LITR 5831 Seminar in World / Multicultural Literature

American Immigrant Literature

class meeting 1

instructor teaches system

students like readings


most readings 20th-21st centuries

my training mostly historical, so a few readings, but usually not students' favorites


need to teach formal qualities of literature as well as significance to identity, culture, history, politics

narrative as form + ideology or worldview

but quickly gives way to cultural analysis

recent interest in creative nonfiction, borders between fiction and nonfiction





immigrant narrative on board for critical thinking exercise

Old World > New World



teaching style: maximize learning through student leadership

upsides of student leadership: fresh perspectives, peer-level (i. e., student meets other students on their level)

potential downsides of student leadership: less intense than instructor-led, may get off point, comparative absence of information and theoretical sophistication (with the usual exceptions)


intense planning and organization

insistence that presenters acknowledge course objectives





Each person say:

Your name (first and last) as you like to be called

Career or student status, reasons for taking the course

A few words on course content: Options:

  • Familiarity with immigrant literature--What previous readings might qualify?
  • Personal or professional interest in immigrant issues
  • Assessment of “immigration crisis”








some history of immigration




used in sociology, politics, economics

"Demo" = people, as in democracy

"graphics" = measurement

demographics can mean or measure a lot of different things--characteristics of a group of people

for immigrant literature:

mobility or movement

population dynamics

language and culture changes--e. g., women leaving home and entering workforce, length of schooling



Literature and history meet in narrative or storytelling . . . .

History of immigration tells a story about the USA and other nations.

recent rises in rates of immigration

Internet Modern History Sourcebook: US Immigration

1920s restrictions on immigration by racial quotas

"National Origins" quota act of 1924

Immigration Reform Act of 1965

Landmarks of American Immigration History

In some periods of American history, rates of immigration rise or fall in response to domestic politics and world economics.

1600s-early 1800s: steady flow of immigrants from northern & western Europe (England, Germany, France, Scandinavia); mostly Protestant in religious background, but some Catholics and Jews (Northwestern Europe experiences population growth similar to that in 3rd World today)

1840s: Irish potato famine; Irish immigrants mostly Catholic in religious background (early example of "culture war")

late 1800s, early 1900s:

  • "open land" following manifest destiny
  • economic opportunities in growing American cities
  • more immigrants come from southern Europe (e. g., Italy) and central or eastern Europe (e. g., Poland, Russia)
  • increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants result from religious persecution

1924-1965: immigration falls: American ethnic profile increasingly black-white, segregation and civil rights

  • limits on all immigration with preferences for northern and western Europe
  • exclusion of Asian immigration
  • Great Depression and World War 2 disrupt normal migration
  • Jews flee Europe for America and later Israel (1948)

late 1900s, early 2000s: enormous population growth in Third World or "developing countries" (improved health and food production; opposition to birth control by traditional religion)

When immigration rises, anxiety increases over

  • whether immigrants are coming too fast,
  • whether they will become Americanized
  • whether America will become more like the countries the immigrants come from.



political attitudes toward immigration

American values are strongly identified with immigration, hard to argue against.

Anxiety and doubts about immigration are usually balanced out by how essential the immigrant story is to American identity . . .


The vast majority of Americans are immigrants or descended from immigrants.

Past anxieties have tended to be ultimately groundless, as immigrants assimilate, work hard, learn English, and "become Americans" (who may in turn worry about immigration).

Recent positive example: Moslem-American communities have only recently produced terrorists. Most of the 9/11 terrorists had become alienated in European nations, which don't have the same level of immigrant identity.



political parties mixed


support immigration (or don't oppose) b/c of support from identity groups

oppose immigration b/c of overpopulation, urbanization & sprawl



corporate conservatives favor immigration for cheap labor

social conservatives oppose immigration b/c of rapid social change




More recent issue: overpopulation and environmental change.

Population in the USA recently passed 300 million--essentially doubled in last 50 years.

Immigration aspects: 

Nearly all U.S. population growth is immigration-fueled

Native-born Americans are basically reproducing at replacement levels

Immigrant families tend to have more children (on account of traditional gender roles, other traditional beliefs or practices)

Immigration not a national but global phenomenon


Useful concept for population worries:

"The Demographic Transition"

As people rise in economic status, education, and other quality-of-life measures, they have fewer children. (Religion can alter individual cases, but statistically insignificant.)

Traditional societies tend to operate at subsistence levels, which keep population stable despite high birth rates. (That is, many births, but also many deaths, including high infant mortality.)

As people from traditional cultures enter modern life (better nutrition, hygiene, medicine, etc.), they continue high birth rates for a generation or two, but more of their children survive.

As people become "modernized," they have fewer children and concentrate greater resources on them--"hot-housing," etc.



Any corrections or additions to historical background?

Refocus on literary angle: the immigrant narrative


What is narrative? How and where have you studied it?

What is the Immigrant Narrative? What images, values, and sequences attached to it?

What is the American Dream story? What images, values, sequences?

How does the Immigrant Narrative conform to or reinforce the American Dream story?





How do these rate as "stories" or "narratives?"

humans as storytelling creatures

stories reflect and shape reality

Narratives are not limited to "fiction." They animate our ideas about our nation or ourselves: "the story of America"; "the story of my life"


stories have beginning, middle, end

beginning either determines end, or makes changes meaningful

"middle" as some action that confirms or changes beginning > end

immigrant story's "middle" is usually a journey or change

But that physical journey or change can become a metaphor for internal or personal change

? Immigrant story as "conversion narrative"?

for example, old self > new self; metaphors of being reborn

These elements may sound more like images than stories, but since the images gain meaning by their relation to each other in a time progression, they're stories or narrative.









history of course


Upon arrival in 1992, LITR 5731 was "Seminar in Contemporary Minority Writers"

Who to include?

premise of American Minority Literature: American Minorities are not immigrants, or differ from traditional immigrants in significant ways

American Indians--here before the immigrants came

African Americans--forced immigration; slavery, not opportunity

plus or minus Mexican Americans--most often thought of as immigrants, but some differences from traditional immigrant narrative--land bridge, distinct language communities resist assimilation, and history with dominant American culture more like a minority group, compare to American Indians

This course doesn't ignore minority groups, but expands to look at traditional immigrants and dominant culture

Across both courses, the essential element is the immigrant story--ethnic groups either differ from it or follow it, more or less.


Late 90s, title changed to "Seminar in American Minority Literature"

Late 90s, began developing "American Immigrant Literature" as graduate topics course LITR 5733 Seminar in American Culture, then as undergrad LITR 4333 American Immigrant Literature

2004-5, title changed to "Seminar in American Multicultural Literature"

Catalog description:

"Survey of minority or Immigrant literature; intensive study of a particular ethnic group's texts and authors; a trans-ethnic theme or topic; a major author or authors. Topics vary. May be repeated for credit with permission of instructor. (Crosslisted with CRCL 5731)."


Concept of immigrant literature also changed

early versions of course rehearsed immigrant narrative in various ethnic groups

American people by ethnic or national origin


Course now surveys entire landscape of multicultural literature

Three categories (with, of course, overlap or permeable boundaries)


Immigrant Literature / culture

Minority Literature / culture

in-between groups: Mexican Americans, other Hispanic immigrants, Afro-Caribbeans

Dominant culture