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How to Become an American

A History of Immigration, Assimilation, and Loneliness

Daniel Wolff

Published: Dec 13 2022




Published: Dec 13 2022

OA Ebook
Published: Dec 13 2022


The inclusion of this book in the Open Carolina collection is made possible by the generous funding of

An odyssey from pre-Civil War Charleston to post-World War II Minneapolis through Jewish immigrants' eyes

The histories of US immigrants do not always begin and end in Ellis Island and northeastern cities. Many arrived earlier and some migrated south and west, fanning out into their vast new country. They sought a renewed life, fresh prospects, and a safe harbor, despite a nation that was not always welcoming and not always tolerant.

How to Become an American begins with an abandoned diary—and from there author Daniel Wolff examines the sweeping history of immigration into the United States through the experiences of one unnamed, seemingly unremarkable Jewish family, and, in the process, makes their lives remarkable. It is a deeply human odyssey that journeys from pre-Civil War Charleston, South Carolina, to post-World War II Minneapolis, Minnesota. In some ways, the family's journey parallels that of the nation, as it struggled to define itself through the Industrial Age. A persistent strain of loneliness permeates this story, and Wolff holds up this theme for contemplation. In a country that prides itself on being "a nation of immigrants," where "all men are created equal," why do we end up feeling alone in the land we love?

Daniel Wolff is an award-winning author of numerous books, including Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 and The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back.

"How to Become an American is a beautiful book. At its conclusion, we feel an intimate connection with the diary's author and her family, and we may even see our own family's history reflected in her experience—a very personal story that could belong to any Jewish American family."—Jewish Book Council

"A powerful, mesmerizing story of what it means to uproot your whole life and become a citizen in an energetic, often unwelcoming new country. Using family letters, photographs, and a light green diary, author Daniel Wolff brings to life the absorbing saga of an unnamed Jewish family as they face tumultuous events in a raw, young nation. Moving from Bohemia to the American South, the family's definition of citizenship is continually redefined, impacted by Civil War, Reconstruction, the Great Depression, a pandemic, and World Wars. Along the way, the immigrants ask what it means to be an American (and when, exactly, will you become one). They grapple with racism, reversals of fortune, a relocation to the Midwest, a family betrayal, and the undertow of loneliness. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, Wolff has written an American masterpiece."—Michael Lee West, author of Mad Girls in Love, Crazy Ladies, American Pie, She Flew the Coop, and Consuming Passions

"Would that we had more such diaries, found treasures, which expand what we know and how we understand the vast human drama of immigration. Beyond the well known personal narratives and troves of statistics, How to Become an American takes us, scholars and general readers as well, on an intimate journey into the experiences of a single individual who never expected that the story would be available to so many strangers, long decades after she lived and endured."—Hasia Diner, Director, Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, New York University

"Authenticity and lyricism draw the reader on the journey that becomes a tale of Everyman, or Everywoman, striving to become American and overcome the existential loneliness that motivates the narrator. Compelling events, astutely observed and presented with literary flair, drive Daniel Wolff's writing from start to finish."—Dale Rosengarten, founding curator of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston

"In this inspired work, Daniel Wolff uses the diary of an unnamed woman to chart the long history of immigration and acculturation in America. He turns what might be viewed as a familiar story into a lyrical meditation on location and dislocation, love and loss, and what it means to be an American. This is a book about history and memory, a loving work of recovery that achieves what all great books strive for: it allows us to see ourselves in this remarkable woman's story."—Louis Masur, Board of Governors Professor of American Studies and History, Rutgers University

"[W]hat Wolff did with this diary is extraordinary: he used it to weave together a multigenerational story of the immigrant experience, the American experience, and the Jewish experience"—Jewish Book Council

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