UCB Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

American Literary Immigrants

By Catherine Lee

As an immigrant, I’ve always been fascinated by the word “expatriate.” When I looked up the two words, “immigrant” and “expatriate,” their meanings were not so different from each other. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “immigrant” as “a person who migrates into a country as a settler.” It defines “expatriate” as “a person who lives in a foreign country, esp. by choice.” You see? Not so different. Immigrants for the most part migrate by choice; expatriates sometimes never return to their homeland.

When I searched “immigrant literature,” I was led to this article titled “Coming to America: 50 Greatest Works of Immigration Literature.” It is an impressive collection of all kinds of tales from diverse backgrounds, including Chinese (The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan), Irish (Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt), Greek (Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides), Iranian (House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III), and so on. They are tales of struggle, beautiful and often sorrowful, from families who leave their all to start life all over again, to make it a good one, in America, the nation of hope and promise for immigrants.

Even though we all know that things are great for immigrants who come to America, I wanted to know if there was any literature on immigrants from America – that is, people who leave America to seek life elsewhere. At this point I saw, with some surprise, that I couldn’t find anything on it. I searched “American immigrant literature,” which is what it should be called. But what I got instead was more of the same old story, about the experience of immigrating to America.

It seems that we just don’t use that word, “immigrant,” for Americans. America is a nation of immigrants, but not a nation that produces any. Because why would anyone leave America to seek a better life, right? Which country could possibly have it better than what America has here? I personally think it has a lot to do with class and race whether a group of people are called “immigrants” or not. Because instead of American immigrants, it seems, we have American expatriates. But I will leave that as a food for thought. This, after all, is a journal and blog for discussing literature, not sociology.

I would like to move on to a discussion of “American literary expatriates.” I am tempted to call them “American literary immigrants,” but then I suppose most of them did not necessarily leave America for a “quantitatively” better life, which is to say, a life that offers “more” of what a person needs to live on a basic level. They didn’t leave America for better wages, no. It had nothing to do with those kinds of life’s necessities.

Photo courtesy of huffstutterrobertl

The group of American expatriates that moved to Paris in the 1920’s, named “the Lost Generation” by Gertrude Stein who was an expatriate herself, moved for the sake of other kinds of life’s necessities, the kind that fed their artistic souls. I would think that calling them immigrants would emphasize the need for inspiration that consumed their daily lives, and that it would make their cause more deserving of praise and sympathy, in a way. I mean, not that these writers needed extra sources of admiration, since we are talking about some of the most brilliant writers of the century here – Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.D., Samuel Beckett and so on.

But then, it appears that a closer look at the actual composition of their daily lives reveals that they were far from being desperate. What I mean to say is that while they may be well deserving of our praise, they may not deserve our deepest sympathy. That they did not live their lives with as much diligence and passion as say, real immigrants probably would have, and did. In that sense, perhaps we do need the word “expatriate” to make the distinction.

As an immigrant I am biased, but I do not mean to be mean. I am simply fascinated that the two words, and the two groups of people, are so similar and yet so different. There are two separate branches of literature, one for immigrants, the other for expatriates; and while the former so clearly deserves and asks for our attention and sympathy (in detailing their struggles), I am not sure if the latter does the same. If anything, I am not sure if the expatriates had sympathy for themselves, with this coming straight from Hemingway’s mouth:

You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You’re an expatriate, see. You hang around in cafés. (from The Sun Also Rises)

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