Ethnicity in American LiteratureTitle

By Thomas S. Gladsky. Amherst. The University of Massachusetts Press. 1992. ix +313 pp. Index.

two reviews

Patricia A. Gajda

Building upon established paradigms that seek to define but restrain ethnicity in literature, Thomas S. Gladsky proposes his own more inclusive model that embraces even more than does Werner Sollors in Beyond Ethnicity. To the table of "literary ethnicity," as opposed to "ethnic literature," Gladsky invites many Polish selves: those created "by, about, and for" Poles and Polish Americans as well as those contributing to the conception of ethnic selves, whether consciously or unconsciously. And those who come in response to his invitation provide a rich and varied banquet for the reader. The first part of the book traces the development of Polish selves, initially by host-nation writers and later by dissent writers; the second part examines the largely descent literature of by-now American selves who seek to articulate their identities as American ethnics.

Gladsky describes the ideal of Polishness projected in American literature until the late nineteenth century. For the most part it was a romantic image of high culture and aristocracy that always linked freedom-seeking Kosciuszko and Washington. In it Chopin's music and Byronic brooding were de rigueur, and Polish patriotism and steadfastness in the face of tyranny bonded the Polish beau ideal with the young nation of free Americans. To illustrate this, he provides descriptions and analyses of both journalistic and creative productions written, for the most part, not by Poles, but by host-nation writers who introduced this Polish princely ideal into American popular culture and consciousness. Interestingly, even after the turn-of-the-century reality of a largely peasant Polish immigration, this ideal proved to be remarkably resilient. Alongside this image, a new one identifying Poles with social activism arose after the anarchist eruptions of the 1880s. Poles took on the patina of socialist unionists and presidential assassins.

After the first world war, examinations of Polishness found their way into American literature in the form of novels and stories observing Polish immigrants on the land. The typology presented the Poles in old, familiar, romantic terms; robust and vigorous Poles sought a new Eden in the fields of the new world where they could cultivate an American garden. For an isolationist generation of readers, Polish "otherness" diminished and the Poles were portrayed "just like us." With the coming of the Great Depression, novels of social protest incorporated politically conscious idealogically driven, working-class Poles who actively sought social justice, and the Poles became representative of the proletariat in America.

Polish selves continued to represent the working class after World War II, but no longer as depression-era social activists. Instead they became victims of cynicism and alienation, returning from war to an America where "everything is the way it was again." Gladsky's broad paradigm allows him to examine, in this context, not only the works of authors of obviously ethnic literature, but also those of mainstream writers such as Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, and William Styron. He concludes the first portion of the book with a lengthy chapter on Jewish American writers which examines the historical relationship between Poland's Jews and Slavic Christians, especially in light of European fascism and the Holocaust. The subject itself deserves a study of its own, but he does a creditable job laying out the framework of the Jewish American literary treatment of Poland, passing from ambivalence through hostility, reconciliation, introspection and silence. His critiques of the works of Malamud, Uris and Singer are particularly valuable.

Writers of the last two decades, largely descent writers who are Americans reconstructing their ethnicity in their own voices, occupy the second and shorter portion of the book. Many of these are third-generation Americans whose views of the Polish self have been filtered through the experiences that have separated them in time, and usually in space, from their immigrant ancestors. They pass through some of the same cycles non-descent writers had passed through earlier, but they do so with a difference. When they revisit the immigrant on the land, for example, instead of squeezing the "otherness" away to construct an American, they husband at least some portion of ethnicity and place their characters on a road leading to multiculturalism. When they revisit proletarian fiction, they do so without the pre-war ideology that had provided the sinews of the earlier works. To these contemporary writers, Polish ethnicity is a distant memory. As it recedes into memory, they articulate new Polish selves in poetry and fiction by rethinking the importance of their family names profiling their immigrant ancestors in obituary literature, and wrestling with the strangeness, alienation, and aimlessness accompanying ethnicity, sometimes to the point of disavowing that ethnicity altogether. Gladsky believes that a new, young generation is redefining ethnicity, fueled in part by the encounter between American Polonia, largely heir of peasant ancestry, and the post-Solidarity arrivals, more akin to the princely Polish self America once espoused. In a particularly poignant and perceptive section, Gladsky focuses on Gary Gildner, a descent poet who held his Polishness at arm's length until he discovered it anew as a Fulbright Scholar in Warsaw and came home forever changed, espousing a new and richer understanding of his Polish self.

This book is a treasure. Gladsky has assembled an impressive array of sources - in a very helpful bibliography - and provided a thoughtful, sometimes penetrating, analysis of a subject that has long needed such a scholarly and comprehensive treatment. The organization, however, sometimes chronological and other times topical, distracts even the most attentive reader. Some might find the line of argument on the post-World War II period unconvincing when Gladsky identifies as ethnically Polish some work that appears to be as much a literature of have-nots in American society, no matter the ethnicity. Misspellings and misuse of words, such as "proletariat" to denote a person, are annoying in the second fifty pages of the book. The appearance of publication dates adjoining the titles of those literary pieces under discussion would immeasurably help the reader follow the author's line of reasoning. His concluding surrender to the prevailing sociopolitical priorities that are unlikely to encourage the articulation of a Polish literary self and give it entree to the canon does not appear justified by hard evidence as are the rest of his assertions. Perhaps Gladsky did not want to be branded a valiant and princely hero who, against all odds, took up the Polish cause in a typically romantic, nineteenth-century manner. These are minor criticisms in view of Gladsky's substantial achievement. Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves is a trail-blazing work which is sure to set the standard for some time to come.

Patricia A. Gajda is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Tyler.

David L. Smith

"Nationality is essentially a belief," Norman Davies observes in his excellent two-volume history of Poland, "a deep sense of conviction concerning one's personal identity." Thomas S. Gladsky would surely say the same thing about ethnicity, that like nationality, ethnicity is a matter not of language or birth, but of deep personal conviction inextricably linked with identity.

Gladsky's Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves is an impressive achievement, combining historical survey and theoretical exploration. Professor Gladsky devotes most of his attention to the depiction of Poles and Polishness in literature by American and Polish-American writers, a subject hitherto neglected by most studies of immigrant fiction. For this reason alone, Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves makes a significant contribution to the study of ethnic American literature.

In the introduction and conclusion, however, and indeed interwoven throughout, a more compelling theme appears. Gladsky's real interest is in the elusive nature of ethnicity itself and how for characters in literature - and by extension for all immigrants and their descendants - ethnicity mirrors and shapes the self. Ultimately, his subject transcends both immigrant literature and ethnicity and becomes the elusiveness of identity and the search for the essential self.

As his introduction makes clear, Gladsky argues for a distinction between "ethnic literature" and "literary ethnicity," although he does not pursue this distinction as fully as one might like. Very clearly, however, Gladsky proposes a broader and more inclusive approach to ethnicity, one that transcends "insular notions of ethnicity" and moves instead toward "transethnicity." "The question that occupies me," Gladsky writes, "is not so much what is ethnic literature and who is the ethnic writer but rather what and where is literary ethnicity". (p.1) He does not return to this question, however, until the final chapters, devoted to postwar American writers of Polish descent.

In his first seven chapters, Gladsky surveys the depiction of Poles, Polishness - and in a general sense ethnicity - in literature by American writers from the early 1800's to the present day. The essential pattern that emerges is the manipulation of Polishness "to suit the historical temper, national preoccupations, literary movements, and changing attitudes toward minorities" (p.4) He carefully traces this pattern from the early romanticized depictions of Polish immigrants as brave, patriotic, cultivated, self-sacrificing representatives of the "beau idea of Western man," who easily assimilate and strengthen the American character, to the ethnic stereotypes of anti-Semitic Poles in the fiction of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Isaac Singer. In each of these chapters there are insightful and provocative critical interpretations and comments. For example, Gladsky convincingly argues that the aggressiveness of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire reflects not merely the brutish side of man in general, but rather Tennessee Williams' fears about the influence of Poles and other ethnic immigrants on American life.

In exploring the Jewish-Polish link in fiction by host-culture authors, Gladsky writes with balance and sensitivity. His reading of Sophie's Choice, for example, manages to give Styro's novel the critical respect it deserves, while offending neither Polish Americans nor Jewish Americans. He sees the love-hate relationship between Sophie and Nathan as "a symbol of the ill-fated history of Poles and Jews, played out this time in a surrealistic New World Landscape of pink rooming houses, Coney Island, and make-believe dress-up parties." (p. 156). In "The Gates of Heaven and the Pains of Hell," the longest chapter in his book, Gladsky explores the role that memories of Poland, real or imagined, play in works by Bellow, Malamud, Roth, Singer, and other Jewish American writers. Again what links these works, according to Gladsky, is the loss of ethnicity, in this case "the obsession with identity in a non-Jewish world." (p. 178)

In the second part of Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves, Professor Gladsky shifts his attention to postwar American writers of Polish descent, mostly third generation, and the role of ethnicity in their search for identity. This is a new ethnicity, however, conditioned and shaped by changes in Poland as well as experiences in a new culture. Gladsky finds an important difference in the function of ethnicity in prewar and postwar writers: The immigrant journey in host-culture works tends to lead toward Americanness; in those of descent writers it leads toward multiculturalism." (p. 227) And there is something more universal, Gladsky argues, in the experience of ethnics in the works of Darryl Poniscan, Stuart Dybek, Anthony Bukoski, and other contemporary writers of Polish descent than in their host-culture counterparts. Their loss of ethnic identity becomes but one aspect of the larger, more modern question of how one finds any meaningful self, ethnic or otherwise, in a universe with no meaning.

Some readers will no doubt find Gladsky's division between host-culture writers, which include such strange bedfellows as James Michener and Isaac Singer, and descent writers to be somewhat arbitrary. But anyone who approaches Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves with an open mind will recognize it as a significant contribution to the study of the Polish experience in American literature and to the study of ethnicity in general.

David L. Smith teaches in the Department of English and Philosophy, Central Missouri State University.

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