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  • Editor’s Introduction:Ethnic Place and Space
  • Gary Totten, Editor, MELUS (bio)

In Pietro di Donato’s 1937 short story “Christ in Concrete” (expanded to a novel in 1939), the Italian immigrant characters are introduced to readers in relation to the two main urban spaces that they occupy: the tenements they call home and the construction site at which they work. The refuge and safety of “home” and the joy that the foreman, Geremio, feels at the thought of his newly purchased house (even if it is only “a wooden shack” [2602]) contrasts dramatically with the danger of the construction site as the floor gives way beneath the men. In the course of the building collapse, Geremio is deposited “neatly and deliberately between the empty wooden forms of a foundation wall and pilaster in upright position, his blue swollen face pressed against the form and his arms outstretched, caught securely through the meat by the thin round bars of reinforcing steel” (2606). Above him, “gray concrete gush[ed] from the hopper mouth, … sealing [him] up” (2607) as the concrete “contracted and squeezed his skull out of shape” (2610). As part of the immigrant labor force constructing New York City’s modern urban spaces, Geremio is literally absorbed by the infrastructure that he is helping to create. Although the novel provides more information about the subsequent successes and failures of Geremio’s family in the aftermath of the accident, the short story ends with Geremio’s horrific death by concrete, emphasizing the negative aspects of urban US space for the immigrant laborer and ethnic subject.

Other immigrant texts, such as Marcus E. Ravage’s 1917 memoir An America in the Making: The Life Story of an Immigrant, depict more transformative aspects of ethnic place and space. Cristina Stanciu demonstrates how Ravage attempts to find a place for the immigrant writer in the United States by “writing back” against previous representations of immigrants by both immigrant and US writers and critics. Ravage engages with early twentieth-century Americanization debates in order to reimagine not only “the immigrant’s ‘tragedy of readjustment’ but also the genre of immigrant autobiography.” One of Ravage’s important interventions in the genre is to make “immigrant labor and immigrant intellectual labor coterminous rather than mutually exclusive [End Page 1] categories,” revising readers’ assumptions about the definitions of immigrant autobiography. Ultimately, Stanciu argues, through their autobiographical writing, Ravage and his peers found ways to make immigrant subjects more “includable” in a political and cultural climate that sought to exclude immigrants from cultural citizenship.

Michael Gold’s goals are similar to Ravage’s, but he embraces the ghetto as a site of revolutionary immigrant identity. In her essay on Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), Corinna K. Lee discusses how the omission of the last lines, a revolutionary call for change, from Avon’s 1965 reissue of the fictionalized autobiography highlights “the literary and material history of competing discourses about the East Side that framed the novel.” Lee demonstrates how these discourses ranged from the East Side as a “site of revolutionary identity,” as it was originally depicted by Gold, to “the site of ethnic and popular cultural memory in the invention of immigrant America,” a space of poverty and racial identification that becomes a nostalgic object of “sentimental attachment” rather than representative of “ongoing social problems.” Gold emphasizes “Jewish identity as a revolutionary working-class identity,” Lee argues, and in his emphasis on his mother’s “rootedness in East Side poverty” and solidarity with the workers and impoverished individuals who remain in the ghetto, he enacts a protest against conventional ideas of American exceptionalism.

Christopher Stuart further interrogates restrictive cultural and critical spaces in his study of the influence of Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903) on James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956). Writing against critics who view Baldwin’s embrace of James in Giovanni’s Room as a “youthful literary misstep,” a “misguided bid for artistic legitimacy via capitulation to the dominant white literary culture,” or a reworking of Jamesian themes that requires decoding in order to appreciate its application to black culture, Stuart uncovers deeper and more human connections between Lambert Strether’s Paris and...


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