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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 416-417
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Recent cultural studies of U.S. immigration have emphasized the ways in which stories written by immigrant authors do more than simply narrate a process of socialization into American society. Scholars such as Werner Sollors, Jon Gjerde, Matthew Jacobson, and Lisa Lowe have found that these narratives rewrite the concept of "an American" in the attempt to prove an immigrant peoples' legitimacy as members of the nation. Orm Øverland joins this conversation with Immigrant Minds, American Identities, a study that, as its title suggests, explores how late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European immigrants imagined their social, cultural, and political positions in the United States and, based upon those perceptions, deployed their own versions of history to claim the United States as their rightful home. Noting a "modulation from history to myth" (8), Øverland observes that leaders of immigrant groups created what he calls "homemaking myths" or stories that argue for an immigrant people's genetic or ideological association with individuals and events central to American symbology. Øverland locates these myths in an impressive array of cultural documents (including fictional and autobiographical texts, editorials in ethnic newspapers, and speeches by ethnic leaders at banquets and rallies) and cultural activities (including festivals celebrating ethnic heritage and fund-raising campaigns for memorials honoring ethnic heroes). He contends that the homemaking myth is an American phenomenon because common themes and plots cross ethnic lines: for all groups, these myths were to ensure acceptance into an Anglo-dominated society and, at the same time (and perhaps paradoxically), to affirm the importance of ethnic identities in the United States. Although professional historians have dismissed these stories as a naïve and even harmful historiography, Øverland argues that, as myths, they must be taken seriously, not so much for what they say but for why they were told.
Addressing the imperatives behind homecoming stories, Øverland breaks down the genre into its component parts: myths of foundation (chap. 2), blood sacrifice (chap. 3), and ideological gifts (chap. 4). Within these divisions, he examines various claims for ethnic contributions to the United States found in assertions of perceived kinships—with Columbus, with ethnic Revolutionary War heroes, and with Old World ideals that ostensibly provided models for American democracy. In the course of his discussion, Øverland discloses numerous accounts of apparent ethnic rivalries. For instance, at some point the Italian, Hispanic, and Jewish immigrant communities have each claimed Columbus as their own, yet Øverland believes that the underlying purpose of such claims was not to challenge each other's legitimacy or even Anglo-American dominance but simply to position a writer's or speaker's own immigrant group favorably within an American context. By carefully examining each type of myth, Øverland offers an important theory for reading the homemaking genre. Once we reach his chapter on myths of ideology, however, [End Page 416] we see clearly what he admits several times throughout the book: that the three types of myths are closely intertwined and occasionally indistinguishable. This chapter covers some new ground—such as German American beliefs that American liberty had its origins in Germany—but because it relies heavily on examples discussed in previous chapters, it does not advance the argument significantly, a potential problem since he mentions that myths of ideology have been more enduring than the other two. More useful, it seems to me, is the next chapter, in which Øverland presents a case study of Norwegian American experience to demonstrate how myths of foundation, sacrifice, and ideology function together. Here Øverland details how homemaking stories can have tangible effects for an immigrant group when, for example, he finds traces of homemaking rhetoric used in a lecture on the perceived Norwegian origins of American life and democracy in later speeches, in letters, and as the motivation behind ethnic celebrations. Øverland concedes that these myths ultimately fell short of their goal because they were...