Henry James's America

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 The 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.

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