Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing
Edited by Ilan Stavans
Library of America
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". . . America’s past and present in all its glory and perfidy."
Becoming Americans: A brilliant collection of four hundred years of prose and poetry.
Ilan Stavans has compiled a comprehensive and amazingly diverse collection of stories and poetry in Becoming Americans. A look at the table of contents is daunting. It includes entries from many internationally famous writers: John James Audubon, Charles Chaplin, Isaac Bashevis Singer, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Frank McCourt and Jhumpa Lahiri, for starters.
The most surprising thing about this collection of prose and poetry isn’t the famous writers’ work but the unknown writers whose stories are riveting, frightening and wonderful. It includes writers who warn people away from coming to America, for example Gottlieb Mittelberger’s warning in 1750 to other Germans not to Journey to Pennsylvania. Mittelberger warns them not to come because of the cost and hardship and the "Dutch trafficking". He warns that things are not much better in Pennsylvania and, if all one’s money is depleted by the time a "Newlander" reaches America, the only option is to become an indentured servant for “freethinkers and unbelievers… are not permitted… to attend any church or school.”
Becoming Americans is not a love letter to America or the process of becoming an American. Instead, it is a mixture of the sublime, the ridiculous and the truly appalling.
How would one not be moved by the plight of Chinese immigrants?
Instead of remaining a citizen of China, I willingly became an ox. I intended to come to America to earn a living. The Western styled buildings are lofty; but I have not the luck to live in them. How was anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison?
The Chinese helped to build America, spanning the continent with iron rails and bringing their ancient culture to enrich ours.
Some immigrants express humor and honesty and thankfulness upon landing on American shores. Take or instance Charles Simic: “I am surprised how quickly we felt at home in the United States. My father’s attitude had a lot to do with it. He thought America was the most exciting place on earth and wanted us to share his excitement. He had no desire to go back to Yugoslavia.”
No place on earth is quite like America, and Ilan Stavans has collected the best poetry and prose to illustrate the good, the bad and the ugly of Becoming Americans. Reading this collection is a daunting task quickly repaid in insight and wonder. Open the book anywhere and start reading. You won’t be disappointed. Choose a story, any story, and prepare to be impressed by this brilliant collection of everyman’s journey and the insights offered in these pages.
Thank you, Ilan Stavans, for sharing America’s past and present in all its glory and perfidy.
Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell