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Under-Writing: Forming an American Minority Literature
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Forming an American Minority Literature

From the beginning of the twentieth century until World War II, first and second generation European immigrants to the United States wrote about their experiences primarily in semi-autobiographical novels rather than in other literary forms. These works, now receiving the attention of scholars and the public alike, display the different attitudes immigrants had toward their minority status in their new country. Although some advocated "Americanization" and aspired to complete assimilation into the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture, many others wished to preserve their historical identities and resisted the temptation to abandon their traditional ways.

Given this essential division of immigrant desire as expressed in these works, a reader can ask what effects the enmeshed ideologies of canonical assimilation and cultural separation had on the way the dominant American way of life was portrayed. Although written out of a European context, Deleuze and Guattari's Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature offers a promising critical framework for discussing such a definitive division of desire among these ethnic groups.1 Instead, I hope to show how that theory can be productively used as a port of entry to explore the various permutations of American ethnic literature. Deleuze and Guattari's analysis of the function of minor literature, which will be more comprehensively explained shortly, can be effectively tested against two of the greatest immigrant novels of the 1920s and 1930s, respectively, Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers (1925), and Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete (1939).2 These two novels represent different levels of assimilation and between them dramatize the major characteristics of the theorists' definition of minor literature. As test cases for Deleuze and Guattari's theory, they reveal its usefulness as well as its limitations. In doing so, these novels are also illuminated as representative of the essential historical and psychological split in immigrant desire, the spit in the new hyphenated, Jewish-American or Italian-American subject. I hope to suggest plausibly that such a dialectical [End Page 1] structure of theory interrogating literature and vice-versa indicates how historical studies alone are not sufficient to explicate literature.

The Random House dictionary defines "minor" as, "1. lesser, as in size extent, amount or importance; 2. under legal age ..." (p. 420). Connotatively, this definition implies a connection between minority status and worth. Commonly, readers believe that a minor work is one less valuable than a work of the majority or canon. The second part of the definition that calls attention to age and its relation to minor status also has interesting implications for literature. If a work is minor, it can then be understood to be childish or under-developed. Though society reads these meanings into the word minor, Deleuze and Guattari strive to redeem the word and thus the works qualified as such. They elevate the position of the minor writer, making him essential to a national configuration.

Using Franz Kafka as a primary example, in their work Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Deleuze and Guattari assert a theory that makes minor literature quintessential to any culture under which it is written. Their statement about Kafka's work which opens their book, ". . . none matters more than another, and no entrance is more privileged even if it [the literature] seems an impasse, a tight passage, a siphon."3 Immediately, they eliminate the negative connotation of minority by removing any concept of hierarchical access to understanding a culture through canonical literature. Deleuze and Guattari are careful to define the terms of their title. They state, "A minor literature doesn't come from a minor language. But the first characteristic of a minor literature in any case is that in it language is affected with a high coefficient of deterritorialization."4 Deleuze and Guattari employ the term deterritorialization to explain that a minor writer uses the language of the majority, the national language, or the one spoken by the greatest number of people (such as English in the United States) to subvert from within the culture created, supported, and recorded by that language. With this subversive power, the minor writer also surreptitiously assumes control over that language by imprinting it with minor forms...