An American in the Making
The Life Story of an Immigrant
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Title Page, Copyright
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When M. E. Ravage published An American in the Making in 1917, the American immigrant memoir was already an established and popular genre. The title of Ravage’s book echoes The Making of an American (1901), Jacob Riis’s redemptive account of how, leaving his native Denmark in 1870 at age twenty, he made his home in the United States. Riis, who overcame humble origins to become the most influential of America’s muckraking journalists, concludes with the memory of a...
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An American in the Making
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When I hear all around me the foolish prattle about the new immigration—“ the scum of Europe,” as it is called—that is invading and making itself master of this country, I cannot help saying to myself that Americans have forgotten America. The native, I must conclude, has, by long familiarity with the rich blessings of his own land, grown forgetful of his high privileges and ceased to grasp the lofty message which America wafts across the seas to all the oppressed of mankind. What, I...
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Even an imaginative American, I suppose, must find it very hard to form anything like a just idea of the tremendous adventure involved in the act of immigration. The alien in our midst is too elusive an object for satisfactory study. He changes too rapidly. But yesterday he was a solid citizen in his particular village of Sicily or Rumania, of a piece with his ancestral background, surrounded by friends and kindred, apparently rooted in his native soil. To-day he is adrift in a foreign world, ...
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The very next day my father took me by the hand and marched me straight up to Great Headquarters. He had done some deep thinking all night and had apparently worked up an exceedingly clever scheme. At least I supposed it was clever until we reached our destination. I had been given only the broadest outline of it, but I gathered from that that it was essentially a plan to induce Couza to take me to America with him when he returned, details to be worked out later. ...
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Within three months after Couza’s departure the America-fever had spread to the confines of the kingdom. The contagion arose simultaneously in Vaslui and Berlad, and stalked with the pace of lightning, northward through Jassy to far Dorohoi on the Russian frontier, south and westward through the Danube cities of Galatz, Braila, and Turnu-Severin to the very doors of the royal palace in Bucharest, until scarcely a hamlet was left untouched by its ravages. ...
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It must have been along toward the middle of May that the intelligence reached Vaslui of the strange new turn that the emigration craze had taken; and while I am about it I shall let no amount of civic pride prevent me from recording that it was out of the neighboring and rival town of Berlad that salvation came. It was to the effect that a band of young men had formed themselves into an organization for the purpose of walking to America. I remember how incredulous we were...
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I had given my word that I would not again ask to go with that group, and I had kept it, in spite of the fact that Monish Bachman had withdrawn his objections and allowed my friend Yankel to go. But when, several days later, the papers began to publish exciting accounts of the progress of the group I quite frankly began to be sorry for having been so good. It made me desperate to think that here I was condemned to inactivity, my hopes and my ambitions turning sour within me, while...
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It seems to be assumed by the self-complacent native that we immigrants are at once and overwhelmingly captivated by America and all things American. The mere sight of this new world, he fancies, should fill our hearts with the joy of dreams realized and leave us in a state of surfeited contentment, empty of all further desire. Why, he would ask, if the doubt were ever to occur to him—why should we not be happy? Have we not left our own country because we were in one...
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As I look back over my transition from the alien to the American state I cannot help wondering at the incredible changes of it. I see a curious row of figures, as in a haze, struggling to some uncertain goal, and with a shock it comes upon me that I am all this motley crew. There is the awkward, unkempt, timid youth of sixteen, with the inevitable bundles, dumbly inquiring his way from the Battery to the slums. A little farther on, shivering in the December drizzle with a tray in his gloveless...
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No, my first impression of America was right, and no mistake. With every day that passed I became more and more overwhelmed at the degeneration of my fellow-countrymen in this new home of theirs. Even their names had become emasculated and devoid of either character or meaning. Mordecai—a name full of romantic association—had been changed to the insipid monosyllable Max. Rebecca—mother of the race—was in America Becky. Samuel had...
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To return to my cousin’s camp and the order of events. The two days allotted to a guest being over, I was given broadly to understand that I must enter the race for American dollars. During the remainder of that week and throughout the entire week following I went about “trying.” Early in the morning I would go down-stairs to buy a World, and after breakfast I would get one of the children to translate the want advertisements for me. When I glanced at the length...
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No doubt this was proper pride, but in the month and a half that followed I often had good reason to feel that the price I was made to pay for it was a trifle extortionate. I had come to New York in search of riches and adventure. Well, now, here at least was adventure a-plenty, even if the riches were a bit scarce. To be sure, the adventures I had most craved were of quite another sort. But, having neglected to specify in advance, it was not my place to complain against Destiny...
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They took me. There were a number of regulation questions—about my family, how long I had been in America, what I had done before—and then Mr. and Mrs. Weiss exchanged an approving glance, and Mr. Weiss told me that I would do. He at once asked me to remove my coat and get into a white apron. Then he conducted me behind the beautiful oak counter—which I was soon to be informed was called a bar—and initiated me into the mysteries of the beer-taps. ...
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On the whole, I take it, the foreign colony in our larger cities is a little unfavorably regarded by the conventional enthusiasts for Americanization. These kindly ladies and gentlemen appear to assume that the trick of turning American is some kind of an affair of a rubber stamp and an oath of allegiance and bath-tubs. It is quite simple. You go down there, to the East Side, or Little Italy, or Little Poland, and you establish a settlement and deliver lectures and furnish them a pointed...
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I did not for a long time perceive the drift of all this feverish intellectual activity. I was too busy reading and listening to care about the ultimate purpose of it all. Gordin was giving his brilliant talks on the Evolution of the Drama, and running a series of suggestive articles on the topic in Die Zukunft. A group of young writers had just begun the publication of Die Freie Stunde (The Idle Hour), which was devoted only to what was best in belles-lettres. The war between the radical and...
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I myself was in the meantime moving in two separate worlds. Nominally, at least, my home was still in Little Rumania among my own respectable relatives from Vaslui. Time and again I resolved to find a lodging somewhere south of Grand Street, where the majority of my comrades in spirit lived and where all my interests lay. But I never did it. Of friction there was enough between us. They were very outspoken, were my kinsfolk, in their disapproval of me. They found fault with my...
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My radical interests had one salutary result immediately. I was not content to know at secondhand the great writers and thinkers whom I heard continually discussed. But in order to read them I must know English. I began my literary study of the language one memorable night by borrowing a one-volume edition of the complete works of Shakespeare from the Bond Street library. As soon as I got home I eagerly opened my treasure and turned to “Hamlet.” To...
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But to college I went that autumn, all the same. The examinations were no sooner over than I gave up my tutoring and my school and began to cast about for something real to do. I had entered the high school to attain a particular object. It had been defeated; but I had got something else in its stead. I had improved my English; I had acquired new and more regular methods of study; I had completed my entrance requirements, so that I need not worry now about working off “conditions”...
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I am sure that if the immigrant to America were ever to dream of the things that await him at his journey’s end there would be no need for any laws to keep him out. He would prefer to eat grass and kiss the royal scepter and stay at home. Any man, I suppose, with a drop of vagabond’s blood in his make-up and a family to support will, under the stress of necessity, fold his tent and move on to greener pastures; and no human soul will indefinitely endure the insolence of oppression...
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My friend in New York, on whose liberality the financial success of my venture was entirely dependent, had not expected me to get into straits so soon, and it was nearly two weeks before help arrived. In the mean time I had canvassed the labor-market and had found it so discouraging that I informed Esther how unjustified her optimism had been. A lot of people had taken my name and address, but I could tell from the way they looked at me that my chances with them would be...
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My expense account for 1906–07, which I still preserve, along with some choice compositions, a note-book or two, and a gratifying press-clipping about my maiden speech before the Cosmopolitan Club, as the precious mementoes of that incredible year, ought not to be allowed to perish in the dark. It should certainly prove of inestimable value to certain extravagant-minded members of the Committee on Student Budgets, by showing them what really are the...
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I was still at the stage where one American looked and acted exactly as every other, and it was a profound mystery to me how I had gained the favor of this very representative specimen of the type. I had not greatly changed, as far as I could judge, between September and February, unless it was for the worse. If I had only had one or two of my own people and had not been in such dire need of human fellowship, I doubt whether I should have been attracted to him, notwithstanding the fact...
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As the summer drew near I began to look around for something to do. I would spend nearly one hundred and twenty-five dollars, I saw, between September and June, and half of it borrowed money. Harry, from whom I had got almost no help the first year, had just married and gone into business for himself, and he was giving me to understand in very broad hints that I need not rely on him the next year. Brother Paul had been out of work for the better part of the winter, and...
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I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that for five years Jeanne asked, on an average, at least twice daily to be taken home. On the contrary, I am waiving the year of courtship, when Europe was but her bargaining point; and I do not even mention the Sundays and holidays when we were together also at the noon meal. Her manner of approach was subtly impersonal. The benefit was to be principally mine. “I should think,” she would open, “that twenty years of America...
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Nearly a whole year passed before I managed to get away. It was the most restless and discontented year of my life. Somehow, as long as I stuck in the rut back there in America I did not fret. Now I looked back at those twenty incredible years and marveled that I had survived them. The longing for Vaslui was getting so keen it bordered on pain. It was something vastly more poignant than just homesickness. It became an obsession, a downright hunger. Time and again I paused and pinched myself to...
about the editor
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Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2009
Series Title: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the Americas
Series Editor Byline: Amritjit Singh, Carla L. Peterson, C. Lok Chua