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“Land of Opportunity”? Immigrant Stories of Self-Making

The American dream, as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries under the impact of mass immigration came to understand it, was neither the dream of the American Revolution - the foundation of freedom - nor the dream of the French Revolution - the liberation of man; it was, unhappily, the dream of a “promised land” where milk and honey flow. And the fact that the development of modern technology was so soon able to realize this dream beyond anyone’s wildest expectation quite naturally had the effect of confirming for the dreamers that they really had come to live in the best of all possible worlds.

Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

The notions of upward social mobility and the pursuit of the American dream have often been connected to the immigrant experience. Despite the fact that stories in the Horatio Alger vein at times displayed a nativist streak, immigrant authors too used the narrative formula popularized by Alger to frame the topics of immigration and Americanization in the context of individual success and self-making. Beginning a new life in the US in these texts is represented as a process of (predominantly cultural) change and transformation, and is rendered in the same civil religious diction that also shapes many discussions of the melting pot (cf. chapter 5). However, even if immigrants often comment on the fact that the standard of living in the US is higher than in their countries of origin, they have no illusions as to the hierarchies that structure US society, even if these hierarchies may be relatively permeable.

For the sake of a systematic approach, I would like to identify four different patterns that underlie representations of the immigrant experience in American literature and popular culture from the mid-19th century to the present and that articulate different degrees of affirmation and critique of the myth of the selfmade man.

The first consists of success narratives that mostly conclude with a happy ending and feature successful and well-adjusted (i.e. assimilated) protagonists that take pride in their own achievements in a society which is usually described as rewarding hard work, discipline, and stamina. Success may come in different forms and need not be limited to financial success - often, it is connected to gaining an education, overcoming particular obstacles in life, or to achieving public recognition (sometimes even fame). Among this first type of self-made narratives, I group Scottish American Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography; early immigrant tales such as Jewish American Mary Antin’s autobiography The Promised Land (1912) and Arab American Abraham Mitrie Rihbany’s memoir A Far Journey (1914); and more contemporary texts such as Richard Rodriguez’s assimilationist autobiography Hunger of Memory (1982) and Bharati Mukher- jee’s novel Jasmine (1989), which features a female immigrant protagonist. Selfmade success can also be achieved through physical self-discipline, as Italian American Rocky Balboa’s boxing pursuits in Rocky (1976) show. The career of Austrian American Arnold Schwarzenegger, who quite recently published his celebrity memoir Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story (2012), points to yet other arenas of self-making; his remark that “[i]f there is one thing in this world that I despise, it’s losers!” (Schwarzenegger qtd. in Halberstam, Queer Art 5) is symptomatic of a cult(ure) of self-made manhood that glorifies the success of individuals and denigrates those who are unsuccessful. Historically, immigrants used a number of metaphors to frame their experience of the ‘new world;’ Chinese Americans for example referred to Western North America as the ‘Gold Mountain,’ whereas arrivals from the East referred to Ellis Island as the “golden door” (cf. Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem “The New Colossus,” which is engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty), even if there was little to idealize about the experience of internment, inspection, and admission immigrants had to en?dure there. Today, the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island hosts the Bob Hope Memorial Library in honor of the English-born entertainer who after arriving at Ellis Island in 1908 went on to become one of America’s most famous and successful self-made celebrities - and one of the most patriotic ones too (cf. Zoglin, “Bob Hope”). To summarize, immigrant voices and stories of the type outlined above articulate the hegemonic version of the myth of the self-made man and affirm exceptionalist notions of the US as a society in which anyone can achieve success through individual talent, hard work, and discipline.

The second type of immigrant tales in contrast is less unequivocally committed to the American success mythology, and consists of narratives of upward mobility that end on not quite so happy a note or consider the downside of success - in fact, outward success may even be paired with a sense of failure, loss, and alienation. This discrepancy becomes evident, for instance, in Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), in which the titular character and first-person narrator has to realize that money and success do not provide happiness (525-26); echoing the work of Cahan’s mentor Howells, the novel constructs a chiastic relation between feelings of loss and economic gain, and offers an ironic commentary on the mythology of success and self-making. Similarly, Paule Marshall’s novels about the Caribbean-American immigrant experience reveal the discrepancy between material aspirations and non-material longings, for instance in Brown Girl, Brownstones (1957), where we encounter a profound generation gap between the first-generation immigrant Silla, who pursues material success at any cost, and her daughter Selina, who dreams of less tangible things like falling in love and becoming a dancer. Self-making is addressed in a somewhat ironic as well as magical realist fashion in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (1984), where the house referenced in the title, while superficially representing material gain and upward mobility, at closer inspection turns out to be a metaphor for belonging and shelter against male abuse. All of these texts thus represent immigrant perspectives from which notions of self-making and upward mobility appear problematic.

In contrast to those who can be (with all due modifications) considered as self-made personae, there is a third variant: stories that address the ‘other’ side of winning and self-making, a perspective that even more strongly articulates counter-hegemonic aspects. Scholars have pointed out that many of those immigrant narratives critical of the success myth were written in languages other than English even as they were printed in the US. Werner Sollors (cf. Multilingual America), Orm 0verland (cf. Immigrant Minds), and others have pointed to the connection between multilingualism and non-conformity in American literature, and Karen Majewski’s reading of Polish-language immigrant writings by Alfons Chrostowski (e.g. “The Polish Slave”), Bronislaw Wrotnowski, and Helena Stas (e.g. “In the Human Market: A Polish-American Sketch”) also points to this connection (cf. Majewski, “Crossings”). Often written in a naturalist mode, these narratives, of which some were recorded and fictionalized by Progressivist reformers, naturalist writers, and so-called muckraking journalists, are part of a discourse of failure that is situated at a distance from notions of American civil religion, patriotism, and exceptionalism. The slums of New York City, where much of the immigrant population lived at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, have been famously captured by Danish American journalist and photographer Jacob Riis in his book How the Other Half Lives (1890). Similarly, Stephan Thernstrom chronicles the lives of those who are at the bottom of society in his The Other Bostonians (1973). Many American critics of the selfmade myth in and around what Daniel Bell has described as “the ‘golden age’ of American socialism” (Marxian Socialism 55) - the years from 1902 to 1912 - had other ideas than laissez-faire capitalism for realizing a truly egalitarian society; “Chicago Will Be Ours!” is the socialist prophecy at the end of Upton Sinclair’s naturalist novel The Jungle (1906), which provides another bleak vision of the immigrant experience in American society by describing the merciless exploitation and destruction of a Lithuanian family who works in the Chicago meat packing industry. The family, once full of enthusiasm for America, realizes that immigrant life is “no fairy tale” (143), as their attempts at improving their lot - and even at survival - are defeated: “They were beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside” (144). Narratives of immigrant failure thus are obviously at odds with the hegemonic version of the self-made man and expose the underside of the myth. They also reveal the myth’s often unacknowledged social Darwinist underpinnings, as the myth’s hegemonic version shrugs off the fact that it is not success and self-making but sheer survival that is at stake for many immigrants in a society that is characterized by gross class inequities.

Illustration 3: Muckraking Photography

Photograph from How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis (1890).

Lastly, a fourth kind of formula explores alternative modes of self-making and success that often transgress the bounds of legality, and thus also do not follow the dominant version of the success myth. These narratives acknowledge the difficulties of immigrant life in the US that arise from nativist resentments and other forms of discrimination against immigrants that often make assimilation impossible or undesirable, and thus locate success not within the American mainstream but in family- or ethnically-based criminal organizations and in plots revolving around a central gangster figure (cf. Dickstein, Dancing 313). A prominent example of this kind of tale is the Godfather saga (cf. Mario Puzo’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s film of the same title, as well as the sequels they spawned), which exemplifies an immigrant success formula based on maneuvering at the limits of (and beyond) legality and in socio-economic niches. In fact, as John Cawelti already argued in the 1970s, we find “a new mythology of crime” that reveals a fascination with power and corruption (“New Mythology” 335); this fascination, however, may be explained not only by the allure of glamorized depictions of organized crime but also by the fact that organized crime in many ways reflects rather than contrasts with what often hardly deserves to be called ‘honest’ business in the US: Daniel Bell argues that “organized crime resembles the kind of ruthless business enterprise which successful Americans have always carried on” (qtd. in ibid. 347); thus, “[t]he drama of the criminal gang has become a kind of allegory of the corporation and the corporate society” which conveys “the dark message that America is a society of criminals” (ibid. 353, 355). Seen in this light, immigrant gangs and robber barons may be more closely connected than is immediately evident. More recently, the Godfather formula was taken up in the television series The Sopranos (1999-2007) as well as by a host of other series who focus on the self-making of characters conventionally thought of as ‘criminals.’ Beside Italian American mafia dynasties, Irish Americans also figure prominently in this alternative success myth, for example in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), which dramatizes nativist and Irish gang life against the backdrop of the New York Draft Riots of 1863 and other contemporaneous historical events.

The four different ‘success’ patterns that we can detect in representations of the immigrant experience thus cover a broad spectrum of responses to the myth of the self-made man: affirmative ones that tend to mimic older rags-to-riches narratives; mildly affirmative ones that often substitute material gain with nonmaterial notions of success; highly critical ones that mostly focus on failure (caused by adverse circumstances and discrimination) rather than success; and mildly critical ones that sidestep the legal framework of the success myth but champion material success nonetheless. In all of these versions, the self-made man (or woman) appears as a more or less contested prototype of American entrepreneurship, whereas social stratification and systemic inequality are more systematically addressed only selectively by writers and critics who are invested in a socialist agenda that often does not stop at national borders and thus more fundamentally critiques the myth of the self-made man along with notions of American exceptionalism.

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