Not quite white : Jewish literary identity, new immigration and otherness in America, 1890-1930
Morse, Daniel Lee
America’s ‘long early twentieth century’ (1890-1945) was a period of intense industrialization, urbanization, and immigration which fundamentally altered the character of the nation. Between 1900 and 1924, which saw the curtailing of immigration from southern and eastern Europe via the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act (successor to 1921’s stop-gap Emergency Quota Act), more than 14 million people flocked to the U.S. in search of economic opportunity, social equality, and freedom from religious and political oppression. Descendants of these ‘new immigrants,’ as they were called, were by the late twentieth century a staple of white American suburbia, but their progenitors were variously considered ‘off-white,’ ‘dark-white,’ or non-white, with attendant connotations of mental, physical, and moral inferiority. This research examines texts, authored by Jewish immigrants such as Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska, Rose Cohen, and Mary Antin, which were published between 1890 and 1930, when the onset of the Great Depression saw a rise in anti-Semitism that contributed to the decline in popularity of ‘up by the bootstraps’ Americana whose narratives chronicled, ostensibly, social assimilation and cultural integration; it considers the ramifications of writing in English for a native audience, which frequently alienated Jewish immigrants from their peers, and analyzes the manner in which the United States’ shifting social mores coincided with—and facilitated—new immigrants’ reappraisal of religion, education, commerce, and family life in the ‘new world’ of the west. It argues that the ambivalence contained within many of these texts was both a reaction to nativist prejudices and an effort to expose misconceptions present on both sides of the wildly popular Americanization movement, as well as exploring the way that such narratives attempted the redefinition of American philanthropic, educational and civic paradigms—the preponderance of which passionately espoused rhetoric of equality while reinforcing the stratification of the United States’ class system—into modes of interaction that accommodated difference while seeking to establish common ground upon which could be built a more inclusive, multiethnic future. Finally, it addresses the continuing relevance of these works as texts which both predict and presage modern modes of social interaction and discusses their future in an evolving literary canon that has, historically speaking, been an agent of western patriarchal hegemony.