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

PICTURE The Pilgrims had landed in 1620 at the Pamet Sound near Truro (Cape Cod); and leaving the Mayflower at Provincetown they sailed on to Plymouth a month later. The rock that commemorates this second landing is of dubious authenticity (Bradford 1952, 72n; McPhee 1990, 112) and, geologically considered, seems to be of African origin (McPhee 1990, 114, 117). In 1741, Elder Faunce, then ninety-five years old, had identified a boulder as the "place where the forefathers landed," a phrasing that was probably misunderstood as referring to the "first landing" (Bradford 1952, 72n; see also McPhee 1990, 115); this led to the increasing sacralization of the rock--as well as of fragments that were supposedly chipped off from it--in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Like relics, exhibits, or souvenirs, pieces of the rock have been taken to Immingham, Lincolnshire (the point of the Pilgrims' departure for Holland) and the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn; other pieces were sold in the 1920s as paperweights by the Antiquarian Society of Plymouth; one piece was sent to President Eisenhower by a citizen (McPhee 1990, 113). In a footnote to Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed:

This rock has become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns of the Union. Does not this sufficiently show how all human power and greatness are entirely in the soul? Here is a stone which the feet of a few poor fugitives pressed for an instant, and this stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation, a fragment is prized as a relic. But what has become of the doorsteps of a thousand palaces? Who troubles himself about them?
(Tocqueville 1951, 34 n8; see Sears 1985,16)

James Kirke Paulding wrote an "Ode to Jamestown" before the Civil War, in which, drawing on the Pocahontas story, he celebrated America as the peaceful synthesis of Plymouth and Jamestown, North and South:

Jamestown, and Plymouth's hallowed rock
To me shall ever sacred be,--. . . .
He is a bastard if he dare to mock
Old Jamestown's shrine or Plymouth's famous rock.
(Stevenson 1922, 46-47)

This was apparently the special interest of a Northerner with strong sympathies for the South and for slavery who wanted to reconcile Puritans and Cavaliers and defy abolitionist readings of the rock in the wake of Daniel Webster's address of 1820.

PICTURE In the world of widely shared national public memorialization, however, Plymouth Rock still seems to have played only a relatively minor role until after the Civil War (see, e.g. Lossing 1873, 36). The Society of Mayflower Descendants, for example, was founded in 1894 (Baltzell 1966, 115). The 1920 tercentenary inspired the National Society of the Colonial Dames (a women's association constituted in 1891, incorporated in 1899, and dedicated to preserve shrines of Anglo-American history under the motto "Not Ancestry but Heredity") to erect the present memorial {right} by the famous architects McKim, Mead, and White, completed only in 1921
(Lamar 1934, 19-44, 132-43) .

PICTURE A turn-of-the-century Mayflower legend pursued the unanswerable question whose foot had first touched Plymouth Rock. One claimant to this honor was John Alden, another the maiden Mary Chilton. The writer concludes his "historical picture":
A youth in the full vigor of manhood, whose posterity should inherit the virgin land, sets his nervous foot upon the cornerstone of a nation, and makes it an historic spot. A young girl in the first bloom of womanhood, the type of a coming maternity, boldly crosses the threshold of a wilderness which her children's children shall possess and inhabit, and transforms it into an Eden. Surely John Alden should have married Mary Chilton on the spot.
(Drake 1906, 380)
This version makes the supposed "cornerstone of a nation" nicely vivid in the dream of a founding couple, imagined of pure English and Mayflower origin.

PICTURE It seems likely that the new immigrants and their reinterpretation of the Statue of Liberty helped to strengthen the Brahmins' consciousness of Plymouth. At least the granite-sculpted, toga-clad allegorical figure representing "Faith" that crowns the National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth {left}, was dedicated on 1 August 1889, three years after the Statue of Liberty, and does resemble her much larger sister in New York harbor. Faith's left "foot rests upon Forefather's Rock [supposedely an actual piece of Plymouth Rock]; in her left hand she holds a Bible, not the Declaration of Independence; with the right uplifted she points to heaven" rather than clasping a torch
(Burbank 1916, 8).

In his famous essay of 1915, "Democracy vs. the Melting Pot," Horace Kallen argued that it was the new presence of vast non-English populations, the feared "barbarian hordes," in the United States that had the effect of throwing back "the Brito-American upon his ancestry and ancestral ideals," a development that manifested itself in the heightened public emphasis upon "the unity of the 'Anglo-Saxon' nations" and in the founding of societies such as the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution that, Kallen argues, "have arisen with the great migrations" (Kallen 1924, 98-99).

PICTURE The more heterogeneous the country was perceived to be, the more Plymouth origins came to be stressed as a mark of distinction. This tension erupted in the controversy about the Russian Jewish immigrant Mary Antin {below right}, the author of the autobiography The Promised Land (1912) {left}. Antin suggested the compatibility of Jewish and American identity, viewing the transatlantic crossing as a new Exodus (as the Puritans had done), and supported Lazarus's reinterpretation of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of welcome to immigrants:

Let it . . . be repeated that the Liberty at our gates is the handiwork of a Frenchman; that the mountain-weight of copper in her sides and the granite mass beneath her feet were bought with the pennies of the poor; that the verses graven on a tablet within the base are the inspiration of a poetess descended from Portuguese Jews; and all these things shall be interpreted to mean that the love of liberty unites all races and all classes of men into one close brotherhood, and that we Americans, therefore, who have the utmost of liberty that has yet been attained, owe the alien a brother's share.
(Antin 1914, 25-26)

What Antin did for the Statue of Liberty, she boldly extended to the core symbols of Brahmin descent: "The ghost of the Mayflower pilots every immigrant ship, and Ellis Island {left} is another name for Plymouth Rock" (Antin 1914, 98). Antin courageously equated the Pilgrim Fathers' increasingly enshrined American beginnings with the modern clearing center (opened 1 January 1892 and closed 3 November 1954) in which approximately twelve million immigrants and remigrants were processed from 1892 to 1924 alone--and about three thousand committed suicide (Bolino 1985; Perec 1980, 16) {right}. Thereby Antin attempted to subvert the point of view from which a Plymouth Rock and Mayflower ancestry gave a speaker the right to reject an Ellis Island immigrant as a potential citizen. For Antin, any arrival in America after a transatlantic voyage was thus comparable; and her view of Ellis Island as a synonym for Plymouth Rock as well as her self-inclusion as an "American" were to become central to the expansion of the term "American" that supported the integration of minorities. In developing her elaborate analogy between Puritans and immigrants, she invokes the Brahmin James Russell Lowell and finds that he is a writer who chips away the crust of historic sentiment and show[s] us our forefathers in the flesh.

Lowell would agree with me that the Pilgrims were a picked troop in the sense that there was an immense preponderance of virtue among them. And that is exactly what we must say of our modern immigrants. . . . (Antin 1914, 69)

Antin's position illustrates the complications of national integration in a polyethnic country: nations often need founding myths and stories of origins, beginnings in the past that authenticate the present. Those who do not share such pasts, or at least their myths, can then be excluded from the concept of the nation: if they mean "foreigners" when they say "our forefathers" they may define themselves "out" as aliens--as did those Swedish-American intellectuals in 1890 who wished to celebrate "Our Forefathers' Day" or those Norwegian-Americans who rallied around the association For fædrearven after World War I (Blanck 1990, 90; Øverland 1993, 288); if they mean the Puritan and Revolutionary heroes, as the Russian Antin did, they "forget who they are" or they seem to be sounding a false note, as did the immigrant poet Agnes Wergeland who in 1912 chose the Mayflower rather than the Norwegian Restaurationen for her poem "America Magna" (American and Other Poems, cited in Øverland 1993, 340).

By contrast, a myth of origin in a mesalliance may stimulate polyethnic integration as ever newly combining mixed marriages (and not just ethnically endogamous unions à la Mary Chilton and John Alden) can then be regarded as the fulfillment of a prophecy in the national past, and not as a new and threatening penetration by foreigners; the children of such unions may combine memories of different, even antithetical pasts. Thus immigrants and ethnic minorities can become directly related and affiliated with a shared national past. Such "foundational fictions"--the term is Doris Sommer's --are common in Latin American literature, but problematic north of the border.


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