I’ve been reading some of the novels by Gene Stratton-Porter, one of the most popular writers of the early 20th century. Of particular note are her classics for young adults, Freckles (1904) and A Girl of the Limberlost (1909). One of her last novels, Her Father’s Daughter (1921), features as a prominent theme the danger posed by Japanese immigrants to California. In developing this theme the author unfortunately resorted to cliches and hyperbole that lowered the quality of the writing. She also assured herself of being cast into outer darkness by critics 100 years later for her “racism,” which cast a shadow over her other books that were innocent of any racial agenda. Still, for me the question always must return to a practical issue. Should Americans in 1920 have allowed unlimited Japanese immigration, and turned California into a Japanese-controlled territory? And if this would have been a satisfactory result, why would keeping California “Anglo-Saxon” have been an unsatisfactory one?
Although a Japanese-American California might have been one of the more pleasant among various possible results of mass immigration, white Americans at the time felt that they wanted to remain the majority people in every state of their nation. From this followed the famous Immigration Act of 1924, which established the national origins quotas on immigration based on the ethnic makeup of the existing population of America that held until the Immigration Act of 1965. This attempted solution to the immigration problem may have been imperfect, but it nevertheless provided the demographic stability that brought American society to its cultural peak in the mid-20th century. None of us are likely to see anything like that period in our lifetimes.
It seems to me that Mrs. Porter was expressing a legitimate fear in Her Father’s Daughter, whether or not present-day people find her ways of expressing it acceptable. She also was prescient about the danger of a people failing to reproduce itself. A passive acceptance of mass immigration would seem, logically, to go together with an indifference towards self-reproduction. In Her Father’s Daughter she has one character say:
“As a nation, our people are pampering themselves and living for their own pleasures. They won’t take the trouble or endure the pain required to bear and to rear children; and the day is rolling toward us, with every turn of the planet one day closer, when we are going to be outnumbered by a combination of peoples who can take our own tricks and beat us with them. We must pass along the good word that the one thing America needs above every other thing on earth is HOMES AND HEARTS BIG ENOUGH FOR CHILDREN, as were the homes of our grandfathers, when no joy in life equaled the joy of a new child in the family, and if you didn’t have a dozen you weren’t doing your manifest duty.”
In Gene Stratton-Porter, Novelist and Naturalist (Indiana Historical Society, 1990), Judith Reick Long notes the likely influence on Mrs. Porter by Theodore Roosevelt, one of the great popularizers of the movement to get all Americans closer to the vitalizing, cleansing forces of nature, through such things as Scouting, national parks, and so on. Interestingly, Roosevelt had expressed the same fear that Americans were in danger of failing to reproduce themselves in his speech at the Sorbonne in 1910:
Finally, even more important than ability to work, even more important than ability to fight at need, is to remember that chief of blessings for any nation is that it shall leave its seed to inherit the land. It was the crown of blessings in Biblical times and it is the crown of blessings now. The greatest of all curses is the curse of sterility, and the severest of all condemnations should be that visited upon willful sterility. The first essential in any civilization is that the man and woman shall be father and mother of healthy children, so that the race shall increase and not decrease. If that is not so, if through no fault of the society there is failure to increase, it is a great misfortune. If the failure is due to the deliberate and wilful fault, then it is not merely a misfortune, it is one of those crimes of ease and self-indulgence, of shrinking from pain and effort and risk, which in the long run Nature punishes more heavily than any other. If we of the great republics, if we, the free people who claim to have emancipated ourselves from the thralldom of wrong and error, bring down on our heads the curse that comes upon the willfully barren, then it will be an idle waste of breath to prattle of our achievements, to boast of all that we have done. No refinement of life, no delicacy of taste, no material progress, no sordid heaping up riches, no sensuous development of art and literature, can in any way compensate for the loss of the great fundamental virtues; and of these great fundamental virtues the greatest is the race’s power to perpetuate the race.
Can the American people hear the truth of these words anymore? Or is that nasty word “race” too distracting? If there is a better way to word this message, I would like to know. We need to get the message out quickly.