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Reading, Writing, And History

June 2024
5min read

by Ande Manners .

Coward, McCann & Geoghegan ,
318 pp. $8.95

by Charlotte Erickson .

University of Miami Press ,
531 pp. $17.50

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.

There is a world of contrast in the story of the two and a half million Italians who came here between 1890 and 1930, as it is set forth by Erik Amfitheatrof, a writer with Time-Life Books. There had been a trickle of substantial and distinguished Italians before that first date (such as Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist for The Marriage of Figaro , or Luigi Di Palma di Cesnola, first director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). And there was, after 1890, a small number of Italian newcomers who could buy farm land—and work it beautifully—in such old places as New England and such new ones as California. But most Italian immigrants were from southern Italy, escaping from appalling rural poverty and bringing with them folk memories of ten centuries of occupation and exploitation. The only work available to them, for the most part, was with pick and shovel, building the skyscrapers, subways, streetcar lines, sewers, waterworks, and roads of urbanizing America. Crowded by necessity into the poorest tenement districts, they were often unthinkingly condemned as undesirable, unhealthy, and uncivilized “dagos.” Clinging to their own foods, Catholic religious style, neighborhood associations, and other institutions that dulled the edge of loneliness and alienation, they remained visibly different, even as some of them moved out into the world of business as grocers, restaurateurs, movers, builders, and the like. It was easy to caricature people who did not “mix” as organ grinders or gangsters—particularly when there were in truth organ grinders and gangsters among them—and thereafter, the mere possession of an Italian name was apt to conjure up those images among native Americans. For that reason, even an on-the-make Italian-American might choose the comfort of staying in a neighborhood of fellow Italians.

Like the Italians, the Russian-Polish Jews as depicted in Poor Cousins , by Ande Manners, herself a granddaughter of eastern European immigrants, were spectacularly different—and ragged. They had been confined in Russia to the lowliest occupations and the least-promising regions, and the crowning blows came in the form of pogroms (usually condoned by the czarist government) which erupted periodically between 1882 and 1912. They came to America shabby and undernourished and with the marks of their orthodoxy upon them—beards, ear locks, fringed undershirts, wigs for pious married women. They asserted their differentness with their surroundings in a way that shocked not only the Gentiles, but also those German Jews who had arrived in America earlier and were comfortably assimilated. As one such German Jew noted, the newcomers bore “the ineffaceable marks of permanent pauperism” and could bring “only disgrace and a lowering of the opinion in which American Israelites were held.” Another German Jew spoke of the task of “educating and civilizing the Russian Jews.”

But the Russian Jews civilized themselves. They swarmed into New York’s Lower East Side, filling the sweatshops and tenements with the sounds of Yiddish, the smells of herring and borscht, and the crackle of their vitality—a million and a half strong. Before long, pious boys who had excelled at Talmudic studies were shining in the public schools and beginning to climb toward the uplands of accountancy and pharmacy and even the dizzying heights of medicine, teaching, and the law. (Not, to be sure, that some did not remain pants pressers or become hustlers and musclemen.) Other “poor cousins” rushed to join trade unions, to pick up American ways and skills in settlement-house classes, and to explore the nuances of American politics. Bit by bit the East Side ghetto—a community with its own journalistic, literary, and theatrical life—began to dissolve itself as the young shed the old languages, costumes, and habits. They did not melt out of sight like the English farmers of the Midwest; they did not, on the whole, remain as tightly bound in ethnic enclaves as the Italians (who were, in large numbers, “making it” in their own way); they created, rather, a special cultural pocket snugly lodged within the American success ethic—American middle-class Jewry.

Three groups, three stories that differ. There are also similarities to note. All these immigrants produced clutches of professors and statesmen and businessmen (as well as their unsung failures); it would be banal to call the honor roll of the Jews and Italians (Gershwin, Sinatra; SarnofF, Volpe, et cetera, et cetera ), and as for the English, we never think of their successful descendants as stories of “immigrant” achievement. Moreover, all three groups’ members knew the pain of separation from the familiar and the bite of conflict between generations as the young shed their oldcountry ways and scorned parents who were less easily made up-to-date than they themselves were. And all three groups (by and large) shared something else that may be harder to come by now—an absolute faith that in America things would get better from tomorrow to tomorrow; that the future was seductive no matter how demanding the present might be.

And all of them were ancestors—of middle Americans, of suburbanites, of hardhatsand of hippies. They contributed their children to the making of the nation—along with their muscle, their ambition, their skills, their cultural gifts. Every reader of these books must make his own comparisons with the present. And every American should read these books, and others like them. We are only now realizing that mass migration, like the frontier, was one of the forces making America American; that we will understand ourselves and our conflicts and our achievements better if we know that “out of many one,” e pluribus unum , is not just a phrase on a coin, but a precise description of the social essence of the United States.

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