Study Guides on General Topics
A simplified definition might describe “ethnic” literature in the United States as a literature written by, about, or for people whose national, racial, religious, or linguistic background differs from what is perceived as the dominant national standard which is seen as synonymous with the culture of “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.”
The true complexity involved in defining the term “ethnic literature” arises from the word “ethnic” which, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is used with reference to “a group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage.” Although recent scholarship on the subject has emphasized the artificial character of ethnic labels and has undermined a static conception of ethnicity, a more traditional view and common usage frequently imply a distinction between the particular elements of ethnic cultures and the features of the dominant national mainstream. In this sense, the word retains a component of its earlier meaning as “pagan,” “heathen,” or, by extension, “non-standard”— terms which highlight a deviation from a particular doctrine. In the United States, this standard has long been seen as synonymous with the culture of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. People identified as “ethnics” were therefore defined by their difference from a real or imagined standard; they were regarded as figures on the margin, outsiders, “others.”
With such categories in place, it was easy to label immigrants from foreign countries as representatives of ethnic cultures. But recent arrival on American shores was not the only criterion applied. The cultural ways of Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexican Americans, communities that had long lived within the boundaries of the United States, were also deemed outside of the American mainstream and thus qualified as examples of ethnic identities.
Although it is important to realize the specific histories and contexts, as well as the differences within each ethnic culture, it is possible to identify a few recurrent themes in ethnic writing. Located on the margins of American society and culture, ethnic groups had to contend with negative stereotypes and various forms of discrimination and oppression. Therefore, ethnic writers often confronted and opposed a literary record that demeaned their culture and their people. This fact notwithstanding, the writing of ethnic groups goes far beyond tales of suffering and victimization. Caught in a clash between their traditional world and a new environment and faced with the strains of marginality and the pressures of assimilation, ethnic literature reflects the relationship between subordinate and dominant cultures and is centrally concerned with the question of identity formation. But ethnic writing has interest and value beyond the realm of non-mainstream groups insofar as it sheds a revealing light on the established writers in the American literary canon. Seen from this perspective, it becomes clear that the idea of “difference” is ultimately less interesting than the dynamic interaction between cultural groups, the crossing and recrossing of cultural borders, emphasizing the hybrid, or bicultural, situation in which ethnic American writers find themselves.
Owing to their social status and the educational and economic conditions that lay at its base, members of ethnic groups were slow to emerge as active voices in the growing body of American literature, and it took until the second half of the twentieth century for an ethnic label to become an asset rather than a liability. Despite this fact, it would be wrong to assume that ethnic writing was nonexistent before the twentieth century. The birth of an African American literary tradition can be said to have started with black poet Phillis Wheatley in the late eighteenth century. Slave narratives began to be published as early as the late eighteenth century and recorded the experiences of human bondage in the Southern states from the perspective of the oppressed. Important representatives were Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Frederick Douglass’s Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). In the second half of the nineteenth century, African American autobiographical memoirs and narratives gradually gave way to fiction as a means of expression, and writers such as Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson turned their talents to writing poetry, short fiction, and novels. Both Chesnutt and Dunbar attracted the attention of William Dean Howells, earning his praise and support as skillful and talented imaginative writers. With the publication of Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) African American writing set milestones in the early twentieth century.
Native American traditions go back to the time before white Europeans arrived on the North American continent, but since they were mostly preserved in an oral tradition, they did not come to the general public’s attention until they were published in print. By the nineteenth century, American Indians were beginning to tell their own stories. As is typical for the early phase of an ethnic literature, the initial publications were nonfiction prose, especially autobiographies, historical accounts, and protest literature in response to the curtailment of Native Americans’ rights. When Indians lost their traditional homelands and were forcefully removed to reservations, they began to collect and publish the myths, history, and customs preserved in their respective tribe’s oral heritage. Prominent examples are Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins’s Life among the Piutes (1883), and Zitkala-Sa’s Old Indian Legends (1901).
As the nineteenth century neared its end, more and more writers for whom immigration was a recent experience began to publish material in which they either recorded their personal stories in biographical formats or used them as a basis for writing fiction. Notable representatives are Jewish writers of Eastern European background such as Abraham Cahan (The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto, 1898, and The Rise of David Levinsky, 1917), Mary Antin (The Promised Land, 1912), and Anzia Yezierska (Hungry Hearts, 1920, and The Bread Givers, 1925).
Also toward the end of the nineteenth century Asian American writers began to depict the life of their cultural groups, using both fact-oriented and fictional forms of representation. A major and influential voice was Sui Sin Far (Edith Maude Eaton), whose short fiction dealing with the struggles and joys of Chinese families living on America’s Pacific Coast was published in popular periodicals and later collected in her book Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912).
Apart from ethnic literature written in English, immigrants and members of other minorities also created a large body of texts in their native languages. Older literary histories, such as The Cambridge History of American Literature (1917-1921) and Robert Spiller’s Literary History of the United States (1948), draw attention to the fact that writing by Americans who used languages other than English was a substantial part of America’s literary production. A chapter in Spiller’s book surveys the literature and literary cultures of German, French, Spanish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Jewish ethnic groups in the United States. To this day, many of America’s major archives and libraries are well stocked with multilingual materials still untapped by scholars.
The term “ethnic writing” can also be expanded to include texts by authors of a non-ethnic background who appropriated ethnic voices and styles. In vaudeville theaters and other venues of the popular stage, performers masqueraded as African Americans, Irishmen, Germans, and other minorities and attracted large audiences who subsequently bought cheaply made pamphlet anthologies filled with humorous dialogs and sketches. Writers such as Thomas Nelson Page (Pastime Stories, 1894) and Joel Chandler Harris (Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, 1880) wrote narrative fiction drawing on their outsider’s perception of African American culture. Categorized as “blackface minstrelsy” or specimens of the “plantation tradition,” these texts have come under severe critical scrutiny.
Viewed in its entirety, ethnic American writing covers a spectrum which has far more to offer than exotic people and scenes or instances of ethnic selfdescription and self-discovery. With its thematic variety, its stylistic range, and its cultural contexts, ethnic writing is a vital category in American literature and offers a broad field for exploration and study.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. What are the criteria for distinguishing “ethnic” literature from other types of literature? Would you expect ethnic writers to write about topics and in a style that differs from so-called mainstream writers?
- 2. History books often refer to the United States as a nation made up of immigrants from all parts of the world. At the same time, contemporary debates about ethnic writing tend to be limited to Native American, African American, Latino, and Asian American writers. Why do you think other groups virtually play no role in the discussion of ethnic literature?
- 3. Can you imagine why the term “ethnic literature” might carry a negative connotation?
- 4. Can you explain why people would object to the idea that an author might adopt the voice of an ethnic group to which he or she does not belong?
David R. Peck, American Ethnic Literatures: Native American, African American, Chicano/Latino, and Asian American Writers and Their Backgrounds. An Annotated Bibliography (Pasadena, Cal.: Salem, 1992).
In its coverage of the four major American ethnic literatures, lists bibliographies on individual ethnic groups and on ethnic history and immigration. It also provides background information for teachers, selected reading lists of primary works, and an annotated bibliography of relevant literary criticism.
Emmanuel S. Nelson, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature, 5 volumes (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005).
A comprehensive resource that covers the topic of American ethnic writing by offering its readers more than 1,100 entries not only on individual writers, their major works, and the traditions to which they belong but also on literary and linguistic issues, historical and social contexts. With its cross-references, bibliographic information, and illustrations, it is an invaluable reference tool.
Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
Covers a broad range of texts, combining ethnicity theory with an examination of literary and rhetorical patterns to arrive at an understanding of how people from various ethnic backgrounds came to see themselves as Americans.
Sollors, “Literature and Ethnicity,” Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephen Thernstrom (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980), pp. 647-665.
Traces the word “ethnicity” through its etymological development and through a broad cross-section of American writings and observes that ethnicity is a pervasive theme in all American literature. In the course of time ethnicity has been transformed from a liability to an asset.
Sollors, ed., Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
A collection of scholarly essays on Yiddish, Chinese American, Italian American, and other forms of ethnic writing that presents stimulating views of America’s multilingual heritage. It invites readers to expand their notion of what constitutes American literature.
Berndt Ostendorf, “Literary Acculturation: What Makes Ethnic Literature ‘Ethnic’?” Callaloo, 25 (Autumn 1985): 577-586.
Specifies the elements that characterize ethnic writing. It distinguishes between literature about immigrants, for immigrants, and literature growing out of the ethnic-groups experience and discusses the various pressures (linguistic, literary, commercial) that result from the traditionalist demands and progressive desires.
Henry Pochmann, “The Mingling of Tongues,” Literary History of the United States, volume 2, edited by Robert E. Spiller et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1948), pp. 676-693.
Together with the “The Indian Heritage” (pp. 694-702), serves as a reminder that literature in the United States was not only written by Americans and not only in English. It lists and comments on German, French, Yiddish, Spanish, Italian, and Scandinavian writings.
William Peterfield Trent et al., eds., “Non-English Writings I” and “Non-English Writings II,” in Cambridge History of American Literature, volume 3 (New York: Putnam, 1917), pp. 572-634.
Devotes more than sixty pages to works written in other languages than English, drawing attention to texts produced by European immigrants in German, French, and Yiddish. They also highlight the literature of Native American, “the richest field of unexploited aboriginal literature . . . anywhere in the world” (610).
Brom Weber, “Our Multi-Ethnic Origins and American Literary Studies,” MELUS, 2 (March 1975): 5-19.
Argues in favor of a position that acknowledges the “historical significance and qualitative value of American ethnic literatures” and claims that “all American literature has been written or recounted by members of ethnic groups.”
PEOPLE OF INTEREST
Mary Antin (1881-1949)
Lecturer, progressive politician, immigrant-rights activist, and autobiographer.
Abraham Cahan (1860-1951)
Lecturer, translator, novelist, and editor of the Jewish Daily Forward from 1903 to 1946.
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Civil-rights activist, founding member of the NAACP, and longtime editor of its magazine, The Crisis.
Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908)
Georgia humorist, lecturer, journalist, and folklorist.
Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (c. 1841-1891)
Piute author, lecturer, and educator.
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
African American journalist, civil-rights activist, poet, and teacher.
Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922)
Major proponent of the “plantation tradition” in Southern American literature.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
Founding principal of the Tuskegee Institute, an industrial and normal school in Alabama for African American men and women.
Anzia Yezierska (c. 1881-1970)
Author of semiautobiographical tales of the assimilation of immigrants.
Zitkala-Sa (aka Gertrude Bonnin, 1876-1938)
Lakota author and educator.