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Immigrant Visions: Inheriting the Promised Land?

The myth of the promised land is a tale told by strangers. It is the mythology of a people adrift, of a population without location, the rootless and the restless, the displaced, the exiled.

David F. Noble, Beyond the Promised Land

The invention of Plymouth (and especially Plymouth Rock) as an exclusivist ethnic symbol replaced earlier ideological readings in revolutionary, religious and abolitionist contexts at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

Werner Sollors, “Americans All”

Every ship that brings your people from Russia and other countries where they are ill-treated is a Mayflower.

Mary Antin, “The Lie”

Despite the fact that the Pilgrim and Puritan myth of origins in the mid-19th century was used by nativists to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment in the face of increased Catholic and other ‘foreign’ immigration from Europe, many of these immigrants cherished their own version of America as the Promised Land. The Jewish immigrants, for example, clearly recognized in the narrative of the Promised Land their own story of repression, bondage, release, and salvation. The comparison between the Puritans and the Jewish immigrants has often been drawn with regard to typological interpretation, i.e. the collapsing of Holy Scripture and worldly experience. After all, was not William Bradford one of the first immigrants from Europe and his work, Of Plymouth Plantation, America’s first immigrant narrative?

Illustration 5: Jewish Immigrants as the ‘New Pilgrims ’

1912 title page of The Promised Land by M. Antin.

The most prominent and programmatic author in the field of Jewish immigrant writing is Mary Antin (1881-1949), who immigrated to the United States with her mother and her sisters in 1894 to join her father, who had three years earlier fled the Czarist pogroms. Her autobiographical narrative The Promised Land (1912) relates the Puritan topos of the Promised Land to her own exodus from an Eastern European shtetl to Boston and New York. In that text she affirms the willingness of immigrants in general and of herself in particular to assimilate into American society, thereby countering nativist claims that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were unwilling or unable to integrate. Repeatedly, Antin refers to the Pilgrim Fathers as “our forefathers” (cf. also They Who Knock), thereby claiming a common ancestry of American-born and immigrant citizens. Chapter headings like “The Tree of Knowledge,” “The Exodus,” “Manna,” or “The Burning Bush” evidence that Antin’s (spiritual) autobiography strongly references the Old Testament (including the Exodus narrative). The Promised Land has become canonical in American studies not only for its topicality but also, as Werner Sollors reminds us, for its subtle aesthetics and versatility: “Antin continued the portraiture of America as a new Canaan from an immigrant’s point of view, while leaving no doubt that the metaphor of the promised land was especially suited to Jewish immigrants” (Beyond Ethnicity 45). In what was criticized as a “cult of gratitude” (cf. Tumin’s article of the same title) “characterized by excessive assimilation and submissiveness,” she “claimed the American egalitarian promise defiantly by equating [herself] with George Washington” (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 45) - and with the Pilgrim Fathers, one might add; the immigrant girl symbolically adopted American foundational figures as her forefathers.

Antin’s autobiographical text resonates in the writings of other Jewish American authors, for example in Anzia Yezierska’s short story “America and I,” which (also) features a female Jewish immigrant protagonist-narrator: “I began to read the American history. I found from the first pages that America started with a band of Courageous Pilgrims. They had left their native country as I had left mine. They had crossed an unknown ocean and landed in an unknown country, as I” (20). This analogy is then used by the narrator for personal empowerment as an immigrant struggling for inclusion: “I saw that it was the glory of America that it was not yet finished. And I, the last comer, had her share to give, small or great, to the making of America, like those Pilgrims who came in the Mayflower” (33).

Yezierska, like Antin, rhetorically authorizes her protagonist by establishing a connection between 20th-century Jewish immigrants and the 17th-century Pilgrims. Many authors beside and after Antin and Yezierska have worked with the myth of the Promised Land to make sense of their American experience, as Werner Sollors’ enumeration of titles by ethnic and immigrant writers proves:

Lewis E. MacBrayne, “The Promised Land” (1902); Sidney Nyburg, The Chosen People (1917); W. Forest Cozart, The Chosen People (1924); Rudolph Fisher, “The Promised Land” (1927); Martin Wendell Odland, The New Canaan (1933); Margaret Marchand, Pilgrims on the Earth (1940); Stoyan Christowe, My American Pilgrimage (1947); Robert Laxalt, Sweet Promised Land (1957); Mario Puzo, The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965); and Claude Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land (1965). (Beyond Ethnicity 46)

Since Sollors’s 1986 study, many more titles have appeared, of which I will briefly discuss two contemporary examples in order to demonstrate new and at times ironic turns in the appropriation of the myth. In Mona in the Promised Land (1996), Gish Jen takes up Antin’s reconfiguration of the myth by portraying a Chinese immigrant family, the Changs, who in the fictional New York neighborhood of Scarshill - which is strongly suggestive of Scarsdale, the New York suburb in which Antin had lived at the beginning of the century - are considered the “New Jews” (3). The Changs’ new family home is anything but new, as Mona, the Chinese American immigrant protagonist-narrator, quips: “Their house is still of the upstanding-citizen type. Remember the Mayflower! It seems to whisper” (ibid. 4). Mona’s life is decisively shaped by the old Jewish American community her family has moved into, whose members have come a long way from their turn-of-the century ancestors described in Mary Antin’s text. As a high school student, Mona has “been to so many bar and bas mitzvahs, she can almost say herself whether the kid chants like an angel or like a train conductor. At Seder, Mona knows to forget the bricks, get a good pile of that mortar. Also she knows what is schmaltz” (ibid. 6). Early on, Mona wishes to become a Jew, and indeed converts to Judaism. To her bewildered and somewhat alarmed parents, Mona explains: “‘Jewish is American [...]. American means being whatever you want, and I happened to pick Jewish’” (ibid. 49). She studies the Torah with Rabbi Horowitz, who “assigns so many books that Mona feels like she started on a mud bath, only to end up on a mud swim” (ibid. 35). At the end of the novel, however, the Rabbi also ‘converts’ and marries a non-Jewish woman (cf. ibid. 267). Overall, the novel deftly mocks the Puritan tradition of conversion and offers an ironic, postmodern take on the myth of the Promised Land and the theme of assimilation, which it adjusts to the zeitgeist of multiculturalism and to theories of cultural performativity.

Even more recently, the Jordanian American writer Laila Halaby puns on the myth of the Promised Land in her novel Once in a Promised Land (2007), in which she chronicles the decline of the marriage of Jassim and Salwa in Tucson, Arizona after the events that occurred in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. The title, which is suggestive of a fairy tale beginning, already indicates the sense of disillusionment and of things falling apart that pervades the narrative. Jassim kills a teenage boy in a car accident, and is targeted by the authorities for being an Arab American; Salwa has a miscarriage, and starts an affair with a colleague who turns out to be mentally disturbed and violent. Both Jassim and Salwa are exiles as much as they are immigrants. In this narrative of descent, the Promised Land is no more than a fairy tale - a mere fiction/fantasy. To conclude: immigrant writers have inverted, rejected, mocked, re-arranged and expanded the myth of the Promised Land to fit their own collective experience, to contest dominant regimes of representation, and to call into question the founding myth in its singular historical meaning.

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