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Universität Augsburg

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Gut (1.7), Prof. Dr. McPherson, 2017

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Immigrant Identities in U.S. American Literature:

Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and

T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain


Table of Contents

1 Introduction 3

2 Multicultural America? The Concepts of Ethnicity and Identity in the American Context 4

2.1 Identity: Us vs. Them 4

2.2 Ethnicity and Race 6

2.3 Americanness 6

2.4 Otherness 10

2.5 Immigration and Immigrant Identities in Literary History 13

3 Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets 15

3.1 Maggie’s Otherness 16

3.2 Violence, Fear and Poverty as Fixed Components of Life 19

4 T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain 23

4.1 Emphasis on Ethnicity as Otherness in T.C. Boyle 24

4.2 Violence and Fear, Borders and Boundaries, Territory and Intrusion 27

5 From ‘Melting Pot’ to Multicultural America? 30

5.1 Hypocrisy and False Morals 30

5.2 Prejudice and Racism 34

5.3 Deconstruction of the American Dream 37

6 Conclusion 40

7 Works Cited 42


Immigrant Identities in U.S. American Literature:

Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and

T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain


  1. Introduction

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame.

With conquering limps astride from land to land

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-handed

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Emma Lazarus’s Poem at the Foot of the Statue of Liberty, 1883 (in Gjerde 312)


The United States of America has been and still is often regarded as A Nation of Immigrants (Kennedy). Emma Lazarus’ poem and her “Mother of Exiles [who] glows world-wide welcome” (in Gjerde 312) has many times been taken as the nation’s motto. But is this welcoming attitude to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (Lazarus in Gjerde 312) really a long-standing American trait? And who are these masses?

The present paper aims at identifying representations of immigrant identities in two works of American literature which appeared nearly precisely one hundred years apart: Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, asking where are the similarities, and where lie the differences? At first glance, the selected novels do not seem to have much in common.

Crane’s short novel of 1893 deals with an immigrant family of Irish descent in the slums of New York, Boyle’s 1995 work is set in the outskirts of Los Angeles and brings together two couples who could not be more different: unauthorized immigrants from Mexico and a wealthy white family. However, an analysis will try to show that questions of and struggles with identity, the dreams and hopes of immigrants and the attitudes with which they are greeted by the ‘natives’ remain similar in literary representations throughout this time, also considering the historical and sociological backgrounds at the times of writing.

Author’s positionality shall be regarded and the literary realities of the acceptance of the ideal of America as a nation of immigrants will be challenged.

The above outlined objectives will be met by firstly examining the theories behind some key concepts of immigrant identities in the U.S.A., aiming at representing briefly the positions and discussions of the contexts of Crane and Boyle. The second part of this paper, chapter 3 and 4, will be studying Maggie and The Tortilla Curtain separately, focusing primarily on the representations of the protagonists’ otherness and the ‘realit.....[read full text]

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In the given context, distinguishing between ‘us and them’ is moreover a question of ethnic, racial and cultural identities. In conformity with what was outlined above, it seems natural, that an individual or group within a new environment would have to redefine one’s self-views within, beyond and in separation to that environment and its people, as will they.

Stuart Hall however points out that “[i]dentity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think” (222), and that especially cultural identity “is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists […]. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation” (225).3



    1. Ethnicity and Race

Just like Hall suggests that (cultural) identity is always changing, so does Marilyn Halter for ethnicity and race. She argues that ethnicity, also a social construct, consists of “features of a shared culture and a real or putative common ancestry. […] [But] is not a primordial human characteristic but rather ethnic groups are involved in a continual process of reinvention in response to changing historical circumstances and shifting realities both internal and external” (Halter 162).

Race, in itself a rather problematic term, is also described as socially constructed, because “there are no longer (and may have never been) pure and fixed racial entities” (162). Noel Ignatiev agrees, saying that “no biologist has ever been able to provide a satisfactory definition of ‘race’ […] [hence] [t]he only logical conclusion is that people are members of different races because they have been assigned to them” (1).

Despite this, Halter states that the “realities of race persist as powerful constants in the dynamics of everyday life in the United States […] [as] [r]ace […] still matters, shaping perceptions and influencing behaviors at all levels of society” (162). She farther mentions that the classification of a certain immigrant group or people as a race or an ethnic group is subject to change, depending on historical circumstances (Halter 163).

Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White shows precisely that phenomenon, examining how the Irish went from oppressed to oppressor in the eighteenth and nineteenth century (2), which he explains does not mean that “they all became rich, or even ‘middle class’” (Ignatiev 3), as Crane’s representation in Maggie, written and set at the turn to the twentieth century, shows.


    1. Americanness

In consideration of Halter’s statement that race and ethnicity are still a reality in everyday life in the US, how can American identities be described, how those of the ‘Other’, here mainly Irish and Latino?4 Individual, group and also nation’s identities are symbolic and discursive constructions (Wodak et al.) and “can be contested and changed” (Olneck 204).

Michael Olneck shows that this is particularly true for the United States as it is neither “a patria […] nor an ancient ‘homeland’” (204, emphasis in original) and thus could not necessarily count on the “durability of the nation” (204), which is why he sees “anxiety about holding together” (205) as a founding element in American .....

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To evaluate ‘Americanness’ farther, Halter’s statement, supported by many of her fellow scholars, shall be repeated: in the US and for American identity, race still matters (162). In the introduction to their anthology Growing Up Ethnic in America Maria Mazzziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan also emphasize “the complicated terrain of race and ethnicity” (x) and how both “have shaped the identity of […] [the] nation” (xvii).

So does Joseph Skerret, questioning why “issues of identity revolving around […] race and ethnicity seem particularly powerful in the United States” (1). Reasons are found again in history. White Americans, as stated above, have “sharply distinguished themselves from Indians, blacks, Asians and Mexicans” (Huntington 53) yet today often no longer acknowledge racial and ethnic differences as still existing, while at the same time assuming ‘whiteness’ as the norm (Skerrett 1), which is farther enhanced by media representations (Mazziotti Gillan/Gillan xi).

Paradoxically, the same group is recently developing fears of becoming a minority within the next few decades (Alba). This might be taken as an indication that although often denying or at least “wishing race and ethnicity not to matter” (Skerrett 1), awareness exists to a certain degree that “racial difference […] remains […] to maintain the hierarchy established by conquest, enslavement, and colonization [as] [t]he emphasis placed upon physical differences between peoples was always to the benefit of the dominant white European (or American)” (Skerrett 5).

The shockingly growing numbers of supporters of ‘white supremacist’ ideas are unwilling to give that up, especially now that the President of the United States has decided to turn a blind eye on racism in his country (Landler), as recent events have shown.6 However, limiting these fears to extremist views would be misleading. According to Robert Jones “the country’s changing demographics and culture, especially over the past decade as the country has ceased to be a majority white Christian nation” worries parts of the population, who consider these changes as a threat to “a core white Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them”.

Others recognize these changes as positive towards an evolving American identity, which is increasing in strength through diversity (Jones). Jones states that the American people are aware of growing “different vision[s] for America’s identity and future. His article is called “The Collapse of American Identity”, for that not to happen he stresses the absolute necessity of “weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves” (Jones).

By highlighting the necessity of a new national narrative, Jones accentuates the important role and meaning such narratives can and do have. As the literary works discussed here come from different contexts, the narratives present in their times vary. The time of Crane’s creative work falls into a frame in which America was still occupied with “rebuilding a .....

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Few sayings are linked to the United States as much as ‘from rags to riches’. The American Dream is what brought so many foreigners to America, and what continues to be an important push-and-pull factor today. The analysis of Maggie and The Tortilla Curtain will question this ideal, arguing whether the American Dream may be exactly that: a dream. As Nicholas Coles and Janet Zandy put it:

While it is true that America has produced some rags-to-riches success stories, and that it remains to this day a country where immigrants seek refuge and economic opportunity; the larger historical picture is more complicated and less sanguine. […] Those who were not of the elite propertied class had to struggle for their rights within a capitalistic system that offered opportunity for some, but also exploited, suppressed, and limited the freedom of many others. (xxi)



    1. Otherness

Defining ‘Otherness’ and other identities, more specifically, immigrant identities is only possibly in delimitation to American identity. The protagonists in the literary works discussed here are foreigners or of foreign descent, in Maggie Irish, in The Tortilla Curtain Mexican and thus the attempt of analyzing this perceived and real ‘otherness’ shall be made.

It has been shown that immigration has been a part of the United States throughout its entire history, but has changed over time and still is changing. When comparing the ten primary sending countries of the 1960s (Fix/Passel 25) to the ones today, the only reappearing country is Mexico (CAP Immigration/Nicholson). As people from all over the world come to the United States, making it a highly ethnical diverse country, the agreement on certain common values is undoubtedly an important factor of living together.

Assimilation is the key word here. The concept is yet again one of much debate, in theory meaning that “on entering a new country immigrant groups are encouraged, through social and cultural practices and/or political machinations, to adopt the culture, values, and social behaviors of the host nation in order to benefit from full citizenship status” (Holohan).

In the traditional sense of assimilation, immigrants would over time lose most cultural signifiers that would differentiate them from the host culture, e.g. language, values, rituals. This is contrasted strongly by multiculturalism, “where ethnic and religious groups maintain strong links to their cultural heritage, and it is indeed understood that these differences contribute to the rich diversity of a successful .....

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This shows how ethnicity and race is yet again a factor of identity, and for the Irish was an option to cast off their Otherness. In order to do so, they were willing to betray “their closest social class competitors […]. The newly arrived Irish-Americans judged that the best way of gaining acceptance as good citizens and to counter the Nativist movement was to cooperate in the continued oppression of African Americans” (McDonald).

This behavior was strongly opposed by their fellow Irishmen on the other side of the Atlantic, and a letter published in the Liberator in 1854 said “passage to the United States seems to produce the same effect upon the exile of Erin as the eating of the forbidden fruit did upon Adam and Eve. In the morning, they were pure, loving, and innocent; in the evening, guilty” (qtd. in McDonald).10 In the same matter Ignatiev concludes: “[i]n becoming white the Irish ceased to be Green” (3).

Beth O’Leary, as her name suggests herself of Irish descent, is a little softer with the Irish-American. Her dissertation deals with Irish-American narration throughout the twentieth century, and in her opinion “an Irish identity was given up in America and eventually pieced back together again. […] The Irish-American narrative tells of a rise from poverty and oppression to American comfort and respectability.

There is pride in this rise, but there is also loss” (ii). The Irish the US for her are “a people who have thrived in America despite facing oppression on both sides of the Atlantic, […] a people in diaspora […] [who have] preserved […] a sense of their own ethnic uniqueness when faced with the anxiety of losing themselves in a dull, if profitable, American whiteness” (O’Leary1-2).

People have been coming to the United States form Southern America and the ‘Hispanic’ countries for quite some time now, too, but as attitudes towards how and to which extent immigrants should adapt to American culture have changed notably since the Irish were the ‘new immigrants’, Latino identity seems to be more important for self-perception for members of these groups.

In her book The New Americans? Heather Mohamed questions how “the ‘Latino’ experience” (xiii) shapes the identity and its recognition. Mohamed proposes a “politics-to-identity link” (11), the influence of political debate on identity, outlining a comparison of protests to the 1994 Proposition 187and the 2005 H.R. 4437.11 In 1994 the Latino organizations rallied against the referendum, aiming at creating a sense of unity within the group by promoting foreign flags, the Mexican one in particular.

A decade later, when the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4437, millions of Latinos across the state protested “in an unprecedented demonstration of Latino pride and power” (Mohamed 1), but interestingly, Latino pride was emphasized in a unique, new way “by affirming that Latinos are part of America” (Mohamed 1), with a frequent display of the American flag and farther patriotic symbols and songs. ‘We are America’ was a statement carried by many to emphasize inclusion and patriotism rather than focusing on differences (Mohamed 1), but the author also admits that alienation effects and feelings of discrimination were .....

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The Latino and Hispanic immigration waves are not new anymore, yet they still are the new immigrants today. The future will have to show in which ways they will adapt to American society, or rather how concepts of Americanism will change with newer multicultural approaches. The focus of the present paper however lies in the past, analyzing representation and perception of Americanness and Otherness in the 1890s and 1990s, as the goal of the analysis is to show changes and consistencies over time.

In which ways these influence present discussions will not be the subject of this work, but it can be said that concepts always develop with and in differentiation to previous ideas.


    1. Immigration and Immigrant Identities in Literary History

The novels discussed here were published with quite some difference and as has been stated above, the goal of this paper is to look for both similarities and discrepancies in the works of Crane and Boyle. Their respective positions in literary context shall be outlined here to provide for a better analysis and understanding.

Stephen Crane’s Maggie first appeared in 1893, during a time where America had changed by an incredible degree from an agricultural community before the civil war to a highly industrialized, modern society. On top of that an up until then unknown capitalism evolved in the metropoles of the country that led to extremely wealthy people on the one side, and a growing industrial proletariat, living as the poorest in the slums of the newly developing cities on the other.

The inhabitants of these ghettos were mainly the recently arriving immigrants, hence ethnic and racial conflicts reached a new dimension as well. This induced debates on immigration, and its future as well as the future of the nation (Irving 31). The dramatically deepening social gap led to at times violent protests, yet at the same time the industrialization provoked modernization and new inventions (Fluck 153).

Literature, for example, due to cheaper manufacturing and printing, became available to the masses. Literary production nearly doubled between 1890 and 1900 alone and enabled more variety and broader genres of literature (Fluck 200). Amongst these American Naturalism may be seen as the “most incisive and interesting” (Fluck 205), of which Stephen Cran.....

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