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In Search of a Dream America

Place in the Life Writing of Eastern European Immigrants

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Irina V. Rodimtseva

This book explores immigrant life writing and examines the complex relationship between the America imagined in the dreams of would-be immigrants and their ability to establish connections to actual places in America. The authors discussed in the book (Vasily Aksyonov, Mary Antin, Eva Hoffman, Edward Limonov, and Miriam Potocky-Tripodi) come to North America from different places in Eastern Europe and publish their books at different times of the 20th century, but for all of them an attachment to the new place begins before emigration. The initial stages of this process are imaginative – learning and dreaming about America, visualizing it as an ideal place – and the immigrants’ encounter with their new country is mediated by this idealized image of America. Although some immigrant autobiographers profess an immediate bonding to American places, the texts examined in this book demonstrate that the process of claiming a new place as one’s own is often rife with ambiguities and setbacks. Only by negotiating the gap between the dream and the encountered America can an immigrant begin to feel at home in the new place. At the same time, the bond to the home country can never be severed, and that rejected place becomes a reference point for comparisons or even a model for organizing the new environment. Briefly stated, immigrants maintain attachments to multiple places – physical, imagined, and remembered.

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Introduction

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“Next year – in America!” That was the dream of Mary Antin’s family gathered around their Passover table in Polotzk, Russia.1 Immigrant literature abounds in similar descriptions of “the moment of dream anticipation,” as William Q. Boelhower calls it,2 before families and individuals followed their dreams and left their homelands for the United States in search of religious freedom, equality, justice, and the riches of what would become the mythical “land of Cadillacs and Coca-Cola.”3 The relationship between this imagined America and the immigrants’ descriptions of their experience in actual American places is the subject of this book.

My goal is to explore the link between the concepts of the American Dream and of place-connectedness. Theorists tend to acknowledge the human attachment to place as a given, without an explanation of its origin or attributes. I contend that for American immigrants, establishing an attachment to the new place begins before emigration. The initial stages of this process are imaginative – learning and dreaming about America, visualizing it as an ideal place – and the immigrants’ encounter with their new country is mediated by this idealized image of America. For this reason, establishing a connection to the new country can be impeded by unrealistic expectations as to what America should look like or what it should offer to new arrivals. Although some immigrant autobiographers profess an immediate bonding to American places, the texts examined in this project demonstrate that the process of claiming a new place as one’s...

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