Analyzing the Nature of American Ethnic Literature
America has a distinct history: like ancient Rome, its inhabitants have come from all over and few of them can truly say to be natives of the place. This fact alone makes American Literature a compelling label: what makes American Literature American? This paper will attempt to answer the question by showing how many ethnicities have converged in one nation allowing various writers with different ethnic, social, political, economical, and social perspectives to define and/or illustrate a time and place.
As Morris Dickstein states, "When America was merely a remote province of world culture, its educated elites were Anglophile, Francophile, or broadly cosmopolitan. Education was grounded in classical learning, a respect for the ancients over the moderns, and a deeply ingrained respect for old Europe's artistic heritage" (p. 155). This type of background made American letters similar to European. What happened, however, was that America as a country began to experience and undergo certain problems and changes that were unique to America. Hawthorne in New England described the Puritan experience. Melville described the whaling experience under the eye of the Calvinist god. But as America grew, other ethnicities began to write their own conscious perceptions. Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, Jews, Iranians -- all ethnicities found a voice in America. Yet, because America is really such a young country, it thinks of those works by Hawthorne, Melville, James as classics.
Still, America's literary canon has been enlarged by other writers of different ethnicities. A literary canon is really nothing more than a volume that has taken into consideration "literature, culture, and pedagogy, as well as…market economics" (Casey, p. 23). A literary canon, therefore, is a collection of more than just the printed word: it is an expression of ideas concerning culture and direction. It reflects cultural attitudes and the various influences that have shaped them. It both universalizes the human experience and makes it unique, even if American.
Yet because so many different ethnicities have a unique American experience, one of the challenges of being admitted into the literary canon is making the experience both original and universal: the writer is, after all, writing for an audience for all time regardless of ethnicity. At the same time, the writer desires to leave behind a documentation of what lived life in his particular ethnic background was like: one need merely look at what Frank Chin states about the Japanese-Americans in Yamamoto's stories: "Using only the facts of victimization and isolated personal experience, Yamamoto's characters destroy themselves slowly…They seem to sense a history and vision they no longer have the language to put into words" (Asian-American Literature, p. 12). Like all ethnicities in America, there is a sense of struggle -- a conflict between ethnic pride and ethnic devaluation. If America is the great melting pot, it is also a country made of people who do not want to forget where they came from -- but cannot assert why it is important not to forget.
Ethnic writers define literature, therefore, in a way that is different from the traditional American literature. Ethnic literature is, in a sense, modern. It is looking for a reason for being, and cannot embrace the literary form that produced Hawthorne or Melville or Dickinson. Ethnic literature is made up of cultures that are distinctly non-Western: the Native American literatures, for example, "embrace the memories of creation stories, the tragic wisdom of native ceremonies, trickster narratives, and the outcome of chance and other occurrences in the most diverse cultures in the world" (Native American Literature, p. 1). Native American literature deals more directly with the "Indian" culture from which its writers have descended -- unlike the traditional American writers who descended from a distinctly European background. Other non-Western ethnicities find their voice by describing their experiences in a Western land that is alien and foreign to their ancestry: "the clash of cultures, in which a people found themselves not only enslaved, but among people who rejected them as human beings" is a common theme in much of ethnic literature, whether Jewish, Hispanic, Asian, Native American or African-American (African-American Literature, p. 4).
The dark reality of American literature is that America itself has largely been dominated by WASP elitism. While classic traditional American literature dealt with the spiritual and social problems of the day (because of the insufferably Puritan religious atmosphere), ethnic writers since then have focused on political, economical and social problems of the day -- partly because they are more pronounced and partly because the spiritual lessons of the old world have been forgotten. The modern (whether ethnic or not) is merely left with the sense of having lost something.
Ethnic writers cover various historical and socio-political and cultural topics that traditional American literature simply cannot cover. The ethnic writer like Henry Roth focuses on modernism and Jewish culture, "the experience of exile; a focus on scholarship; an international awareness, particularly reflected in the knowledge of foreign languages; an interest in linguistic play; and a concern with the proper role of the aesthetic in social life" (Recent Works on Jewish-American Modernism, p. 117). Roth might share some of these themes with a classic American writer like Melville, whose Moby-Dick is to some extent about exile ("Call me Ishmael") and boasts a kind of international awareness (Melville knew provides a glossary of the term whale in dozens of languages around the world). Yet Roth also comes from a heritage that is Jewish, not European or Christian. This in and of itself sets Roth apart in the American literature canon.
Roth (like other ethnic writers) also experiences America in a language that is not American. Coming from a neighborhood where Yiddish was heard everywhere, Roth's book is actually written in English, "thus Roth succeeds not only in conveying the immigrant's subjective sense of the world mimetically, but also in fulfilling the modernist injunction to Make It New by estranging the English-speaking reader from his own language" (Recent Works on Jewish-American Modernism, p. 121). What the modern ethnic writer is able to do (which the traditional American writer could not do) is play with words and meanings, emphasizing subjectivity and the alienation which many ethnicities have experienced in WASP America. The ethnic writer like Roth may use English to describe his experiences as a Jew growing up in America, but his very use of the language makes it unfamiliar to the average American and exposes him to a know world of emotion.
Yet much more is happening in Ethnic American literature than that: in a way it tends to embrace the genre of magical realism, which Wendy Faris (2004) defines as the combination of "realism and the fantastic so that the marvelous seems to grow organically within the ordinary, blurring the distinction between them… [including] different cultural traditions… [and reflecting] the hybrid nature of much postcolonial society" (p. 1). Faris finds magical realism to exist at the crossroads of modernism and post-modernism, as a kind of fairy-tale reminder of existence that exists. Though she limits herself to the expression as viewed in novels, the study could easily be taken up in film works. "Because it reports events that it does not empirically verify" the narrative voice of magical realism is of an "uncertain origin," and considered "defocalized" (p. 3). Part of the purpose of such defocalization is to enable the reader to escape the realism of the novel's world and enter into a kind of interplay with the mysteries of the world that are not and have not been resolved by realists. Magical realism, as Faris notes, has remystified the world through its literature in the West.
This genre allows Ethnic American writers to explore themes of liberty, opportunity and equality in new yet familiar ways. Exile and alienation are, as…