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Immigrants, Then and Now

Philip Rahv realized what might be called the American dream story for immigrants. But things were different then. He appeared on the New York intellectual scene when Marxist philosophy seemed to provide answers to an America visibly weakened by the Depression, and to a Russia presumably strengthened by the communist revolutions. An aspiring writer could amplify his voice through socialist organizations like the John Reed Club. Serious readers turned to a select number of publications of which Partisan Review became the most prominent. Such a monolithic audience is a thing of the past. Viewership has eroded the place of readership. General readers no longer favor the dense, lengthy articles that appeared in Partisan Review. 

Philip Rahv brought something to the table of American culture that impressed native intellectuals: the wealth and depth of European literature. Internationalism in politics thus came together with an internationalism of literature. In both cases, international meant the Western world. Hardly any notice was paid to voices from Asia, Africa, Latin America, or other developing regions. What many of us today celebrate as multiculturalism did not alter the outlook at Partisan Review. Immigrants or sons of immigrants themselves, the editors had little interest in immigrants from other, non-European countries.  

Rahv and other Jewish intellectuals of his generation were able to assimilate to an extent that is no longer possible for recent immigrant groups. Today Jews are able to fully blend in as Americans. In contrast, Arab immigrants suffer from an Islamophobia that some would claim exceeds the prejudice that Rahv experienced as a Jewish immigrant. Especially since September 11, 2001, suspicions of terrorism join hands with color, racial, class, and ethnic prejudice. Mexicans and other “brown” persons from the South are attacked for taking away jobs from American workers and refusing to learn English. The media vehicles for expressing the hatred of alien groups has intensified and proliferated.

Philip Rahv’s American story is still very relevant in the 21st century, however. It reminds us that historical circumstances at times propel individuals, even seemingly dis-empowered ones, into exceptional and influential positions. Rahv’s story illustrates the extent to which immigrants—not only those who rise to the top, but those in the middle and below as well—enrich their adopted countries culturally and intellectually. The content of that enrichment may have shifted away from Europe, but the undeniable significance of immigrants’ contributions has not changed.

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