Selections from 85 immigrants tell what it means to become an American.
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Not long after his arrival from Denmark, Jacob Riis, the muckraking author of “How the Other Half Lives,” spent a single day as a coal miner. Perhaps this experience, along with his many other struggles in the New World, helped give him the compassion that led him to crusade on behalf of those who dwell not in coal mines but in the dim tenements of the Lower East Side. After digging coal all day with an immigrant friend in the silent gloom of the mine, he was scared out of his wits by the “joyous bray” of a friendly donkey arriving with his cart. “I verily believe I thought the evil one had come for me in person. I know that I nearly fainted.”Skip to next paragraph
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Despite the wealth and variety of the stories included here, there are a few notable omissions. Isaac Bashevis Singer is here, but not his fellow Nobel laureate and fellow immigrant Saul Bellow, who was born in Lachine, Quebec. An essay by Bellow about his first years in Chicago – perhaps “In the Days of Mr. Roosevelt” from “It All Adds Up” – would have been welcome.
More important, the hundreds of thousands of slaves who were brought to the American Colonies beginning in Jamestown in 1619 are scantily represented. We have a few lines of verse by Phillis Wheatley and a third-person account of the experiences of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, who was captured in 1730 in what is now Senegal and sold into slavery in Maryland. Yet “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,” among the most detailed, well-written, and well-known memoirs by an ex-slave, is missing (though it can be found in the Library of America’s volume “Slave Narratives”).
But whatever gaps it may contain, “Becoming Americans” is a generous offering of American stories. Reading it provides an extraordinary vision of the immigrant experience in all its heartbreak, suffering, and serendipitous opportunities.
Geoff Wisner is the author of “A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa.”