In The New Criterion, Stephen Miller offers a fascinating reconsideration of Henry James’ view of immigration. Challenging the traditional understanding of James as a typical WASP anti-Semite, Miller argues that James saw the new immigrants of the late 19th century, who included Italians and Slavs as well as Jews, as a generally positive influence on American society.
Miller acknowledges that James believed himself and his old-stock compatriots to be dispossessed by the “the wild motley throng” on the Lower East Side. But he points out that James also posed the question with which American nativists have always struggled: “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?”
Miller goes too far in moderating James’ views. Although he avoided the bigotry that afflicted Henry Adams and other members of his circle, James was not particularly optimistic about America’s polyglot future. James did think that the immigrants would be transformed by their new country, and in this sense become Americans without entirely shedding their old identities. At the same time, he understood that American culture would also be transformed by them. In the process, it would lose the essentially New England character James revered.
It is hard to say that James was mistaken. While Miller rejects James’ fear about the degradation of language, for example, James foresaw that the American idiom would drift away from the influence of its geographic source, and take its inspiration from the streets rather than the pulpit and the drawing room. Surely James exaggerates when he predicts that, “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.” But I am not sure that he was wrong, either about the global appeal of the American language or its novelty.
On the other hand, Miller reminds us how seriously interested James was in the new immigrants. Many of James’ contemporaries relied on stereotypes of stupid Italians, greedy Jews, and so on. James actually took the trouble to meet and speak with them, sometimes in their own languages, before submitting his judgments to the press. This was not simply because he wanted to learn firsthand about his subject. It was also because he regarded the transformation of the immigrants into a new kind of Americans as an unprecedented feat of cultural alchemy that deserved to be understood even if it could not be approved.
For this reason, James’ writing on the “New York Ghetto” and related topics have a humane quality that escapes most immigration critics today. Although they are heavily freighted with abstractions, statistics, and anecdotes plucked from the headlines, few briefs against the Senate bill and associated measures give any sense of who today’s immigrants are, what they hope to accomplish, and how they have been affected by the experience. It’s too much to ask every pundit to be a Henry James, and even James was a literary observer rather than an investigative reporter. Nevertheless, we can learn from example of “the Master”.