Title

Rights of Passage: Immigrant Fiction, Religious Ritual, and the Politics of Liminality, 1899-1939

Date of Award

5-2008

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

English

Major Professor

Mary E. Papke

Committee Members

Thomas Haddox, Carolyn R. Hodges, Charles Maland

Abstract

The novels written by immigrants to the United States during the great wave of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reveal a preoccupation with religious ritual as a major means through which they depict the tensions and dynamics at work in the immigration experience and the confrontation with American culture. This dissertation establishes the significance of religious ritual in novels written by immigrants to the United States between 1899 and 1939, and delineates the important spiritual, social, and political functions such ritual served by way of its special properties. I argue that immigrant writers used ritual as a powerful hieroglyph by which to comment upon the complex connection between the religious, the ethnic, and the political in the life of the immigrant.

The challenges that immigrants faced in their daily lives were ripe to be worked out within the special mechanism of religious ritual. Immigrant life was one of physical hardship, in which the body was debased by racial prejudice, inhumane working conditions, and a squalid living environment, while the voice of the immigrant was often silenced by an inability to speak the dominant language. In addition, the religious immigrant, no matter what religion he or she practiced, confronted a society that challenged preconceived notions of the order of the cosmos and of the ultimate vertical and horizontal obligations of human beings in the world. Thus immigrants faced competing visions of redemption posed by other religions, Americanization, and the pursuit of material success. Immigrant writers continually compress the foregoing concerns into ritual moments in their novels. Ritual, which employs the body as a medium for the expression of religious truth and aesthetically orchestrates physical movements and expressive use of the Word, conferred dignity on the immigrant body, gave voice to the immigrant soul, provided a context in which the immigrant could experience beauty within a poor and often ugly environment, and challenged the immigrant to choose between conflicting visions of redemption within American society.

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