Writing the American Immigrant Experience: Isaac Bashevis Singer

On every street in every city in America, there is a story on every face reaching back through the generations.  Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was born in Poland and emigrated to America as a young man, wrote a wide variety of stories that reflect this grand river of history.  His body of work flows through the timeline of East European culture beginning in prehistoric times, passing through the centuries, branching occasionally into the timeless world of folklore and ultimately arriving in 20th century America.  In that sense his stories belong to everyone.  

All Americans carry their history with them.  The stories of Singer and other immigrant writers provide a way into our own histories. In his autobiographical short story “A Day in Coney Island,” Singer describes the sense of disorientation common to all immigrants.  The narrator presents a community of immigrants from Eastern Europe who are steeped in its political and social ideas.  They are eager to put forward their own ideas but are lost in an unfamiliar place.   The narrator is short on money and caught in a tangle of complex immigration laws and world events out of control.  The tourist visa that allowed him to come to America does not allow him to work.  At the same time, his lack of means threatens to have him deported to Poland where a Nazi invasion is imminent and where, as a Jew, he would face almost certain death.  Left with few alternatives, he considers ways to stay in America illegally. This story brings together all of Singer’s concerns as a writer. 

Old world traditions inform the everyday struggles of immigrants.  In this story we see the political and philosophical roots of European culture and how America represents a place where it can survive even as Europe flies apart.  We see how the narrator’s connection to that culture gives him the grounding he needs to make his way in this new place.  And, perhaps most importantly, we see how it gives the narrator a sense of identity. And he shares that sense of identity with many immigrants from many lands. 

Reading his description of the carnival attractions of Coney Island, I was reminded of one of my colleagues describing her arrival in America from Taiwan and a day she spent at Disneyland.  Both Singer and my colleague described their experiences with the same bemused fascination. In “A Day in Coney Island,” Singer tells of an experience that is both personal and universal.  It his story, but he provides all of us with a mirror.  We may not recognize our own reflections in that mirror, but we see them in the faces of our ancestors and the roads they walked. While Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Poland, his work is quintessentially American.

-Paul Holler

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