Tuesday, December 11, 2012
December 11, 2012: Fireside Reads, Part Two
[Earlier this year, I featured a series on AmericanStudies Beach Reads. But winter calls for something different—longer, denser works with which you can settle in by the fire for the long winter’s night. So this week I’ll be highlighting authors and books that fit that bill. Add your own nominees for Fireside Reads for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post and help us all stay warm and cozy, won’t you?]
On an author and book that will introduce you to under-narrated American histories—and grab your heart in the process.
One of my bigger pet peeves in the dominant narratives of American history is the notion that multi-national and –ethnic immigration has been a relatively recent phenomenon, or at least that it has been most pronounced in the last few decades. It’s true that the 1965 Immigration Act, the first immigration law that opened up rather than closed down immigration for various groups and nationalities, led directly to certain significant waves, especially those from war-torn Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. And it is also true that certain ethnic groups represented particularly sizeable percentages of the immigrants in the last decades of the 20th century: Asian Americans, again, and also Hispanic and West Indian immigrants. None of those facts are insignificant, and our understanding of America in the 1970s and 80s (for example) needs to include them in a prominent place. But my issue is with the very different notion that America prior to 1965 didn’t include immigrants from these nations (an idea advanced in its most overt form, for example, by Pat Buchanan in an editorial after the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, which he blamed on the shooter’s status as the son of South Korean immigrants).
Multicultural historian Ronald Takaki notes this belief in the introduction to his magisterial A Different Mirror, recounting a conversation when a cab-driver asks him how long he has been in the US, and he has to reply that his family has been here for over 100 years. While the most obvious and widespread problem with this belief is that it makes it much easier to define members of these groups as less American than others, I would argue that another very significant downside is that it enables us to more easily forget or ignore the stories of earlier such immigrants; that group would include Yung Wing, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton (on whom see yesterday’s post), Sui Sin Far, and my focus for today, the Filipino-American novelist, poet, and labor activist Carlos Bulosan. Bulosan came to the United States in 1930 at the age of 17 (or so, his birthdate is a bit fuzzy), and only lived another 26 years, but in that time he worked literally hundreds of different jobs up and down the West Coast, agitated on behalf of migrant and impoverished laborers and citizens during and after the Depression, published various poems and short stories (and wrote many others that remained unpublished upon his far too early death), and wrote the autobiographical, complex, and deeply moving novel, America is in the Heart (1946).
For the most part the book—which is certainly very autobiographical but apparently includes many fictionalized characters, hence my designation of it as a novel (in the vein of something like On the Road or The Bell-Jar)—paints an incredibly bleak picture of its multiple, interconnected worlds: of migrant laborers; of the lower and working classes in the Depression; and of Filipino-American immigrants. In the first two focal points, and especially in its tone, which mixes bleak psychological realism with strident social criticism, Bulosan’s book certainly echoes (or at least parallels, since it is difficult to know if Bulosan had read the earlier work) and importantly complements The Grapes of Wrath. But despite that tone, its ultimate trajectory is surprisingly and powerfully hopeful—that’s true partly because of the opening chapters, which are set in Bulosan’s native Philippines and make it much more difficult to see the book’s America as an entirely bleak place; but mostly because of the evocative concluding chapter, where Bulosan develops at length his title’s argument for the continuing and defining existence of a more ideal America, in the very hearts of all those seemingly least advantaged Americans on whom his book has focused. The idea might sound clichéd, but all I can say—and the echo of Reading Rainbow is conscious—is “Read the book”; it works, and works beautifully.
Next Winter Read tomorrow,
PS. You know what to do—nominations for Winter Reads, please!12/11 Memory Day nominee: George Mason!