“Who May Be Citizens of the United States”: Citizenship Models in Edith Maude Eaton and Abraham Cahan
The anomalous spectacle of a distinct people, living in our community, recognizing no laws of this State except through necessity, bringing with them their prejudices and national feuds, in which they indulge in open violation of the law. . . . [The Chinese are] a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior . . . between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference.
—CHIEF JUSTICE HUGH MURRAY, 1854
There never has been any question heretofore of the right of a Chinaman to be naturalized in the same way as an Irishman or a German. Several native Chinese are at the present time citizens of the United States; it is fair to presume that they vote, and it is undeniable that they are useful members of the community in which they reside. In one point of view they remind one of the Jews of the Middle Ages—industrious, orderly, hard-working, money-getting—they are the natural traders of the Pacific shores. Yet it needs no great foresight to perceive that, at no distant day, they will be pariahs throughout our Pacific States.
—EDITORIAL, HARPERS WEEKLY, 1858
Four years after California was granted “free soil” statehood, a seemingly innocuous article appeared in the December 6, 1854, issue of the German Reformed Messenger, a weekly Chambersberg, Pennsylvania paper. Placed among alarmist reports of “An Immense Subterranean Lake in Michigan,” touristic accounts of “Bird-Egging on the Pacific,” and declarations that “Masons Must Not Fight,” a headline unequivocally announced, “Chinese Not Competent to Give Testimony against Whites.”1 The German Reformed Messenger briefly focused its journalistic attention on a far-away California criminal case: People v. George W. Hall (1854). The appellant, a Nevada County resident, had recently been convicted for murdering Ling Sing, a Chinese miner. The prosecution’s case principally rested on the testimony of three unnamed Chinese immigrants, the sole witnesses to the crime.
As suggested by the German Reformed Messenger’s byline, an integral part of People v. Hall was not so much a declaration of innocence as a proficiency petition. More important, the verdict reached by the California Supreme Court would have an impact that far surpassed its local purview. Initially concerned with Hall’s appeal that Chinese were ineligible witnesses in a California court of law, the justification for acquittal makes visible a still-forming exclusionary matrix. The construction of such racialized logics in the mid-1850s directly corresponds to the concomitant emergence of Chinese immigrants on the U.S. socioeconomic landscape. Indeed, it is the mid-century Chinese immigration en masse to the United States that principally foregrounds the California Supreme Court’s ruling.
Prompted by gold rushes, drawn to mining booms, and later recruited to labor on postbellum transcontinental railroads, Chinese immigrants embodied an emergent global Pacific imaginary that was replete with transnational flows of capital, labor, and commodities. In turn, rising numbers of Chinese bodies in California and the West Coast promulgated a nativist, racist redrawing of racial borders. As the German Reformed Messenger summarizes, “a white citizen of California was indicted for murder and convicted on the testimony of Chinese witnesses. He appealed on the ground that by the State law regulating criminal proceedings, ‘no black or molatto [sic] person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor or against a white man.’” Central to the California court’s decision was the issue of race, which to date had legally been categorized in a four-part manner (“white,” “black,” “molatto,” and “Indian”). At stake in People v. Hall was the demarcation of racialized personhood within a shifting and increasingly more diverse immigrant/settler/native-born demographic. Additionally, the subsequent drawing of new racial borders anticipates late nineteenth-century naturalization rulings and immigration policies committed to excluding, prohibiting, and denying Chinese access to the U.S. nation.
In precedent-setting fashion, Chief Justice Hugh Murray turned to the 1790 Naturalization Act, which similarly commences with a delineation of citizenship by means of race. Correspondingly, the court ruminated on the constitutionality of Chinese selfhood, which encompassed (among other privileges) due process rights. For example, the Chief Justice opined:
The Act of Congress in defining what description of aliens may become naturalized citizens, provides [for] every “free white citizen.” . . . If the term “White,” as used in the Constitution, was not understood in its generic sense as including the Caucasian race, and necessarily excluding all others, where was the necessity of providing for the admission of Indians to the privilege of voting, by special session? We are of the opinion that the words “White,” “Negro,” Mulatto,” Indian,” and “Black person,” wherever they occur in our Constitution and laws, must be taken in their generic sense, and that even admitting the Indian of this Continent is not the Mongolian type, that the words, “Black person” . . . must be taken as contradistinguished from White, and necessarily excludes all other races other than Caucasian.2
In the spirit of “contradistinguishing” nonwhite from Caucasian, the court ruled (according to the German Reformed Messenger article) “that Chinese are not competent to give testimony against whites, in the courts of California, and accordingly the verdict in the case was set aside.” As is apparent in the opening epigraph, Chief Justice Murray’s ruling of incompetence was built on alleged illegality, transnational “prejudices,” and innate “inferiority.” Hence, People v. Hall undercuts the hopeful (albeit racist) Harper’s Weekly assertion that “There never has been any question heretofore of the right of a Chinaman to be naturalized in the same way as an Irishman or a German.”
At the same time, the “impassable difference” emblematized by the Chinese produces an analogous reading (as in the Harper’s Weekly excerpt) between mid-century “Chinamen” and “Jews of the Middle Ages.” Regardless of “industrious, orderly, hard-working, money-getting” talents, both Chinaman and Jew become inevitable pariahs. If People v. Hall confirmed this status for Chinese immigrants, Jewish Americans would face a related (but by no means identical) citizenship challenge eight years later. On December 17, 1862, while the nation was engaged in civil war, General Ulysses S. Grant issued a decidedly anti-Semitic decree. Known as “General Order Number 11,” the military act pronounced the following: “the Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasure Department . . . are hereby expelled from the department [in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi] within twenty-four hours from receipt of this order.”3 Although instantly protested and quickly overturned in January 1863, the act nonetheless attests to a probationary whiteness connected to citizenship. Tellingly, the absence of Jewish exclusion (analogous, for example, to Chinese exclusion) reconfirms the ostensible “whiteness” afforded both Jewish Americans and Jewish immigrants in the 1790 naturalization law.
Though predating them by almost half a century, such citizenship parameters and proposed expulsions unavoidably influence the works of Chinese Canadian American writer Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far) and Jewish American author Abraham Cahan. Dialogically situated, Edith Maude Eaton and Abraham Cahan necessarily write within the shifting fin-de-siècle contours of race, ethnicity, and nation. Correspondingly, both authors make visible the contested dimensions of U.S. selfhood vis-à-vis immigration. As the nation moved from antebellum selfhood to turn-of-the-twentieth-century personhood, the primacy of race in the “making of Americans” incontrovertibly persisted in five distinct (and connected) citizenship/immigration events: the above-mentioned People v. Hall, the amended 1870 Naturalization Act, the Page Act (1875), In re Ah Yup (1878), and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Unsurprisingly, the “raced” dimensions of naturalization and citizenship haunt the plots, characterizations, and themes in two Eaton short stories: “In the Land of the Free” (1909) and “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese” (1910). Specifically, Eaton strategically employs a more open characterization of Chinese immigrants as culturally and politically viable would-be citizens to engender an antiracist, anti-exclusion reading of such bodies.
Alternatively, despite access to naturalization as a viable citizenship subject, by means of extant law and policy, Abraham Cahan’s Jewish protagonist in Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) is faced with an equally uncertain selfhood future. In particular, Cahan’s novella calls attention to the provisional dimensions of U.S. citizenship for Jewish immigrants (and, by extension, Jewish Americans). In the process, Cahan unintentionally reclaims a conditional immigrant past discernible in episodes like the December 1862 proposed expulsion and more contemporaneous calls to “shut the door” on eastern European immigrants. Suggestive of temporariness and surveillance (like a citizen “on probation”), probationary white selfhood circumscribes Cahan’s novella about Jewish immigrant bodies in cultural transition.4 Such histories and uncertainties destabilize readings of wholesale Jewish inclusion within a larger U.S. body politic.
“No Discrimination on Account of Color”: The Making of Post-Bellum Citizenship
The antebellum question of “free white personhood,” a pivotal inquiry in People v. Hall, would reemerge in amended fashion during the post-Civil War decade. Likewise, the issue of Chinese immigration would once again prove central in discussions over citizenship access and process. Indeed, on July 2, 1870, the United States Senate debated the fate of future Americans via a proposed amendment to naturalization law. The chief sponsor of the bill was Massachusetts abolitionist-turned-Reconstruction Republican Charles Sumner.5 On the Congressional docket was the following amendment: “all Acts of Congress relating to naturalization [will] be, and the same are hereby, amended by striking out the word ‘white’ wherever it occurs, so that in naturalization there will be no distinction of race or color.”6 Proposed in the aftermath of war and in the midst of Reconstruction, the “raceless” naturalization law potentially afforded unimpeded citizenship access regardless of race and nation.
This was not the first time the Bay State senator had introduced such a bill. Sumner had tried to do so in 1867 and 1869, only to see his amendment languish in the Judiciary Committee. At first, the Massachusetts senator justified the bill by way of an expected black/white racial paradigm. Accordingly, Sumner averred, “Here . . . Africans in our country are shut out from rights which justly belong to them, simply because Congress continues the word ‘white’ in the Naturalization Laws.”7 Interestingly, Sumner’s argument about “Africans” was principally directed not at immigrants but at native-born Americans (African Americans), who had ostensible jus solis citizenship in the post-bellum period. Nevertheless, Sumner’s appeal tactically collapses the space between native- and foreign-born, making visible the full extent of African American disenfranchisement.8 Mindful of a post-abolition, reactive and reactionary milieu, Sumner’s declaration of unjustifiable exclusion coincided with a greater Reconstructionist agenda intent on righting—through multivalent selfhood—the constitutional wrongs of slavery by means of past deracination and present discrimination. Corresponding to political intentions at work in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, Sumner’s proposed naturalization law eschewed race in the practice and process of citizenship.9
From the outset, Sumner appealed to the Declaration of Independence. Clearly a document of the “Founding Fathers,” the Declaration operates—at the level of national discourse—in symbolic tandem with the Constitution. Despite their foundational coherences, critical to Sumner’s petition was an issue of reconciliation between the two documents. Specifically, the Massachusetts senator publicly noted the disjuncture between a colorblind Declaration and a racialized Constitution. Unintentionally, Sumner returned to the original Declaration of Independence, which carried the abolitionist complaint that the King had “waged cruel War against human Nature itself, violating its most Sacred Right of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incure miserable Death, in their Transportation thither. This piratical Warfare, the opprobrium of infidel Powers, is the Warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.”10 As the perpetuation of slavery in the United States attests, the “colorblindness” of the Declaration was principally achieved through omission. In spite of the revised Declaration’s less-than-progressive slave politics, Sumner proclaimed the need to “bring our system into harmony with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.”11
More important in relation to Sumner’s amendment, the Constitution contemporaneously defined citizenship through “free white persons.” A civil rights interventionist, Sumner reminded his fellow senators that in the Declaration of Independence, “all men. . . . not a race or color . . . are placed under the protection of the Declaration.”12 Admittedly, Sumner’s plea for tolerance was not entirely inclusive with regard to gender. The Constitutional omission of women from the project of nation building (via the explicit privileging of male bodies and the absence of any mention of women) attests to an ongoing masculinist understanding of citizenship.13
In the face of a dominant black/white reading of the U.S. racial landscape, Sumner was more expansive in his call to remove from naturalization law “distinction[s] of race or color.” Without a doubt, Sumner’s petition addressed what was increasingly termed “the Chinese question” within the U.S. political and cultural imaginary. The question (or more accurately, the problem) was predicated on the increased presence of Chinese immigrants in the United States. Such “inassimilable” bodies focused policy anxieties over race, assimilability, and nation. Proposed a year after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Sumner’s amendment seemingly offered a “selfhood solution” to the “Chinese problem” via open-access naturalization. Furthermore, the direct mention of the Chinese in Sumner’s appeal formed a more progressive response to racist denaturalization in People v. Hall.
To that end, Sumner professed, “We are told that they [the Chinese] are Imperialists; but before they can be citizens they must renounce Imperialism. We are told they are foreigners in heart; but before they can take part with us they must renounce their foreign character.”14 Apropos a naturalization agenda, Sumner’s rhetoric draws attention to the two-sided nature of the “making of Americans” from “foreign material.” Expressly, though the Chinese immigrant may be an “Imperialist,” the would-be Chinese American must—according to naturalization law and oath—repudiate this past national affiliation. Similarly, though the Chinese immigrant is a de facto foreigner, the potential Chinese American is required to prove Americanization by means of language (English) and culture (a working knowledge of U.S. history). Sumner emphasized democratic intentionality vis-à-vis legislated naturalization: “If the Chinese come here, they will come for citizenship or merely for labor. If they come for citizenship, then in this desire do they give a pledge of loyalty to our institutions; and where is the peril in such vows? They are peaceful and industrious; how can their citizenship be the occasion of solicitude?”15 Reminiscent of characterizations of “industriousness” in the Harper’s Weekly passage, Sumner casts Chinese immigrants as voluntary subjects (either as prospective citizens or as “mere” laborers) who are simultaneously potential paragons of citizenship (as peaceful and loyal subjects).
Notwithstanding the senator’s earnest support of Chinese immigration and naturalization, Sumner’s appeal for “no discrimination on the account of color” failed. As Congress moved to revise the 1790 Naturalization Act, the “free white persons” clause remained, though the act carried an explicit provision for “those of African descent.” Correspondingly, U.S. personhood—and specifically naturalized citizenship—was for the most part delineated along a polarized black/white axis. Consequently, the legibility of Chinese (and other Asian) immigrants through naturalization law continued to be ambiguous at best. The modified personhood stipulation paradoxically (and purposefully) “opened the door” for African immigrants seeking naturalized citizenship.16 On the other hand, the 1870 Naturalization Act—principally by omission—“closed the door” for groups previously deemed “ineligible” or “incompetent” citizens.
The application of “closed door” personhood was apparent eight years later, when Ah Yup (“a native of China and the Mongolian race,”) petitioned for U.S. citizenship in a District of California circuit court.17 The 1878 case, In re Ah Yup, posed the first major suit vis-à-vis the recently amended law. Admitting that present-day naturalization provisions “exclude[d] all but white persons and persons of African nativity or African descent,” the court all the same reasoned:
Although the term “white persons” constitutes a whole variety of persons, none of which may be said to be literally white, the term has acquired a well-settled meaning within the common speech and literature of the country. Webster’s dictionary describes 5 races, Caucasian (white) from Europe and western Asia; Mongolian (yellow) from China, Japan, and their region; Negro (black) from Africa; American (red) consisting of the natives of North and South America; and Malay (brown) occupying the islands of the Indian Archipelago region. Neither in popular language, literature, nor science do we find the words “white person” to be so comprehensive as to include those of the Mongolian race. When citizenship was extended to those of African decent, the term “white” was not deleted. This was done so as to exclude those of the Mongolian race.18
The court’s reliance on Webster’s dictionary, a recognizable reference standard, pitted the eligible citizen against the ineligible alien, as in People v. Hall. Further, the use of “popular language, literature, [and] science” to justify an exclusionary selfhood underscores a fixed whiteness (and concomitant blackness) within a late-nineteenth-century racial taxonomy. Indeed, this particular taxonomy would be deployed repeatedly in subsequent naturalization cases such as Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Thind (1923).
Still, the court’s initial concession (that “free white persons” “constitute[d] a whole variety of persons, none of which may be said to be literally white”) signals a less restrained conception of whiteness. Even so, this whiteness was necessarily “contradistinguished” from monolithic Asianness (specifically, Mongolianness). The court’s pronouncement that “white person” was not “so comprehensive [a term] as to include those of the Mongolian race” reinforces the predominance of race in the formation of naturalized (and natural) Americans. Amid this racial backdrop, the court’s substitution of “literal whiteness” in favor of “interpreted whiteness” produces a conditional personhood. In turn, such probationary selfhood makes visible dominant definitions of race and nation. Accordingly, it is within this interpretative space that Jewish immigrants continued to be “white” and hence “naturalizable.”
If the 1870 Naturalization Act and In re Ah Yup cemented a domestic racial matrix for citizenship that privileged “white” over “Asiatic,” then the 1875 Page Act and 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act achieved analogous effect at the level of immigration-oriented foreign policy. Focused on regulating foreign bodies, the 1875 Page Act prohibited the “importation” of Asian women for purposes of prostitution.19 Though the directive specified a criminal act (prostitution), its widespread application effectively limited Asian women from entering the United States en masse until the 1945 War Brides Act.20 As Susan Koshy maintains, the “representation of Asian women’s sexuality as different from white women’s sexuality not only corroborated the thesis of Oriental degeneracy; it justified the segregation of Asians and whites” (11). Further, Koshy significantly reminds us that, with the exception of Japanese immigrants, who by special provision were able to bring their families to Hawaii and the West Coast, Asian groups were prohibited from doing so.21 By the same token, such ethnoracial regulation anticipates similar objectifying logics at work in the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed May 6, 1882.
Concerned with the increased “importation” of Chinese laborers, the Exclusion Act suspended the legal entry of Chinese laborers into the United States for a period of ten years. The policing purview of the Chinese Exclusion Act originally included both skilled and unskilled laborers. The law’s initial provisions, expanded and renewed in the early twentieth century, largely succeeded in containing, policing, and stemming the flow of large numbers of Chinese immigrants into the United States until its 1943 repeal by Congress.22 Indisputably and considerably, In re Ah Yup, the Page Act, and the Chinese Exclusion Act accentuate the value of race, ethnicity, and gender in politicized border control efforts. Without a doubt, such initiatives were aimed at solving the “Chinese question” through selfhood denial, regulation, and prohibition. Likewise, Ah Yup’s verdict of “ineligibility,” the Page Act’s assumption of immorality, and the Chinese Exclusion Act’s characterization of illegality underscore the increasingly racialized dimensions of U.S. selfhood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The racialized registers of U.S. selfhood foreground the political work in Edith Maude Eaton’s short stories, which overtly assume the labor of rehabilitating Chinese immigrants (and by extension, Chinese Americans) via frames of eligibility and “rightful” personhood.
Models of Citizenship, Victims of Prejudice: Edith Maude Eaton’s “In the Land of the Free” and “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese”
Situated within a decidedly anti-Chinese milieu, North American Chinese writer Edith Maude Eaton’s pro-Chinese narratives “contradistinguish” racial stereotype from actual personhood via sentimental plot and characterization. As an example, Eaton’s fin-de-siècle “In the Land of the Free” (1909) is an affective immigrant story of bureaucratization, detention, and exclusion. The narrative was originally published in The Independent, a liberal weekly magazine known for its progressive articles and stories on such subjects as abolition and the education of women.23 Also included in the 1912 collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance (Eaton’s one published volume), “In the Land of the Free” is emotionally and thematically driven.24 As Amy Ling notes, the narrative makes legible “racial insensitivity, the human costs of bureaucratic and discriminatory laws, [and] the humanity of the Chinese.”25 Divided into four parts, the story follows the trials and tribulations of a Chinese immigrant family as they attempt to reenter and—more significantly—reunite in the United States.
Purposefully sentimental, “In the Land of the Free” commences with an idealized characterization of the United States. As the nationalistic title suggests, the United States is configured through familiar “country love” tropes, redolent of democratic virtue and U.S. exceptionalism. Indeed, the title is taken from the most patriotic of songs, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Eaton again engages the national anthem in the story’s opening paragraph, which introduces the reader to Lae Choo and her son, the tenderly named “Little One.” Eying the U.S. coastline, Lae Choo tells her son, “See, Little One—the hills in the morning sun. There is thy home for years to come. It is very beautiful and thou wilt be very happy there.” Reminiscent of the “dawn’s early light” which begins “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the “morning sun” underscores Lae Choo’s potential loyalty to the U.S. nation and anticipates a possible naturalization. Further, the mention of “home” (in tandem with the story’s title) evokes “the land of the free” and the “home of the brave.”
The use of the high diction and the absence of regional dialect straightaway contradict orientalist claims of inherent “Asiatic alienhood.” Sinophobia—and attendant exclusion—in the United States was partly premised on language. Such elevated language allows Eaton to collapse the perceived gulf between English and Chinese. In other words, the use of formal English is a tactical translation of Chinese that militates against popular assertions of cultural depravity. Alternatively, if the story at once engages the immigration process, then the formal language used by its Chinese protagonists is analogous to official legal language. Be that as it may, such stilted grammar nonetheless breaks down when Lae Choo is faced with an impersonal bureaucracy. For example, when the couple are told that their son must be confiscated, Lae Choo declares, “No, you not take him; he my son too” (94). Such a linguistic rupture brings to light a multivalent emotional investment (that is, maternal love and anger) and an antagonistic encounter with an indifferent administrative state.
Such naturalized wordplay takes an affective turn, evident in the unidentified narrator’s account of the “Little One’s” response. As the narrator describes, “Little One looked up into his mother’s face in perfect faith. He was engaged in the pleasant occupation of sucking a sweetmeat; but that did not prevent him from gurgling responsively” (93). Further countering anti-Chinese stereotype, Eaton stresses that Lae Choo (and “Little One”) are not “temporary sojourners” but willing and responsive settler/pioneers in search of a permanent U.S. home. What is more, Lae Choo and Little One come to the United States in “good faith,” indicating a desire for U.S. citizenship. With mention of “home” and “happiness,” Lae Choo articulates a hopeful, householding vision of the United States.26 Correspondingly, this romantic pronouncement of “home” coheres with a more nationalistic reading of promise and opportunity.
Even so, this arrival is complicated by immigration processes that require exact documentation. Lae Choo has the necessary paperwork for herself but not her China-born son. An undocumented and therefore “un-entitled” alien, the son is seized by the authorities and detained in an orphanage. Consequently, the customs agent and U.S. immigration policy recast Little One as a disenfranchised “Chinaman.” Lae Choo initially protests, stressing her maternal rights. However, in the face of immigration law, Lae Choo has little choice but to acquiesce, and she quickly resigns herself to the process.
Despite this initial resistance, the unidentified narrator strategically brings to light Lae Choo’s a priori lawfulness. The narrator observes, “accustomed to obedience she yielded the boy to her husband, who in turn delivered him to the first officer. The Little One protested lustily against the transfer; but his mother covered her face with her sleeve and his father silently led her away. Thus was the law of the land complied with” (95). Lae Choo is “accustomed to obedience,” which paves the way for an innate legal compliance. Such law-abiding proclivities combat dominant assertions of non-rehabilitative Chinese criminality. In addition, Lae Choo’s acquiescence to the law—characteristic of a “model citizen”—is dramatically subsumed within the bureaucratic, impersonal practice of immigration policy.
As the customs agent asserts, “Seeing that the boy has no certificate entitling him admission to this country, you will have to leave him to us” (94). Cast as a seize-worthy commodity, the Little One is consequently “delivered” and “transferred” to the U.S. customs agent. This confiscation prefigures the primary conflict between law, process, and family in the narrative. Undeniably, “In the Land of the Free” centers on Lae Choo and Hom Hing’s attempts to retrieve, through legal and bureaucratic means, and be reunited with their indefinitely detained son. At the same time, Eaton’s story speaks to a tension between the preservation of the family unit and an indifferent immigration processes. In the process, “In the Land of the Free” produces a critique of the nation-state via American family values and alleged racial logics about white superiority.
This contentious interplay between family, indifference, and whiteness is made plain in an episode involving James Clancy, a lawyer who claims he can facilitate Little One’s retrieval. Up to this point, Lae Choo and Hom Hing have spent months negotiating the Little One’s release, a fact implied through brief allusions to seasonal change (such as “winter rains”). At first, Clancy is met with gratitude; Lae Choo asserts, “You are a hundred man good”(98). However, Clancy exacts immediate (and exorbitant) payment without guarantee of result. Discouraged, Lae Choo tells the lawyer, “You not one hundred man good; you just common white man”(99). Highlighting the lawyer’s “commonness” vis-à-vis his whiteness, Lae Choo destabilizes dominant claims of U.S. exceptionalism. Indeed, if the lawyer—a principal bureaucratic actor—stands in for the U.S. nation, then his interest in profit undermines grandiose (and racial) claims of moral high-groundedness.
The accented nature of Lae Choo’s accusation—audible in the absence of “correct” grammar—draws attention to the critique of white masculinity through nonexceptionalist “commonality.” In other words, whiteness is connected to a matrix of moral turpitude, replete with capitalist, antisentimental investment. Simultaneously, Eaton’s story militates against stereotypical constructions of Chinese immigrants as disinvested in family values (such as claims of lawlessness and amorality). Equally important, the protagonists of “In the Land of the Free” are undeniably circumscribed by legality and invested in reunification. Taken together, Lae Choo’s allegation tenaciously revises a hierarchy built on whiteness, which is racially presumptive of moral and ethical superiority. Correspondingly, the declaration of incompetence vis-à-vis the Chinese citizenship question is tactically manipulated within the narrative. To be sure, Lae Choo and Hom Hing must contend with an incompetent bureaucracy filled with ineffective actors, which refuses to follow its own set of rules and regulations. Within this milieu, Eaton employs a sentimental domestic plot that is indubitably fissured by U.S. immigration policy.
Combating Page Act logics about innate Chinese prostitution and People v. Hall “competency” verdicts, Eaton’s characterization of Lae Choo as concerned mother produces an empathetic reading of Chinese womanhood through domestic frames. In the same way, Lae Choo’s desire for family reunification overtly coincides with intelligible American family values, which hinge on the ability to reproduce traditional middle-class virtue. Concurrently, the characterization of the maternal Lae Choo challenges “fallen woman” tropes of Chinese femininity. Just as “In the Land of the Free” confronts the 1875 Page Act, the story also amends People v. Hall declarations of “bad citizenship.” To that end, Eaton’s Chinese protagonists are “competent,” law-abiding subjects willing and able to work within established U.S. immigration processes.
Mindful of In re Ah Yup’s ruling of alien ineligibility, Eaton’s “In the Land of the Free” domesticates the Chinese subject, eschewing transnational affiliation to China in favor of U.S. selfhood. At the same time, such domestication—or naturalization—turns tragic at the story’s conclusion. Having secured “the precious paper which gave Hom Hing and his wife the right to the possession of their own child,” the couple ventures to the orphanage. According to the narrator,
The room was filled with children—most of them wee tots, but none so wee as her own. The mission woman talked as she walked. She told Lae Choo that little Kim, as he had been named by the school, was the pet of the place. . . . He had been rather difficult to manage at first and had cried much for his mother; “but children so soon forget, and after a month he seemed quite at home and played around as bright and happy as a bird.”(101)
The unidentified narrator’s description hearkens back to the beginning of the story in its use of “wee” (an affectionate term reminiscent of “Little One”) and mention of “home.” At the same time, Little One’s domestication (revealed in his function as “the pet of the place”) takes on naturalized importance. Adopted in an “adopted country” and renamed Kim, the Little One has (albeit unwillingly and unwittingly) taken on a new American identity, repudiating in the process his country-of-origin name. The Little One’s name—Kim—at once calls to mind Ridyard Kipling’s eponymous novel about an Irish orphan in India. Unlike Kipling’s Kim, Little One is not a true orphan, for his parents are alive and seek reunification.
Lae Choo, who “did not hear what was said to her” due to “anticipatory joy,” fails to comprehend the mission woman’s assertion of her child’s amnesia. The extent of Little One’s naturalization is fully revealed when the family is reunited. As the narrator observes, Little One, “dressed in blue cotton overalls and white-soled shoes . . . shrunk from [his mother] and tried to hide himself in the folds of the white woman’s skirt. ‘Go’way, go’way!’ he bade his mother” (101). As the final moment in the story, Little One’s denial shows the high cost of naturalization. Refusing his Chinese parentage and Chinese name, Little One naturalizes, repudiating his Chinese mother and declaring loyalty to his American guardian. Provocatively, this affective performance occurs in the face of contemporaneous naturalization law, which codifies (by way of In re Ah Yup) the “Asiatic” subject as an “alien ineligible for citizenship.” Consequently, Little One is culturally naturalized yet remains a denaturalized (or refugee) subject under racist naturalization law. Taken together, Eaton ironically reconfigures the story’s title. In the end, the United States is not so much the land of the free but rather a site of detention, imprisonment, and forced naturalization.
If “In the Land of the Free” underscores the contradictions of U.S. nationhood through the rehabilitation of Chinese (and potentially Chinese American) personhood, Eaton’s “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese” assumes a similar trajectory. Despite coherences, the familial dynamics at work in “Land of the Free” are dramatically modified in the second story vis-à-vis an interracial relationship. Like the earlier narrative, “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese” was initially published in The Independent, though with the markedly more sensational title, “A White Woman Who Married a Chinaman.”27 Whereas Little One’s Americanization attests to a forced naturalization, “The Story of One White Woman” engenders a voluntary naturalization through intimacy, recuperation, and Americanization.28
As the title makes clear, what follows is a narrative about “one white woman”—Minnie—and her marital negotiation with “a Chinese.” The interracial stakes of the story are immediately established. As Minnie professes: “Why did I marry Liu Kanghi, a Chinese? Well, in the first place, because I loved him; in the second place, because I was weary of working, struggling, and fighting in the world; in the third place, because my child needed a home” (66–67). Minnie’s tripartite answer to the “marriage question” anticipates what will follow—a sustained and expanded domestic justification of interracial love. Implicitly, Minnie’s opening interrogation addresses two distinct turn-of-the-twentieth-century issues: the “women’s question” and the “Chinese question.” Correspondingly, these questions—which were at the time largely answered by omission and exclusion—necessarily bring together gender, race, and nation.
Equally significant, Minnie answers both questions via romantic and affective declaration. Stressing the primacy of love in her decision to marry (apparent in the pronouncement of “in the first place”), Minnie is at once a voluntary and willing partner to Liu Kanghi, a “Chinese.” Published after the passage of the 1907 Expatriation Law (which carried the punishment of denaturalization for women who married non-U.S. citizens), “The Story of One White Woman” promulgates a feminist politics through anti-racist, pro-Chinese frames. In the process, Eaton as author and immigration activist produces a resistive narrative that overtly critiques the sexist, racist, and nativist logics of the Page Act, Chinese Exclusion Act, In re Ah Yup, and Expatriation Act.
Minnie time and again calls attention to the humanity of her Chinese husband through the antithetical cruelty of her first husband—the white American James. As in “In the Land of the Free,” the Chinese characters in “The Story of One White Woman” are more “American” than their native-born counterparts precisely because they embody “true” values (that is, family and morality). Eaton therefore characterizes them as subjects eligible and deserving of U.S. citizenship. To that end, Minnie is first and foremost a “traditional woman,” invested in householding, housekeeping, and the “cult of domesticity.” She is therefore an emblem of domestic middle-class virtue, making her decision to marry “outside her race” all the more unexpected.
In contrast, James carries an alleged commitment to women’s suffrage and First Wave Feminism. Illustratively, James repeatedly criticizes Minnie because she is not “built for anything but taking care of kids” (68). As Minnie relates, James disapproves of her choices, making her “feel it a disgrace to be a woman and a mother” (70). Distrustful of feminist politics, Minnie confesses, “Once I told him that I did not admire clever business women, as I had usually found them, and so had other girls of my acquaintance, not nearly so kind-hearted, generous, and helpful as the humble drudges of the world—the ordinary working women” (67).
Minnie’s admission (coupled with affectively charged observations of kind-heartedness, generosity, and helpfulness) establishes her conventional, conservative sensibility. Though Minnie eventually seeks nondomestic employment outside the home, it is only after her first husband insists. Consequently, Minnie’s employment occurs in large part out of a desire to fulfill her husband’s wishes, which bring to light her devoted wifehood. Be that as it may, Minnie loses her place as a stenographer because “her heart yearned over [her] child” (70). In this regard, Minnie’s maternal imperative overcomes her spousal obligation, reconfirming a conservative characterization.
Despite her stated commitment to the marriage, Minnie obtains a divorce upon discovery of her first husband’s infidelity. With young son in tow, a distraught Minnie wanders into Chinatown. Agitated, she contemplates suicide. As Minnie remembers, “someone touched my arm and I heard” Liu Kanghi’s voice. Despite Liu Kanghi’s warning that she “will fall into the water,” Minnie’s “answer was a step forward.” In response, “a strong hand was laid upon my arm and I was swung around against my will” (71). Saving the protagonist and her son, Liu Kanghi is from the outset heroically characterized. By rescuing Minnie and her baby, Liu Kanghi is—like fellow Chinese immigrants Lae Choo and Hom Hing—introduced through sentimental family frames.29 On another level, the Liu Kanghi’s “strong hand” functions as a metonym for a universal reading of masculinity, revising extant views that Chinese men were effeminate, undeserving alien subjects when compared to their white American counterparts.
Concomitantly, Eaton’s account naturalizes Liu Kanghi, a repeated move in “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese.” Indeed, Liu Kanghi is described as “wearing American clothes”; he “wore his hair cut, and, even to my American eyes, [he] appeared a good-looking young man” (72). Hence, Minnie naturalizes Liu Kanghi and other Chinese bodies through family frames and domestic spaces. As Minnie narrates,
The Chinese family with which he [Liu Kanghi] placed me were kind, simple folk. The father had been living in America for more than twenty years. The family consisted of his wife, a grown daughter, and several small sons and daughters, all of whom had been born in America. Liu Jusong, the father, was a working jeweler; but, because of an accident by which he had lost the use of one hand, was partially incapacitated for work. Therefore, their family depended for maintenance chiefly upon their kinsman, Liu Kanghi, the Chinese who had brought me to them. (72)
“Kind” and “simple,” the Chinese family represents a “complete” unit (with husband, wife, “grown daughter,” and several children). The completeness of the Liu Jusong family operates in stark contrast to Minnie’s current familial status (without a husband). Noting that the father had lived “in America for more than twenty years” and that all the children “had been born in America,” Eaton presents the reader with a familiar (and sympathetic) portrait of Chinese and Chinese Americans. The first-generation Chinese father’s job—as a jeweler—also produces a reading of Chinese subjects outside the dominant purview of “unskilled sojourners.” And Minnie’s emphasis on “native-born” children gestures to the 1898 United States v. Wong Kim Ark case, wherein a 6–2 Supreme Court decision upheld the jus solis U.S. citizenship of Asian Americans born in the United States.
Additionally, Minnie contrasts her first husband’s directive toward nondomestic employment with her Chinese husband’s acceptance of conventional domestic labor. For example, within “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese,” Minnie seeks outside employment to repay the Liu Jusong family. In response, Liu Kanghi offers a “domestic solution,” suggesting that she work as an at-home embroiderer. This resolution, which marries domestic frame to affective labor, makes socioeconomic sense for Minnie, who happily acquiesces. As Minnie relates,
So gladly I gave up my quest for office work. I lived in the Liu Jusong house and worked for Liu Kanghi. The days, weeks, and months passed peacefully and happily. Artistic needlework had always been my favorite occupation, and when it became a source both of remuneration and pleasure, I began to feel that life was worth living after all. I watched with complacency my child grow amongst the Chinese children. My life’s experience had taught me that virtues do not all belong to the whites. I was interested in all that concerned the Liu household, became acquainted with their friends, and lost altogether the prejudice against the foreigner in which I had been reared. (74)
Maintaining that “virtues do not all belong to the whites,” Minnie directly challenges assertions of white superiority and allegations of Chinese depravity. Simultaneously, by enabling nonalienated labor, Liu Kanghi contradicts a dominant “coolie” image. Minnie recuperates a Victorian notion of family life focused on children, home spaces, and domestic duties. Minnie becomes a “rehabilitated” subject able to engage in her favorite occupation, which in turn foregrounds a feeling “that life is worth living.” In so doing, Minnie’s account revises the Chinese home through legible American (or naturalized) frames.29
As the protagonist watches “with complacency” her child’s growth in a Chinese household, Minnie loses “altogether the prejudice against the foreigner,” highlighting the degree to which she has been naturalized (by progressive politics) into the Liu Jusong home. Armed with a transformed racial view, Minnie’s new outlook is structured by means of familiarity, family, and affective moral virtue. Amid a more traditional backdrop of gender roles and practices, Eaton situates Liu Kanghi, the Chinese husband, within a middle-class imaginary composed of conservative family politics. In deliberate contrast, James—the would-be First Wave Feminist/first husband—operates outside a conventional political milieu. All the same, though James may seem “progressive” in relation to “the woman question,” he is less so on the “Chinese question.” Strikingly, when Minnie refuses to reconcile, James threatens legal action, telling his ex-wife that she “has sunk. . . . The oily little Chink has won you” (76).
If James is a conservative with regard to the “Chinese question,” then Minnie is an outright progressive. As the protagonist retorts,
Won me! . . . Yes, honorably and like a man. And what are you that dare sneer at one like him. For all your six feet of grossness, your small soul cannot measure up to his great one. You were unwilling to protect and care for the woman who was your wife or the little child you caused to come into this world; but he succored and saved the stranger woman, treated her as a woman, with reverence and respect; gave her child a home, and made them both independent, not only of others but of himself. Now hearing you insult him behind his back, I know, what I did not know before—that I love him, and all I have to say to you is, Go! (76–77)
Affectively couched, Minnie’s reply returns to the question of “why” with regard to her marriage to Liu Kanghi. But the order of this latter justification is reversed—instead of beginning with a declaration of love, Minnie concludes with it. In naturalizing fashion, Minnie’s declaration of love enables a repudiation of her past “American husband” in favor of her “Chinese husband.” Tellingly, the protagonist’s response to her “American husband” generates a reading of the “Chinese husband” through masculinist virtue. Accordingly, Liu Kanghi emerges as an American gender traditionalist despite his initial foreignness. Unlike James, Liu Kanghi is willing and able to “protect and care” for Minnie and her child. Further, he is able to provide permanent domestic refuge (or “home”). Liu Kanghi is also responsible for the protagonist’s “independence,” which attests to a liberation forged not through James’s suffragist agenda but via the “cult of domesticity.” Last but certainly not least, Minnie’s marriage to Liu Kanghi in the concluding portion of “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese” undeniably underscores the connection between family, nation, and naturalization.
Paradoxically, this marriage leaves open the question of Liu Kanghi’s full naturalization. As Minnie admits,
I accept the lot of the American wife of a humble Chinaman in America. The happiness of the man who loves me is more than the approval or disapproval of those who in my dark days left me to die like a dog. My Chinese husband has his faults. He is hot-tempered and, at times, arbitrary; but he is always a man, and has never sought to take away from me the privilege of being but a woman. I can lean upon and trust in him. I feel him behind me, protecting and caring for me, and that, to an ordinary woman like myself, means more than anything else. (77)
As the “American wife of a humble Chinaman in America,” Minnie problematically characterizes (via racist label) her own spousal location. The reinscription of citizenship (American versus Chinese) simultaneously highlights the understanding of nation in the wake of exclusion, citizenship ineligibility, and the Expatriation Act. Minnie repeatedly refers to her second husband as a “Chinese husband,” which confirms her husband’s foreignness. Consequently, it is unclear by the narrative’s conclusion whether or not Minnie considers Liu Kanghi a fully naturalized “American husband.” This marital ambiguity suggests an intimate probationary personhood; such marital citizenships would be accessed more directly (and with a different racial register) in Abraham Cahan’s Yekl: A Tale of a New York Ghetto (1896).
The “Quintessentials of Good Citizenship”: Performing Citizenship in Cahan’s Yekl
They are a harmless race when white men either let them alone or treat them no worse than dogs; in fact they are almost entirely harmless anyhow, for they seldom think of resenting the vilest insults or the cruelest injuries. They are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness, and they are as industrious as the day is long. A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist. So long as a Chinaman has strength to use his hands he needs no support from anybody; white men often complain of want of work, but a Chinaman offers no such complaint; he always manages to find something to do.
—MARK TWAIN, ROUGHING IT, 1871
Evocative of Charles Sumner’s appeal for Chinese inclusion on grounds of industriousness and moral rightness, the “Chinaman” of Mark Twain’s Roughing It is “quiet, peaceable, tractable . . . and . . . industrious as the day is long.”30 Twain produces (racial slur aside) a rehabilitative reading comparable to Edith Maude Eaton’s pro-Chinese narratives. Similarly, he eschews claims of inherent vice, privileging instead an idealized reading of redeemed Chinese personhood. Twain’s characterization brings to light a particular connection between Chinese immigration, discriminatory whiteness, and labor competition. After all, Twain’s Chinese are “a harmless race” especially when contradistinguished from “white men” who refuse to let them alone and complain of want of work.
Less generously, Twain’s Chinese are sentimentalized “coolies” who subsist on work and manage to “always . . . find something to do.” Importantly, the Chinese are not only juxtaposed against other working-class subjects; in the end, Twain claims that they ethically and morally fare better than their white counterparts. Consequently, the American author counters emergent “yellow peril” anxiety (rooted in economic and cultural competition) and dominant claims of alienated Asiatic criminality with a romantic characterization. Twain’s nonthreatening Chinese are both gentle and inoffensive, making possible a strategic casting of Chinese immigrants as de facto nineteenth-century model minorities. Even with the best recuperative intent, Twain’s characterization is largely illegible within the dominant political imaginary of the time, a reading substantiated by soon-to-be-passed legislative acts of anti-Chinese exclusion, prohibition, and regulation.
In the face of such illegibility, Twain would nevertheless return to these “model minority” frames twenty-six years later, though for a decidedly different agenda. Specifically, the renowned writer would focus his attention not on the “Chinaman” but rather the “Jew.” In a September 1899 Harper’s Magazine article titled “Concerning the Jews,” Twain maintained, “the Jew is a good and orderly citizen. Summed up, they certify that he is quiet, peaceable, industrious, unaddicted to high crimes and brutal dispositions; that his family life is commendable; that he is not a burden upon public charities; that he is not a beggar; that in benevolence he is above the reach of competition. These are the very quintessentials of good citizenship.”31 Responding to politics abroad (in France, Austria, and Germany), “Concerning the Jews” criticizes intensifying European anti-Semitism central to foreign threats of expulsion and disenfranchisement. Accused of inciting political unrest, Jewish subjects abroad faced immanent forced relocation, and Twain’s opinion piece confronts this potential deracination by deconstructing “bad citizenship” frames. As an ethnoreligious starting point, Twain examines the “word Jew as if it stood for both religion and race.” Continuing, he addresses and engenders multivalent readings of Jewish personhood. Twain significantly revises his past “model minority” characterization as he moves from redeeming the “Chinaman” to rehabilitating the “Jew.”
Expressly, the author omits any mention to “whiteness,” which underscores the nonreligious dimensions of a 1790/1870 naturalization law that privileged race in the making of new Americans. In particular, Twain notes that “in the United States [the Jew] was created free in the beginning” (emphasis added). Arguing that “the Jew is not a disturber of the peace of any country,” Twain reassembles the tenets of “good citizenship,” as in his 1872 discussion about the Chinese as paragons of U.S. virtue. Committed to family, “unaddicted” to crime, “industrious,” and “peaceable,” Twain’s Jews embody ideal selfhood. Indubitably, Twain’s depiction of “good Jewish citizenship” relies on a parallel racial construction of lawfulness, strong work ethic, and economic acumen.
Divergently, Twain’s emphasis on the Jew as isolated subject—apparent in the article’s title (and its subsequent acknowledgement of exclusionary practices abroad)—brings to the fore Jewish global marginalization vis-à-vis an “otherwise” politics. Though “Concerning the Jews” is directed at foreign frames, the article unavoidably addresses a domestic immigration configured through globalization. Acknowledging anti-Semitism in the United States (predicated largely–the author surmises—on economic competition during the Reconstruction era), Twain, in spite of everything, locates the problem (or “Jewish concern”) elsewhere. In transnational fashion, Twain remarks, “the Jew is being legislated out of Russia. . . . The Jews are harried and obstructed in Austria and Germany, and lately in France; but England and America give them open field and yet survive.”
Maintaining that England and America offer an “open field” and still thrive as nations, Twain explicitly attempts to assuage anxieties about the viability of a Jewish citizenry abroad. Alternatively, the American author implicitly underscores a domestically relevant cause-and-effect relationship: that anti-Semitism abroad is responsible for the present-day en masse relocation of Jewish émigrés to Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City. In mapping the connection between foreign politics and domestic policies, Twain concomitantly challenges characterizations of a “Jewish immigration problem” in the United States, which engaged exclusionary logics manifest in claims of “bad subjectivity” and inassimilability.
Purposely and temporally situated amid such U.S. fears of alien inassimilability and bad citizenship, Twain’s declaration of ideal selfhood challenges existing U.S. legislative “solutions,” which attempted to contain undesirable personhood (such as that of Chinese immigrants and other newly arrived bodies) via prohibition, taxation, and categorization. For instance, three months after the restrictive Chinese Exclusion Act, Congress passed immigration legislation that levied a fifty cent tax on all “aliens” entering the United States. Armed with a classification agenda, the August 3, 1882, act carried an added regulatory provision: entry denials for “convicts (except those convicted of political offenses), lunatics, idiots, and persons likely to become public charges.”32 Within this multisided context, Twain’s emphasis on the “quintessentials of good citizenship” therefore references regulatory impulses in immigration policy and tactically elevates Jewish personhood precisely through model minoritization.
In highlighting Old World problems and romantic personhood, Twain simultaneously undercuts New World polemics such as the “immigration question,” which undoubtedly concerned Jewish (inclusive of eastern and southern European) migration. After all, the “immigration question” (unlike the analogous “Chinese question”) was not limited to one specific group. Even so, it did encompass the majority—if not all—of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe and Russia. Moreover, though Jewish subjects were granted access to naturalization, the issue of assimilation and worthy selfhood continued to “haunt” (drawing briefly from Donald Weber’s work) immigrants in the New World.33 Such immigration debates and naturalization frames are certainly at play in Abraham Cahan’s Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), which is both a “tale” of New York and (to a lesser extent) a tense, nostalgic story about Russia.
Unlike Twain’s universal characterization, Cahan’s novella individualizes—through its titular protagonist—the flow of immigrant bodies from Europe. As Robert M. Dowling argues, Yekl was significant in part because it was the first account written “by a Lower East Side insider and set in that district with fellow insiders as protagonists. In it, Cahan dissects the motives and tendencies of two immigrant Jews in New York whose stories were paradigmatic of the eastern European immigration experience.”34 Further, if Edith Maude Eaton directly answered the “Chinese question” and the “women’s question” in clearly delineated stories about Chinese immigrants, then Abraham Cahan’s Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto critically engages the “immigration question” and the “great ethnic question” via ambiguity and open-endedness.35
Invested in the “quintessentials of good U.S. citizenship,” Cahan’s eponymous protagonist negotiates the contested terrain of culture and nation. However, in order to invest, Yekl must simultaneously disinvest in the country of origin. Such back-and-forth movements between investment and disinvestment produce an immigrant identity crisis forged in (and ultimately meditated through) the crucible of naturalized citizenship. Despite Yekl’s declarations of U.S. superiority, he remains involuntarily and perpetually tied (via culture and family) to the country of origin. As Yekl moves away from “old country” family and practice, his partially naturalized self continues to exist at the margins. In the end, Yekl’s selfhood is simultaneously conditional and probationary, an unfinished and haphazard assemblage of “quintessentials.”
The protagonist’s bifurcation—between immigrant and would-be American—is at once established by means of names and through a transnational cartography. The first chapter, titled, “Jake and Yekl,” initially suggests two primary characters.36 This expectation is soon subverted when the reader is introduced to Jake. As the unidentified, omniscient narrator later relates, “It was some three years before the opening of this story that Jake had last beheld that very image [of his wife and child] in the flesh. But then at that period of his life he had not even suspected the existence of a name like Jake, being known to himself and to all Povodye—a town in northwestern Russia—as Yekl or Yekele.”37 Yekl/Yekele is thus an a priori figure (from “some three years before”). Comparing “a name like Jake” to Yekl or Yekele, the narrator underscores the protagonist’s titular naturalization. This nominal past/present binary is directionally matched—Yekl/Yekele is “northwestern” whereas Jake is “southeastern” (the Lower East Side).
If “old country” Yekl does not suspect the existence of a name like Jake, then “new country” Jake is likewise uncomfortable with his past self. According to the narrator, “Three years had intervened since he had first set foot on American soil, and the thought of ever having been a Yekl would bring to Jake’s lips a smile of patronizing commiseration for his former self. As to his Russian family name, which was Podkovnik, Jake’s friends had such rare use for it that by mere negligence it had been left intact” (12). Indicative of naturalized self-loathing, Jake has developed a “patronizing” relationship to his “former self,” marked by condescension and dismissal. Unsettled by the “thought of ever having been a Yekl,” the narrator typifies a successional immigrant narrative, inclusive of allusions to U.S. rebirth and revision. Though the protagonist retains his Russian surname (Podkovnik), Jake and his friends have such rare use for it that it has been neglected and ignored. Like his wife and child (who also carry his surname), Jake’s last name is an “absent presence,” a transnational reminder of former selves and affiliations nevertheless left intact.
Despite connotations of wholeness (or intactness), Jake is principally a composite figure. Composed of a “little sweltering assemblage,” the garment factory workplace resonates with Jake’s selfhood, which is similarly assembled in piecemeal fashion (1). According to the unidentified omniscient narrator, “He [Jake] had been speaking for some time. He stood in the middle of the overcrowded stuffy room with his long but well-shaped legs wide apart, his bulky head aslant, and his bared mighty arms akimbo. He spoke in Boston Yiddish, that is to say, in Yiddish more copiously spiced with mutilated English than is the language of the metropolitan Ghetto in which our story lies” (2). Jake’s “Boston Yiddish” speech, “copiously spiced with mutilated English,” represents a transnational amalgamation. Nevertheless, this linguistic mixture is far from complete or indistinguishable. Instead, suggestive of an additive, the spiced affect of Yekl/Jake’s language, distinctively “Boston Yiddish,” is incongruous within the metropolitan Ghetto (the Lower East Side). Still, it is the Yiddish—not the English—that is copiously spiced, bringing to light the invasive quality of the latter. Cahan reverses an assimilative U.S. trajectory wherein the foreign is subsumed by the domestic. In this case, Yiddish is the principal ingredient in the transnational recipe of Boston Yiddish, and English is both mutilated and ancillary.
The resilience of Yiddish disrupts the cohesion of Jake’s American performance, betraying a priori cultural ties. Such a rupture is dramatically revealed in an earlier exchange between Jake and his audience of coworker/compatriot workers. Jake declares, “Once I live in America . . . I want to know that I live in America. Dot’sh a kin’ a man I am! One must not be a greenhorn. Here a Jew is as good as a Gentile. How, then, would you have it? The way it is in Russia, where a Jew is afraid to stand within four ells of a Christian?” (5). From the outset, Jake conflates geography, culture, and politics in his monologue, and brings to light his desire to not only reside in the United States but also to comprehend through experience what it means to be American.
The juxtaposition of correct grammar and accented, italicized English (Dot’sh a kin’ a man I am!) produces a bilingual Yiddish and English speech act (evocative of Eaton’s “In the Land of the Free” translation). This reading is explicitly confirmed within the text, which carries the following footnote: “English words incorporated in the Yiddish of the characters of this narrative are given in italics” (2). Accordingly, Cahan’s Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto is a translated text that engages transnational linguistic, cultural, and political frames. All the same, such transnational frames are undermined by a protagonist principally invested in U.S. citizenship and vociferously disinvested in Russian selfhood. Indeed, Jake imperatively points out that one “must not be a greenhorn,” dismissing outright the inexperienced newcomer unfamiliar with U.S. customs and practices.
Moving from culture to politics, Jake privileges a religion-blind tolerance, apparent in the proclamation that “Here a Jew is as good as a Gentile.” In line with Mark Twain’s “Concerning the Jews” (published a mere two years after Yekl), Jake’s declaration of U.S. equality calls attention to a very real anti-Semitism in Russia. However, when examined vis-à-vis “separate but equal” logics in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Jake’s assertion of alleged universal equality falls short. Concurrently, Jake’s assertion of ethnoreligious parity reinforces an implicit (albeit probationary) whiteness. Imbued with U.S. exceptionalism, the protagonist indirectly delineates Yekl the immigrant from Jake the settler. Whereas the former must contend with Old World anti-Semitism, the latter is afforded equal standing with his gentile counterpart.
In line with such declarations to idealized U.S. nationhood, and despite the persistence of transnational accents, Jake repeatedly engages naturalization performances. As is apparent in the previous discussion, the novella’s performative dimensions are supported by the narrator’s attention to Jake’s stance, location, and arm movement (“He stood in the middle of the overcrowded stuffy room with his long but well-shaped legs wide apart, his bulky head aslant, and his bared mighty arms akimbo”). Such specificity calls to mind stage directions; this dramatic reading is corroborated following a dispute Jake has with coworker, Meester Bernstein over the merits of American prize fighting. As the narrator relates, the two are interrupted by a female coworker (the “comely, milk-faced blond” Fanny), prompting “the theatrical pair [to break] off their boasting match to join” the ongoing debate about “the American cause” (4).
If Jake resembles a theatrical performer, he is also a seasoned naturalization actor who willingly defends his new home country via a patriotic “American cause,” inclusive of a virtuous discussion of American authority in sport and politics. Still, Jake’s citizenship performance is challenged by his audience, who undermine the protagonist’s self-celebratory claims of U.S. exceptionalism and superiority. Responding to Jake’s declaration of U.S. preeminence, the abovementioned Bernstein interjects, “America is an educated country, so they won’t even break bones without grammar. They tear each other’s sides according to ‘right and left.’ . . . I do think a burly Russian peasant would, without a bit of grammar, crunch the bones” (4). Noting that Americans “won’t even break bones without grammar,” Bernstein introduces a set of rules that in the end are meaningless in a boxing ring, wherein all that matters is the physicality of “a burly Russian peasant.”
On another level, Bernstein’s grammatical insinuation furthers a naturalized reading. The very notion of grammar carries with it a specific set of rules for speech and citizenship acts. Likewise, the Bernstein/Jake argument reflects the basic rhetorical structure for U.S. citizenship, which requires a repudiation (or battle) between two opposing sides. Such naturalized wordplay is accessed when Bernstein accuses Jake of being a false “Yankee.” As Jake’s early foil asserts, “He thinks that shaving one’s mustache makes a Yankee!” (6). The term “Yankee,” indicative of a native or resident of the United States, resembles Jake’s “Boston Yiddish,” which was born in New England and transplanted to the Lower East Side. The argument escalates between Bernstein and Jake, culminating in the former’s accusation that the protagonist is uneducated. Angry and hurt, Jake “felt wretched. He uttered an English oath, which in his heart he directed against himself as much as against his sedate companion, and fell to frowning upon the leg of a machine” (7), The oath—reflexively conceived and directed “against himself as much as against his sedate companion”—foreshadows a profound identity crisis (or “wretchedness”) within Jake/Yekl.
This personhood predicament (of being interstitially located between two worlds) is for the most part exposed vis-à-vis Jake/Yekl’s familial obligations, which include a Russian wife (Gitl) and son (Yossele). Prior to the novella’s opening, Jake has spent the previous three years performing the role of a bachelor. To that end, Jake has kept the “narrative fact” of his marriage a secret from co-workers and a potential love interest, fellow Jewish immigrant Mamie. It is only after news of his father’s death—and his grieving mother’s subsequent wish that Jake/Yekl be reunited with spouse and son—that the protagonist is forced to reconcile his bachelor present with his marital past. Correspondingly, the collision between “Old World” and “new country” shifts the story’s focus. In particular, this family plot transforms Cahan’s novella from prototypical immigrant narrative (culminating in successful amalgamation) into conflicted narrative of Americanization and concomitant naturalization.
In so doing, Yekl reengages a transnational focus by means of family frames. And, despite the passage of three years, Jake maintains a nostalgic familial connection. As the narrator observes, “if his attachment for the girls of his acquaintance collectively was not coupled with a quivering of his heart for any individual Mamie, or Fanny, or Sarah, it did not, on the other hand, preclude a certain lingering tenderness for his wife” (25). This “certain lingering tenderness” suggests a sentimentality that is idealized, abstracted, and ultimately nostalgic. Though Jake’s “wife had long since ceased to be what she had been of yore,” she nevertheless emerges “from a reality . . . [that had] gradually become transmuted into a fancy” (25). The wife’s transmutation from reality to fancy evokes an alchemy rooted in distance and maintained through the passage of time. On another level, such transmutation partially mirrors Jake’s own transformation from greenhorn to imagined “American.”
Nevertheless, what begins as a fanciful remembrance quickly takes a decidedly unsentimental, realistic turn. Like Eaton, Cahan explicitly mentions the bureaucratic immigration process. To that end, the narrator relates, “A few weeks later, on a Saturday morning, Jake, with an unfolded telegram in his hand, stood in front of one of the desks at the Immigration Bureau of Ellis Island. . . . All the way to the island he had been a flurry of joyous anticipation. The prospect of meeting his dear wife and child, and, incidentally, of showing off his swell attire to her, had thrown him into a fever of impatience” (34). Tellingly, Jake’s family reunification takes place on the Sabbath (Saturday) and at Ellis Island, which signals the protagonist’s secularism and his family’s immigrant status. Despite the potential for sentimentality (hearkening back to Eaton’s “In the Land of the Free”), the family reunion is largely anticlimactic. Jake is at first in a “flurry of joyous anticipation” because of the prospect of meeting his wife and child. However, romantic frames are undercut by Jake’s impatient capitalist desire, emblematized by his enthusiasm to show off his swell attire. Hence, the very notion of “prospect” shifts from a benign reading of futurity to a more self-interested financial enterprise.
Jake’s capitalist investment speaks to a “quintessential” U.S. citizenship, predicated on a belief in free market economies, consumption, and supposed American superiority. In contrast, Gitl is representative of a bucolic Russia that fits uneasily within New York urbanity and capitalist-driven modernity. According to the narrator, Jake
caught a glimpse of Gitl and Yossele through the railing separating the detained immigrants from their visitors, and his heart sank at the sight of his wife’s uncouth and un-American appearance. She was slovenly dressed in a brown jacket and skirt of grotesque cut, and her hair was concealed under a voluminous wig of a pitch-black hue. This she had put on just before leaving the steamer, both in honor of the Sabbath and by way of sprucing herself up for the great event. (34)
Uncouth, slovenly, and—most important—“un-American” in appearance, Gitl emblematizes Jake’s previously spurned “greenhorn” characterization. Correspondingly, if Jake is the representative immigrant-turned-Yankee, then Gitl becomes his uncouth and un-American antithesis. Such an antithetical relationship is evident to an unnamed immigration official, who was so struck by “the contrast between Gitl and Jake . . . that [he] wanted to make sure—partly as a matter of official duty and partly for the fun of the thing—that the two were actually man and wife” (35).
As the couple leaves Ellis Island, Jake is profoundly disappointed and disparages both Gitl and his son, Yossele. The narrator relates, for example, that:
presently . . . the illusion took wing and here he was, Jake the Yankee, with this bonnetless, wigged, dowdy-ish little greenhorn by his side! That she was his wife, nay, that he was a married man at all, seemed incredible to him. The sturdy, thriving urchin [Yossele] had at first inspired him with pride; but as he now cast another side glance at Gitl’s wig he lost all interest in him, and began to regard him, together with his mother, as one great obstacle dropped from heaven, as it were, in his way. (36)
Incredulous and simultaneously disinterested, “Jake the Yankee” explicitly dissociates from “Yekl the Russian.” On one level, the unidentified narrator telegraphs Jake’s disbelief that a familial connection exists between “dowdy-ish greenhorn” Gitl and his “urchin” son. Such doubt is rooted in a transnational disavowal, wherein Yankee Jake renounces family—and, by extension, Russia—through disinvestment, or “no interest.”
On another level, this renunciation acquires significance when placed adjacent to naturalized citizen and nation. Collectively characterized as a “great obstacle dropped from heaven,” Gitl and Yossele embody not only the proverbial Old World but (more important) Jake’s intimate connection to that imaginary. If, as Robert G. Lee maintains, the family stands in for the nation, then Gitl and Yossele (along with patriarch Jake) symbolize a transnational, albeit unstable, combination of U.S. and Russian nationhood.38 Incompatible with U.S. naturalization law, such multivalent citizenship is illegible vis-à-vis requirements of absolute repudiation. Jake’s privileging of Americanness—in contrast to his family’s alienness—makes the latter a “great obstacle” for the former. To be sure, this mixed-nation combination proves predictably explosive and destructive, as Jake and Gitl’s marriage dissolves along a naturalization axis.
Such dissolution takes the form of composite U.S. citizenship “quintessentials.” Impelled and compelled to naturalize his family, Jake charges himself with the task of domestic Americanization. As a starting point, Jake at once orders his wife and child to speak English in the home and wear “American” clothes. Demanding his wife address him as “Jake,” the protagonist nominally naturalizes his wife and son with the seemingly more “American” names Goitie and Joey. Tellingly, Gitl’s new name—“a word phonetically akin to Yiddish for Gentile”—reinforces Jake’s secularist, naturalization agenda (41). In the face of Jake’s e pluribus unum mission, the unnamed narrator nevertheless reinscribes a Russian familial affiliation. Accordingly, Jake’s wife is referenced as “Gitl” and not “Goitie.” This narrative employment of Gitl’s “old country” name contrasts with the protagonist, who is by and large referred to as “Jake.”
Even with Jake’s totalitarian attempts to naturalize Gitl, she fails to live up to her “Yankee” husband’s expectations. As a result, Jake repeatedly repudiates his wife on the grounds that he is an “American feller” and that she is a lowly “greenhorn.” Invested in all things American, Jake slowly but surely disinvests in Gitl and Yossele, who become unwanted foreign goods. In contrast, fellow Jewish immigrant Mamie (who, by the novella’s conclusion, will become Jake’s second wife) is very much “American made.” Continuing in a materialistic vein, Jake idealizes Mamie because (according to the protagonist) she dresses and “speaks English like one American born” (52). Indeed, Mamie emerges as the focus of Jake’s commodity fetish. In turn, this fetish is chiefly embedded in a desire (drawing from an earlier moment) to “know that he lives in America.” As the novella time and again reveals, such “knowing” is based on legible American performances, including speech and custom.
Purportedly adept at using American idiomatic expressions, wearing contemporary American styles, and armed with fluency in English, Mamie is Jake’s aspirational selfhood counterpart. All the same, the unnamed narrator intervenes and undermines Jake’s reading of Mamie through “quintessentials” of naturalization. Indeed, when Mamie is introduced, she is “a girl with a superabundance of pitch-black side bangs,” which ironically foreshadows Gitl’s “greenhorn” wig. Although Jake professes that Mamie “speaks English like one American born,” she is nonetheless marked by foreign accent and affect. Responding to Jake’s invitation to dance, Mamie dismissively asserts, “Dot slob again? Joe must tink if you ask me I’ll get scared, ain’t it? Go and tell him he is too fresh.” The narrator concedes that like “the majority of the girls in the academy, Mamie’s English was a much nearer approach to a justification of its name than the gibberish spoken by men” (19). Though her English is “a much nearer approach,” Mamie remains (like Yekl) an accented, composite subject.
If Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto begins with a protagonist invested in the “quintessentials” of naturalized citizenship, it fittingly ends with the naturalization of its most “foreign” elements. To be sure, Jake’s greenhorn ex-wife Gitl is transformed in spectacular American fashion. As the narrator describes, “her general Americanized makeup, and, above all, that broad brimmed, rather fussy, hat of hers nettled him [Jake]. It seemed to defy him, as if devised for that purpose” (84). Bothered by Gitl’s appearance, Jake is confronted with the mundane dimensions of Americanization. No longer exceptionally “American,” the protagonist is momentarily confronted by the possibility that any subject can gain access to U.S. selfhood, including the seemingly “un-naturalizable” Gitl.
What is more, if Jake is “nettled” by Gitl’s Americanization, he is also—true to character—paradoxically drawn to it. In the novella’s final moments, Jake and Mamie make their way to City Hall, where the two will presumably obtain a marriage certificate. As Jake reflects,
What if he should now dash into Gitl’s apartment and, declaring his authority as husband, father, and lord of the house, fiercely eject the strangers, take Yossele in his arms, and sternly command Gitl to mind her household duties. . . . But the distance between him and the mayor’s office was dwindling fast. Each time the car came to a halt he wished the pause could be prolonged indefinitely; and, when it resumed its progress, the violent lurch it gave was accompanied by a corresponding sensation in his heart. (84)
Circumscribed by multiple types of “return,” the above passage underscores Jake’s transnational ambivalence. On one level, Jake expresses a temporal desire to return to the past. This wish to “go back” coincides with a domestic reimagining of familial relationships. To that end, Jake momentarily embraces traditional roles as “husband, father, and lord of the house.” Reminiscent of The Odyssey, Jake assumes the role of Odysseus, who analogously “ejected strangers” upon returning from an epic journey. Needless to say, it is Jake’s own desire to “know America” that has led him astray, and such a “what if” return is impossible.
Equally, Jake engages an a priori “Yekl” identity, for his nostalgic reenvisioning incorporates Russian—and not American—names (that is, Gitl and Yossele). The employment of former names counters the protagonist’s previous (domestic) directive to speak English and use American names. Further, Jake’s desire for return embodies a sentimentality, emblematized by a “sensation in his heart,” that underscores the protagonist’s reinvestment in Gitl. Nevertheless, in a story concerned with speculation and exchanges, Jake is ultimately caught within a bind wherein he is unable to return what he has purchased.39 Desirous of all things American, the seemingly naturalized Jake has effectively traded his Russian past for a U.S. present.
Invested in appearances, or “quintessentials,” Jake has bought—via his impending marriage to the more naturalized Mamie—an American household complete with an American wife. And, suggestive of a naturalization ceremony, Jake and Mamie’s imminent (and public) nuptials require a repudiation of the past and vow to the present. All the same, as the open-ended conclusion affectively reveals, it remains unclear whether such investment will lead to anything more than further rupture, mixed feelings, and concomitant disinvestment. And Yekl remains a probationary subject, constructed according to conditions that are both within and outside his control.
Yekl’s ending anticipates what Abraham Cahan would later characterize as “ill comport.” Published almost a decade after Yekl, Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) concludes with the eponymous protagonist’s confession that “I can never forget the days of my misery. I cannot escape from my old self. My past and my present do not comport well. David, the poor lad swinging over a Talmud volume at the Preacher’s Synagogue, seems to have more in common with my inner identity than David Levinsky, the well-known cloak-manufacturer.”40 Similarly focused on the Jewish immigrant experience, The Rise of David Levinksy is in large part an expanded version of Yekl. Like Jake, David Levinsky is invested in U.S. selfhood, and the novel explores this desire via cultural and economic exchanges. Though more economically successful than garment worker Jake, cloak-manufacturer David Levinksy nevertheless arrives (in more direct fashion) at the same conclusion. Stressing that his “past and [his] present do not comport well,” David Levinksy underscores an internal tension between his immigrant and American selves. Like to his predecessor, David Levinksy cannot escape “his past self,” despite previous claims to the contrary.
Affectively configured, Yekl and David Levinsky are not so much paragons of American selfhood. Instead, Cahan’s protagonists model the naturalized costs of U.S. citizenship. Further, each titular character makes visible the transnational frames that necessarily undergird the immigrant experience. As the principal source of strife and conflict, such transnational identities militate against the logics of naturalization, which presuppose the ability to shed past selves and privilege a monolithic personhood. Taken together, Cahan’s composite characters are faced with “ill comport” for they are unable to fit neatly within established (and at times conditional) citizenship frames. Though granted access to the U.S. political franchise via naturalization law, Jewish immigrants nonetheless had to negotiate Old World sensibilities (including religion and custom) within a dominant New World schema. In contrast, Edith Maude Eaton’s pro-Chinese narratives (which attest to policies of exclusion, acts of prohibition, and claims of ineligible alienhood) deliberately produce model minority subjects willing—though politically unable—to be made into Americans. As the course of U.S. empire continued into the twentieth century, such transnational allegiances and citizenships would tactically employ model minority frames in the service of foreign policy. Concomitantly, the characterization of undesirable alienhood would become even more pronounced in an increasingly more nativist domestic imaginary.