Reading, Writing, And History

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POOR COUSINS, by Ande Manners .

Coward, McCann & Geoghegan , 318 pp. $8.95

INVISIBLE IMMIGRANTS, by Charlotte Erickson .

University of Miami Press , 531 pp. $17.50

THE CHILDREN OF COLUMBUS: An Informal History of the Italians in the New World, by Erik Amfitheatrof. Little, Brown and Co. , 416 pp. $9.95

Even before the Statue of Liberty raised her torch over New York Harbor in 1882, millions of men and women from all over the world had poured through American ports over a time span of two and a half centuries, regarding them all as “golden doors” to opportunity, bread, dreams, and whatever else is meant by the term “a better life.”

At the end of the nineteenth century, however, the scale suddenly increased. An annual immigration figure that had rarely exceeded a few hundred thousand began to push toward, and then to top, the million mark, which it did six times between 1905 and 1914. Between 1820 and 1930, it is estimated, over thirty-five million people landed in the United States—part of a gigantic population transplant, a tidal wave of peasants and villagers from economically hard-pressed areas to new frontiers and industrializing regions throughout the world. The areas outside the Western Hemisphere that, during this surge to modernity, provided the greatest numbers of new Americans were Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia, Britain, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Poland, and Greece.

This huge ingathering profoundly affected America’s economy, political patterns, and social style. Its impact spurred men to theorizing and debating, and from the flurry of argument two venerated generalizations emerged. One was that America was a “melting pot,” fusing all races and nationalities into a wholly new culture. Another was that there was a “new” immigration after about 1890, composed primarily of eastern and southern Europeans, and that its members were much harder to Americanize than the “old” immigrants—mainly Britons, Irishmen, Germans, and Scandinavians—had been; more superstitious, clannish, violent, poor, and ignorant.

Both of these long-standing staples of our textbooks are now under at- tack. It is argued that the melting pot did not produce an amalgam, but rather turned everyone into an imitator of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who had arrived first. And it is further held, by many recent scholars, that the “new” immigrants were slow to succeed only because they arrived late at the feast of opportunity and had to live, impoverished, on the crumbs for some time.

Both the clichés and the counterclichés hugely oversimplify the picture. In fact, each wave of migration did find America at a different stage of development and promise. And each national group brought different traditions and outlooks, some helpful and some handicapping, to the task of adjusting to a new life in a strange land. The only way to make sense of the story is to read individual studies of each immigrant community and to make reasoned and reasonable comparisons.

For example, the “invisible immigrants” described by Charlotte Erick’son, senior lecturer in economic history at the London School of Economics, were invisible because, after almost no time in the frontier Midwest, they could scarcely be distinguished from the descendants of the Puritans who settled New England. They were Scots and Englishmen, and their fascinating family letters, which constitute the book, reveal that they were farmers—or artisans who knew how to farm—with a bit of capital to buy land in a country where land was cheap and abundant. Knowing the language, familiar with the religious and other customs of the countryside, they soon became honest yeomen in an age when such were honored as the backbone of the nation and managed to lose themselves quickly among those building America between 1815 and 1860.