individual lives or protecting nature. The resulting differences in family dynamics and education and income levels fuel many conflicts between the dominant and immigrant cultures.

o Finally, how do immigrants change America?

Objective 6. The Immigrant Narrative and Public Education: To measure the importance of public education to assimilation and opportunity.

6a. Free secular education as a starting point for the American Dream of material progress. (first rung on the ladder available to all; instruction in common language; separation from household or ethnic religious traditions)

Literacy and English-language fluency as key to assimilation to dominant culture.

6b. Teachers of literature, language arts, and history must consider a variety of issues relative to immigrant and minority culture.

o Should we teach / practice multiculturalism or assimilation? What balance between “identity,” “tradition,” and “roots” on one hand, and “conformity,” “modernization,” and “mobility” on the other?

o How much does literature concern language instruction and formal mechanics and terminology of literature, and how much does it concern a student-friendly way to teach culture and social skills? ("socialization")

o Do home-schooling and bible academies constitute white flight and resistance to integration, immigration, and assimilation via a secular, multicultural curriculum?

Historical background:

o Puritans (dominant / "settler" culture) established community public schools for all. (literacy as first entry to dominant / "settler" culture)

o Immigrant wave of late 1800s-early 1900s stimulated Progressive Era public education to help immigrants assimilate.

Objective 7. To distinguish fictional and non-fictional modes of the immigrant narrative

7a. How can we tell when we're reading fiction or nonfiction? What “markers” or signs of difference both in and outside the text alert the reader that the narrative is either fictional or non-fictional? Are these signs always accurate?

7b. How do narrative, viewpoint, characterization, and setting change from fiction to nonfiction, or vice-versa?

7c. How much may these two genres cross? (Genre-bending, Creative Nonfiction.)

Premises, challenges, and resolutions of American Immigrant course objectives:

This course extends to the entire multicultural landscape of American literature: minority, immigrant, and dominant cultures, all defined relative to the immigrant narrative.



o Multicultural studies are part of the USA’s educational and literary landscape, and may be expected to remain so for the foreseeable future, at least in public schools and higher education. (Bible academies and home schools may differ.)

o Most surveys of multicultural or minority literature appear not to develop formal standards for deciding which ethnic groups are read and studied or why.

o Such choices may be based on precedent, but systematic criteria for inclusion, exclusion, or grouping of ethnicities are overlooked, perhaps to avoid sensitive decisions on identities and power relations.

o Instead, such surveys “promote tolerance” and “celebrate difference.” They declare or imply platitudes like “each group is unique,” “everyone gets a turn,” or "we're all individuals." (All true enough but more tolerance than learning.)

o Different ethnic or gender identities sometimes unify in terms of common “victimization” or oppression by a dominant culture, whether white, male, or upper-class / corporate / government.



The casual inclusiveness of most multicultural surveys generates potential problems or questions. American society comprises so many ethnic groups that no survey can cover them all.

o    Which ethnic groups must be included?

o    What larger categories can ethnic groups be classified within?

o    Is it possible or desirable to move beyond “celebrating difference” and exposures of “victimization?”

o    Can different ethnic groups share common cause? (Sensitive question: Can people identify with ethnic or gender groups other than their own? If so, is such identification possible only through a shared sense of victimization?)


American Immigrant Literature “celebrates difference” by surveying texts from a wide range of American ethnic groups. Using the immigrant narrative as a “yardstick” or norm develops a unified field or standard for identifying, grouping, and evaluating different ethnic groups.

Instead of only celebrating difference and leaving each ethnic group to stand by itself, our course uses the immigrant narrative as a way . . .

o    to measure degrees of difference between immigrant, minority, and dominant cultures, and

o    to mediate shared or parallel experiences and identities as far as possible in a single "American" field or continuum.