European immigrants and ethnic Americans are often viewed as exemplars of the American Dream. In the commonly told story, Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants arrive in America and struggle to find employment, but after much hard work and perseverance, finally achieve success and, in the process, exchange their native identities for normative, bourgeois American ones. Through the papers proposed for this panel, Daily, Hotten-Somers, and Schmitz will challenge this narrative in three different forums: business and immigration history, the theatre, and the novel. In each of these papers, the scholars engage in a re-telling of a master narrative of what it means to become and be American.
Katie Daily’s paper, “(re)Envisioning Jewish America: Counterfactual History in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Plot Against America,” considers Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America alongside Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union to understand the ways in which these two contemporary American Jewish writers employ counterfactual strategies to explore questions of American and ethnic identity. In pushing the bounds of history, asking readers to consider how we read the past, Roth and Chabon uncover the fracturing of identity that occurs as racial and ethnic minorities search for a place in the nation. Daily argues that such rewritings of history in the form of the postmodern novel offer ethnic counter-narratives that challenge conventional understandings of immigration and assimilation.
Diane Hotten-Somers’ paper, "Jewish America Awakes and Sings the Irish Blues: Sean O'Casey, Clifford Odets, and Working-Class Identities,” engages similar ideas as Daily’s in that it considers how Jewish-American immigrants constructed themselves in the face of an Anglo-American Protestant normative cultural identity. Through comparatively analyzing Sean O’Casey’s tenement drama Juno and the Paycock with Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!, this paper explores the ways in which Odets redraws the stage Jew by employing O’Casey’s prior strategies of rewriting the stage Irishman. Through their re-stagings, Hotten-Somers argues, both O’Casey and Odets provided not only more complicated theatrical representations of the Irish and Jewish-Americans, but also exposed the complex cultural-historical experiences of the early 20th-century urban, working-class in Ireland and America.
Paul Schmitz’s paper, “Urban Pastorals and American Dreams: Narratives of Business and Identity in New York’s Italian Community,” shifts the focus to another group of white ethnic Americans and their urban environs. Schmitz analyzes the ways in which Italian immigrants negotiated their identities through ethnic commerce, demonstrating that food retailing provided a crucial avenue of upward mobility for New York’s immigrant community. Schmitz argues that the retail food business—from pushcarts to corner groceries—played a fundamental role in the immigrants’ cultural conversion from an alien underclass to symbols of American enterprise. This paper is especially attentive to the tensions between the popular narrative of New York’s Italian grocers as a kind of “Old World,” urban underclass and the immigrant merchants’ own desires to master the narrative of the American Dream and the free-market system to serve their own aspirations for social mobility and assimilation.
These three papers individually address how white ethnic Americans negotiated, indeed reconstructed, their identities in the face of a normative, non-ethnic American cultural identity. At the same time, in positioning the stories of Jews, Irish, and Italians alongside each other, the panel as a whole highlights the advantages of a interdisciplinary comparative ethnic methodology, illustrating how attention to the similarities and differences between immigrant representations, histories, and experiences compels a rewriting of the myth of the American Dream.
Diane Hotten-Somers, Boston College