Arthur Gregor was 15 years old when, in the late summer of 1939, he and his family escaped from Vienna, his native city and the place where he had been surrounded by "everything I had taken for granted in my young life." A few days later they docked in New York, where "everything was new to me, new and different." He was an immigrant, and ahead of him lay the long process of adjustment to a new culture, of reaching a new understanding of what "home" and "roots" mean. What he has written more than four decades later is thus an immigrant's painful, searching story:
"If there existed an instrument for regarding the anguish at the loss of the familiar, the deepest attachments, how many times, how many millions of times would such acute disturbances in the sleep of new immigrants have been registered? If there were a way to view these disorders as on an X-ray, would it reveal the harm they have done, the insoluble mass they have caused in the individual's inner life, and the generations that followed? I could not have known then, and it would hardly have eased my pain, that I was feeling what millions must have suffered before me in crowded immigrant slums or even in comfortable lodgings. The immigration I was part of did not live in conditions common for the great waves that had come decades earlier. But regardless of outer circumstances, the inner turmoil had to have been the same."
Perhaps so, perhaps not. The great waves of immigrants in the past had been composed of people who had made a positive decision to seek a new life in the newfound land; the smaller wave of which Gregor was a part was composed largely of people--many of them, like Gregor himself, European Jews--who were fleeing places they did not want to leave in order to save their lives. Having had strikingly different motives for immigrating, the two groups may well have had equally different responses to what they left and what they came to. But surely Gregor is correct that the essential experience of immigration--dislocation, fear and alienation, leading for the fortunate ones to accommodation and understanding--is a universal one, and in telling of his own passage through that experience he makes a valuable contribution to what is a surprisingly small literature for so important a subject.
Gregor's family was prosperous, cultured and close-knit. In Vienna young Arthur "was the perfect specimen of a boy of Viennese bourgeois background," an austere fellow who was "in the process of being finished into a statue, had perhaps already been shaped into one: a statue of middle-European attitudes, past and present . . ." But from across the ocean, in movies and jazz records and magazines, he had sensed the "free spirit" that was America. Arriving at last in the United States, "I wanted the freedom I witnessed," wanted liberation from "outmoded attitudes which, moreover, belonged to a world now in ruins."
His account of his Americanization is sensitive and fascinating. At first he was the only member of his family who spoke satisfactory English, and thus the first to find employment. He began as a delivery boy for a grocer, then became a technician in a dental laboratory and eventually studied engineering. In all of these pursuits he was confronted with American energy, bluster, modernity, materialism and self-reliance--the mixed blessings, that is, of his new home--and in all of them he found himself a stranger:
"Even the ordinary details of daily life were foreign. We were free but our joy in being so was soon crowded out by the differences in customs and external conditions confronting us. With a shock we found ourselves--as though we had not been saved but had lost the familiar sense of home ground beneath our feet--in an emotional state we had not expected: We were alien, and felt it."
By his own reckoning it took Gregor two decades to come to terms with America, to feel comfortable in it and to achieve at least some degree of the liberation he so deeply desired. It helped that he discovered his true vocation as a poet and that he succeeded handsomely in it, being widely published and winning critical respect. It helped that he found a career as an editor, ultimately for a number of magazines and publishing houses, and that he became an accepted member of the literary community. It helped, he says, that in India he found spiritual rejuvenation and self-awareness.
That his account of his sojourn in India struck me as the only unsatisfactory section in an otherwise admirable book may have less to do with the tale he tells than with my own aversion to gurus, swamis and medicine men. Whatever the case, the rest of "A Longing in the Land" is an exceptionally thoughtful examination of the ambiguous situation that is, for a time at least, each immigrant's lot. Gregor has managed to find universal implications in his individual story, and to make a persuasive case for them.