Source: Ellis island 1902, Wikimedia
The immigrant experience is a topic that has been written about extensively in many genres and time periods. Today, the conversation about immigration is mostly focused on undocumented immigrants, specifically the effects of immigrants on our society and resources.
In the late 1800s, the conversation about immigration focused mainly on immigrants from European countries such as Ireland, Germany, Russia, and Italy. Let’s take a look at some texts about immigration from that time and identify their themes.
Source: Statue of Annie Moore and her brothers,
Cobh, Ireland, Juan Antonio Flores Segal, Flickr
The first work is an excerpt from the short story “How I Found America” written by Anzia Yezierska in 1920. This is the story of a young Russian Jewish girl who comes to America to escape poverty and the oppression of the Cossacks, who won’t allow her to go to school because she is Jewish. Her family settles in New York City, and even though they no longer live in a mud hut or have to fear being hurt because of their religion, the narrator misses the open fields and sunshine of her homeland.
In New York, she works as a seamstress in a sweatshop until she is fired for confronting the boss about cutting the wages. On her way home from the sweatshop, she is hit by a car and ends up in the hospital. At the hospital, she has a dream of learning in an idyllic school. Her friend Yetta visits and tells her about the School for Immigrant Girls. She immediately goes to the school when she’s released from the hospital. At the school, Anzia meets Mrs. Olney, who suggests she learn a trade and become a servant. The following passage occurs after Anzia tells Mrs. Olney she doesn't want to be a servant.
Mrs. Olney stood abashed a moment. “Well, my dear,” she said deliberately, “what would you like to take up?”
“I got ideas how to make America better, only I don’t know how to say it out. Ain’t there a place I can learn?”
A startled woman stared at me. For a moment not a word came. Then she proceeded with the same kind smile. “It’s nice of you to want to help America, but I think the best way would be for you to learn a trade. That’s what this school is for, to help girls find themselves, and the best way to do is to learn something useful.”
“Ain’t thoughts useful? Does America want only the work from my body, my hands? Ain’t it thoughts that turn over the world?”
“Ah! But we don’t want to turn over the world.” Her voice cooled. “My child, thought requires leisure. The time will come for that. First you must learn to earn a good living.”
“Did I come to America for a living?”
“What did you come for?”
“I came to give out all the fine things that was choked in me in Russia. I came to help America make the new world. . . . They said, in America I could open up my heart and fly free in the air—to sing—to dance—to live—to love . . . Here I got all those grand things in me, and America won’t let me give nothing.”
The narrator then goes home to find her family evicted because of the wages she lost when she was in the hospital. Defeated, she goes back to the sweatshop to work. However, things begin to change at the shop. The shop gets electricity, and the workers get raises. She can finish her work with enough time to go to night school, but eventually she feels that night school isn’t helping her find the America she imagined either. Her young sister comes home from school one day, excited about a teacher who encourages her to express her opinions. The narrator goes to visit the teacher, hoping that she, too, will be inspired.
“I’m an immigrant many years already here, but I’m still seeking America. My dream America is more far from me than it was in the old country. Always something comes between the immigrant and the American,” I went on blindly. “They see only his skin, his outside—not what’s in his heart. They don’t care if he has a heart. . . . I wanted to find someone that would look on me—myself . . . I thought you’d know yourself on a person first off.”
The teacher encourages the narrator to share her story so that the teacher can better understand the situations of her immigrant students. The teacher also reads to the narrator from Our America by Waldo Frank.
All the way home the words she read flamed before me: “We go forth all to seek America. And in the seeking we create her. In the quality of our search shall be the nature of the America that we create. . . .”
So all those lonely years of seeking and praying were not in vain! How glad I was that I had not stopped at the husk—a good job—a good living—but pressed on, through the barriers of materialism.
Through my inarticulate groping and reaching-out I had found the soul—the spirit—of America!
Now, complete this graphic organizer about this story. You can download, save, and print this file. When you are finished with it, return to the lesson. Graphic Organizer Instructions
Read the short poem “Pot O’ Gold” by Kathryn Fitzgerald. This is a contemporary poem written by the grandchild of immigrants. After reading the poem, open a graphic organizer. You can download, save, and print this file. When you are finished with it, go to the next section in this lesson. Graphic Organizer Instructions
Pot O’ Gold
We came here in search of food
across a tumultuous sea
We came here for a life that’s good;
We'd have stayed home if we could
Máthair cried after we arrived
Each day in the filth she would toil
Athair’d search each day for a wage that was good
to buy food, to buy shoes, to buy wood
They fought long and hard, became loyal and true
To forge a life from something brand new
This immigrants legacy would be seen through
Pulsing through my heart is emerald blood
My grandfather's father’s will, in me
They came here for a life that’s good
I stay here because I could.