A packed house of about 200 greeted Forward contributor Ilan Stavans and Pete Hamill Thursday night at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side for a discussion of Stavans’s new book, “Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing” (Library of America).
Stavans, who came to the United States in 1985 from Mexico and teaches at Amherst College, described the anthology as “a love letter from my end to a country that is very open and full of wonder, and I appreciate it.”
As editor, Stavans selected more than 100 entries — poems, essays, memoirs, travel pieces — that tell the immigrant experience. He arranged the pieces by “waves of immigration” and spent quite a bit of time deciding the title. “This country is always in the process of becoming,” he said.
Hamill, who wrote the foreword to the new book — and the introduction to “A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward” (W.W. Norton, 2007) — shared his insights about new lives forged in America.
Those insights included:
• Immigrants bring with them their gifts — their food, music, theater, literature — and they change the country. “They don’t come here to sit on the stoop,” he said. “They come here to work.” And to provide better lives for their children.
• Referring to the once-thriving Yiddish theater scene on Second Avenue, he said, “I wish I knew Sholem Aleichem. They had a version of ‘King Lear’ with a happy ending.”
• New York City, he said, is “the capital of people who are not like you. Absorb as much as you can.”
Hamill also told an endearing story of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s first day at the Forverts, the Yiddish forebear of the English Forward. As Hamill tells it, Singer wrote a story about a bill that had passed in Albany. Abe Cahan, the legendary editor, read the piece, and told Singer “follow me.” Together they went to where the newspaper’s printers worked and Cahan gave Singer’s story to a printer to read. When he was finished the printer looked puzzled and said, “What’s this mean to me?”
Cahan’s lesson is an important one for journalists, then and now.