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  • Comparative Diasporas: The Local and the Mobile in Abraham Cahan and Alberto Gerchunoff

Recently proliferating theories and politics of migration and diaspora have focused on issues of assimilation, nativism, and nationalism without sufficient consideration of one important concept: the discourse of place as a generative source of culture, and, significantly, the role of place in the experience of displacement and immigrant identity. 1 This is a curious gap in critical thinking, especially since the current border crises and immigration panics are about constant redefinitions of place, territory, and frontiers. Even the postmodernist stress on theories of “the local” and the politics of location has produced relatively little thought about the intersections of territory, immigration, and narrative. The nature of places (of origin or dispersal) is crucial to studies of displacement and transition, for the migrant and the conquered have to negotiate new ways of being in concrete spaces with specific attributes. The returning regionalism in literary criticism and politics relies all too often on new versions of patriotism (see Dainotto) without the benefit of a dynamic interpretation of places that may incorporate change and movement. [End Page 77]

In a recent article, Richard Sennett writes about the impact of globalization on places, arguing that “the identity of places has weakened, becoming more hybrid in composition because of the impact of global labour migration; . . . the power of place has weakened” (13). While globalization has certainly brought manifold changes, the contention that places as such were once homogenous and not “hybrid” or that they used to be self-determining (13) is not tenable. As geographer Doreen Massey has suggested, “places for centuries have been complex where numerous and conflicting communities intersected” (6) and never provided “seamless coherence of character” or “comforting, bounded enclosure” (8). Similarly, while certain fictions and criticisms of “the local” focus on static, unchanging place-identities, diasporic literatures may provide an alternative production of the local in which change, heterogeneity, and instability define place.

In this essay, I examine turn-of-the-century immigrant narratives that thematize place and localness to configure identity-in-displacement. If “the local” may promise to render a sense of permanence, repetition, and security, in what manner then did immigrant writing highlighting mobility, change, and insecurity draw on ideologies of place? At the crossroads of “the local” and immigrant fiction, each of the two Russian-Jewish authors I consider, Abraham Cahan in the U.S. and Alberto Gerchunoff in Argentina, challenges the ideology of location as primordial or fixed and conceives a locus of mobility by refashioning, to a certain measure, the languages of rootedness in American literary and cultural nationalisms and adding a Jewish inflection to them. Through this analysis of their pioneering works and their contexts, I show how the trajectory of immigrant identity, and especially Jewish identity at the turn of the century, is recreated through space and spatial discourse. James Clifford has argued in an important article on diaspora that “the term diaspora is a signifier, not simply of transnationality and movement, but of political struggles to define the local as distinctive community, in historical contexts of displacement” (308; emphasis added). In the works of Cahan and Gerchunoff, it is partly through this redefinition of space and the local that displaced culture gets reassembled and literary genre is modified.

Localization and territory are doubly important for fictions of the Jewish experience, given the problematic nature and history of Jewish territoriality. And for turn-of-the-century East European Jews, the configuration [End Page 78] of the new American spaces was to be permanent. For, as historians such as Ronald Takaki have pointed out, these Jews were not immigrants; they were refugees. Possible options for other turn-of-the-century migrants such as transnational mobility, plurilocality, and return were denied them. In the U.S., over 50 percent of the Italians in the 1880–1924 period returned home, and many “commuted,” as it were, for seasonal work (Thernstorm 1036). In Argentina, out of the four million foreigners who entered the country between 1890 and 1914, 2.4 million stayed permanently (Solberg 33). For East European Jews, the urgent task of redefining culture in the new diaspora required...

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