Becoming Americans

Selections from 85 immigrants tell what it means to become an American.

Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing Edited by Ilan Stavans Library of America 724 pp., $40.00

In 1979, the Library of America began its great task: making the works of America’s essential writers available in compact, durable, uniform editions that would remain in print. This would seem to be enough for one press to handle, but in 1998 the LOA went on to publish “Writing New York,” the first in a separate series of special anthologies.

The latest of these anthologies is not just by American writers. It is about what it is like to become an American writer – or at least, since many of the authors here were not primarily writers – what it is like to become an American.

The 85 selections in Becoming Americans include memoirs, essays, fiction, and poetry. Eighty-four are written by a single author, while the 85th is an assortment of anonymous poems by Chinese immigrants interned on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Except for the final selection in the book, each work is by someone who came to America, and many of them focus on the first days or weeks after their arrival. (That last selection, a melancholy excerpt from “Hunger of Memory” by Richard Rodriguez, points the way toward the experiences of the second generation.)

The selections in “Becoming Americans” are arranged according to the date when the author arrived here. Ilan Stavans, the editor of this volume, appears on page 629. In the short introduction to his essay – perceptive and gracefully written, like his introductions to the other contributors – Stavans explains that he was born in Mexico City into a Jewish family with roots in Poland and Ukraine. He came to the United States as a teenager, in 1985, and developed an “interest in language as a prism for understanding identity.”

Many of the selections describe the obstacles, and sometimes opportunities, of learning to use American English. To be an exiled writer, says Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize–winning poet, “is like being a dog or a man hurtled into outer space in a capsule (more like a dog, of course, than a man, because they will never retrieve you). And your capsule is your language.”

Of course, the contributors to this book have more to worry about than just language. Some are indentured servants. Some are slaves. Others struggle with lack of money, poorly paid and degrading work, and lack of support from compatriots who have come before. The fact that these authors survived and wrote well about their experiences makes them among the most successful immigrants. But whatever successes they may have had in the Old World, and whatever successes may come in the New, the memory of being scared and vulnerable and out of their element lends their work a refreshing humility.

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.”

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.”

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