Plunging Jacobson, Special Sorrows

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

By tracing the ideological geographies of Polish, Jewish and Irish immigrants near the turn of the century through literature and pop-culture, Matthew Jacobson shows how the immigrant imaginary was often times focused one questions of emigration, peoplehood and collective identity. The comparisons between these three groups show commitments to Old World allegiances and struggles as well as desires to reconstitute themselves collectively as distinctly American. Rather than looking to these groups for timetables and paradigms of assimilation, Jacobson tracks the obligations and diasporic imaginaries that made the immigrants always feel a part of the distant national community.

The origins of diasporic figures in each of these groups alludes to their links to the horrors of misrule and struggles for liberation that produced them. For the Irish, it is the exile, for the Pole, it is the pilgrim, and for the Jew, it is the wanderer. Jacobson casts these figures as “living symbols of oppression” that poignantly testify “to the horrors of misrule” (13). These figures emerge not out of the historical studies of the period, but from the cultural production that these groups undertook, which shows that “everyday sociability was often infused with political meaning” and “if we consider immigrant outlooks as opposed to political outcomes, these nationalist movements and debates were not marginal but central” (54). Faced with a disconnection with the past and the homeland, immigrant groups frequently retold their own stories through cultural production, beginning with didactic journals meant to “control and guide their respective movements” as well as envisage a nation and its worldwide diaspora through a homogenous empty time (61). The mythical national histories laden in popular religion also provided an everyday language and place to discuss questions of nationalism: “questions of peoplehood, sovereignty, and national purpose were fixed in both the logic of belief and in the styles of devotion” (74).

Finally, literature, festivals and dramas kept nationalist spirits alive, while at times contesting different meanings of the nation and diaspora that came about, as Jacobson explains: “nationalism surfaced and resurfaced in a myriad of cultural forms, infusing a wide variety of social activities which are rarely considered as remote to the daily routines of immigrant life as the distant and nebulous affairs of international politics proper” (92). Cultural forms then kept political debates unrestricted and available through literary forms. The manner in which diasporic literatures departed from their Old World relatives, Jacobson says, depends “upon the demographic, linguistic, and economic circumstances of cultural production in the New World ghetto” (95). Very often the artists in these communities were themselves political activists, taking up the creation of a national character through celebration of deeds, advancing notions of the heroic, and condemning certain vices:

Literature, in short, represented one of the critical practices by which these new global scatterings of people proclaimed their unity as discrete populations, defined their distinctive virtues, policed their boundaries, sustained their enmities, and projected themselves as candidates for political self-determination. (97)

For immigrant literature, cultural production most often articulated a group identity as their national identity, that Irish were not just politically rebellious, but that their communities had attitudes of rebellion. To proclaim the group as a national identity was to enforce the idea that “this national identity entailed a lasting commitment to certain cherished loves and hatreds” (136).

The immigrant discourse around the Spanish-American war, which were intertwined with the rebellions in Cuba and the Philippines, are present in Jacobson’s account as ways to “assess the tecture of political argument and to analyze the intellectual and ideological currents which were tapped by discussants along the political spectrum” (144). Very often these discussions show the tensions between Old World sensibility and New World political activity, and at the very least, the tensions between the homeland and belonging to the new land. Outright protests were often held within immigrant communities against conquests of Cuba and the Philippines, especially in the beginning of the war, since immigrant communities were already suspicious of civilizing rhetoric and forms of class power. However, as rhetoric surrounding the war became more enmeshed in national liberation, American pride and ideas of manhood, immigrant communities began utilizing the fever created by the war to enlist their own men as regiments in the army and to gain some political recognition through service and pride in the American empire.

For the Philippines, many immigrants immediately forged “a damning critique of American empire-building based upon a rare empathy with the Filipinos themselves, yet as race began to group immigrants into different types of “whiteness” while the Filipinos were grouped under mongrels and savages, “becoming American” soon meant “becoming Caucasian” (182). Indeed, the new terms for race coming into the American imaginary as attempts to make the Filipino more Other, succeeded for immigrant communities in making themselves more accountable, shifting the ideas of dominant racial groups from Anglo-Saxon to simply white or Caucasian. The fierceness with which many cultural forms drive toward becoming Caucasian, and in effect becoming American,  show a type of breaking with the home land, for rather than defining themselves in terms of their “ethnic whiteness,” the communities became defined in terms of Americanness. But to align so vehemently with the white race was not necessarily to abandon the critique of empire, rather, many immigrant nationalists were able to perform both by insisting upon America’s “anti-imperialist pedigree,” and using the models of George Washington, rather than their “ethnic” nationalist heroes, to critique overseas expansion (208).

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