The view from the melting pot; American Mosaic, edited by Joan Morrison and Charlotte Fox Zabusky. New York: E. P. Dutton. $19.95; East to America, by Robert A. Wilson and Bill Hosokawa. New York: William Morrow & Co. $12.95.

"Who am I?" For most immigrants, this was not a question to be asked -- it was more important to worry about jobs and food. For their descendants, however , the question of personal identity is often paramount; it also becomes entangled with others, such as "What is an American?" or "What were my parents and grandparents like?"

There are doubts about the process and value of assimilation -- a sudden realization of the loss of customs to be weighed against material gain. It should not be surprising, therefore, that recent interest in immigrant and ethnic studies should be spearheaded by second- and third-generation Americans; and if such studies as "American Mosaic" and "East to America" testify to the wealth of our collective tradition, they also demonstrate the difficulties of assessment.

The melting pot has been traditionally employed as a metaphor to describe the manner in which the huddled masses were to have their un-American flavors boiled away. But many objections have been raised against such an image: Why should anyone, even an immigrant, have to be melted down? "Perhaps instead of a melting pot," Morrison and Zabusky suggest, "we might more accurately call America a vast mosaic, in which colorful individual pieces are fitted together to make a single picture." "American Mosaic," their collection of immigrant oral histories, is an attempt to limn certain areas of that mosaic. What, then, we might ask, does the picture look like?

It is a collage; and yet, within the varieties of immigrant experience, certain patterns emerge. We may note, for instance, that language, class, race, and education still seem to determine an immigrant's immediate future. While Michael Blumenthal, a well-educated political refugee from Germany, is able to carry on his intellectual work and eventually rise to secretary of the Treasury, Bridget Fitzgerald, arriving destitute from Ireland, is happy just to work as a maid and have enough to eat.

Furthermore, the complexity of the American experience is mirrored in unresolved conflicts within the immigrants themselves. Pauline Nwman, a union activist from Lithuania, observes tartly that modern workers watch the "Hollywood Squares" whereas she used to read Tolstoy by candlelight. Former premier of South Vietnam Nguyen Cao Ky complains as a Confucian of having problems "not physically, but morally." Lena Klassen, an Indonesian of mixed stock, remarks ambiguously, "We've had an easy time. The only trouble was within myself."

Such ambiguities are also present in "East to America," a history of the Japanese in the United States. The central trauma for Japanese-Americans occurred, of course, after the invasion of Pearl Harbor when over 110,000 were interned in relocation camps. War hysteria and the old inscrutable Oriental bugaboo combined to produce a shameful repression. Even such liberal heroes as Franklin Roosevelt and Earl Warren were tainted by their actions in that affair. Testifying on alien evacuation, Warren, then attorney general of California, remarked, "We believe that when we are dealing with the Caucasian race we have methods that will test the loyalty. . . .But when we deal with the Japanese we are in an entirely different field and we cannot form any opinion that we believe to be sound." Warren later expressed his personal sorrow and regret, but the experience scarred many Japanese-Americans and caused many to rethink their loyalty to their adopted country.

As Messrs. Wilson and Hosokawa demonstrate, earlier patterns of discrimination existed as well, making the internment camps only the latest in a string of outrages. The Issei (first-generation immigrants) were denied citizenship because of race and were victimized by alien land laws and nativist politicians. Ironically, even the virtues of diligence and patience which allowed the Issei to survive often came to embarrass their Nissei children and Sansei grandchildren who were citizens by birth.

The history of this study is itself interesting. Funded by the Japanese American Citizens League and individual donations, the Japanese American Research Project (JARP) was established at UCLA in 1963 as "a trail-blazing enterprise -- a partnership between a major university and an ethnic group seeking to learn more about itself and to share that knowledge with others." "East to America" is the long-awaited result of that research.

Yet, for all its high aims, "East to America" is something of a disappointment. Though it is perhaps too much to ask of ethnic history that it embody the flavor of the particular conflict (as with Maxine Hong Kingston's "Woman Warrior" and "China Men"), still we do want a sense of the personal; and here too often the individual sagas are buried under a welter of data -- socioeconomic accounts of the Japanese in the Pajaro Valley, the Japanese in Wyoming, etc. One clue for this encyclopedic tendency might come from the fact that "donors of large amounts were promised a copy of the scholarly volume [in] appreciation."

But JARP and "East to America" stand as examples to other immigrant groups as to what should be done and what may be avoided.

These two studies are both valuable, and despite accounts of deep sadness and betrayal in the Promised Land, they embody a certain faith in the America that is still being defined. "You see," says Ibrahim Hassan, a Palestinian Christian settled in Nevraska, "after you drink the waters of this country, honey does not taste good in the wells of Jacob." We should hope so. The luxury of America consists of its ability to inspire so many questions it might be the answer to.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.