Writing Immigrant History
American Historians and European Immigrants.
by Edward N. Saveth.
New York, Columbia University Press. 244 pp. $3.00.
The domestic interests of American intellectals seem to be focusing again. In the 20’s, they gave their greatest attention to a war on Babbittry. In the 30’s, economic problems dwarfed all others. Now, they give every indication of making minority problems their Number One concern in home affairs.
Even if the pattern of interest does develop in this way, Edward Saveth’s book will hardly become prime reading. The volume is a Ph. D. dissertation, and it shows many of the characteristics of that lumbering species. But the book is also not likely to be ignored. For Saveth has chosen a theme important for the whole minorities question: the attitudes toward immigrants of professional historians, a group which has a good deal to do with forming general attitudes. And he has brought to his theme astute research, thinking that is at once hardheaded and imaginative, and a conspicuous fairness of approach. People who are interested enough in minorities to write about them are rarely disinterested enough to write with any balance; Saveth is one of the rare persons.
The picture that his book reveals is an appalling one. On the one hand, most of the major American historians of the period between 1875 and I925 belligerently declared the superiority of “Anglo-Saxon” stock. They were old-stock themselves, Saveth points out, and their conception of the immigrant “reflected, in some degree, their feeling that the newcomer somehow constituted a threat to what they held dear, ideologically and materially. It is this basic insecurity that motivated many of their hostile attitudes.” On the other hand, “even more insecure . . . were [the historians] of recent immigrant ancestry. . . . Their particular pattern of insecurity manifested itself in extreme forms of ancestor veneration (filiopietism) and hostility toward other ethnic elements in the population. Because their insecurity was greater, the jingoism of the historians of recent immigrant ancestry far exceeded the chauvinism of historians derived from the older American stock.” The Scotch-Irish filiopietists, for example, loosed a caterwauling of boasts and denunciations at the Irish, and the Irish did not spare the shillelagh in reply. The Scotch-Irish, the Journal of the American Irish Historical Society announced, were “priest-ridden . . . hard and fast bigots,” their histories were “humbug,” and their practise was to select “any or all Irishmen who have attained eminence in public life, lump them together and label the lump ‘Scotch-Irish.’”
The most original and striking chapter of Saveth’s book concerns the very old-stock Henry Adams. Since the 20’s, Adams has been something of an icon among American intellectuals. Conservatives have delighted in his gloomings about progress, liberals in his lashings of capitalism, and liberals and conservatives alike have hailed him as an extraordinarily subtle analyst of modern society. But Saveth, by skillfully fitting together a jigsaw puzzle of evidence, presents an entirely different Adams—a man who increasingly based his thinking on the idea that civilization was being ruined by a finance capitalism which came from Jewish activities and a “Jewish spirit.” “We are in the hands of the Jews,” Adams could write in 1896. “They can do what they please with our values.” It is shocking to read such anti-Semitism in an honored figure of the American intellectual world. It is still more shocking—anti-Semitism being so common on all intellectual levels—to reflect that a man who has been taken so seriously could hold so flagrantly inaccurate and so pathetically trivial views of what was going on in the world. Perhaps in discussions of the inadequacies of modern intellectualism, we often become too complicated. Much of the trouble may come from the simple fact that some of the intellectual leaders have been ill-informed and not too bright.
Saveth closes his book on a hopeful note. Since 1925, he points out, a number of professional historians have made immigration their specialty, and they have treated it from a broad sociological approach that admits of no anti-immigrant prejudice. Filiopietism may not be dead; as a matter of fact, it has found its most widely-read expression in Louis Adamic’s recent book, A Nation of Nations. Yet Saveth is able to say about A Nation of Nations: “There might have been an excuse for such labored jingoism if Adamic had been writing in the 1880’s or 1890’s, but there is no excuse for it now; for the contemporary American historians treat the immigrant rather fairly.”
Rather fairly—but is that the point of greatest social meaning at the present time? This reviewer doubts whether Saveth’s conclusion maintains the awareness of the important which distinguishes the rest of his book. Prejudice has certainly diminished in American historical writings, but it is frequently replaced by a way of handling immigrant materials that may be as harmful, if not more harmful to the welfare of the newcomer. Out of good will and a desire to correct previous unfairness, present-day professional historians rarely indulge in criticism of minority groups and this avoidance of attack usually includes abstaining from discussion of a fact which can hardly be mentioned without attack—the development of minority chauvinisms. Men can be injured by misplaced kindliness as well as by hostility; skirting around the facts of minority jingoisms is hardly the way to bring immigrants to a realization that their jingoisms are a menace to a healthy American culture and a wise foreign policy, and therefore an incitement to anti-immigrant thought and action on the part of the rest of the community. In the name both of the whole truth and of the welfare of the immigrant, it is important that the historian should not only be fair by avoiding unjust attacks but also be helpful by venturing into ugly areas of minority activities.