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Four centuries of writing into America

July 3, 2010 |  2:24 pm

The Library of America anthology "Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing" is daunting, weighing in at 724 pages -- however much a hardcover wrapped around 724 pages weighs -- but too good to pass up.

Among the writers in its pages are contemporary luminaries Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and Edwidge Danticat as well as immigrant Americans from long ago: John James Audubon, Charlie Chaplin and Isaac Bashevis Singer. It includes 85 immigrants from 45 other nations, and begins with a letter from Richard Frethorne to his mother and father from near Jamestown in Virginia in 1623. Editor Ilan Stavans writes:

As many of the writers in this anthology reveal, the dilemma of assimilation is never completely resolved. Each partial resolution is an invention, the result of a fresh confrontation with an environment whose coordinates and ground rules are always subtly shifting. In immigrant literature there is never simple acceptance but rather a constant questioning, a weighing of contradictory and compelling appeals, a never-ending examination of what really comprises a national identity.

One must not make too much of the notion of American exceptionalism -- the idea that the United States is unique in its historical character and destiny -- but it must be acknowledged that the way immigration has become part of American life and culture is not quite comparable to what has prevailed elsewhere.... While the history of immigration in the United States is bumpy at best, the emotion most often invoked about it is gratitude: not only have newcomers been thankful for the opportunity to remake themselves, but the native-born population has in the end extended respect to the outsiders who have become their fellow citizens.

There are many writers included who lived in America but we don't think of as American -- Thomas Mann, author of "Death in Venice," who left Germany after Hitler's rise to power, taught at Princeton and then lived  in Pacific Palisades until the early 1950s. There are pieces by Vladimir Nabokov, Frank McCourt, Christopher Isherwood, Laura Fermi, Czeslaw Milosz and W. H. Auden too.

There are stories, excerpts from novels, essays and poetry in this collection, published in 2009. While the earlier names are less familiar, the volume includes work by Jamaica Kincaid, Chang-Rae Lee, Luc Sante, Edward Said, Gary Shteyngart and Aleksander Hemon. It is quite a mix -- just like the country that these authors are writing about.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A map of North America by Robert Sayer, circa 1750. Credit: ephemera assemblyman via Flickr

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