Americanization and the Mixing of Identities

The history of the United States is saturated with stories about immigration and identity. Throughout the nation’s centuries-long past, millions of people have left their birth-nations behind and traveled to America and as such the idea of immigration is core to the American national identity. As such, many scholars and historians have discussed, debated, and attempted to define Americanization, the process by immigrants change themselves and their identities before they could consider themselves to be Americans. In his 2014 article “Doing as Americans Do: The Post-Migration Negotiation of Identity in the United States,” Alan Kraut, professor of history at American University, describes his views and conclusions on this process of Americanization. In this article, Kraut argues that it is a polarized process—that there is a clear distinction between American and non-American. However, Kraut’s article is not the only interpretation of Americanization; there are many others involved in this discourse surrounding American immigration and the adaptation of new identities. For instance, Anzia Yezierska’s 1925 novel Bread Givers offers another lens through which to view the issue of Americanization. This narrative of an American immigrant experience complicates the notion of Americanization offered by Kraut in his article because it suggests that it is possible for an immigrant to take on a mixed identity, such as a Jewish-American instead of simply just an American. Through Bread Givers and its characters, Yezierska suggests instead that “mixing” of identities is not only possible, but is actually a necessary component in the process of Americanization.

It is worth prefacing this discussion of immigration with a brief note about the form of Yezierska’s Bread Givers. The fact that this novel is a work of fiction might cause some to immediately dismiss its utility for historical study and discourse. However, it is still useful as a representation of pop culture of the time it was written, and provides insight as to what the ongoing discourse surrounding immigration was. The novel therefore offers a popular account of the Americanization that Yezierska, as well as many other immigrants experienced upon leaving their old nations and traveling to the United States. With this in mind, Bread Givers has much to offer to the discourse around immigration and Americanization.

In “Doing as Americans Do,” Kraut outlines many of the challenges that immigrants to the United States faced. According to him, on of the most difficult things that an American immigrant had to negotiate was the social challenge of being accepted as a member of the new nation. Many other historians and scholars refer to this process as assimilation, and is defined by members of one social group—immigrants, in this case—changing to become more similar to another group—true Americans. Kraut takes this a little further by arguing that immigrants to the United States had to undergo a process of Americanization, not just assimilation. The two terms are incredibly similar to one another, and can almost be used interchangeably. However, Kraut’s concept of Americanization specifies that “Old ways of being or old identities must be abandoned and new ones taken on.” (Kraut 711) This implies that it is only possible for an immigrant to take on the identity of American nationalism by giving up all of their older identities. In Kraut’s view, it is not possible for an immigrant to blur the lines between their old and new identities, and live somewhere between the two. For him, the Smolinsky family in Bread Givers would either have to identify entirely as Jews from Russia, or abandon that identity as consider themselves wholly American.

But Yezierska’s novel is antithetical to this view of Americanization. In it, members of the family represent different models of immigration. Some of them fully embrace the new American identity, while some of them cling desperately to their old ways and traditions. But Sarah is the first of the family to mix these two identities, and is also the first of the family to find happiness and success. Through the characters that she created, Yezierska suggests that this mixing of identity is a critical component of the Americanization process.

In Book I of Bread Givers, Hester Street, many of the family members try to hold on to their old ways of life. In doing so, they are American only in terms of citizenship, but not by national identity; they still carry their old identity as Jews. For example, Reb Smolinsky, the father, still relies heavily upon his religious traditions even when they interfere with the welfare and livelihood of the rest of the family. He insists on having his own room in their already tiny and cramped apartment so he can store his religious texts and study the Torah. Additionally, he sees his role in their community as a religious one, and feels entitled to study scripture all day while his daughters Sarah, Massah, Fania, and Bessie go out and work to earn money. At one point, Reb declares that “The whole would be in think darkness of not for men like me who give their lives to spread the light of the Holy Torah,” (Yezierska 24) which suggests that he still carries his old world identity as a Jewish community leader, and has not even slightly began the process of Americanization. In contrast, his daughters leave the house each morning in search of work thereby exposing to a small extent to the American Dream, the ability to better one’s self through hard work and perseverance. Unlike his daughters, Reb has not Americanized at all, instead standing strong to his old identity.

Reb’s actions are similar to the point that Kraut argues in “Doing as Americans Do,” which is that immigrants could either accept the new American identity, or stick with their old one—for Reb this was his old traditions as a religious community leader. In the article, Kraut cites from Foster Carr’s Immigration Publication Society which advised Jewish immigrants to “Be Proud of your race, your birth, and your family.” (713) Carr was a Yale-trained teacher and writer. As founder of this Immigration Publication Society, Carr wrote many pieces of advice such as this, urging immigrants to hold fast to their old identities. Perhaps this is most clearly seen later in the article, when Kraut discusses medical tendencies in immigrant communities. For instance, many Italian immigrants retained their superstitions and beliefs that certain diseases and ailments were caused by spirits; therefore, they refused “new” treatment from western doctors and hospitals. In other words, they held on to their old identities and refused to take on a new American one. Certainly, Kraut asserts in this article that completely retaining old identity was one way in which an immigrant could respond to their new environment. However, the events of Yezierska’s novel suggest that this model of immigration might not be successful in the long term. In Bread Givers, Reb’s daughters eventually all leave the house and he finds himself old, forgotten, and penniless. In this way, Yezierska suggests that mixing of identities is not only possible, but necessary as well.

However, Kraut continues to argue against notion of mixing identities in the article through his specific definitions of assimilation and Americanization. Here, Kraut argues that if an immigrant chose to identify as an American, he or she had to completely accept this new life. In “Doing as Americans Do,” Kraut defines it as and tradeoff and as “an ongoing negotiation that each newcomer conducts over the price of opportunity in the United States.” (711) By defining the process of Americanization as a negotiation, Kraut has implied that immigrants must necessarily give something up as part of this process—particularly their old national identities. By this interpretation, he has argued that fully embracing the new American identity, and becoming fully Americanized, an immigrant would find him or herself receiving plenty of new opportunities and success. In some cases, immigrants would change their appearance in order to seem more American. Beyond just changing their wardrobe and makeup habits, some would seek out a plastic surgeon to physically change their bodies in order to seem more American. Kraut is less clear and doesn’t assert one way or the other if this practice was always successful for an immigrant’s process of Americanization, but it still does make one thing clear—that there exists a clear dividing line between American identity and that of the other; the mixing of the two, in Kraut’s view at least, was not possible. Success and opportunity could be found if an immigrant fully accepted the new American identity.

But once again, Yezierska’s experiences as presented in her novel, complicate this notion that Kraut promotes. In Book II of Bread Givers, many of the daughters try to change things about themselves in attempts to make themselves more attractive and desirable to American men, in hopes of finding someone to marry. For them, marrying a wealth man was a way out of poverty and led to further opportunities. For instance, Bessie attempts to change the way that she looks in order to attract more men. The idea was that by changing her wardrobe to be more like that of American women, she would actually seem like a real American. Kraut might consider that to be part of Bessie’s ongoing process of Americanization. But unfortunately it is not successful at bringing her opportunity or happiness. Instead, her father-turned-matchmaker ends up pairing her with an old fish-peddler, Zalmon. This old man is so unappealing to her, that Bessie says that “if he were the last man on earth I wouldn’t marry him.” (Yezierska 98) This is just one example on many within Bread Givers where Yezierska’s immigrant narrative implies that simply attempting to fully accept a new American identity will not necessarily guarantee success.

Instead of picking one identity or the other, old or the new, immigrant or American, as Kraut suggests in his article, Bread Givers considers a third option that exists in the middle ground between these two extremes. Perhaps by mixing two or more identities together, an immigrant can truly negotiate their own position in a new nation. This is very evident in the final chapters of Bread Givers, in which Sarah has finally escaped from the grasp of poverty and has found work in her dream job as a school teacher. In many ways, she has embraced an American identity. She has moved away from financially supporting her family, and has defied old gender roles by working for herself. Additionally, she is beginning to fall in love with Hugo Seelig, a man who is not Jewish. Even so, Sarah still retains much of her old identity as well. When her father is sick and dying, she considers allowing him to move in and offers to take care of her. She even introduces Hugo to him, and he asks Reb to teach him Hebrew. In this way, Sarah is not just a Jew, or just an American, but rather a Jewish-American. She didn’t find success and happiness in the earlier chapters of the book where she tried to fully conform to one identity or the other—much like Kraut suggest in “Doing as American’s do.” However, she was able to once she mixed her two identities together and stopped trying to force herself to fit into one group or the other.

As seen in Yezierska’s immigrant narrative in Bread Givers, the idea of a single American identity is incredibly complicated. It isn’t just a simple matter of either being an American or not; that type of clear cut distinction simply doesn’t exist. Instead, the boundaries of American nationalism are much more nuanced. Every immigrant into the United States has had to navigate this tricky and complicated distinction, which has prompted many historians and scholars to engage in discourse surrounding it. Some have tried to put a precise definition on this process of Americanization, but it seems there is no single simple answer. The issue has even made its way into popular American culture, as seen here with Yezierska’s Bread Givers. Rather than picking one identity or the other, immigrants instead find a mix of multiple identities and in doing so create a new identity for themselves. This mixing of immigrant culture with the new culture is central to the process of Americanization. In fact, it’s entirely possible that there is no one true American identity, and just varying degrees of mixed identities. Just like there is no one clear definition to the process of Americanization, there is no one single definition of what it means to be an American immigrant.

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