MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 485-487
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Immigrant Mothers: Narratives of Race and Maternity, 1890-1925
Katrina Irving. Immigrant Mothers: Narratives of Race and Maternity, 1890-1925. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000. x + 148 pp.
Something about centenaries seems to produce particularly virulent strands of nativism, as Irving convincingly demonstrates in her book Immigrant Mothers. Turn-of-the-twentieth-century Americans, like their latter-day counterparts, obsessed about the waves of immigrants newly-arrived on their shores and devised narrative strategies for constituting an American identity within and against such "alien" incursions. Irving argues that the debate about immigration took its shape from representations of the immigrant woman, the discursive field of femininity a staging [End Page 485] ground for competing visions of ethnicity, race and nationality. From monstrous breeder to primitive earth mother, the immigrant woman was appointed a variety of guises, each linked to particular ideological agendas and enabling different political and economic effects. By examining these representations across a broad range of texts, including tracts by writers such as Madison Grant and Randolph Bourne, photographs by Jacob Riis, and literary texts by Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Frank Norris, and Harold Frederic, Irving identifies the centrality of gender in the way immigrants were imagined and received, and illuminates the role "canonical" works of literature played in shaping these discussions.
Irving is particularly adept at sorting through both the positions staked out within the debate over immigration and the repertoire of shared assumptions that linked together even opposing sides of the issue. Each chapter traces one such position as it is embodied within a specific representation of the immigrant woman and articulated across a spectrum of texts. In chapter 1, for example, Irving argues that the racialization of the immigrant in late-nineteenth-century America was accomplished within a gendered lexicon of difference so that racial categories were articulated by rendering certain types of immigrants as feminine. This tactic, in Irving's account, proved a double-edged sword for the Anglo-assimilationists such as Frederic who employed it, since it lent credence to nativists who fretted about the attenuated masculinity of the Anglo-Saxon male. Similar anxieties make up the subject of chapters 2 and 3, where Irving reads Crane's Maggie and Norris's McTeague as confirmation of the dangers located within the immigrant woman, her sexuality the source of a contagious degeneration, her frugality a brake on the consumerism increasingly equated with cultivation. Chapters 4 and 5 identify the racial essentialism that undergirds both the Americanization movement and cultural pluralism. Although both movements enabled more positive representations of the immigrant mother--sentimentalized photographs that portrayed immigrant women as a Madonna figure (chapter 4) and Cather's My Ántonia (chapter 5)--their reliance upon a bifurcated, essentialized system of difference nevertheless perpetuated economic, social, and political inequities.
Irving's careful attention to the importance of gender in constructing racial and ethnic categories makes her work a significant contribution to the body of research on immigration. What makes it a valuable resource [End Page 486] for literary studies is her restoration of some of the classic texts of the period to their position within this discussion. In her reading, Maggie becomes not a faithful rendering of immigrant life, nor a sophisticated parody of sentimental conventions, but a contribution to "an emergent eugenic narrative concerning the menace immigrant women posed to the nation's well-being." Ántonia's symbolic resonance in My Ántonia works through her racial position as a necessary and restorative remnant of a more primitive culture, a position that simultaneously naturalizes her economic role as domestic servant. Yet the strength of this approach can also be its weakness, for in other chapters Irving flattens the complexity of the literature to fit her argument. Her tendency to position novels at the end of each chapter can sometimes render them a virtual recycling of the arguments limned from other discourses. At times I felt that the pressure placed upon these texts yields slightly distorted readings: to suggest that McTeague acquires civilization when he...