Category Archives: Task 3-American Society and Immigrant Experience

Reliving the Jazz-Age and Ethnic Passing: Boardwalk Empire and Martin Scorsese (01 February 2011)

Boardwalk Empire is the title of a new, American television series, screen-written and produced by Terence Winter who is the producer of The Sopranos, that premiered on the new Sky Atlantic channel tonight. What captured my attention most about this television series from its trailer is the fact that it is considered to be the most expensive pilot episode of television history, which is probably due to Martin Scorsese directing the first episode.

I am a big fan of Scorsese’s movies and we also discussed some of his work in class. We examined his depiction of Irish-American ethnicity in his latest gangster film The Departed(2007). I also chose to write an essay on Scorsese’s handling of the themes of identity and ethnicity in the post-9/11 context of The Departed. My in-depth research into the topic of Irish-American identity and ethnicity, from reading the critics like Diane Negra who discusses the formation and application of Irish-American identity and ethnicity pre-and post-9/11, provided me valuable knowledge that is applicable to other texts dealing with Irish-Americans such as Boardwalk Empire.

The Boardwalk Empire series is set in the Prohibition era, which is a period of American history we discussed in class last term. We examined the depiction of immigrants and the immigrant experience in Jacob Riiss’s and Lewis Hine’s photography, and the representation of Irish-American ethnicity in James Cagney’s films The Public Enemy(1931). We also discussed his performance in Angels With Dirty Faces(1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandie(1942). In a similar vein, Boardwalk Empire is also relevant to my research of American society and the immigrant experience because it deals with Irish-Americans immigrants in Atlantic City.

Boardwalk Empire is an adaption of a chapter from Nelson Johnson’s novel Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City. Enuch “Nucky” Thompson, who is based on the historical criminal kingpin, Enoch L. Johnson, is performed by Steve Buscmi who also acted in The Sopranos. This allegorical descendant of Tony Soprano is and will not be the only echo from the series. Unlike The Sopranos, however, the leading villain is not Italian-American, but instead is an Irish-American gangster who is performed by an Italian-American actor with part-Irish ancestry.

Ethnic passing appears to be a recent trend in Scorsese’s filmography as we also see in The Departed, Billy Costigan, an Irish-American state trooper who goes undercover to infiltrate Frank Costello’s mob, performed by the Italian-American actor, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Another of Scorsese’s films that will contain ethnic passing is The Irishman, which has been confirmed as a future release. The Irishman is an adaptation of Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses. Robert De Niro, an Italian-American actor, will play the leading role of the mob assassin, Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran who is believed to have committed 25 or more mob murders, and allegedly killed Jimmy Hoffa, an American labour union leader and author. Joe Pesci and Al Pacino will also star along side De Niro. Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci previously worked together on a trio of gangster movies, Raging Bull(1980), Goodfellas(1990), and Casino(1995), while De Niro and Pacino only shared screen time in Heat(1995) and Righteous Kill(2008).

With that in mind, race, ethnicity and immigration are central concerns of Boardwalk Empire. As a democratic, Nucky Thompson’s power stems from his reliance on the black peoples’ vote. The writers emphasize this in order to convey that Nucky is not a racist, unlike other whites, which may be read as an attempt to deconstruction the history of negative race relations between the Irish-American and African-American communities.


Immigration and ethnicity are conveyed through the multi-ethnic geography of the world of Boardwalk Empire. Atlantic city is an Irish ethnic enclave, New York City is a Jewish ethnic enclave, and Chicago is an Italian ethnic enclave, but things are not as simple as this as the plot reveals.

Margaret Schroeder is an Irish-American immigrant who is undoubtedly one of the best characters on the show. Her rags-to-riches story of rising from nothing is clearly meant to portray an American Dream with a nightmarish streak.

Although the social history of Boardwalk Empire may not be 100% accurate, the true beauty of it is its authentic re-envisioning and perfect replication of a long-gone, pivotal era of American history that is brought back to life with remarkable cinematography. From what I have seen so far, The Sopranos has been reborn. It may be a different era but the rules are the same.

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Gold by Name but None by Nature: Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money.

Although Jews Without Money (1930) is classed as a proletarian novel, I think its admirability is not due to its proletarian nature. This novel is a tribute to the ability of people, in this case especially Jews, who transcend their circumstances in order to create a life for themselves.

Jews Without Money is a pseudo-autobiographical, fictionalized account of Michael Gold’s growing up in the Lower East Side, his conversion to communism that ends with a temporal leap to his present vision of how to liberate oneself from social injustice and poverty. The novel does not contain a coherent narrative, but rather a series of impressionistic snapshots or vignettes of the Jewish immigrant experience, their daily struggle for survival in the inhospitable environment of America. Although their is an absence of subsistence, there is not an absence of community as they band together in order triumph over their conditions, which suggests that materiality does not define their humanity, but rather their spirit.

What is most remarkable about Gold’s novel is his lurid depiction of the conditions of poverty and the underbelly of New York City’s ethnic neighbourhood. Gold captures it all from the criminals, prostitues and gangs to the vile, infestation of bed bugs in the tenements of the Lower East Side. Subsequently, the vivid picture Gold paints has attracted accusations of sensationalism from critics of the novel.

As the tile of the novel suggests, Gold’s objective is to deconstruct the stereotypical image of the rich Jew by narrativizing the poverty-stricken conditions that the majority of Jewish immigrants grew up in.


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Call It Spectacular: Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (16 November 2010)

Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep is a remarkable book, depicting a realistic chronicle of the Jewish immigrant experience in America, through the infantile eyes and stream-of-consciousness of David Schearl. With two intertwining stories, the novel immerses the reader deep in the world of New York’s immigrant ghettos, and David and his family’s daily struggle with attempting to acclimatize to their harsh and foreign milieu.

David’s first experience of America becomes a microcosmic specular reflection of every immigrants’ experience, which we as readers become part of. Reading this book is a willful, submission of one’s mind to the literary mediumship of David’s consciousness, which at first feels peculiar as one readjusts to a puerile perception of the world, but the further one reads the more one becomes enveloped in his state of consciousness. David’s struggle with America, its streets, languages and people become our struggle because as readers we are immigrants or tourists in the foreign world of David’s consciousness. We are reading this novel in our familiar tongue of English, but it is narrated from the perspective of a foreign narrator, who is attempting to comprehend the foreign language and world of America, in Yiddish. Roth turns the scales, by positioning the English-speaking reader in the role of a foreigner, akin to David.

The language of David’s stream-of-consciousness is poetic English, while spoken English is portrayed with a Yiddish inflection. In the Introduction to Call It Sleep, Alfred Kazin claims that “Roth caricatures the terrible English […] in order to bring out the necessary contrast with the Yiddish spoken at home” (xv). This is true to a certain extent, but if we analyse Roth’s use of English closely then an alternative reading may be formed. The language of David’s stream-of-consciousness is Yiddish, but it is translated and written for the reader in English. Therefore, it could be interpreted as not legitimate English or David’s English because he is not communicating his thoughts in English. They are translated into English for us, while the English dialogue in the text is not translated and is spoken in English with a Yiddish lint.

This interplay with language provides a glimpse of the struggle Roth and many other writers of immigrant texts face when attempting to convey a multi-lingual world with a mono- or bi-lingual means of expression. The difficulties of this is also implied further from the semantic ambiguity of the bilingual punning of David’s name, which means different things in Yiddish and Hebrew. In Hebrew, David means ‘beloved’, while in Yiddish David means ‘scissors’.

This role-reversal of native and foreigner is one of the outstanding accomplishments of Roth’s novel, which also evokes the use of these two binaries in American society. Can an American be considered a true native of America, if they are merely descendants of European immigrants who invaded the native land of the indigenous people? Are Americans not all in the same boat (pardon the immigration-connoting pun), with regards being foreigners and immigrants? I find this concept particularly interesting because my research interests include Native American literature and culture, colonialism and post-colonialism.

What is also worth noting about Call it Sleep, in comparison to other immigrant stories, is the juxtaposition of the old world with the new world. David’s infantile amnesia prevents him from fully remembering his country of birth and he is left with only vague memories. His experience of the new world, however, is still foreign, which situates him in the immigrant status as his parents. David’s conceptualisation of the old world is shaped by his parents’ and family’s recollections of it. The subtle contrasts between the old and the new world reveals Roth’s attitudes towards them.

Since the majority of the novel is communicated from David’s perspective, there is an absence of an omniscient narrator to provide us with a total view of the immigrant ghetto of New York City. As readers, therefore, we are provided with a fragmented and restricted view of America and American society.

From the culmination of themes towards the end of the novel, however, critics interpret the railroad tracks scene as a moment of transformation, rebirth or redemption. Hana Wirth-Nesher claims that “David becomes a naturalized American by becoming a Christ symbol (460). This is plausible to the extent that David’s fascination with Christian symbolism and ritual objects that litter the novel. If David’s near-death experience on the railroad tracts could be read as similar to Jesus’s self-sacrifice then this reading could be interpreted negatively as condemning Jesus’s actions. David’s actions if fulfilled could have resulted in his death, which may be classed as suicide, but he failed to achieve divine communion. Therefore, his actions were in vain.

Consequently, Call It Sleep provides an insightful depiction of the immigrant experience, especially the Jewish immigrant experience, in America. Although there are certain scenes in the book that could be edited because they are protracted, overall it is a spectacularly vivid read.

Works Cited

Kazin, Alfred. Introduction. Roth Call It Sleep ix-xx.

Roth, Henry. Call It Sleep. New York: Picador, 1991. Print.

Wirth-Nesher, Hana. “Between Mother Tongue and Native Language in Call It Sleep.” Afterword. Roth Call It Sleep 443-462.


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Cultural Psychology of Immigration (07 October 2010)

While researching the immigrant experience and theories of immigration, I came across an excellent book called Cultural Psychology of Immigrants, edited by Ramaswami Mahalingam with a chapter by Silvia Pedraza on the immigrant experience in America. Pedraza deals with the major question concerning immigrant research that is what factors impel immigration and what can be attained from it? (34). Pedraza questions how to describe this process, whether it is “assimilation, adaptation, integration, incorporation and diasporic citizenship?” (34)

Figure 1: Cultural Psychology of Immigrants Book Cover.
Pedraza also mentions the internal colonialism model that is a major challenge to assimilation theory. The theoretical aim of this model is to delineate the ways in which the experiences of racial minorities like the indigenous people such as Native Americans and the oldest immigrants such as Mexicans, Blacks and Puerto Ricans differentiate from White European immigrants’ experiences at the turn of the century.

The internal colonization model proposes that the experiences of the two groups differed significantly from white European immigrants because their race and colour determined their place and role in the production system they occupied (Pedraza 36; Blauner 400). Proponents of the theory believe this is a result of voluntary and involuntary migration and forced and unforced adoption of cultural values.

The internal colonisation model is relevant to my thesis topic research because I wish to examine how the traumatic effects of colonisation impacts upon Native American identity and culture.

Works Cited

Blauner, Robert. “Internal Colonialism and Ghetto Revolt.” Social Problems 16.4 (1969): 393-408. JSTOR. Web. 07 Oct. 2010.

Pedraza, Silvia. “Assimilation or Transnationalism?: Conceptual Models of the Immigrant Experience in America.” Cultural Psychology of Immigrants. Ed. Ramaswami Mahalingam. New Jersey: Erlbraum, 2007. Print.


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Silent Star Breaks Sweetheart: The Irish-Immigrant Cinderella Story of Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley (1918) (12 October 2010)

Release date: 11 March 1918.
Director: Marshall Neilan (Irish-American).
Starring: Mary Pickford, Norman Kerry and William Scott.

Mary Pickford stars as Amarilly Jenkins, the Irish tenement dweller in the ethnic neighborhood of Clothes-line Alley, as the title of the film suggests. The linking of Amarilly with her ethnic neighbourhood is another example of conveying the ethnic geography of America, and the symbiotic relationship between urban setting and ethnic identity. In the film, the city is coded as a community, but it is also coded as a potentially dangerous place. This is conveyed by the exoticism and threatening nature of Chinatown where Terry gets shot at randomly, which is exemplifies America’s xenophobia from the influx foreign nationalities.

Pickford’s performance vindicates the vast fandom she attracted. Even though she is not performing as the American sweetheart, which is a persona molded by her fans, her star persona shines through Amarilly’s poverty-stricken veneer. Young observes that Pickford associated her Irishness with such virtues as hard working, resiliency, matriarchy and humour (65). These qualities are evident in her role as Amarilly and other characters she played.

The plot of the film is a fish-out-of-water tale with quasi-Cinderella overtones. The upper-class, gentleman falling in love with the poor, working-class girl is a familiar trope that has been rehashed many times since in movies like Pretty Woman(1990) and Maid in Manhattan(2002) to name but a few. Like the majority of movies employing this trope, an event occurs so the path of the poor, working-class woman converges with the upper-class man. This develops in Amarilly when Gordon is taken home by Amarilly after a fight breaks out. The fight scene that Amarilly engages with is comical because Pickford fully embraces the fighting-Irish stereotype. In a humorous and melodramatic fashion she pretends to roll up her imaginary sleeves and punches the air with her fist while jeering on Gordon and the other men as if she were one of the men about to engage in boxing.

This image of the rough-and-tumble, tomboyish Amarilly, which is a symptom of living in the dog-eat-dog world of the immigrant tenement, juxtaposes sharply with the image of the upperclass, social butterfly that Mrs. Stuyvesant Philips’ attempts to create, as part of her upper-class Pygmalion experiment. Amarilly’s make-over involves the washing away of the filth of the tenement, but this process is also an ethnic cleansing, as the defining, physiognomic features of her Irish ethnicity-her wild, frizzy hair-are cleansed, tamed and contorted in order to conform to the WASP stands of beauty and to see if she can be equated with upper-class society.

The differences between the two ethnic groups-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and the poor, working-class Irish immigrants-is accentuated at the society dinner. The dance the Jenkins performed during the dance scene symbolise their Irish ethnic identity and implies the stereotype of the Irish as dancers, which is intermingled with the stereotype of the fighting-Irish from the ‘Round 1’ and ‘Round 2’ inter-titles that are displayed between each round of dancing. Their ability to dance is seen as an innate thing. However, the inability of the society matrons to perform the other’s dance suggests one’s inability to perform another ethnic identity. As can be seen, Amarilly’s make-over doesn’t make her an upper-class, WASP lady because it is inauthentic. Her true ethnic identity cannot be contained under the false facade Mrs. Philips has applied to her. Even though her previous Irish-American comic dress is striped off her and replaced with the frilly dress of civility, her ethnic identity prevails, which suggests that ethnicity transcends materiality, and is not something that can be worn and discarded like a piece of clothing.

This is also apparent from Amarilly’s family who despite having dressed up for the occasion of the dinner, cannot retain the demeanor of upperclass civility for long. Ma Jenkins inadvertently offends one of the matrons by questioning her about if she does laundry and her reaction suggests her working-class background (Young 72).

Ma Jenkins is performed by Kate Price. As well as Pickford, she is a truly amazing character because of her depiction of the stereotypical Irish mother-figure, which is both humorous and sentimental. Her ability to raise a family in a foreign country without a husband demonstrates her resilience and strength, but it is also a reflection of what some immigrant mothers endured. Shannon maintains that Irish immigrants had the “weakest family structure of any of the major European immigrant groups” (81).

Although seriocomic-romance films are not a part of my favorite genre viewing-list, I admire this film for its realistic portrayal of the Irish immigrants’ experience, the film’s setting, which replicates tenement dwellings and the depiction of the prejudicial treatment of immigrants by the upper-class, WASP community, which is predicated on their socioeconomic and ethnic status. In this film, however, Irishness is represented in a certain way, which stems from theatre and vaudeville. Despite the all-too-predictable happy-ending of the film that provides us a glimpse of Amarilly’s life five years into the future, where her clothes and the act of performing leisure time- as they appear to be on a Sunday drive in the country-implies the elevation of her social status from gutter-snipe to Bourgeoise, middle-class, and her assimilation into mainstream American society. Leisure time-the act of retreating to the pastoral-is associated with authenticity because one retreats to the pastoral in order to be renewed. This is apparent in other films such as Deliverance(1972), Grizzly Man(2005) and Into the Wild(2007). In Deliverance the retreat to the pastoral of the remote, Georgia wilderness is an attempt to reassert masculinity, which is a problematic goal as can be seen from the film.

Works Cited & Consulted

Barton, Ruth. ed and intro. Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. Print.

Shannon, Christopher. “The Bowery Cinderella: Gender, Class and Community in Irish-American Film Narrative.” em>Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 77-90. Print.

Young, Gwenda. “Funny Girls: Early American Screen Comdiennes and Ethnicity.” Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 61-76. Print.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wBTg-Qo378&feature=related%5D


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Paradise Alley 06 October 2010

Figure 1: Paradise Alley Book Cover. Amazon. Web. 10 Oct. 2010.

Today I read Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley because it also touches upon issues raised in Gangs of New York. In Gangs of New York, Scorsese focuses on the immigrant experience from a predominantly male centric perspective. While, on the other hand, Baker’s Paradise Alley portrays it from a female perspective with eyewitness immediacy. Baker’s female characters demonstrate moments of early feminism when they unite in a few scenes of terror. These acts of bravery imply that immigrant women require equal amounts of courage and endurance as the men.

Gangs of New York 06 October 2010

Figure 1: Bill the Butcher and Co.


Figure 2: Gangs of New York Poster

Researching Riis’s photography inspired me to re-watch Gangs of New York (2002) again because of Scorsese’s depiction of urban criminality enacted and experienced by immigrants in 19th Century, Lower Manhattan. Paula J. Massood views Scorsese’s films through the lens of ethnic geography, which is the study of ecological and spatial aspects of ethnicity. Massood observes in her essay, “From Mean Streets to Gangs of New York”, that most of Scorsese’s films have a relationship with the city and that these films expose a connection between urban space and ethnicity (77-78). Ethnic geography is evident in Gangs of New York from the ethnic neighbourhood in Five Points, Lower Manhattan where Irish immigrants have created an ethnic residential quarters in order to maintain group cohesiveness.

The protagonist Amsterdam evokes New York City in his voiceover narration as “a city full of tribes and war chiefs” (Gangs of New York). Despite the anarchic inferno of rioting, public hangings, knife throwing exhibitions and bare-knuckle boxing, Amsterdam considers his milieu to be “a cauldron in which a great city might be forged” (Gangs of New York). After the draft riots, the pivotal event in the film, Amsterdam concludes that “our great city was born in blood and tribulation” which emphasizes the contribution of working class immigrants to modern society’s catastrophic birth but also their exploitation in the process. In a review for New York Times, Scott accurately sums up Scorsese’s Old New York as “a gaudy multi-ethnic carnival of misrule, music and impromptu theatre, a Breughel painting come to life” (n. pag.). Scorsese’s film captures the brutality involved in the forging and evolution of this country into a cultural and ethnic melting pot or what Travis Bickle from Taxis Driver (1976) calls a boiling cauldron. Akin to the bloody aftermath of the discovery of America, the birth of the American nation is baptised by the blood of fighting immigrants.

Works Cited

Massood, Paula J. “From Mean Streets to Gangs of New York: Ethnicity and Urban Space in the films of Martin

Scorsese.” City that Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination. Ed. Murray Pomerance. New York: Rutgers, 2007. Print.

Scott, A. O. “Gangs of New York Film Review: To Feel A City Seethe.” New York Times. 20 Dec. 2002. Web. 06 Oct. 2010.