Post-1880 Cliches on Immigration – Still With Us

An examination of my copy of Russell Blankenship’s 1937 textbook American Literature reveals that exaggerated veneration of immigrants is not a new phenomenon in America. It was apparently common among liberals in the 1920s and 1930s, and, like today, promoted especially earnestly by those who were themselves immigrants or from recent immigrant stock. Although it is not true that we are a “land of immigrants  – even Americans with significant post-1880s European immigrant ancestry can probably trace their ancestors’ presence here at least a century – mass immigration has taken place throughout enough of our history to have become planted in our consciousness as a normal thing.

For instance, consider this stanza from “Scum o’ the Earth,” by Robert Haven Shauffler (1879-1964), born to American parents in Austria. He clearly felt a moral burden in belonging to the host nation to a diverse mass of European immigrants:

Countrymen, bend and invoke
Mercy for us blasphemers,
For that we spat on these marvelous folk,
Nations of darers and dreamers,
Scions of singers and seers,
Our peers, and more than our peers.
“Rabble and refuse”, we name them
And “scum o’ the earth”, to shame them.
Mercy for us of the few, young years,
Of the culture so callow and crude,
Of the hands so grasping and rude,
The lips so ready for sneers
At the sons of our ancient more-than-peers.
Mercy for us who dare despise
Men in whose loins our Homer lies;
Mothers of men who shall bring to us
The glory of Titian, the grandeur of Huss;
Children in whose frail arms shall rest
Prophets and singers and saints of the West.
Newcomers all from the eastern seas,
Help us incarnate dreams like these.
Forget, and forgive, that we did you wrong.
Help us to father a nation, strong
In the comradeship of an equal birth,
In the wealth of the richest bloods of earth.

The sentiment draws one in. But wait a minute! Because people who came to America for a better life (i.e., to make money) experience poor treatment from some of the natives, the entire nation is guilty and can only purge its guilt through the forgiveness of those same immigrants, and taking them and their stock into the national body?

Wouldn’t this make one want to reconsider inviting the immigrants at all?

Or this passage by Albert Léon Guérard (1880-1959), who arrived from France in his twenties:

We have given up our native speech; the picturesque garb of ancient villages has been discarded; titles and dynastic allegiance have been left, as undesirable, at the gateway of Ellis Island, and our very habits of thought have undergone a radical change. But do you believe that we have dropped like a burden all the immemorial traditions of our home lands? We have not, and it would be a thousand pities if we had. For the primal glory of the American spirit is that it is a blend of all subnationalities under the Stars and Stripes….Let us pool our ancestors, let us all be heirs to all! The greatest privilege is just that blending of traditions! I feel now as if my two grandfathers had bravely fought against each other at Gettysburg; I know it was partly for me that Washington displayed his quiet heroism and his serene wisdom.

It is heartening to read of Guérard’s whole-hearted identification with the entire American tradition, and when he simultaneously asserts that he and other immigrants assuredly do not cast away their native traditions when they become American citizens, he is only speaking a truth that should be, but often is not at all, obvious to Americans. But then he, an educated Frenchman, was eminently capable of assimilating himself to his new country. It should not be assumed that the same is true of our immigrants today. The notion of America as a giant blending of traditions felt good to him, and to many Americans, but if it is nothing but a blending then it is not a nation at all, and indeed the people with the deepest roots there are precisely those whose particular way of life must be sacrificed to the great blending project.

Immigration is inherently a traumatic experience. It requires the immigrant, not, indeed, to obliterate his past and his identity, but to give up forever residence in his native land to live among people who will never fully understand who he is, and to see his children grow up outside of that land and culture. It also requires the people of the land receiving the immigrant to make a myriad of efforts, large and small, to understand him and take care of his needs. The burden of the transition is by no means felt by the immigrant alone.

A normal, healthy country should not take in more than a very small number of immigrants from year to year. Nor, in view of the profound sacrifice which every immigrant must make to properly adjust to his new society, should average people all over the world be encouraged to emigrate. An immigrant should be that rare person who is actually prepared to do better in a foreign society that he could in his own. He should probably come from a society racially and culturally akin to the one he wishes to join. (It should go without saying that he should not expect to find a transplanted colony from his own society in the new country.) A normal, healthy country cultivates its own doctors, gas station owners, gardeners, meat packers, and athletes; it does not rely on immigrants to fill these roles. Foreign languages should be learned for purposes of trade and travel. Foreign visitors, workers, and students should be expected to return home after completing their business in their host country.

These facts should be so obvious as to require no argument or justification. And they are, in every country outside of Europe and America. Are we ever going to get back to common sense on this matter so we can once again experience a little control over our destiny?


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