On the Road

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, naturally showed a mild embarrassment at the presence of a guest without papers who was on such bad terms with his government, and called for “tact.” Then came the invitation to the American university; and suddenly in this vast free country there was no longer any talk of “tact”; there was nothing but open, uncowed, unspoken friendliness, joyous, without reservations, in fact with the constant refrain: “Thank you, Mr. Hitler.”

As Mann’s letter suggests, America’s wartime hospitality was not completely disinterested. The country greatly benefited from Germany’s brain drain; it brought us Ernst Cassirer, Hannah -Arendt, and Albert Einstein. But while Mann’s comparison may not be entirely fair—the Swiss were surrounded by hostile neighbors, so their “tact” was more prudence than pusillanimity—it does give us a glimpse of the American difference: a “joyous” embrace of those who seek freedom and a home. We’ll even risk a fight to defend our guests.

But, as at least some of these stories report, there’s a tradeoff. Edward Said, famous professor of English at Columbia University, recounts his first year as a student at an American boarding school in Massachusetts, where he had been sent by his parents, who remained in Cairo. Upon discovering that one of his teachers was also from Cairo, young Edward approached him hoping to find a commiserating soul with whom he could share his homesickness. But the teacher rebuffed him:

Undaunted, I switched into Arabic, thinking that his and my native language might open up a more generous avenue of interaction. It had exactly the opposite effect. Stopping me midsentence, Alexander held up his right hand, “No brother”—a very Arab locution, I thought, even though uttered in English—“no Arabic here. I left all that behind. Here we are Americans”—another Arabic turn of phrase, instead of “We’re in America now”—“and we should talk and act like Americans.”

Once one is an American, what does one have to give up? The customs of one’s homeland? The particular sensibility and personality they forged? Can one become American and still talk in one’s native tongue? And is this give-and-take the same in all parts of America?

Miłosz, who lived in exile in Paris before coming to the United States, tries to balance his own account, filling both sides of the ledger:

America. What splendor! What poverty! What humanity! What inhumanity! What mutual goodwill! What individual isolation! What loyalty to the ideal! What hypocrisy! What a triumph of conscience! What perversity! The America of contradictions can, not must, reveal itself to immigrants who have made it here. Those who have not made it will see only its brutality. I made it, but I have always tried to remember that I owe it to my lucky star, not to myself, and that right next door are entire neighborhoods of unfortunates.

Amid the contradictions, though, we can discover an underlying affirmation: it’s worth it. What immigrants want from America, first and foremost, is renewed possibility. For that reason, hospitality is good but freedom is essential. Sometimes—as with Miłosz’s next-door neighbors—the promise of America isn’t kept. But when it is, the results can be astonishing.

Among the most astonishing stories, as well as the most philosophically interesting, is that of the slave-turned-poet Phillis Wheatley. The first line of her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” shocked me:

’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

The subsequent lines explain the first: “mercy” because through her suffering Wheatley discovered God. There is an easy way to deflate the power of this poem. The whole thing can look like an obvious case of false consciousness: “But of course she looks at her life that way, now that she has faith.” As if it were as simple as that. Wheatley attributes an unimaginably horrific event—being ripped away from home, crammed into a slave ship, and sold as chattel—to divine mercy. Of all the journeys to America described in Becoming Americans, Wheatley’s is the cruelest, and yet no one else in this book is more grateful to have ended up here. If we attribute any power at all to her poem, we must take her at her word.

It’s not America itself that redeemed Wheatley’s terrible journey. Rather, America provided the possibility for such a redemption. Unlike most slaves, Wheatley was lucky to have an opportunity to learn how to read and write, and to have her literary talent recognized by New England society. She was also lucky to live in a country with open libraries and a free press. But with her learning came something much more important than literary fame—the realization that both she and her masters would be judged according to a higher principle with a transcendent source. Antigone-like, with an ironic smile, she directs her readers:

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Because all may join the “angelic train”—black and white, master and slave—this subversive final line implies the principle of racial equality, a principle America would take a long time to recognize. The irony of this subversion is that Wheatley found assurance of equality in the faith she was taught by her captors. She was able to see the working of divine providence in her enslavement, physical bondage leading to spiritual redemption and liberty. This country has often renewed itself this way: the immigrant reminding America of what it is and what it aspires to be. Wheatley’s poem insists that the Land of the Free be the land of freedom for something, a place to discover the meaning of one’s life.

Published in the 2011-06-03 issue: 

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