Immigration, and What it Means to be an American

By Cody Brotter
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 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 , 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 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 , 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.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

In “Amor de lejos: Latino (Im)migration Literatures,” B.V. Olguin writes, “Latino/a (im)migration narratives…often illustrate the traumatic aspects of displacement by focusing in part on how immigration, migration, exile, and colonization place people in a state of national limbo” (333). Similarly, in “The New Immigration and the Literature of Asian America,” Hye Suh and Robert Ji-Song Ku write, “Asian... MORE»
Advertisement
At the conclusion of her essay, “My New World Journey,” Nola Kambanda writes that “Sometimes I am not sure whether home is behind me or in front of me…I might just be attaching [this longing] to those things that are familiar to me…it might not be a place at all…home might be family…It might be the people who make me feel” (155). However, at the conclusion of his short story, “Blind Jozef... MORE»
Since its coinage in 1931, the concept of “the American Dream” has lured tens of millions of immigrants from all corners of the planet to the United States with promises of prosperity and happiness far beyond anything attainable in their native countries. If you were to ask each one what “American Dream” meant to them, the vast array of answers would be akin to the assortment of individual stories themselves. However, whether... MORE»
The year 2015 saw heightened racial and ethnic tension in the United States, with particular regard to Latin American immigrants and the U.S. presidential election. Discourse theory assumes that identity (re)production serves... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP

Latest in Literature

2017, Vol. 9 No. 04
Music functions as a source of healing in Toni Morrison’s Jazz, both to the bird who is inexplicably sad and for the broken relationship between Violet and Joe, the novel’s two main adult characters. The bird cheers up and regains its... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 03
From the point of view of childhood, modern Western society shows many parallels to the Romantic Age. While the industrial economy caused rapid changes to the landscape and lives of children, forcing millions of them into labor, the informational... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 03
Anyone in pursuit of knowledge is bound to encounter sex somewhere along the way. In the early 19th century, a period during which sex was unspeakable, fiction writers developed a distinct penchant for the unknown.[2] Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 02
Commonly believed to be the single greatest writer and poet of the English language, as well as one of the most distinguished and esteemed dramatists in the entire world, William Shakespeare is credited with authoring approximately 38 works of theatre... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 02
First published in 1591 but thought to be composed sometime during the previous decade, Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella recounts the evolution of the relationship between the fictional, titular characters primarily from young Astrophil... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 01
When James Joyce rewrote “The Sisters,” intending it to serve as an introduction to the whole of Dubliners, he altered the first line of the story with much significance: “There was no hope for him this time” (19)[1]. As... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 01
The literature of the 18th century includes parodies, satires, and denunciations; however, the role of sentimentality usually comes second when discussing the literary movements of the century. The author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy... Read Article »

What are you looking for?

FROM OUR BLOG

7 Big Differences Between College and Graduate School
How to Select a Graduate Research Advisor
Presentation Tips 101 (Video)