Ethnic Passages, Literary Immigrants in Twentieth-Century America

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Ethnic literature figures prominently in the current debate on multiculturalism, but even its supporters have had little to say about it as literature, stressing instead its political and sociological context. Thomas J. Ferraro, in this lively and accessible study of modern fiction by Americans of immigrant background, argues that the best of these stories demand—and reward—close reading and attention to questions of genre and literary form. Ferraro engages the literature of immigration and mobility by asking what motivates its authors and what their work actually accomplishes. He concentrates on five diverse examples of the “up-from-the-ghetto” narrative: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Henry Miller’s “The Tailor Shop,” and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. To Ferraro the unsuspected value of these works is that they recast the conventions of ethnic representation, illustrating the power of ethnic writing to capture and redirect the national literary imagination. Ferraro’s sharply observed reading of these five works shows how such reenactments of immigrant mobility test the ideology of assimilation against the writer’s experience. Ethnic Passages will refocus discussion of how literature addresses the American conflict between ethnic heritage and the greater opportunities of “mainstream” society.

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