The dynamics between "American" constructions of ethnicity and the aspiration for and resistance to "American" identity are central to this study of several novels marked by their subjects' diverse racial, ethnic, gendered, regional, and class provenance. Beginning with the African-American tradition, I consider how Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859) and James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912) recognize and critique the evolution of race and class politics from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth. These novels, positioned as "bookends" to the troubled history of post-emancipation politics, sharply delineate the problems of self-authorizing "other" voices in dialogue with national identity at the same time that they establish prior historical ground for considering what is at stake in subsequent texts.
The major portion of this study concerns four novels from the 1920s and 1930s, and is drawn from two cultures differently absorbed in the dialogicism of borders--urban Jewish New York and Chicano Texas along the Texas-Mexican border. The texts include Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, Jovita Gonzalez's and Eve Raleigh's Caballero, and Americo Paredes's George Washington Gomez. Among these texts exists a wealth of discourses that constitute rich pre-conditions for current debates on multiculturalism. The juxtaposition of Jewish and Chicano novels suggests parallel problems in cultures marked both by strong religious and secular traditions and by histories of diverse persecutions that finally meet within the contested meaning of Americanization. The worlds these novels reveal assert an ongoing making of an "America" that is fundamentally multicultural in the complex, often fraught negotiation of Anglo hegemony. The uneven parallel between the immigrant Jew who arrives from elsewhere and the colonized Mexican who remains surrounded by colonizers provides variant ways of looking at persistent conceptions of the "New World." If early Anglo mythology has long been dependent on notions of recurrent frontiers harboring "a nation of immigrants" within a consensual state of monologic Anglo hegemony, the shifting continental borders of the U.S. along with the immensity of its ongoing demographic changes have always offered a different model. The ways in which these novels dissect and contest that hegemony give this subject its voice.