Immigration, and What it Means to be an American

By Brian Richards
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

On the eve of the 19th century, in 1781, French-American immigrant Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur wrote a letter, the third in his famed Letters from an American Farmer, entitled “What Is An American?” His answer, as open for interpretation as it might be, was best been articulated in his fourth paragraph: “The American,” he writes, “is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions” (2). Two centuries later, however, American journalist James Fallows wrote an article entitled “Immigration: How It’s Affecting Us,” which almost entirely contradicts the nationalism that appears in de Crevecoeur’s essay. While both of the texts deal with this concept of “new,” the differentiation in pride and lack thereof the authors express in presenting the immigrant story reveals a difference in both personal perspective and an unfortunate lack of progress in the United States.

Fallows’s Atlantic Monthly piece presents the story of the Nguyens, a family of Vietnamese immigrants, and their “rags-to-riches” tale of American assimilation. Mr. Nguyen, the 30-year-old “Benjamin Franklin of the family,” leaves Saigon “in panic” without a word of English in his vocabulary (1, 3). After low-paying and rather brainless jobs at a refugee camp, a waterbed factory, and a record factory, Mr. Nguyen eventually was able to save money and support himself to live in the United States. He encouraged other Nguyens to join him and even got a job assisting Indochinese immigrants in America, whom he tells to “adjust to the ‘new life’ in the United States” (4). It is notable that Fallows puts the phrase “new life” in quotation marks; whether it is a quote from Mr. Nguyen or a stylistic choice by Fallows, it nevertheless runs parallel to de Crevecoeur’s own discussion.

The definition of “newness” of the “new life” is where de Crevecoeur’s quote best fits into Fallows’s piece, and it is best defined by looking at what the “old life” might have been. For the Nguyen family, it was chaos in 1975 Saigon; for another Fallows interviewee (an illegal immigrant), it was the danger of 1980 El Salvador; for others it was the “turbulent societies” of Central and South America (1, 8). Alas, according to both authors, one arrives in America and must become “new.” According to de Crevecoeur, it is the transition from “involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labor” to “a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence” (2).

As proudly written as the old French-American immigrant’s claim is, Fallows’s piece arguably contradicts its very nature. One would assume that these laid-off, unemployed, low-class or impoverished Americans—or even struggling immigrants—in Fallows’s piece would argue they are undergoing an “involuntary idleness.” Likewise, Mr. Nguyen could see his tireless factory work, his “blood and tears” and self-described “lonel[iness] and miser[y],” as a form of servile dependence (2). Furthermore, sticking labels on records does not exactly classify as extremely useful labor, nor is $3 an hour for that very job really ample subsistence, or for that matter, very far from penury.

The sometimes “dog-eat-dog” American lifestyle (specifically motivated by the competition that comes with capitalism, something which de Crevecoeur and Fallows speak both directly and indirectly about) and rough assimilation process that Fallows writes of, is undoubtedly better than being murdered or captured in Ho Chi Minh City. But it is nevertheless a small yet striking moment in Fallows’s article, as he describes the state of Houston as “swollen with immigrants” not only from those “turbulent societies of Central and South America,” but also from the “declining industrial cities of Michigan and Indiana” (8). The two cultural and geographical scenarios should not be equated but certainly noted; this spattering of severity, of bleakness—economically and societally—is essentially proven as not a simply “old” entity but one that can take an unfortunate “new” turn. Modernity in America, in Fallows’s text, thereby proves to strike scary resemblances to the old ways of de Crevecoeur’s Europe.

It is not only true that the landscape of America (de Crevecoeur’s “great woods”) is less glorified in Fallows’s article, but also that the characters are more glorified than in “What Is An American?” (3). De Crevecoeur paints the average European immigrant as a “poor,” wandering “wretch” who brings “all [his or her] vices” and is in dire need of conversion to American-ism, whatever that may be (1-2). Fallows, however, attempts to prove they are more “resourceful and determined” than the average American “who [has] not been forced to land on [his or her] feet” (4). Fallows portrays the immigrant, statistically and anecdotally, as a character capable of practically blessing or rewarding America, as opposed to just being blessed or rewarded by it. His text is greatly challenged by the earlier work of de Crevecoeur, who sees this “newness” with glory as opposed to the conflict it arises for Fallows.

These stories seem to suggest that nationalism is weakening in America, or that the modern American journalist cannot truly comprehend the joy an 18th century European immigrant experiences as he comes to these shores. “Immigration: How It’s Affecting Us” is an academic argument on immigration, but one can also unearth a series of tales about tragedy, struggle, fierce competition, and people getting left behind in the 21st century. From reading Fallows’s contemporary piece, with the old words of de Crevecoeur looming in the background, there comes a haunting feeling that we have somehow turned backwards—that this mystical “newness” is not always the blessing some once saw it as.


De Crevecoeur, Hector St. Jean. "Letter III. What Is An American." Letters From an American Farmer 1781.

Fallows, James. "Immigration: How It's Affecting Us". The Atlantic November 1983.

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