Sunday, June 25, 2006

Examining the immigration question through literature

I haven't been following the great debate going on currently in this country concerning immigration too closely, but given the fact that there's something about it in newspapers and on TV news shows every day, it's sort of hard to miss. It's one of these "hot potato" topics that cuts particularly close to the American bone, so to speak, since ours is in truth a nation of immigrants and the descendents of immigrants -- it's part of who we are. And yet, leaving our borders wide open so that anyone who so desires can come and live and work here will certainly encourage, if not virtually guarantee, our enemies to come onto our soil and attack us. A few short years ago such an idea would have been laughed away... but as we all know, we live in a different world now since the Towers fell and the Pentagon burned.

Which is why a 1995 novel written by T. C. Boyle about illegal immigrants living and working in America is getting some renewed attention these days. I've had the novel, called The Tortilla Curtain, on my shelf for a while and knew something of what it was about, and with all the talk of immigration swirling around, I thought it might make for some timely reading and give me an additional perspective/input for my thinking on this sensitive issue. I was also curious to read it because I had read many T. C. Boyle stories, but never one of his novels. As Mutt's previous posts on this blog have indicated, Boyle is not very modest about his talents and gifts, and often lavishly praises his own work. We both find this to be a pretty unattractive trait in a writer, and with this novel in particular, he has gone out of his way (even recently, in the media) to trumpet its prescience, even going so far as to call his own work a "modern classic." So I was pretty curious to read it to see if it lived up to its author-generated hype.

I'm going to put aside, if I can, the significant distaste I feel at Boyle's shameless praising of his own work and try to judge the novel as objectively as I can, especially in light of the national conversation going on now about immigration. It is, in all fairness, a well-written, very readable, sensitive and provacative novel. It is well worth reading at this exact time because it raises many interesting questions about illegal immigrants in this country -- what exactly should their place be in this society? How much amnesty and grace should be extended to them? How far should we go to try and understand their plight, the situations from which they are attempting to escape? Where do we draw the line between compassion for the downtrodden and security for the country? How much of our own pool of resources should we be willing to share with them, if they are not here as legal citizens? Should we be paying for their healthcare? Their education? Their housing? The questions go on and on and on. Boyle creates a credible, fictional context within which these and many other questions can be explored.

There is, actually, a rich tradition of fiction in this country that looks at the plight and treatment of immigrants and migrant workers within the fabric of American society. I have been thinking about this while reading Curtain, and have realized that there have been many great and admirable books that have addressed some of the same issues that Boyle is addressing. The books that spring immediately to mind are John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (not so much about immigrants per se, but about the treatment of poor workers who migrate from the Dust Bowl regions in the American heartland to California -- many of the moral issues are the same, however) and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (about the poor immigrants who work in the Chicago meatpacking plants). Both are bona fide American classics (not because their authors have claimed them as such, but according to the wisdom of the populus and their successful passing of the test of time), and have much that is important to say about the way we treat (and exploit) outsiders and the way we as a society tend to isolate ourselves in communities of those who have and those who have not (and how badly the "haves" want things to stay that way).

But there have been other great works and great writers in this country who have brought these themes to our attention. The lesser-known but pioneering writer Frank Norris wrote a series of novels around the turn of the century (the last turn, I mean, not the most recent one) about immigrant workers both in California and in Chicago proper (this is before Steinbeck and Sinclair ever did), in works like The Octopus and The Pit. A Norwegian immigrant himself, O.E. Rolvaag wrote an epic of Scandanavian immigrants carving out a life for themselves in the Dakota territories called Giants in the Earth that is still in print today (though not very widely known or read). And there's also a strand of this tradition that examines the lives of poor migrant sharecroppers living and working on plantations and farms in the South, as represented by well-known works such as Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (the latter is not a novel, but still belongs in this group I think).

What's my point in all this? It's just to remind us that sometimes a good way to approach a moral/ethical issue that may be facing our society is to explore worthwhile fiction that has made an effort to examine such topics from an imaginative standpoint. We Americans tend to see fiction, as we tend to see almost everything it seems, as just another form of entertainment... and while good fiction is almost always entertaining, it can also be morally, or even spiritually, instructive. (This is obviously one of the fundamental principles informing and motivating this blog.) Dr. Leon Kass, the former Chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, understood this truth very well, and he raised a lot of eyebrows, both in Washington and in academic circles, when one of the first things he did when he took over the Council was to assign certain classic works of fiction to all of the council members (such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous cautionary tale about the excesses of scientism, "The Birthmark"). But he was working from the exact same presupposition that I am speaking of here -- good fiction has something to teach us, something to say.

Does Boyle's novel belong in this long tradition of American writing about immigration and the plight of the poor? I would say it does, although I would be quick to add that Boyle's writing doesn't have either the rich wisdom or moral depth of a writer like Steinbeck, for example. That's a significant point, because these are some of the very factors (most would contend, I think) that actually make a novel a "classic," and since Boyle has repeatedly trumpeted Curtain as such, I think it's only right to judge the book by these challenging criteria. Every serious novel ought to be judged by such criteria! Will this novel continue to have something important to say to readers well into future generations, and help further the national conversation about immigration and how we ought to treat "the least of our brothers"? We'll see. I certainly think it adds to that conversation now, though, and for that it is to be commended. But there are many other challenging and provocative novels within the American canon that can also add to our understanding of these issues, and they should not be neglected "at such a time as this."

Read in order to live.
-Gustave Flaubert

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

Well, Duke pretty well runs down an entire vein of American literature in a single posting here, the tradition started by the likes of Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair all the way down through this recent novel by T.C. Boyle. It sounds like he tried to be as objective as possible in assessing Boyle's book and that the novel passed the test, in terms of being provocative, informative and interesting. You have to give kudos to Boyle for doing that, if that's what he's done, since not a lot of people were writing novels about this when he did, and now it's become a hot-button issue.

You DON'T have to give him credit for the irritating habit he has of pumping up his own accomplishments and having the arrogance to "step back" - as if this were possible - and look upon his novel as a "modern classic". Boyle doesn't seem to have learned that an artist ought to focus on producing the work and let other people decide how it should be remembered in the course of history. Boyle is an accomplished writer, supremely talented in a lot of ways, but his books cannot possibly measure up to the level of praise he himself seems to heap on to them. He ought to be worried about trying to write novels and stories that match up to his earlier work, which he hasn't in some time.

Having said that, it looks like he's done a great job of illuminating the issue of immigration in 'Curtain', which he has cited as 'by far' his most popular novel. I think they've been trying to turn this into a film for some time too, supposedly a Kevin Costner vehicle, but I guess we can believe it when we see it.