Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing
Edited by Ilan Stavans
Library of America, $40, 850 pp.
Becoming Americans is a collection of eighty-five accounts of immigration to the United States. Although its title might suggest something triumphalistic, the book’s contributors are alert not only to the possibilities and satisfactions of immigrant life, but also to its ironies and tragedies. The anthology includes the stories of an English playboy novelist (Christopher Isherwood), a Nobel Prize–winning Polish poet (Czesław Miłosz), and an exiled Serbian writer (Aleksandar Hemon), but it also tells us about the lives of indentured servants, Chinese laborers, and African slaves.
The book is as much about assimilation as about immigration: its title is not Coming to America but Becoming Americans. E pluribus unum. Running through most of the accounts collected here is what might be called the American difference, which is sometimes experienced as good, sometimes as bad, and always as a novelty. We find a positive take on this difference in a letter from Thomas Mann to Walter von Molo, an Austrian writer who, after the end of World War II, suggested to Mann that he return to his native Germany to help in its postwar reconstruction. Mann, who had gone to Switzerland before moving to the United States, explains to Molo why he plans to stay in America:
Switzerland, hospitable by tradition but under the pressure of menacing, powerful neighbors and committed to neutrality as a moral principle,...