Through the Golden Door:
The Influences of Immigration on American Citizens, Immigrants, and Literature
review written by Jennifer Walker | book written by Gilbert H. Muller
Gilbert H. Muller’s New Strangers in Paradise divides modern immigration into ethnic sections and discusses the individual influences of each. Beginning with Holocaust survivors, Muller establishes the misplacement that immigrants encounter upon arriving in the United States. He continues this theory of being lost between cultures through his analysis of Hispanic, African, and Asian immigrants. While analyzing the effects of entering the United States on the immigrants, Muller analyzes their affect on American literature. Overall, Muller combines historical information and theories with the literary response to new cultures.
Exploring the effects of immigration to the United States on literature and people, Gilbert H. Muller’s novel New Strangers in Paradise: The Immigrant Experience and Contemporary American Fiction discusses an uncommon side to a popular topic. Muller separates his book into ethnic-based chapters. Each chapter progresses from a historical summary of the particular culture’s immigration experiences to an analysis of the influence that American culture has on the immigrants. By analyzing repeated themes and motifs in American fiction novels published during specific immigration waves and discussing the political statements they provide, Muller generates an interesting and informing book.
Muller begins his novel with a chapter that gives an overall analysis of immigration itself. He draws from the novel Continental Drift by Russell Banks and theorizes that "People are likened to continents, moving and colliding, drifting on the crustal plates of the earth." The world is ever changing; people are always moving and adapting, making new relationships and creating new cultures. He also implies that no matter what country an immigrant may originate from, their struggle with maintaining their true culture and embracing the American way is unavoidable. He refers to this struggle to find one’s place in between cultures, as the "floating world": a metaphor that appears in many novels. This metaphor signifies the difficulty an immigrant encounters as they bounce between cultures before finding their place somewhere in the middle. One of the hardest transitions into America is described in the second chapter, as Muller analyzes the most famous immigrant wave: the Holocaust refugees. Literature in the period following the tragedies of the holocaust became bombarded with narratives based on emotion and protest. Although Muller briefly mentions the experiences recorded by non-Jewish refugees, he focuses on the constant themes that appear in the narratives of concentration camp survivors. Dramatic tones and themes of doubt and prayer were both literary devices common in the in this period. In addition main characters were constantly stuck inside their own minds fighting off horrid memories that extract sympathy for the immigrants. Beginning with generalities that enlighten the reader about the basics of immigration to build upon and then slamming the most depressing immigration experience onto the reader,
Muller creates a dramatic tone before continuing into more lighthearted and modern eras of immigration.
In his next chapter, Muller discusses immigrants of Hispanic origins. Devoting an entire chapter to Chicano immigration, Muller analyzes the complex past that Mexico and the West share and its effects on American and immigrant morale. He explains Mexico’s previous ownership of the southwest and the methods by which the United States attained the territory. By discussing the shared history of Mexico and the United States, Muller uses the past as a basis for border culture. Border culture as Muller defines it, is “Binational behavior of fronterizos—the migrants, commuters, settler migrants and newcomers” between the United States and Mexico. This behavior constitutes a mix of American and Chicano cultures creating a mutual community. In addition to border culture, Muller discusses the origins of braceros, Mexican workers given temporary entrance into the United States as agricultural laborers during the Second World War to help the war effort. This work program created a general need for cheap labor that thousands of Mexican laborers both legal and alien provide in the modern United States. Muller finds that in the novels surrounding Mexican immigration stereotyping and dehumanization appears constantly. Continuing on Hispanic immigration, Muller moves to the Atlantic and discusses immigration from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. All three nations have had constant American interference throughout their history, and therefore have close relations when it comes to immigration. Along with Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic were exempt from immigration restrictions in the 1900s. Refugees of revolution and dictatorship wash up on American shores and are welcomed into the United States. Puerto Rico differs from the Cuba and the Dominican Republic in that it is not a separate nation but a territory in association with the United States, therefore its people are American citizens and are migrating not immigrating. Muller emphasizes that as opposed to Mexican agriculturally based literature, Cuban and Dominican literatures expose the dark underbelly of immigrants in urban areas.
In addition to the Hispanic aspect of immigration in the Caribbean, Muller discusses the African side. Historically, Africans have experienced the most heart wrenching stories—they’ve been taken from their villages, chained, dragged to a new world, and forced to work until their hands bleed. They have culture not only based on the Caribbean Islands but also from the African nation which their ancestors came from. Muller explains that because of this mixed origin, "Individuals and communities become aware of their relationship to several national histories.” Because of this severed connection with their origins, Africans emigrating from the Caribbean islands are stuck floating between their African, Islander, and American culture. Muller describes the West Indies and African influence on literature, focusing on racial conditions globally. Muller also states that Africans coming to America appreciate the system of property ownership because it gives them a chance to enter the American caste system.
After quickly touching upon African immigration from the Caribbean, Muller transitions across the Atlantic to cover the influences of Asian immigration. The fastest growing racial group in the United States, Asian immigrants have embraced the American modernization. However, the change in atmosphere, as Muller states, has created a sense of “Doubleness.” This doubleness symbolizes the dual personalities that Asian-Americans have embraced in order to please a plurality of people. Muller also discusses the dark spot in American history during the Second World War in which Japanese citizens were banished from society and placed in government controlled camps. As Muller states, “The imagined nation for both Japanese and Chinese immigrants was the one of fabulous wealth, but the American community they encountered would confound and often suppress their dreams” Throughout the 20th century, the United States took multiple steps to eliminate Asian immigration to America, but the bans were eventually lifted and pacific cultures continue today to influence America. Muller finalizes his work with a chapter that brings closure to immigration as a whole touching once again on the continental drift theory—the theory that people migrate around the world bouncing off of others and molding into new cultures—as well as immigration’s overall influence on America. Throughout the novel, Muller reiterates that the people coming to America are either being pushed away from something or are being pulled toward their idea of an Eden; they are in search of stability. He explains that the overall effect of immigration is the merge of cultures and histories, a new national identity and a nation that is in the continual process of assemblage.
Throughout the novel, it is evident that Gilbert H. Muller believes multicultural literature has been largely affected by immigration and vice versa. His thesis of circular influence is evident in the first chapter when he states, “The fiction of immigration becomes a prototypical cultural form—a cosmopolitan metanarrative.” Novels have an effect on politics because they are read by the people who then form opinions and thirst for change. He uses examples of motifs and theories such as “The Floating World” and “Doubleness” that appear repeatedly in cultural novels and explains the stereotypes that they are meant to expose. In addition to analyzing the effect of immigration on literature, he also analyzes the effect of immigration on American citizens and the immigrants. Muller exemplifies this when he describes Chicano influence by stating, “Self representation can seem resistant to solution as the individual contends with colliding cultural spheres.” He also discusses the Californian resentment of Mexicans, the stress on Caribbean Hispanics facing discrimination in urban societies, and the hatred of Asian newcomers. Muller successfully maintains and supports his thesis that immigration has multiple effects on society and people throughout his book.
A very opinionated man, Gilbert H. Muller wrote half the book with his personal opinions and observations. Literature is always open for interpretation, but Muller’s analysis is almost overpowered by his personal interpretations. Since Strangers in Paradise was published in 1999, Muller may have been influenced and perhaps inspired by the 50th anniversary of NATO. The impeachment trials of Bill Clinton may have also sparked his political interest. Muller is a well read and well educated man, therefore his vocabulary throughout the book is sophisticated with words like “Quintessence” and “Centrifugal influence”. His analysis of multiple novels for each particular ethnicity leads his reader to believe that he is well read and therefore a credible source of information. Although his book appears to be dominated by generalities, Muller’s constant use of specific quotes and theories along with his sixteen page bibliography exemplify the specificity of his work. Though the book is written in third person format, Muller influences his reader by choosing specific information that fits his purpose and by effective phrasing.
Although the majority of his book praises the literary works of other authors, Muller does include some criticisms of works concerning foreign cultures and immigration to the United States. He speaks poorly about Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel that explores postwar patterns of immigration to America. Whilst respecting the novel and its factual information, Muller describes it as merely a typical example of postwar literature. Muller slides his personal opinions between the lines of his analysis of the novel and therefore gives his input without taking away from his discussion of the novel’s themes. Muller also slyly criticizes Dreaming in Cuban by Christina Garcia. He finds her work to be the “Polar opposite of a writer like Hijuelos,” an author that Muller praises in a previous chapter. Muller does—just as he did with Lolita—give the novel substantial credit and uses its themes to prove his point about the novel’s literary influence, however, with sly wording he plants his own opinion into the mix. Upon adding his personal criticisms to the book, Muller intertwines the significance of literary themes and purposes with the essence of a critique.
Muller successfully conveys the influence of immigration on literature throughout New Strangers in Paradise, but not without drifting off on a narrative tangent. To begin each of his chapters, one or two sections detail a historical background of the country the immigrants are coming from and the circumstances of their coming to the United States. These first sections are informing and practical, giving the reader concrete information. However, once these sections end, so does his focus. Muller attempts to give specific examples of immigration novels’ influences on both Americans and immigrants, but at multiple points he gets wrapped up in plot summary of the novels he is using as examples. Instead of stating the effect that Nicholasa Mohr’s El Bronx Remembered has on its readers, Muller gets caught in details like “When he husband Eugenio falls ill, she plans to slaughter the family’s pet chicken.” Such details of the novels plot are not necessary to Muller’s purpose and are therefore distracting to the work as a whole. Though there is a teetering balance between factual information and literary examples throughout the novel, reading plot summaries of multiple novels per chapter subtract from the overall effectiveness of Gilbert H. Muller’s work.
One thing Muller does do well, is he clearly establishes the modern areas of immigration and how they differ from the past. The major changing point in the path of immigration came during the Second World War as Europeans no longer accounted for the majority of the newcomers arriving in the United States: “The Second World War… produced one of the greatest population shifts in history”. Muller exemplifies this by stating that “Between 1961 and 1970, more than half the immigrants arriving in the United States came from Cuba, Mexico, and South America” and that “Today, Europeans account for only 12 percent of all new immigrants.” These numbers show a significant shift in immigration as America becomes a melting pot of ethnicities rather than an Anglo-Saxon dominated nation. In reference to the difference in Asian immigration, one must consider the Japanese as they changed from the enemy to an ally. Yet another difference between the past and present of immigration lies in its laws: there are no longer laws prohibiting Asian immigration; there are no longer laws limiting the number of immigrants from each country; there are laws for temporarily entering the country on a visa. With Asian and Hispanic immigration on the rise, America will continue to grow and mold into a country void of racism and discrimination.
Although there are many differences between past and present immigration to the United States of America, some similarities remain. America has always been a popular destination for people on the move as it is one of the fastest growing and most powerful nations in the world. Since the founding of the New World, people have come to America in search of a new beginning. Some came because they were being pushed away from their country by cruel government, religious persecution, or revolution, others came because they were pulled towards America by the hope of a better life. As Muller states, “The idea of America as a New World, an Eden, an El Dorado, a Gold Mountain… is embedded in all cycles of immigration history.” This mentality of the American dream still prospers in the minds of modern immigrants. America has always been a safety net reeling in refugees that are running away from death and persecution. People come to America in search of freedom and opportunity and have been doing so for hundreds of years. The means, the origins, and the regulations may have changed, but the purpose and significance have not.
New Strangers in Paradise is a book that covers a wide range of aspects pertaining to immigration. Beginning with an overall history of the peoples immigrating to the United States and moving into detailed chapters about specific ethnicities, the book provides factual information in a logical progression. Gilbert H. Muller clearly establishes the modern immigrants’ origins, and their purposes for arriving at the golden door that is America. He uses literary examples to establish the hopes of the immigrants and the reactions of American citizens to the newcomers. He compares and contrasts modern immigration to immigration of the past and emphasizes the cultural contributions immigration has made on America. Although Muller does lose focus amidst his literary analysis, his solid factual information and his easy to understand backgrounds make New Strangers in Paradise a novel that is worth reading.
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