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

PICTURE Radical intellectuals among old-stock Americans also could find non-English ethnicity useful for their political purposes as invoking it helped them to attack representatives of the genteel tradition on ethnic grounds--casting it as "Anglo-Saxon" and the result of a British colonial mentality (Higham 1989, 23-26). The most outstanding representative of this tendency was Randolph Bourne who was acutely aware of the political implications of the New Englander's reaction to Mary Antin. "We have had to watch," Bourne wrote in the famous essay of 1916, programmatically entitled "Trans-National America," "hard-heated old Brahmins virtuously indignant at the spectacle of the immigrant refusing to be melted, while they jeer at patriots like Mary Antin who write about 'our forefathers'" (Bourne 1977, 249). Ellery Sedgwick, then the editor of The Atlantic Monthly (in which both Antin's autobiography and Repplier's critique had appeared) criticized Bourne by saying: "you speak ... as though the last immigrant should have as great an effect upon the determination of our history as the first band of Englishmen." For Sedgwick, Bourne's essay was simply a "radical and 'unpatriotic' paper"--though he did publish it in The American Monthly (Bender 1987, 246-49).

In the course of Bourne's essay, the "American" core definitions were revised:

Mary Antin is right when she looks upon our foreign-born as the people who missed the Mayflower and came over on the first boat they could find. But she forgets that when they did come it was not upon other Mayflowers, but upon a "Maiblume," a "Fleur du mai," a "Fior di Maggio," a "Majblomst."
(Bourne 1977, 249)

While implying in this example that various ethnic histories could be understood as "translations" of an original Mayflower voyage, Bourne did perceive the tremendous cultural opportunity of creating a cosmopolitan civilization that thrives upon the linguistic and cultural richness that ethnic variety brings to what he envisioned as a truly "Trans-National America" in which each American citizen could also remain connected with another culture (Matthews 1970). Bourne envisioned a cosmopolitan intelligentsia that could struggle free from an English orientation in American culture and from the requirement that newcomers shed their cultural, religious, or linguistic pasts upon becoming Americans (Hollinger 1985, 56-73). [This was compatible with Ager's view that the function of Americanization was "to denationalize those who are not of English descent" (Øverland 1993, 469).] Bourne also did not think that immigrants could remain fixed to their pasts. Instead Bourne advocated the new ideal of "dual citizenship," both for immigrants who came to the United States and for the increasing number of internationally oriented individuals who, like American expatriates in France, were born in one country but live in another. In Bourne's hands the contemplation of Americanness in the face of diversity led to a reconsideration of the nationalist premises of citizenship.

The American blue-blood Bourne argued memorably:

"We are all foreign-born or the descendants of foreign-born, and if distinctions are to be made between us they should rightly be on some other grounds than indigenousness.
(Bourne 1977, 249)

Yet those redefiners of "America" who wanted to make it more "ethnic" and "pluralistic," such as Kallen, Antin, and even Bourne, paid little or no attention to nonwhite Americans in their attempts at broadening American cultural categories. As Higham writes, their theses were "from the outset . . . encapsulated in white ethnocentrism" (Higham 1975, 208). As Higham also stresses, however, the political attacks in the name of ethnicity pushed the conservatives toward racism, anti-Semitism, nativism, and anti-intellectualism, and it alienated radical young intellectuals from working people--except insofar as they belonged to distinct ethnic groups (Higham 1989, 25-29). Nowhere is Bourne's blind spot more apparent than in his disdain for assimilation.
He writes:

It is not the Jew who sticks proudly to the faith of his fathers and boasts of that venerable culture of his who is dangerous to America, but the Jew who has lost the Jewish fire and become a mere elementary, grasping animal. (Bourne 1977, 254)

It is telling that Bourne, too, used the sinister animal image as well as the nativist term "hordes"--in order to deplore the assimilated "men and women without a spiritual country, cultural outlaws without taste, without standards but those of the mob" (Bourne 1977, 254). Bourne surrendered to a strikingly paradoxical argument for ethnic purity in the service of cosmopolitan diversity. In order to construct a dynamic pluralistic transnationalism Bourne needed monistic stable ethnic identities based on fixed national origins (that he questioned elsewhere). This is the dilemma of many pluralistic models of American culture, and it may be an inherent problem in "multiculturalism," too.

How, for example, would Bournean ethnic advocates approach such a common and so strikingly impure ethnic phenomenon as linguistic code-switching such as the following instance taken from Johannes Wist's Nykommerbilleder (Newcomer Sketches) of 1920. Here the Norwegian immigrant Salomonsen who has changed his name to Mr. Salmon says:

Amerika er en demokratisk kontry, ju 'no! ...
Jeg har getta saa jused te' aa speak English, at jeg forgetter mig right 'long, naar jeg juser norsk . . . Det tek tid for en nykommer at faa saapas hæng of languages, at han kan kætche on te de most komment English, men det kjem saa'n bey and bey. (Øverland 1993, 454-55; who translates: "America is a democratic country, you know! . . . . I have gotten so used to speaking English that I forget myself right along when I use Norwegian. It takes time for a newcomer to get enough hang of the language that he can catch on to the most common English, but it comes by and by.)

Ethnic writers could stress the loss of history or the comic gain in the untranslateable treatment of such moments, so common in ethnic culture. Bourne's reliance on a romantic model of ethnic identity, however, made him loathe much of what made actual ethnic culture tick, "the cheap newspaper ..., the popular song, the ubiquitous automobile, our vapid moving pictures, our popular novels."

We have come to expect from the racial right, from Croly, Aldrich or Repplier, a contempt for assimilation, often used as a code word for that widespread American practice and great cultural anathema of "mixing blood," which the right called "mongrelization." Yet Bourne proposed it from the left and helped to create a legacy of liberal faith in ethnic purity as a necessary foundation of pluralism.
In any event, pluralistic thinking gained ground in the period from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the late 1930s and early 1940s the Slovenian immigrant Louis Adamic helped to further superimpose the American origins at Plymouth Rock and those at Ellis Island, in the section "Ellis Island and Plymouth Rock" in a book entitled, in the Antin tradition, My America(1938), and in lectures to hundreds of audiences, with due homage to Emma Lazarus (Adamic 1938, 195; Adamic 1940, 292; see Higham 1975, 85 and Gleason 1980, 244). Adamic wrote that he wanted to work toward an intellectual-emotional synthesis of old and new America; of the Mayflower and the steerage; of the New England wilderness and the social-economic jungle of the city slums and the factory system; of the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty. The old American Dream needs to be interlaced with the immigrants' emotions as they saw the Statue of Liberty. The two must be made into one story. (Adamic 1940, 299) Adamic reiterated the parallels between "old" and "new" American symbols, exclaimed "Americans All!" (now with more varieties of body features), and invoked Walt Whitman's revived poetic formulation from the preface to Leaves of Grass (1855): "Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations" (Whitman 1982, 5; see also Adamic 1945), stressing a phrase that has since become associated with Ellis Island. John F. Kennedy made this view of America official in A Nation of Immigrants (1964). One must remember, however, that as late as 1956--two years after the Immigration and Naturalization Service had abandoned Ellis Island--the Eisenhower government tried unsuccessfully to sell the island and its buildings (Smith 1992, 84).

PICTURE Comparisons and parallels between Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island became more and more widespread up to the present moment at which the two alternatively conceived symbols seem to have merged. No satirists seem to comment on the strange fact that America's former First Lady, Barbara Bush, paid one hundred dollars to commemorate her Puritan ancestor Thomas Thayer (who emigrated from England in 1630) by having his name put on a copper plaque on the Wall of Honor now surrounding the Ellis Island immigrant museum (Stanley 1990, Sontag 1993), a wall that displays nearly two hundred thousand other names, PICTURE among them that of the prototypical Plymouth character Myles Standish and John Alden, though not of Mary Chilton. Has the vision of Johannes Wist who ended his Jonasville trilogy with the marriage of the Norwegian immigrant daughter Signe Marie and the Mayflower descendant Miles Standish Ward become a modern reality? Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island certainly seem to have become interchangeable in contemporary American culture. And this is where accounts of an "Americans All! Ethnics All!" success story sometimes end.

Yet the "old-stock"/"new immigrant" distinction on which much of the thinking about "America" and "ethnicity" rested did not, of course, apply to all ethnic groups. Unless forced into the somewhat misleading notion that they constituted "America's first immigrants," American Indians may have had an equally problematic relationship to Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island, though attempts have been made to connect them with both symbols. At Plymouth, Native Americans have been celebrated as the co-inventors of Thanksgiving; and when during the restoration work of Ellis Island skeletal fragments were found, they were blessed in a public ceremony performed by Willy Snake of the Delaware Indians ("Indian" 1987) at Ellis Island. {left}

Those Mexican-Americans whose ancestors became Americans by annexation and conquest are also likely to have a somewhat ironic relationship to the "nation of immigrants" and its symbols of arrival as well as to the narrowing of the meaning of "America" to stand for the United States rather than for the whole continent, as Croly had used the word.

PICTURE PICTURE Among immigrant groups proper, American citizens of Japanese descent were, at the very time that Adamic popularized the reinterpretation of the immigrants as new Puritans, stripped of their rights as citizens and property owners and interned in detention camps--as a race (unlike German or Italian enemy aliens, who were generally detained only on the grounds of individual affiliations or political acts).

PICTURE And other trans-Pacific immigrants? The 17,500 Chinese immigrants who, from 1910 to 1940, were processed through the detention center at Angel Island in San Francisco bay, may have gone through a clearing house modeled on Ellis Island; yet Angel Island, called "Devil's Pass" by the Chinese migrants, undoubtedly treated immigrants much worse than its model.{bottom right} Several of the Chinese poems that were written of the walls of Angel Island comment explicitly on the immigration procedure. For example:

Detained in this wooden house for several tens of days,
It is all because of the Mexican exclusion law which implicates me.
It's a pity heroes have no way of exercising their prowess.
I can only await the word so that I can snap Zu's whip.

From now on, I am departing far from this building.
All of my fellow villagers are rejoicing with me.
Don't say that everything within is Western styled.
Even if it is built of jade, it has turned into a cage.
(Lai 1980, 134; # 69; see also Yin 1991)


This is the most famous of the Angel Island poems, included, for example, in the "Heath Anthology", and read on public radio. However, as Te-Hsing Shan has written, this commonly cited translation may actually result from the conflation and rearrangement in inverted order of two poems that are clearly recognizable on the photograph of the Chinese original; and this is also the way in which an earlier translator rendered them. Shan asks: "Why is there rejoicing from the fellow villagers for someone who was to be deported back to China with his futile attempt, undeserved suffering, wasted investment, and unfulfilled Gold Mountain dreams? Isn't it more plausible that the second quatrain is written by someone who, probably among a group of fellow villagers, is leaving Angel Island not for China, but for San Francisco, and thus was able to start his long anticipated American dream in Gold Mountain?" The unproblematized English-only version, Shan concludes, "does not adequately address the bi-lingual, cross-cultural, trans-national complexity."

One also wonders what significance any of the old threshold symbols could have for the recent immigrants for whom borderlands, Kennedy Airport, or the "Green Card" might be more suitable alternatives.


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