- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Scrutinizing Immigration, the Henry James Way

In The New Criterion, Stephen Miller offers a fascinating reconsideration [1] 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”.

Follow @swgoldman [2]

Comments Disabled (Open | Close)

Comments Disabled To "Scrutinizing Immigration, the Henry James Way"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 10, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

What we don’t need, is an immigration bill that immediately extends the reach of the authoritarian surveillance state into all aspects of American life, as this one does. Not a single meaningful life issue will be able to be taken, without first obtaining federal permission via an intrusive background check of the unified database kept on every person – guilty, until proven innocent, for every American.

There are other means that don’t violate what used to be primary American values and freedoms. Previous secret police states had to have physical personnel make these checks of citizens, given their limited technology. The American secret surveillance and control state, with complete technological mastery, has the means to require this at every juncture where Americans encounter each other and make transactions with one another, which now require prior approval to be granted by secret laws and secret authority.

What a Pandora’s Box of unlimited unforeseen consequences have been opened up, without any meaningful discussion, control or oversight, overwhelming the archaic existing protections for individual freedoms.

#2 Comment By Aaron Gross On July 10, 2013 @ 11:01 pm

“The immigrants feel at home in New York, but James doesn’t. He feels dispossessed.”

That’s the important thing regarding the immigration debate today. It’s great that James approached immigrants with interest and curiosity, though we’d expect no less of any novelist. But the question being debated today is not, “Are immigrants a fascinating group of people?” I’m sure the answer to that is, yes. The question is, “What should we do about immigration?”

James didn’t just feel dispossessed, he was dispossessed. The beautiful, Anglo-Saxon New York City that you read about in stories like “Washington Square” was destroyed, annihilated by the immigrants. People today are watching their communities being destroyed by immigration, just as James’ community was then.

#3 Comment By TomB On July 10, 2013 @ 11:54 pm

Sam Goldman wrote:

“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.”

While obviously well-intentioned this piece still might well serve as a sort of illustration of so many others we see today in our politics on so many subjects in that while there’s nothing whatsoever wrong in its point as the above quote shows, what’s wrong—and indeed what’s terribly wrong—lies in its circumscribed perspective.

While clearly not intended as part of same by Goldman, such pieces en masse on different issues eventually create the impression that they *do* represent the broader perspective, and there’s nothing to see outside their bounds.

To get back to this piece as an example, yes, that is, those against this latest immigration Bill could well pay more attention to “who these immigrants are, what they hope to accomplish, and how they have been affected by the[ir] experience.”

Who can really argue with gaining more knowledge about *anything*?

But what’s totally missing in this piece’s perspective is any mention whatsoever of all the *other* people involved in this immigration issue. How come no one seems to be lamenting the lack of intimate coverage of *them*?

That is, for example, who the legal *American* citizens are whose lives might be negatively affected by opening the gates to illegals? What *they* “hope[d] to accomplish” in *their* lives? And how *they* have “been affected” by our recent immigration experience?

Indeed, it might be argued, as to this immigration issue it might even be said that to the extent there’s been the lack of concern for the kind of understanding that Sam Goldman argues for, relatively speaking it is the immigrants who have gotten far more of that understanding.

Thus of course the common discourse now refers to their having to live “in the shadows”; of the exploitation of many economically; of the rending of their families due to their illegal status, and etc. and so forth.

How many stories do we see however that deal with low-skill Americans whose jobs have been lost to illegals, or whose wages have been held way down by the flood of the immigrant labor supply? How many stories have we heard of how nicely many American people would consider getting amnesty from owing back taxes, or from victimless misdemeanor or felony convictions? Or from mortgage defaults? Or indeed from *anything*? How many stories have we heard about how nice it would be for American citizens to have their state colleges give some special “in-state *and legal*” tuition deals to *their* kids? Or for American citizens who have paid all their taxes and broken no laws and obeyed all rules in all states to get at least a *better* tuition deal for their kids going to *another* state’s school than many illegals now get? Or for American citizens who suffer by paying all their taxes of which *massive* amounts then seems to have gone to illegals in the form of Earned Income Credit claims they are allowed to make for their children, real and fictional? And how many intimate stories have we heard of border-area American citizens talking about the influx of crime and other problems that have accompanied the immigration that we’ve seen in the last few decades since the last amnesty was proposed?

Again, not that Sam intended his piece to be part of same because he’s not a polemicist, but this sort of thing has became nothing less than one of the most common propaganda techniques practiced on issues across the board by polemicists, and it is harming this country terribly.

Thanks mostly to our freedom of speech but also the growing ability of the public to know the facts behind things it might be argued that we have been fairly successful at tamping down the use of outright political lying.

But what good is that if we fail to notice and object to the telling of only *part* of the truth about a situation?

#4 Comment By Publion On July 12, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

But in the era of the Great Immigration (1880-1920) a) immigrants were coming in from a somewhat shared-tradition of European culture and b) they were coming into an America that trusted its culture and Vision and actively sought to engage them (as they sought to actively engage themselves in it).

Neither (a) nor (b) hold influence today. And especially (b): immigrants enter an America that is not sure of its own culture and traditions (indeed, its own government may seem to have turned against it, like Gramsci’s castle-guards who would treacherously open the castle-keep gates to those who would destroy the castle).

What consequences can flow, will flow, have flowed from this?

#5 Comment By David Giza On July 14, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

We don’t have a culture anymore. Multiculturalism isn’t a culture. The consequences of this could be a civil war or states seceding in the future.

#6 Comment By Samuel Goldman On July 15, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

Aaron Gross: The “old New York” of Washington Square wasn’t dispossessed by immigration. It was destroyed by economic consequences of the Civil War, which replaced the mercantile and professional elite to which James belonged with an industrial aristocracy. Mass immigration came considerably later.