Americans All
"Of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown and Ellis Island"; or,
Ethnic Literature and Some Redefinitions of "America"
by Werner Sollors

MAP It is well known that modern geographers named the New World "America" in honor of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Martin Waldseemüller's map of 1507 is considered the first instance of the word; the mapmaker argued that since Asia and Europe had received their names from women no one could object to the naming of the new continent after a man (Bitterli 43). The term "American" referred to the original inhabitants, or Indians; in Puritan New England, however, it was increasingly adopted to refer to the British colonists, as when Nathaniel Ward, in 1647, spoke of an "American Creed"--and meant the religious beliefs of the English settlers. In the American Revolution the term was used to emphasize less the British origin than the new make-up of the settler population of the United States.

CREVE In Crèvecoeur's famous answer to the question "What is an American?" in the third of his Letters from an American Farmer (1782) he singled out "that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country" (Crèvecoeur 1957, 39). For Crèvecoeur {right}, the term "American" referred to the ethnic diversity of at least the white colonists in the New World. Initially applied to the Indians, then taken on by the British settlers, by 1900 the term "American" had undoubtedly become problematic. In 1907 Henry James asked:

Who and what is an alien . . . 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 . . . --which is not the alien, over a large part of the country at least, and where does one put a finger on the dividing line . . .?
(James 1968, 124)

"American" could mean all sorts of things: the ethnic dividing line could be drawn on linguistic or religious grounds, making the English language and a certain form of protestantism touchstones of America. Even the Americanness of the first group of people called "Americans" could now become questionable. Thus the sociologist Robert Park told the story of an old lady who visited the Indian village at the World's Fair and, "moved to speak a friendly word to one of these aborigines," actually asked: "How do you like our country?" (Park 1934 in Johnson 1974, xxi.) More recently, the hero of Maxine Hong Kingston's novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, the Chinese-American beatnik tellingly named Wittman Ah Sing, mentions the same question as one that white Americans should never ask him (Kingston 1989, 317). Gish Jen, the author of the novel Typical American (1992) reports in a work-in- progress the question "Where are you from?"--backed up by "Where are you from from?" when she answers "America" to the first one.

At the center of the debates about the nature and future of America was the problem of ethnic heterogeneity: how inclusive and how exclusive could "America" be? An extreme position was taken by the political journalist David Goodman Croly, who had coined the word "miscegenation" in 1863, was a Democratic campaign biographer, and also the father of the New Republic's founder Herbert Croly. In 1888, David Croly published Glimpses of the Future, Suggestions as to the Drift of Things. Contemplating the future American, Croly's mouthpiece "Sir Oracle" makes the following prophecy:

We can absorb the Dominion . . . for the Canadians are of our own race . . . but Mexico, Central America, the Sandwich Islands, and the West India Islands will involve governments which cannot be democratic. We will never confer the right of suffrage upon the blacks, the mongrels of Mexico or Central America, or the Hawaiians. . . . I presume the race of mulattoes is dying out. . . .The white race is dominant and will keep their position, no matter how numerous the negroes may become.
(Croly 1888, 22-24; see Kaplan 1949)
For Croly "American" meant "white"--hence non-white and mixed races were not considered "absorbable" or eligible for full citizenship rights. Croly himself was an Irish immigrant but did not wish to extend Americanness to non-whites; and his use of the term "mongrel" makes clear his aversion to racial mixing. Of all the fault lines, "race" (or, more precisely, the decision whether a person was "white" and thereby a potential American or "non-white", hence "non-absorbable") has perhaps remained the deepest ethnic boundary.

Liberal reformers could have a different sense of "America." The old-stock newspaper editor Hamilton Holt, for example, ran a series of first-person singular accounts by people of many racial and ethnic backgrounds in The Independent. When he published sixteen of those "lifelets" in book form in 1906, he chose the programmatic title The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans: As Told by Themselves, using the elastic term "American" to refer to a very broad spectrum of the populace: Rocco Corresca, an Italian bootblack; Sadie Frowne, a Jewish sweatshop worker from Poland; Amelia des Moulins, a French dressmaker; Ann, an Irish maid; Agnes M., a German nurse girl; Axel Jarlson, a Swedish farmer; a Syrian journalist, L. J. A.; Antanas Kaztauskis, a Lithuanian butcher; an anonymous Negro peon, a Japanese manservant, a Greek peddler, a midwestern farmer's wife, and a handicapped Southern Methodist minister; a Chinese laundryman and businessman, Lee Chew; Fomoaley Ponci, a foreign non-immigrant Igorrote chief from the recently conquered Philippines who was on display at Coney Island; and an Indian, Ah-nen-la-de-ni. Holt includes everyone in his notion of the "American": Black, white, Indian, Asian, native-born, immigrant, refugee, temporary migrant, sojourner, men, women--people from all walks of life. The book is one of the most inclusive "American" texts early in the century, as the collection virtually transformed the inhabitants of the whole world into potential Americans. The contrast between Croly's exclusive and Holt's inclusive "America" was dramatic. On such a contested terrain, attempts at symbolizing the country had to yield contradictory results.

POSTER "AMERICANS ALL!" was the title of a poster designed by Howard Chandler Christy in 1917, used to promote Victory Liberty Loans, employment opportunities for soldiers, and other war efforts. It depicts a scantily clad young blond woman in front of an American flag, holding a laurel wreath under which an "honor roll" of ethnic names appears: Du Bois, Smith, O'Brien, Cejka, Haucke, Pappandrikopolous, Andrassi, Villotto, Levy, Turovich, Kowalski, Chriczanevicz, Knutson, and Gonzales--they were all to be Americans at a time when World War I made undivided loyalties mandatory. At first glance this may have seemed to constitute an invitation to foreigners who were thus honored to become eligible as Americans--in the vein of Holt's Undistinguished Americans. Yet the allegorical figure who accompanies this incorporation of various ethnic groups into "America" is not a Mulatto madonna with an Indian headdress--this is actually the way the new, oxidized bronze Statue of Liberty on top of the Washington Capitol appeared to Croly in his Miscegenation pamphlet of 1863 "as a symbol of the future American of this continent," PICTURE "not white, symbolizing but one race, nor black typifying another, but a statue representing the composite race, whose sway will extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, from the Equator to the North Pole-- the Miscegens of the Future" (Croly 1863, 63-64)--but "the American girl," an English-looking white woman, not sturdy like the Statue of Liberty for which the Alsatian sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi's mother {right}had posed (Gilder 1943, 17; Trachtenberg 1977, 60)--but with a glitzy Christy-style look.

As Martha Banta suggested, the poster did not simply honor ethnic diversity: Christy's image contains a double message as ethnics are asked to assimilate to an Anglo-Saxon norm that is constituted precisely in opposition to them. They are told to be "Mr. American" by conforming to something that they might never become physically. The representative American body of 1917 does not include their features, and their names sound like those of many Hollywood actors and actresses before they changed them into more palatable ones: from Betty Joan Perske to Lauren Bacall; from Dino Crocetti to Dean Martin; from Margarita Cansino to Rita Hayworth; or from Bernard Schwarz to Tony Curtis. Incidentally, most Hollywood performers have stopped camouflaging their ethnic names behind Anglicized ones; and an Anglicized name may now be an ironic comment on the old status quo--as when a transvestite appears under the name "Holly Woodlawn."
Christy's World War I poster could be read both inclusively (as in Holt's Life Stories) and exclusively (as in Croly's Glimpses); and it is interesting to consider how important the manipulation of such symbols can be for the establishment of a national identity as well as for various ethnic identities.


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