- Marcus E. Ravage’s An American in the Making, Americanization, and New Immigrant Representation
The adoptive American has always been and will always remain a composite American.—Marcus Eli Ravage (95)
An American in the Making: The Life Story of an Immigrant (1917), an unconventional immigrant memoir by Marcus Eli Ravage (1884-1965), a Jewish American writer and journalist from Romania, has received little critical attention despite its popularity and favorable reception in the early twentieth century. Conceived at a time when the immigrant writer was competing with sociological accounts of “the immigrant story,” An American in the Making tells an unexpected story of Americanization. Speaking in part to his contemporaries’ theories of Americanization and against the growing nativism of the late 1910s and 1920s, Ravage also writes back, responding to previous representations of “the immigrant” by both immigrant and American writers and critics of the social scene. Ravage’s memoir, now in its fourth edition, affords us the opportunity to explore how the work of a first-generation or new immigrant writer, public intellectual, and journalist engages the political and cultural debates surrounding Americanization at the beginning of the twentieth century.1 Along with the cultural work of the immigrant press in the ideological context of the nationalist debates over American identity in the early twentieth century (especially the melting pot versus cultural pluralism), this memoir dramatizes the unsettled facets of Americanization discourses and practices. I argue that Ravage rewrites not only what he considers the immigrant’s “tragedy of readjustment” but also the genre of immigrant autobiography.2 In a polemical work, which often challenges the dialectic of Americanization, he shows the reader “an American in the making,” neither fully Americanized nor a greenhorn but a subject of literary production, aware of his objectification in contemporaneous sociological studies and photo-journalistic exposés (such as Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives ). Furthermore, the demands of the genre of immigrant autobiography (established by the literary market) mirrored the coercive demands of Americanization [End Page 5] ideology at the beginning of the twentieth century. By making immigrant labor and immigrant intellectual labor coterminous rather than mutually exclusive categories, Ravage also invites us to rethink our readerly assumptions about what an immigrant autobiography is or should be. Ravage offers a revised version of the immigrant memoir, centered on the impossibility of complete transformation and the emergence of a “composite” American, at odds with the new American imagined by American writers and the national Americanization campaigns.
In four parts, An American in the Making recreates the immigrant’s journey from a shtetl in Vaslui, Eastern Romania, to New York’s Lower East Side, the American Midwest (Missouri), and his return to New York. The postscript, added to the second edition in 1935,3 tells of Ravage’s brief return to his hometown in Vaslui—where he encounters nothing “but dilapidation and decay and stark ugliness” (204)—and his eventual move to France. Like many immigrant memoirs, the text fulfills readerly expectations of familiar tropes: the lure of America, deracination, a heartbreaking farewell to family, the first days in New York, and the adventures of transformation. Unlike most immigrant autobiographies of this era, An American in the Making makes internal migration—from the temporary safety of Little Romania and the Jewish ghetto in New York City to Columbia, Missouri, where Ravage attends college—central to his transformation. To complete this internal migration, Ravage’s autobiographical persona, Max, like Anzia Yezierska’s main character in Bread Givers (1925), Sarah Smolinsky, has to leave the ghetto in order to “make [himself] for a person” by attending a university in the Midwest: “in the autumn of 1906, I started out on my great adventure. … I was going to the land of the ‘real Americans’” (130-31). Internalizing his contemporaries’ geocultural stratifications of “American” regions—the East was taken over by the purported immigrant invasion—Ravage appeals to a familiar narrative of American national identity formation, one that took the American Midwest as the quintessentially American space.
Recreating yet also challenging familiar binaries of the immigrant memoir genre (Old/New World, alien/citizen, Jewish/Gentile, diasporic/local, native/immigrant), An American...