Henry James' America

5 posts

Niccolo and Donkey
Henry James's America

The New Criterion

Stephen Miller

June 2013


Henry James is widely regarded as a writer who was deeply disturbed by the new immigrants who came to America after 1890—mainly Jews from Eastern Europe and Italians from Southern Italy and Sicily. James wrote about the new immigrants in The American Scene (1907), an account of his visit to the U.S. in 1904–1905 after an absence of two decades. In their introduction to a selection from The American Scene (1907), the editors of Empire City: New York Through the Centuries (2005) say, “James, revealing the patrician sensibility of his class, . . . recoiled at the sight of masses of immigrants.” James did not recoil at the sight of masses of immigrants. He went out of his way to see immigrants and talk to them. He not only visited Ellis Island, which opened in 1892, but he also walked in the Italian and Jewish sections of New York. He went to restaurants frequented by immigrants, and he observed immigrants chatting and strolling in Central Park.

James was interested in the manners of immigrants—manners understood in the broadest sense. He was curious to see if their move to a democratic and predominantly commercial country had changed them in any way. Having traveled extensively in Italy, James was especially interested in Italians in America. His first encounter with Italian immigrants took place while he was walking in a town on the New Jersey shore, where he was staying for two days as the guest of his American publisher. Seeing Italian immigrants who were working as landscape gardeners, James hoped to chat with them, but they ignored him completely: “It was as if contact were out of the question.” If he had met similar workers in Italy, there would have been a conversation “founded on old familiarities and heredities.” These Italian gardeners were not interested in idle chatter. They were busy working and making money.

A week or two later, James met an immigrant when he was visiting his brother William in New Hampshire. Walking by himself in the countryside, James lost his way, so he asked directions from a man who had just emerged from the woods. Because the man did not reply, James thought he might be French-Canadian, so he addressed him in French. The man remained silent, so he addressed him in Italian. No reply again. James said in English: “What are you then?” This question finally “loosened in him the faculty of speech. ‘I’m an Armenian,’ he replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a wage-earning youth in the heart of New England to be [Armenian].” James is amazed that the man mentions his ethnic identity so matter-of-factly, as if there were nothing out of the ordinary about an Armenian walking in the New England woods.

The encounters with the Italian gardeners and the Armenian constitute evidence for James of “the ubiquity of the alien.” This characteristic was especially obvious to James in New York. Riding in an “electric car” (a streetcar), he saw “a row of faces, up and down, testifying, without exception to alienism unmistakable, alienism undisguised and unashamed.”

According to James, “the great fact about his companions [on the streetcar] was that foreign as they might be . . . they were at home , really more at home, at the end of their few weeks or months or their year or two than they had ever in their lives been before.” The immigrants are at home because the U.S. is a “cauldron” of immigrants from different countries. The country was and still is a “a prodigious amalgam . . . a hotch-potch of racial ingredients.”

The immigrants feel at home in New York, but James doesn’t. He feels dispossessed. “This sense of dispossession . . . haunted me . . . in the New York streets and in the packed trajectiles [the streetcars] to which one clingingly appeals from the streets.” But, quite in contrast to the picture Empire City ’s editors would paint, he doesn’t recoil from the immigrants. Indeed, he says native-born New Yorkers “must make the surrender and accept the orientation. We must go, in other words, more than half-way to meet them.”

It is easy to misunderstand what James means by “dispossessed.” He is not saying that these new immigrants are ruining the American character. He completely dismisses the notion of an American character that is based on Anglo-Saxon or Nordic stock: “Who and what is an alien, when it comes to that, in a country peopled from the first under the jealous eye of history?—peopled, that is, by migrations at once extremely recent, perfectly traceable and urgently required. . . . Which is the American, by these scant measures?—which is not the alien, over a large part of the country?”

In his remarks on immigration, James is taking issue with the views of many of his friends, who feared that the new immigrants could not be assimilated. In 1895 Thomas Bailey Aldrich, an acquaintance of James who succeeded William Dean Howells as the editor of T he Atlantic , published his poem “The Unguarded Gates,” which begins: “Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,/ And through them presses a wild motley throng.” In his History of the American People (1902), Woodrow Wilson said the new immigrants were “men of [the] lowest class from the south of Italy, and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.” In 1911 William Williams, the Ellis Island Commissioner, said: “The new immigrants, unlike that of the earlier years, proceed in part from the poorer elements of the countries of southern and eastern Europe and from backward races with customs and institutions widely different from ours and without the capacity of assimilating with our people as did the early immigrants.” This was also the view of the Dillingham Commission, which presented a lengthy report to Congress in 1910 and 1911. The New York Times reported that the commission had shown that “aliens are not being [assimilated], and cannot be assimilated—cannot be, that is, unless some check is placed upon their continued influx.”

During the second decade of the twentieth century, the opponents of Eastern and Southern Europe immigration often cast their argument in racial terms. In The Passing of the Great Race in America (1916), Madison Grant called for the exclusion of inferior Alpine, Mediterranean, and Jewish breeds as the only means of preserving America’s old Nordic stock. In 1922 the Saturday Evening Post published several articles about “race” by the novelist Kenneth Roberts, who warned that “a mixture of Nordic with Alpine and Mediterranean stocks would produce only a worthless race of hybrids.”

James disagreed with the immigration doomsayers. He thought the “wild motley throng,” as Aldrich puts it, would easily be assimilated. “The machinery [of assimilation] is colossal—nothing is more characteristic of the country than the development of this machinery, in the form of the political and social habit, the common school and the newspaper.” Visiting Ellis Island, he is struck by “the ceaseless process of the recruiting of our race, of the plenishing of our huge national pot au feu, of the introduction of fresh—of perpetually fresh so far it isn’t perpetually stale—foreign matter into our heterogeneous system.” James, in effect, says that anyone can become a member of “our race”—i.e., anyone can become an American.

Assimilation works, but in James’s view it has a cost: the Italians he meets in the U.S. are not as charming as the Italians he met on his travels in Italy. “The Italians meet us, at every turn, only to make us ask what has become of that element of the agreeable address in them , which has, from far back, so enhanced for the stranger the interest and pleasure of a visit to their beautiful country. They shed it utterly, I couldn’t but observe, on their advent, after a deep inhalation or two of the clear native air.” Howells, who lived in Italy for several years, agreed with James. He speaks of a “malign change here that has transformed the Italians from the friendly folk they are at home to the surly race they most show themselves here.” In his biography of James, Leon Edel says James “was struck by the alienation of the immigrant Italians when compared with Italians in Italy.” In reality, James was struck by how un-alienated the immigrants are. They are so “at home” in America, where there is “equality of condition,” that they feel no need to have the deferential manners they had in Italy.

James says all immigrants are transformed when they come to the U.S. The foreigner “presents himself thus, most of all, to be plain—and not only in New York but throughout the country—as wonderingly conscious that his manners of the other world . . . have been a huge mistake.” Fifty years earlier Anthony Trollope made a similar remark about the Irish in America. “The Irishman when he expatriates himself to one of these American States loses much of that affectionate, confiding, master-worshipping nature which makes him so good a fellow when at home. . . . To me personally he has perhaps become less pleasant than he was. But to himself—! It seems to me that such a man must feel himself half a god, if he has the power of comparing what he is with what he was.”

What about the Jewish immigrants—Does the machinery of assimilation work for them as well? Many German Jews already were assimilated. Some Christian Americans thought Jews would never become good citizens, but the virulent brand of anti-Semitism that was widespread in late nineteenth-century France—the notion that Jews were a “race” of treacherous cosmopolitans—was not commonplace in the U.S. Henry Adams was the odd man out because he talked incessantly about the noxious influence of wealthy and powerful Jews. When the Dreyfus Affair was boiling over, John Hay said that Adams’s obsession with Jews was so extreme that “he now believes the earthquake at Krakatoa was the work of Zola and when he saw Vesuvius reddening the midnight air he searched the horizon to find a Jew stroking the fire.” (Zola defended Dreyfus.) If few Americans subscribed to Adams’s brand of anti-Semitism, many thought the Jews of Eastern Europe could not be assimilated.

Though clichés about Jewish commercial craftiness occasionally turn up in James’s writings, he was not anti-Semitic. In several letters he refers to Jewish acquaintances. In 1877 he writes that “I dined a week ago at Lady Goldsmid’s—a very nice, kind, elderly childless Jewess, cultivated, friend of George Eliot etc.” In other letters he talks of being a guest at one of the Rothschilds’ country estates.
Niccolo and Donkey

In “The Impressions of a Cousin,” a short story written in 1883, James ridicules conventional anti-Semitism. The story takes the form of a diary kept by an anti-Semitic woman. She is a painter who returned to New York after a long stay in Europe, and she is temporarily living with her cousin. The woman dislikes living in New York because the city and its people are not pictorially interesting, but the story is mainly about the interest she takes in her cousin’s financial affairs. She fears that her wealthy cousin’s financial advisor—a Mr. Caliph—is a crook. Her reasoning is simple: He is a crook because he is Jewish. “I have an intimate conviction that he is a Jew, or of Jewish origin. I see that in his plump, white face . . . in his remarkable eye, which is full of old expressions—expressions which linger there from the past.”

The reader soon realizes that the diarist’s version of events cannot be trusted. The diarist is totally in the dark about Mr. Caliph, who may or may not be Jewish. The story is not one of James’s best because the diarist is tedious, but James makes it clear that this nasty, meddlesome, anti-Semitic woman is a fool.

In the 1890s, after the Dreyfus Affair heated up, James was on the side of Dreyfus, but one of his close friends, the French novelist Paul Bourget, was anti-Dreyfus and anti-Semitic. James never broke with Bourget, but in one letter to him he says that he does not understand what is going on in France, adding that in England “we get along well with the Jews” (“le bon ménage que nous faisons avec les Juifs”).

In another letter to Bourget, written in English, he talks about “poor” Ferdinand de Rothschild’s death, saying that “I have always had a lingering liking for him.” The main point of the paragraph is to tell Bourget that the Prince of Wales attended Rothschild’s funeral. “What strikes me more than anything else, in connection with his death, is the difference marked between English and French nerves by the fact that the Crown Prince (by whom of course I mean the P. of W.) assisted [attended] yesterday, with every demonstration of sympathy, at his [Rothschild’s] severely simple Jewish obsequies.” The English royal family does not subscribe to the French notion that Jews are untrustworthy rootless cosmopolitans.

It is a long way from the palace of a Roth-schild to a tenement on the Lower East Side. In England James did not know Yiddish-speaking Jews. He was curious about the culture of these new immigrants to America. And he wanted to see if the machinery of assimilation worked for them as well.

On a warm evening in June 1905 James visited the Lower East Side accompanied by several Jewish acquaintances. (Howells probably introduced him to them.) He walked around the area and had dinner with a Jewish family. After dinner James’s group “wound up” in a “half-dozen picked beer-houses and cafés.” James’s first impression of the Lower East Side is a commonplace one: the area is densely packed with people. In one paragraph James uses the word “swarming” three times. He is also struck by the ceaseless activity of the quarter.

Amazed by the “whole spectacle,” James ransacks his imagination for an appropriate analogy. “It was as if we had been thus, in the crowded, hustled roadway, where multiplication, multiplication of everything, was the dominant note, at the bottom of some vast sallow aquarium in which innumerable fish, of over-developed proboscis, were to bump together, for ever, amid heaped spoils of the sea.” The analogy does not work. Fish don’t bump into each other; the allusion to the Jewish nose—the “over-developed proboscis”—is an unfortunate attempt at humor. After comparing Jews to fish, James compares them to worms and fine glass particles. “There are small strange animals, known to natural history, snakes or worms, I believe, who, when cut into pieces, wriggle away contentedly and live in the snippet as completely as in the whole. So the denizens of the New York Ghetto, heaped as thick as the splinters on the table of a glass-blower, had each, like the fine glass particle, his or her individual share of the whole hard glitter of Israel.” The comparison to worms makes no sense, and the jump from worms to fine glass particles is confusing. A few paragraphs later, James compares Jews to squirrels and monkeys. The fire escapes of tenements are like “the spaciously organized cage for the nimbler class of animals in some great zoological garden. This general analogy is irresistible—it seems to offer . . . a little world of bars and perches and swings for human squirrels and monkeys.” A few sentences later, James says the Jews he sees from the window of the apartment where he is having dinner are “an ant-like population.”

Worms, monkeys, squirrels, ants—some observers reasonably conclude that these analogies show that James was anti-Semitic. In my view, the analogies are James’s misguided attempt to give the reader a sense of how densely populated the Lower East Side is and how energetic its Jewish inhabitants are. It was ten times as densely populated as the rest of New York.

But if we take these clumsy analogies to be signs of James’s anti-Semitism, then why does James say he is impressed by the Jewish immigrants? He speaks of “the intensity of the Jewish aspect,” and the Jewish “reverence for intellect.” He notes that the Jews are an “intellectual people.” He talks to Yiddish writers. He dashes into “a small crammed convivial theatre,” where he sees part of a Yiddish comedy of manners. He admits that he is baffled by Yiddish culture, but he doesn’t subscribe to the popular notion—one advanced by Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives (1890)—that Jews are obsessed with making money: “Truly the Yiddish world was a vast world, with its own deeps and complexities.”

James enjoyed talking to Jewish writers in the cafés of the Lower East Side, but the way they spoke English pained him. The cafés, he says, were “torture-rooms of the living idiom.” He thought the new immigrants—Jewish immigrants but other immigrants as well—would radically transform the English language: “The accent of the very ultimate future, in the States, may be destined to become the most beautiful in the globe and the very music of humanity . . . but whatever we shall know it for, certainly, we shall not know it for English.”

James was wrong about “the fate of the language,” but he was right to argue that Jews, like the Italians, would be transformed by the colossal machinery of assimilation. The Jews of New York, he says, are different from the Jews he saw in the ghettoes of Europe because the Lower East Side is a New Jerusalem compared to the “dark, foul, stifling Ghettos of other remembered cities.” In the U.S. Jews have a much greater opportunity to better their condition: “What struck me in the flaring streets . . . was the blaze of the shops addressed to the New Jerusalem’s wants and the splendour with which these were taken for granted.”

The main point James makes about Jews is that they are similar to other immigrants insofar in that they too think America is a land of opportunity: “The wants, the gratifications, the aspirations of the ‘poor,’ as expressed in the shops . . . denoted a new style of poverty.” It is a new style of poverty because the Jews assume their poverty is a temporary state. James wonders if the Jews are right to be optimistic about their future given “the icy breath of Trusts and the weight of the new remorseless monopolies.” He concludes by saying that “their dream, at all events, as I noted it, was meanwhile sweet and undisguised.”

Ten years after The American Scene was published, Abraham Cahan made the same comment about Jewish immigrants in The Rise of David Levinsky : “The scurry and bustle of the people were not merely overwhelmingly greater, both in volume and intensity, than in my native town. It was of another sort. The swing and step of the pedestrians, the voices and manner of the street peddlers, and a hundred and one other things seemed to testify to far more self-confidence and energy, to large ambitions and wider scopes, than did the appearance of the crowds in my birthplace.” Moses Rischin, who has written a history of New York’s Jewish immigrants, agrees with James and Levinsky: “Despite unsteady and underpaid employment, tenement overcrowding and filth, immigrants felt themselves ineluctably being transformed.”

James does not say that the U.S. will become a “melting pot,” which was the title of a popular early twentieth-century play by Israel Zangwill. Rather, he argues that ethnic strife is unlikely because the different ethnic groups will be so busy trying to “move up” that they will not be preoccupied with ethnic questions. “The existing order is meanwhile safe, inasmuch as the faculty of making money is in America the commonest of all and fairly runs the streets.”

Walking in Central Park on a Sunday afternoon, James noted that the immigrants all appear to be “enjoying . . . their rise in the social scale, with that absence of acknowledging flutter, that serenity of assurance, which marks . . . the school-boy or the school-girl who . . . expects to ‘move up.’ ” Assimilation works:

Niccolo and Donkey

Interesting article, but not extremely concerned with hard reality.

I think immigration to America was somewhat self-selective, to the extent that the average Italian-American immigrant worker's manners could be expected to differ from that from the average native Italian going about his daily business in his homeland. America tended to draw either the very desperate or the exceedingly ambitious. (There has also been a similar "drain" internally in the United States from countryside to city, which has affected, I think, the culture of some rural areas.)

Another thing to bear in mind is that there was little or no safety net for failure for the 1890-1920 immigrants. In particular there was no government assistance, and while your extended family might well provide room and board when you first arrived, you better believe that you were expected to find work and pull your weight. It's hardly surprising that these Italian gardeners declined to chitchat with some pedestrian who wrote books for a living. The former and the latter were in entirely different situations.

I don't know if they were "more at home" than in Europe but yes they were at home, because they made it their home. The first two generations or so largely lived in ethnic neighborhoods, spoke their language at home and ate their accustomed meals at home, built their own churches, and even published newspapers in their own language. Ultimately, their ethnic enclaves proved porous, intermarriage became increasingly commonplace, and their identity was open to assimilation, but in 1907 many American cities were patchworks of European ethnic neighborhoods.

This seems true or even prophetic in hindsight, but the doomsayers had every right and reason to be alarmed. Even in current years, there are European thinkers, stuck in their ancient land of tribal feuds, who can't seem to grasp that assimilation really did take place on the scale and to the degree that actually happened. As I have mentioned several times, it happened against the odds for a few reasons:

All the immigrants, except for a few Chinamen who were quickly blocked, were Europeans. Thus the race and culture of immigrants were at least somewhat similar to those of the native.

US culture doesn't demand much other than learning the language, obeying the laws, not openly subverting the society, and going to war when drafted. American society was unashamed to enforce these minimum requirements; assimilation was official policy; those who didn't like it could go back to Europe (and some did go back).

History was on the side of assimilation. Life in America tended to be materially comfortable; the general trend 1890-1965 (1930s excluded) was seeing an ever improved standard of living; few immigrant families saw any reason to feel alienated from their new country (to the contrary, nearly all were willing to support the country by the time WW2 came around). Mass education and mass media, as well as hardships of the depression and wars tended to provide a common experience and make everyone feel like a genuine American. For better or worse, all Whites were gradually made equal inhabitants of this country.

Immigration was shut off after the great 1922-1924 immigration debate and reform until Kennedy's treason in 1965. This allowed a period of cultural digestion of the rough bits.

Boy, the author of the OP really must have a soft spot in his heart for Henry James to afford him this type of white wash! Clearly, we are talking about a writer, writers know how to use words, and these words are not flattery. At this point, I don't wish to delve into the JQ other than to say I consider Jews to be the fly in the ointment of American immigration policy, to say the very least about the matter.
Team Zissou

I am coming around to the view that generally speaking immigrants do not assimilate; they transform. If, instead, there had been no Irish, Italian, Jewish and other immigration to the Northeastern US, it would obviously be a very different place.

I am also sympathetic to the view that artificial nations like Canada and the US offer nothing for the immigrants to assimilate into . Protestantism has rendered the place pretty sterile. Immigrants come here and muddle along as best they can in a society of shopping malls, scaled complexity, hyper-individualism, etc.

Americans who reflect on their history and see the dominant Anglo-Celt strain still visible in the whole mess are of course denounced as racist. Everybody is instructed, literally from birth, that America is a 'nation of immigrants' rather than a people in their own right.

I saw a very good comment on iSteve recently about this whole 'nation of immigrants' meme. It reinforces a very adolescent view of America, because it forecloses the idea that America can ever become a nation of natives . For apparently until the end of all time, America must comb the globe, seeking ever more exotic and marginalized 'immigrants' to add to itself. This is different from classic empire-building only in that instead of conquering the Visigoths in their geographic territory, we are bringing the Visigoths here. How else is this process supposed to end but in devolution into nationhood?

As alarming as I find this modern experiment in mass, trans-national movements of people into the US, I cannot imagine a peaceful resolution in Europe, which has resisted deconstruction of national borders for its entire history.