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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

12. Migrant

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Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
The writers and works in Unit 12 explore the unfulfilled promises of the American Dream for segments of the population of the United States, especially immigrants and impoverished, dislocated workers. These "migrants" have the greatest confidence in the promises the United States has to offer; yet, ironically, these are the very people often denied access to its bounty. The coexistence of the migrants' disillusionment and their continued faith in the promise of America informs many of these works. Much of the literature of the migrant struggle explores human relationships with the environment and the land, especially in the West. Though modern economic systems tend to look at nature only as a commodity, writers from Thoreau to Viramontes resist or reject that view. Indeed, they are part of a tradition of writers and thinkers who, since the earliest days of the United States, have emphasized a strong bond between people and the land. In the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, this bond gradually loosened, as technology and inexpensive labor allowed those who owned or controlled the land to work it less themselves and turn their energies toward increasing its productivity. Unfortunately, these changes had negative consequences. Poor land conservation practices and a long and severe drought eventually led to the environmental disaster known as the Dust Bowl during the 1930s.

The writers in this unit share an interest in the effects of economic and political systems on workers, writers, and activists. In their works, the losers tend to be ethnic immigrants and unskilled workers, those at the bottom of the hierarchy of business, industry, and American society itself. Many of these workers have been, and remain today, lower-class laborers of color; some are not U.S. citizens. Migrant workers labor at back-breaking picking and planting jobs few white middle-class Americans would want, and even today they are often denied basic employment benefits and rights.

In many ways, the cultural and literary contributions of those labeled "migrants" are just now becoming more broadly recognized. Though Carlos Bulosan gained national popularity during the 1940s as a spokesperson for Filipinos and other immigrants, the House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted him in the 1950s for his socialist activities, and he died in relative obscurity. Other writers in this unit enjoyed more lasting acclaim. John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, for example, still resonates in the American consciousness with its story of a family of "Okies" looking for a better life on the West Coast. Steinbeck's reshaping of the American epic around the family and the worker, instead of around the solitary male hero, marked an important turning point in American literature.

As the writers in this unit show, the stories of the migrant struggle in American literature and American culture are as diverse as the people who live such struggles every day. Helena Maria Viramontes graphically reworks Steinbeck's story of migrant workers in Under the Feet of Jesus, this time through the eyes of a young Latina woman. Viramontes offers a totally different cultural perspective, but she also demonstrates that conditions have only slightly improved for migrants in the fifty years since Steinbeck's novel first appeared. Henry David Thoreau's ecological writing celebrates America, while his call for civil disobedience criticizes its faults. Robinson Jeffers's works convey both his love of the American landscape and his concern about the encroachment of civilization upon this landscape. This unit also explores works by leftist poet Muriel Rukeyser as well as those by Rudolfo Anaya, Tomas Rivera, and Alberto Ríos, who portray the lives of Latinos in the United States.

The literature of the migrant struggle often depicts characters with much stronger connections to the land than those who own it. From Thoreau to Steinbeck to Viramontes, these writers provide keen observations of the cultural changes occurring in the United States, with the rise of complex social structures made more and more possible by emerging technologies such as railroads, factories, and large corporate farms. These writers ask what is lost with this rise of technology and the lessening of direct connections to the land. Migrant workers often lose a sense of home as the agricultural industry envisions them as replaceable and disposable human harvesting-machines. Yet because these workers rely upon their burdensome work with the soil and its products to survive, they perceive the land as their only hope. They partake in the production of America's natural bounty but do not profit from their work. Not surprisingly, many of the texts discussed in this unit portray migrants as outsiders who see America's faults and virtues more clearly than do less marginalized members of American society.

The video, archive, and instructional materials accompanying this unit explore a wide and diverse range of writers who are linked more by theme than by time period. Most of the unit focuses on the period from the 1930s through the end of the twentieth century. The key issues covered are the migrant work force, immigration, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, WPA documentary photography and film, socialism, communism, the rise of unions, and the farm workers movement.

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