- Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves: Ethnicity in American Literature
Invention, says Werner Sollors, illuminates discussions of ethnicity, nationalism or race, suggesting "widely shared, though intensely debated, collective fictions that are continually reinvented" (xi).
Agreeing with Sollors, Thomas Gladsky has written a rich, subtle study of the persistent reinvention of Polishness in American poetry, fiction and drama, going back to the War for Independence and the heroic intervention of Thaddeus Kosciuscko and Casimir Pulaski. Representations of these symbolic figures established, in fact and spirit, the tradition Gladsky examines.
Sollors invokes anthropologists in arguing that like nations, ethnicities were created, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where they had not existed before, counterpart creations in the great age of technological invention, to the "steamboat, railroad, Gatling gun, and especially, the advances in printing techniques" (xi-xii). The land-based aristocratic order was replaced with a bourgeois order based on capital and "more imaginary ways of connectedness that the new technologies provided," that is, "a mediated form of cohesion that depended, among other things, on literacy and 'national' (and ethnic) literatures" (xii).
Implications of this non-essentialist view are both "devastating and fruitful," as Sollors says. Gladsky's book is a splendid example of the latter, a thought-provoking study of both changing and recurring Polish selves in a great variety of texts he liberally defines as ethnic. The generality of his subtitle promotes the book as more than a study of one ethnicity, even in its many variations. Gladsky addresses all of us interested in American ethnicities as though we are all engaged in communal acts of reinventing ethnicities we ostensibly study. In those acts of reinvention we are as American as in anything else we do.
Embracing Sollors' view of ethnicity as "a process," Gladsky does the "constant detective work" (xv) required of readers, locating the literary acts of invention and reinvention not in linguistic or rhetorical structures outside of time, but in historical circumstances, social upheavals, and the relentless dispersion of peoples in the modern world, especially in our century. Gladsky redefines ethnicity to include categories Sollors espoused in Beyond Ethnicity (1986), "descent" and "consent." This enables him to read broadly, from passing references in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott to full-length fiction and drama by Upton Sinclair, Edna Ferber, Nelson Algren, Tennessee Williams, William Styron, and Saul Bellow, whom a narrow definition of ethnic writers would exclude. Gladsky stipulates this intentional shift from ethnic writers to ethnicity in literature: "Literary ethnicity provides [End Page 145] us with an approach to texts not necessarily written 'by, about, and for' but which . . . may be read as contributing to the literary creation of ethnic selves and American ethnicity" (1-2).
His Polish ethnicity includes two categories. The much larger category identifies "Polish Selves" first created by host-culture writers early in the nineteenth century with the "Polish Beau Ideal," the romanticized Polish aristocrat who fought bravely for freedom in his own beleaguered land and joined the American colonies in their struggle. Later, an equally romanticized Polish farmer allowed Americans to believe that freedom-loving peasants from Poland could help return America to Jeffersonian ideals of democratic, village life on the land. By 1900. however, that self vanished from American minds during warfare in the industrial workplace and the rush of European immigrants into already crowded cities—including two million Poles between 1880 and 1914. American writers created new stereotypes: passive, illiterate proletarians, bomb-throwing radicals and socialists, refugees and even the refuse of European class warfare, new threats to American democracy and social stability.
Gladsky's second category includes "American Selves" created in minority reports by writers of Polish descent. "Some writers resist the label of Polish-American" (223) or of ethnic writers. Here, Gladsky conducts some of his closest and most sensitive readings. He questions denials of ethnic ties when writers, however fleetingly, present "a conception of ethnicity filtered through and influenced by New World experiences . . . an ethnicity created, altered, and transformed" by life in North America (224).