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Tom Ferraro has written a book that both welcomes immigrant mobility stories into the fields of twentieth-century U.S. literature and of mainstream literary criticism and takes on the task of modernizing and deromanticizing the ethnic narrative tradition.
Ethnic Passages self-consciously balances its argument between two positions. First, Ferraro creatively engages the traditional claim that ethnic writers have made significant contributions to American literature in general, and to specific nineteenth- and twentieth-century genres in particular. This side of the argument finds illustrations in Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers as a modern and neo-feminist appropriation of the classic up-from-the-ghetto model, in Henry Roth's Call It Sleep as an immigrant reinterpretation of the modern portrait-of-the-artist genre, and in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior as a feminist and ethnic revision of the postmodern narrative of hyperreality and hyperunreality.
At the same time, Ferraro pursues a more recent position. Both the most popular and the most modern artists are writers whose popularity (in the case of Mario Puzo's The Godfather) and whose modernity (in the case of Henry Miller's "The Tailor's Shop") are inseparable from their respective experiences within Italian America and German America. Far from representing dichotomous forms of universality—Puzo's by way of the mass market and Miller's by way of an experimental modernist aesthetics—the mass market bestseller and the modernist icon, Ferraro shows, have roots in particular ethnic experiences which, in turn, permeate the works at both the thematic and the aesthetic levels.
Ethnic Passages is first and foremost a positive contribution to the argument that the high modernist tradition can no longer be seen as the sole representative of twentieth-century U.S. literature. The study spends little time berating the canon and instead devotes itself to authors who are on their way to becoming integral to twentieth-century U.S. literature but for whom critical commentary lags far behind. Ferraro relies on a range of approaches, engaging most consistently the traditional close reading methodology while at the same time selecting in different chapters from such late twentieth-century critical menus as critical theory, new historicism, psychoanalysis, gender studies and feminist theory. The passion and intelligence that Ferraro brings to his readings has little to do with the critical apparatus and everything to do with his success.
And Ferraro is successful in bringing one of the most ubiquitous literary genres of nineteenth-century U.S literature—the up-from-the-ghetto story—out [End Page 359] of the ghetto and past the 1890s. He has opened a dialogue between these stories and the Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville of U.S. literature, or the Joyce, Proust, T. S. Eliot of modern literature. He has brought the ethnic narrative of transition and self-making into our age by tracing its variegated development into the twentieth century, and into the modern and postmodern periods. No one who has read this book will uncritically reproduce the simplistic notion that "ethnic experience" and "modernist universality" are to be found on opposite sides of the Atlantic, or in distant parts of the city, of the anthology, and of the syllabus.
Ferraro concludes with what amounts to a closing dedication to the "millions of new immigrants." "When I see their offspring in my classroom," he writes, "I imagine what it must have felt like at City College in the 1920s or at Harvard in the 1950s and I rejoice." As someone who does teach at City College in the 1990s where at least sixty percent of the students are foreign born and where virtually all students are "new immigrants" to post-secondary education, I rejoice as well. Ethnic Passages makes it possible to teach the offspring of immigrants and migrants by creating bridges between the literary traditions of the past and those of the present and the future.