What are the best books about immigrants in America?
July 7, 2017 10:34 AM   Subscribe

What are the best books about immigrants in America? And what makes those books great? I am especially interested in learning more about the late 19th and early 20th century, including how immigrants were perceived as the "other." Either nonfiction or fiction is fine.
posted by mortaddams to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Annie Proulx - Accordion Crimes
posted by hydrophonic at 11:06 AM on July 7, 2017

Different setting (modern, over the course of the recession a few years back), but my coworker has spent the last few days raving about the new Oprah's Book Club book Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue.
posted by phunniemee at 11:10 AM on July 7, 2017

E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is a beautiful blend of three groups of people in the very early 20th century America: whites, blacks and immigrants. It's the whites vs. the blacks...except when it's white & black vs. immigrants, except if the immigrant is famous, like Harry Houdini...and it's also white vs. white when it comes to politics...and so on. Really fascinating and entertaining.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:16 AM on July 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Call it Sleep, by Henry Roth. The story of an immigrant Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century, told from the point of view of a boy. Astonishing, still.
posted by rtha at 11:17 AM on July 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

The following are two outstanding American Studies (nonfiction) texts:

Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color provides a thorough and convincing historical narrative for how certain immigrants (e.g. Italian/Irish) were at first not seen as belonging (and were not seen as white) and then, over time, were absorbed into American whiteness.

Mae Ngai's Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America is dense, well-researched, and utterly devastating in the portrait that it draws of the development of U.S. immigration policies and their impact on racial classification categories.
posted by correcaminos at 11:28 AM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed 97 Orchard, a book about immigrant cooking in a New York tenement. There's interesting discussion of the othering of immigrants, including a moral panic about Jewish kids eating too many pickles, and efforts to "reform" the eating habits of immigrants.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:29 AM on July 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Abraham Cahan's Yerkel and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York hits your desired time period.

It's set in the current day about Latinx immigrants, but I also highly recommend The Book of Unknown Americans.
posted by TwoStride at 11:36 AM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I wonder if something from Studs Terkel - maybe "Working" or Hard Times" might have immigrant stories?
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 11:46 AM on July 7, 2017

I really liked A Good American by Alex George.
posted by functionequalsform at 11:51 AM on July 7, 2017

Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle focuses on the plight of Lithuanian immigrants working in the Chicago stockyards. It was published in 1906. Toward the end, it turns into a lecture on the merits of socialism as the answer to all ills, but most of it has very gripping descriptions of the conditions immigrants lived in, the horrifying working conditions, and how they were taken advantage of. Sinclair was a journalist who spent a good deal of time among immigrants before writing it. The book is now famous for being largely responsible for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act because people were so horrified by the way that meat was processed. Sinclair said, "I aimed for the public's heart and hit it in the stomach."
posted by FencingGal at 12:06 PM on July 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Strangers From A Different Shore traces the history of different Asian groups who migrated to the US. It's wonderfully readable, and I feel like we don't really learn much in depth about those waves of immigration--stories of European immigrants are so much more woven into the fabric of American history, yet the history of, in particular the Western US, is very much built on the work of Asian immigrants. It's also a very eyeopening story of how different waves of migration inspire terrible laws meant to hold the next waves down--very relevant in today's sociopolitical climate.
posted by padraigin at 12:26 PM on July 7, 2017

The canonical example of a fictionalized version of 19th century Swedish immigration is The Emigrants.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:32 PM on July 7, 2017

Wherever Green is Worn is a good book ok the Irish diaspora. It covers the whole world but the section on Irish immigrants in US politics, especially Boston is fascinating. It also delves heavily into how immigrants maintain their culture.
posted by fshgrl at 12:55 PM on July 7, 2017

Seconding Ngai's Impossible Subjects -- really good. I would also recommend sections of Margot Canaday's The Straight State. The book as a whole is on the federal government's approach to classifying and policing LGBT folks in the early 1900s, but there are two chapters specifically about gay, lesbian, and gender non-conforming immigrants that are fascinating. Madeline Hsu's The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril became the Model Minority is also a fascinating look at stereotypes of Asian Americans over time. The main time periods covered are 1872-1965.

If you are a podcast fan, Back Story also has quite a few episodes dealing with immigration either directly or indirectly, that you might find interesting. It's also a good way to find reading material since each episode typically features interviews with 2-3 different experts who have often published in an area related to the episode.
posted by rainbowbrite at 1:11 PM on July 7, 2017

The Promised Land by Mary Antin

"This classic of the Jewish-American immigrant experience was an instant critical and popular success upon its 1912 publication. Author Mary Antin arrived in the United States from Russia in the 1890s at the age of 12. Her memoir vividly recaptures scenes from both Old and New World cultures, chronicling the poverty and oppression of Czarist Russia as well as the excitement and challenges of her assimilation into American life at the turn of the twentieth century."
posted by Right On Red at 1:24 PM on July 7, 2017

Came in to say Call It Sleep, but glad I was beaten to it. It's amazing.

Willa Cather's O Pioneers and My Antonia are great for the Swedes who immigrated to the Midwest.

I'd also check out anything for sale in the bookshop of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, as that's their main focus. Also really worth a visit if you can get there.
posted by Mchelly at 1:26 PM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you want stories depicting the experience of Chinese immigrants/Chinese Americans at the turn of the 20th century read Sui Sin Far (aka Maude Eaton).
posted by TwoStride at 1:30 PM on July 7, 2017

I'd also suggest Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, which is a brilliant combination of memoir and folk tales. Kingston was born in the US, but her parents immigrated from China, and there's a lot about her mother as well as her mother's sister immigrating to the US. Kingston's book China Men focuses more on the experience of men who immigrated. I don't like it as well, but it's still a good read. Both of these books would fit in especially well with the idea of otherness you're interested in.
posted by FencingGal at 1:35 PM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not a book, but the New Yorker article Zarif Khan's Tamales and the Muslims of Gilette, Wyoming is about an Afghan immigrant who sold tamales (yes, tamales) in small town Wyoming in the early 1900s, and an interesting look at citizenship, race, and religion.
posted by bbq_ribs at 2:10 PM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nonfiction: The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures.
Anne Fadiman

Fiction: Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok.
Girl from Hong Kong starts school in Brooklyn while having to work in a sweatshop and sleep under stuffed animal-type fur material. Girl works hard to improve her life.

Highly recommend both.
posted by Crystal Fox at 2:22 PM on July 7, 2017

I just started reading Daily Life in Immigrant America 1870-1920 as I wanted to know more about the immigrant experience. Have only read the first chapter but it has dealt a bit with "otherness" already, from generation to generation. I actually got it at the Ellis Island bookshop. Might be interesting for you - very readable so far!
posted by cornflakegirl at 2:37 PM on July 7, 2017

Henry Roth

Go there. I understood so much about my paternal family after that book.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:42 AM on July 8, 2017

Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers about Jewish immigrants in turn of the century in NY. It gives a lot of interesting details about the time--especially about education and living conditions, but is also the story of a woman of that time who wants more independence than her family allows. A good read, too!
posted by pangolin party at 6:55 AM on July 8, 2017

I'd recommend Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America by Peter Schrag. It would definitely be a detailed look at how various groups were considered "other" before subsequent groups were.
posted by midatlanticwanderer at 6:55 PM on July 8, 2017

Not the book so much as the movie: The Godfather.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:33 PM on July 8, 2017

I just wanted to step in here (because this is too small a thing for MetaTalk) to say that upon reading TwoStride's recommendation for Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York and Bulgaroktonos's rec for 97 Orchard, I called and read the reviews to my 81yo (very hip, very cool, Yiddish-loving) mom, who thought they sounded great. She told my sister, and before I even had a chance, she ordered them both from Amazon for my mom, who started reading last night, and is loving them so much, she wanted me to thank MetaFilter. You did a mitzvah!
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 11:16 AM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

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