Response Paper

Abraham Cahan

Theodore Roosevelt and Randolph Bourne each put forward prescriptive arguments regarding how “Americanization” ought to take place in the United States, what it should mean. Roosevelt envisioned a United States full of “naturalized” foreigners who had abandoned their allegiances to their home countries; Bourne envisioned the United States as a “federation” of cultures, a cosmopolitan, trans-national country in which everyone would maintain an inner, spiritual allegiance to their native lands. As a work of realism, Abraham Cahan’s novella Yekl purports instead to describe the reality of the immigrant experience in the United States. What central arguments or positions on immigration can we nonetheless glean from the text, and how do they compare or contrast with those of Roosevelt and Bourne?
In Bourne’s essay “Trans-national America” he critiques those immigrants to the United States who would substitute the “American culture of the cheap newspaper, the ‘movies,’ the popular song, the ubiquitous automobile,” for the authentic, native cultures of their countries of origin. He describes this substitution as a “cultural wreckage.” He abhors the “half-breeds” who are washed away in uniformity, whom he calls “the flotsam and jetsam of American life . . . with its leering cheapness and falseness.” Bourne instead applauds immigrants who “retain that distinctiveness of their native cultures and their national spiritual slants”—what he describes as the native “fabric” of their souls, their native “sympathies” and “outlooks.” Use Bourne’s arguments to analyze Cahan’s Yekl. To what extent does Cahan appear to agree or disagree with Bourne’s characterization of such cultural “half-breeds”? For your answer, analyze the changes Jake and Gitl undergo. Does Cahan similarly allude to a national spirituality? Where does cultural authenticity reside for Cahan, and does he see it as worth maintaining?
Bourne describes “colonies” of immigrants living in the United States, which through their native presses, schools, arts, and social and political leaders, act as the “central cultural nuclei” of the immigrant communities, helping to retain their native cultures. In fact, Cahan was just such a leader for the Jewish community of New York, where for many years he published a Yiddish newspaper. Yekl is set in the Jewish Ghetto of New York’s East Side, what the narrator describes as a “seething human sea” of Jewish immigrants. To what extent does the Ghetto of Cahan’s novella perform the functions Bourne describes immigrant colonies performing?
Yekl, like other works of fiction by Cahan, has been viewed as a work of naturalism, in part because it depicts characters who are trapped by their environment(s), compelled to act by forces seemingly out of their control. Indeed, Jake often feels trapped, “stifled,” and he frequently finds himself acting against his better judgment, wandering to the dance hall, for example, when he has told himself that he won’t go. And yet for plenty of the characters of the story, Jake included, the United States represents as a place of freedom, of liberty and new opportunities. Analyze Cahan’s representation of environment and free will. What does liberty or freedom signify for the characters of Yekl? How does the narrative support or contradict myths of US freedom and opportunity?

Franz Boas

George Miller Beard described an American race of men and women evolving under the unique pressures of the social and physical environments of the United States. The nervous susceptibility, which he saw as a hallmark of the new race, was even becoming perceptible, he argued, in the Irish, English, and German immigrants who had spent enough time in the states. Compare and contrast Beard’s methods and arguments with those of Boas, who likewise describes the corporeal effects of the US environment on immigrants. Do the two authors understand Americanization or modernization in different or similar terms?
In compiling data on the living and working habits of black Philadelphians, and in cross-referencing that data with history, Du Bois shifted his reader’s focus away from physical differences among races and toward social and cultural ones. Similarly, in his essay “Trans-national America” Bourne ignores the physiology of race and focuses instead on the “spiritual” differences among the immigrants of various nations–their traditions and especially their ways of looking at the world. Boas’s chapter “Influence of Environment on Human Types” instead presents data collected on cranial sizes and shapes, brain weight, height, and other physical attributes of various races. To what extent does Boas’s chapter nonetheless work towards similar ends as Du Bois’s and Bourne’s texts? Does Boas, in other words, also locate difference somewhere other than the body? What accounts for difference, according to Boas?
Boas writes, “the effect of the American environment makes itself felt immediately . . .” Similarly, Cahan depicts the immediate effects of the American environment on Gitl: upon stepping off the boat in New York Jake insists that she remove her wig, saying, “‘They don’t wear wigs here . . . You will see. It is quite another world.’” Explore the similarities and differences between Boas’s and Cahan’s conceptions of the “American environment” and the ways in which it changes immigrants.
In his essay, Bourne suggests that immigrants retain a native, spiritual core, distinguishing them from their fellow Americans. Boas instead underscores human “plasticity,” in part by arguing that differences exist “between primitive and civilized groups of the same race,” and that all races are susceptible to either condition (or anywhere in between). In doing so Boas presents us with a kind of cosmopolitanism, in which all races may participate in modernity. Explore the differences between Bourne’s “cosmopolitan idea” and that of Boas.

Randolph Bourne

Both Bourne and Roosevelt are technically pro-immigrant, though Bourne rejects and refutes Roosevelt’s calls for “naturalized Americans.” Explain the grounds on which Bourne refutes that position, and the “melting pot” model in general, as un-democratic. What model (and metaphor) of immigration does Bourne put forward instead, and how does Bourne use the familiar rhetoric of US democracy and American values to advocate that model and thereby create the discursive space for new interpretations of democracy and freedom in the United States?
In The Vision of Columbus, Joel Barlow rails against nationalism as primitive, much as Randolph Bourne does in “Trans-national America,” and like Bourne, Barlow imagined a future cosmopolitan order, originating in America, in which nationalism and its accompanying rivalries and bloodshed had been eliminated. Compare and contrast Bourne’s “cosmopolitan ideal,” his vision of a trans-national America, with that of Barlow’s.
Bourne both critiques partisanship and advocates for a kind of partisanship. And in doing so he constructs a genealogy of America at the same time that he criticizes the “romantic gilding of the past,” writing that the “inflections of other voices have been drowned. They must be heard.” Compare and contrast Bourne’s engagement with partisanship and history with that of any of the other writers who we have examined along those grounds this semester (e.g., Mercy Otis Warren, John Marrant, David Walker, George Washington Cable, George Miller Beard, Anna J. Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, etc.).
Bourne wrote his essay during WWI and in response to the widespread discrimination towards German Americans. It thus makes sense that his essay would focus primarily on German Americans, but he extends his arguments to include Scandinavians, Poles, Bohemians, Greeks, “southeastern Europeans,” and Jews. Despite Bourne’s cosmopolitanism, conspicuously absent from this mix are Chinese immigrants, who had been targeted in years past through the Chinese Exclusion Act, and African Americans, who arguably most embody the nation-within-the-nation model that Bourne describes. To what extent is it fair to say that Bourne’s trans-national United States depends on the exclusion of people of color?
Amid the carnage then taking place in Europe, and the jingoism and anti-immigrant sentiments at home, Bourne wrote, “whatever American nationalism turns out to be, it is certain to become something utterly different from the nationalisms of twentieth-century Europe. This wave of reactionary enthusiasm to play the orthodox nationalistic game which is passing over the country is scarcely vital enough to last. We cannot swagger and thrill to the same national self-feeling. We must give new edges to our pride.” Today, ironically, it is the EU that most approximates the trans-national federation Bourne imagined. Meanwhile we have “America First,” “Make America Great Again,” the Brexit movement, and a rise in nationalism around the globe. What can we learn from the immigrant and nationalist discourses of this period (late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century)? How might they help us to better understand the corresponding movements and discourses of the present day, or to reinvent them for the future?

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