Portrait of the American; Immigrants: Again and again
Steerage dirty bundles foul odors sea sick humanity. But I saw and heard nothing the foulness and ugliness about me. I floated in showers of sunshine visions upon visions of the new world open before me land land came the joyous shout all crowded and pushed on deck they strained and stretched to get the first glimpse of the golden country lifting their children on their shoulders that they might see beyond them. Man fell on their knees to pray. Women hugged their babies and wept. Children then strangers embraced and kissed like old friends and old man and old women had in their eyes a look of young people in love visions themselves in me songs of freedom of an oppressed people. America America. America America. It's the classic cry of the immigrant coming to this country one hears it again and again and the scene is a classic. Two
of the families in steerage the sight of land the great expectations. It happens to be written by a Russian Jew ska but it might have been written by many others. In fact it's been described so often we might call it seen one of the immigrant story. It's followed by other scenes however including those like this one from Walker in the city. The autobiography of the distinguished literary critic Alfred Kazan himself the son of Russian Jews who came to America when I was a child. I thought we lived at the end of the world. We were the end of the lying. We were the children of the immigrants who had camped at the city's back door in New York's robust remotest cheapest ghetto and closed on one side but the canal was a flat and on the other by the hallowed middle class districts that showed the way to New York. They were New York the Gentiles. America we were Brownsville Brownsville is the old folks said the dust of the earth to all Jews with money and
notoriously a place that measured all success by our skill in getting away from it. I'll be talking today with Mr. Kazan and with others who feel that the immigrant experience has been and still is crucial to the shaping of the American character affecting both our personal lives and our national attitudes. I am Betty and this is a portrait of the American portrait of the American voters where the National Education already or network underground from emotional home Library Foundation program number for immigrants. Again and again the producer moderator Dr. British author scholar and teacher of American studies it is a curious phenomenon of modern America particularly of urban America. I think that Americans today are able to acknowledge the fact that the mere fact that we are to use the title of John F. Kennedy's book that we are a nation of immigrants and even to see American history as a
series of waves of immigration and yet remain unable to see how much these facts affect our every day struggle for identity our mobility our striving for success our religion and what might be called our human relations. For example our stereotypes of our American ancestors are usually rural ones. We see the frontiersman or the farmer we see the typical modern type as a wasp suburbanite but how often do we associate the word American with that picture of the family and steer it. The man in beards the women in bandanas carrying their bundles to a home in the city ghetto which then becomes a little Poland or Little Italy in the middle of the city. And here let me confess that I myself have been reluctant to associate this picture with my image of the American. Perhaps because I myself am two generations removed from my Finnish grandparents. And although my memory of them is tinge with a very pleasant nostalgia I
haven't been inclined to believe that they had very much to do with my own thoughts and feelings. The thing that impressed me however in the course of obtaining interviews for this series which is concerned with the question Who are we as Americans. The thing that impressed me is how often when I ask people who we were they answered by telling me why we cave. That is to say they felt that why we came actually was the answer to the question Who are we. Let me illustrate with three examples. First while interviewing Alfred Kazin I wanted to know whether he entertained a stereotype of the American. Do you see a person you see a figure in mind when you read your. Well I don't always see a person but I do see a figure I see a character among the worlds characters who represent a very definite historical evolution for various reasons partly because I am a fan of immigrants and partly because I have spent most of my professional life
trying to understand my experience in the larger context of American history and American literature. And well the thing that has made the American epic remarkable fact that from 1812 through to the ending of the free immigration 1920 you have some something like 50 million immigrants coming to this country which apparently its greatest migration the greatest recorded deliberate migration in human history the greatest recorded deliberate migration in human history. We should return shortly to Mr. Keyes in his analysis of the implications of this fact. Again when I interviewed novelist John Dos Passos and asked about a kind of character recurring in his works the underdog who was always struggling to get to the top. I asked if he thought this was the American he replied No that he thought seeking success was a universal motive. But then he added this comment. It probably has been more. Accentuated in America than inside it. Europeans thought it so. If you're excited to have where
society is so the bill lies at the beginning that there's not this. Did you really. People have to get to the top. Is that right most people come to your your right and set of mind came to this country for just that reason. I mean that's what I mean the closer you are to the immigrant I think the more you feel that my grandfather came from Portugal to have been feeling badly about fatherhood of I mean you might not read what again the reference to the immigrant ancestry Cambone is himself an immigrant from Italy who has been interested in American literature and who teaches at Rutgers University and when I asked him who the American was and what paradox he found central to the American mind. Mr. Cambone replied shall we say that on the one hand this is the people that came here at different times in different waves and in different circumstances
but with one constant assumption and hope. To come to the big open place to make the new start. But then history has made it harder for the American to be himself to maintain his own original dry land and dream because America has been confronted by apocalyptic issues in world history and so and so what can America do about it. On the one hand the American feels that the rest of the world is not his responsibility he came here to be himself and to lead a peaceful and successful life on the other hand. On the other hand something in his experience tells him that he cannot just let it go at that. So then you are caught between between the New World and the old world between the future and the past. It may well be that we are only beginning to discover how influential this clash between the
new in the old the future in the past has been in American lives and I'm thinking here less of William Bradford's account of the trip across on the Mayflower although the immigrant story does date back that far. As of such more recent examples in popular lit literature as movie America America which the hero comes from Greece or from the musical West Side Story by Bernstein Lawrence and robins in which the immigrant group is from Puerto Rico or of the stories not being told by workers in various inner city programs associated with the civil rights movement the end of poverty program or various educational programs. I think we're beginning to see the outlines of a classic American story of almost unique dimensions. The one scene that is most familiar actually dates back to the pre urban era and that is the scene of a rival. The sight of land the cry America that marks the beginning of some of these stories and
the conclusion of a movie. But there are later scenes also when they are especially relevant to the stages of mass migration from southern and eastern Europe and Asia that end in American cities. I should name Secondly the discovery of the ghetto frequently accompanied by disillusionment with America and with a pressure to disavow the native land and its ideals. A third scene might be the clash between immigrant groups especially as between the group that just arrived and the group coming in and then the interaction between them which would include intermarriage and various Romeo and Juliet stories played to an American rhythm and fourth any number of stories that stress this struggle up and out of the ghetto. The upward mobility to use the sociologists name for it. Finally after at least one full generation has gone by. There is the scene that
brings us to the back to the ghetto the return to the ghetto by those who have escaped. And it's this latter experience that Alfred Kazin captures so vividly in his personal story. Walker in the city it's about one place Brownsville but it might be of many other places. It's about his emotions but it might be about the emotions of many others. Returning to the places that marked their beginnings here is how his book begins. Every time I go back to Brownsville it's as if I had never been away. And the moment I stepped off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smelled a leak out of the men's room and the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps an instant of rage comes over me mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness. It's over 10 years since I left to live in the city. Everything just out of Brown's will was always the city. Actually I didn't get very far. It was enough that I could leave Brownsville. As I walked those familiarly choked streets at dusk and see the old woman sitting in front of the
tenements. I'm back where I began. The early hopelessness Burns of my face like fog the minute I get off the subway. I can smell it in the air as soon as I walk down Rockaway haven't you. It hangs over the negro tenements in the shadows of the darkened street. The torn and flapping canvas sign still listing the boys who went to war the stagnant wells of candy stores and poor parlors the blazing fronts of liquor stores the piles of how the chocolate kisses and the windows of candy stores the dusty old drug stores where urns of Rose and pink and blue colored water still swinging from chains and were next door Mr A sign still tells anyone walking down Rockaway Avenue that he has pants to fit any color suit. It's in the faces of the kids before they are 10 I've learned that Brownsville is a nursery of tough guys and rock with a springy caution like boxers approaching the center of the ring. Even the negroes who have moved into the earliest slums deserted by the Jews along Rockaway have been infected with the damp
sadness of the place and slouching along the railings of there were many wooden houses like animals in a cage. The Jewish district drains out here but then he's back again on the next street. They have no connection with it. A gypsy who lives in one of the empty stores is being reproached by a tipsy negro in a sweater and a new program if a Doro is paid or to tell his fortune. You promise didn't you didn't you promise you lousy. His voice fills the street with the empty rattle of a wooden wheel turning over and over. When I talked with Alfred Kazin who was of course also the author of the well-known volume on native grounds and more recently the collection of essays called contemporaries he stressed the word transformation as a key to explaining what America means and how the American is. I think that Americans by and large are wholly absorbed in a revolutionary task path to making themselves into new people. I think this
is something which has always been true about I think it's become more and more urgent the last few years rather than less so in that respect I disagree with people who assume that the American Revolutionary period is over or the mistake has changed. America to me represents a situation which transforms all sorts of people into this particular people called Americans and starting from anything anywhere starting from sometimes with a very distinct feeling of having no pastor or having too much past. They suddenly become transformed here and it absorbs them. This transformation is a continuous one. It's a constant process of becoming a new person. And one thinks that one things with one's immigrant parents when one has seen it you know thought of all people who never made it but who never left work at immigrants fascinated by the opportunities and temptations of change but most work was one field in one self. So that is by physical features that belong to the past and the one vent for
one's moral and mental life somehow become empowered or transformed into those who would argue that the mystique has changed I would argue against this view would tend to stress the closing of the frontier the rise of mass society and especially the passage of immigration restrictions during the 1000 20s as evidence that this notion of America might have now become obsolete. In fact I expected such an argument from John Higham professor of history at the University of Michigan because he had concluded his book strangers in the land which is about the reaction of Native Americans to the successive waves of immigration. He concluded that book with a statement that after about nine hundred twenty five with the passage of restrictive legislation America as a promised land had lost its significance that it would never be the same again. But when I asked him about it I received this unexpected response. I was feeling quite pessimistic when I wrote that book I was writing and I am of
age and so I gave the book a very somber conclusion. You can change that field today. I think so. I'm not nearly so sure I have the sense that they are immigrant experience. That is like the frontier experience persisting in other contexts. I don't know quite how firm how ETERNO. But I'm very much impressed at the way in which the Statue of Liberty has emerged as a great symbol for the American people. Here we begin to see how the immigrant story has continuing implications even for those of us who do not identify closely with the immigrant generations. These implications for our personal lives were brilliantly outlined by Alfred Kazin after I had remarked rather cynically I'm
afraid that while I could see the mystique for the immigrant coming to America transcending his surroundings achieving success and even for the next generation of immigrant children moving up and out from the ghetto I couldn't see the relevance say for my generation or for the majority of modern Americans to which Kazan replied Well let me say first that I don't think this is always a success story. I think it's sometimes a failure story a disaster story I think of the American Tragedy in a very large part comes from the from the sheer strain of so much change. I think that America in many ways has been a terrible thing for Americans precisely because of the opportunities it offers the horizon that constantly comes the innocent American with almost too much for work or the ability of many Americans. Let me speak about this. I believe myself this is a philosophical question not a social question not to me the question about one of transforming nice and innocent Europeans into successful
and accommodating Americans I see it as a problem of man's relationship to space and time. For me the fundamental question has always been a philosophical one how man faces his destiny how he thinks about his death how he thinks about his destiny his future. He's after all man as an animal as a human being is haunted by a sense of predictability and our sense of destiny which changes everything for him. Now in the past the sense of destiny could be dark and could be dim it could operate in those sorts of rounds. But in America this thing became charged with specific historical meaning. The American saw around him all the time the kind of person he could be like. Nowhere was there so much opportunity as there was here for him to become that kind of person. And I also mean by that which is part of the tragedy of course the terrible awareness always of what other people are accomplishing which makes the American which burdens the American you see always with the
sense of other people's achievements. How many people do you know who have collapsed under that strain of having to change and wanting to achieve or who seem constantly burdened with the accomplishments of others. A great many I suspect. Another spokesman who was impressed with the wide implications for the personal life of this process of coming to America was his son who was born in Egypt and whose book Radical innocence ends with the sentence the curse of Columbus is still with us. Everyone must discover America for himself alone. I asked Hassan what he meant by that sentence. I mean that. That's what brings. A person to the United States to America really I should say because to him to America. Is a vision. And the testing of the vision against the reality. Of American experience
becomes the existential faith sort of being the fate of the man or the woman who brings the vision with him. And this is why the process of discovery is a very. Very lonely one because each one because there's nothing going on here than the private vision that a person brings. What I'm trying to emphasize I suppose in the sentence is that the coming to America is not any physical act. Of transportation but it involved on the part of the so-called immigrant though I know that there must have been innumerable people who came here simply out of control motives. But even in these people I would argue that it has always been a vision no matter how. Muted it is if it was John Higham sees the immigrant as the parent of the mobile American the man on the make. And he added an important distinction here. When I asked his opinion of the view that the story of the immigrant
arriving in America in America might be seen as the American story. Well I'm persuaded that there's a lot of truth to us. We have a relatively recent history. The consequence of that is that we have no sense of relation to one another going back more than three centuries or so. They problematical element that arises because some of the people who came here from Iraq came here in such close knit communities so that though they never belonged to the land in the way that only the Indians do they nevertheless belong very intimately to one another and never came under the strain and stress of disavowing one another. I'm speaking here of
the original English migration of the 17th century. Subsequent emigration brought people here. Dead come under pressure to disavow their ancestry to some extent to detach themselves from one loyalty and taking up another. Finally I'd like you to hear three very interesting comments by Mr. Kazan on ways in which our national life as well as our personal lives has been influenced by this experience of transformation that Kazan sees as central to the meaning of America. His first comment is about religion in American life. The obvious fact to any literary historian or student American intellectual past like myself in founding America is the incredible importance of religion getting people here. But what happened to religion in this country as
we witness the extraordinary evaporation of worldliness. Almost beginning of 18th century is of course the extraordinary way in which religion becomes personal rather than philosophical that is in which a religion is taken as the badge of one's own particular immigrant tribe or group. So in other words to put it very flat which I do feel flat about this and flat headed flat footed. I do feel that that America has been in many ways death on religion and even though the religion is much regarded in America much talked about you know as witness the greatest when some Fifth Avenue of the family that prays together stays together. Obviously as a guide to any kind of otherworldly mystery as a sense even of of the philosophical reality of the world such as Christianity originally preached. I don't think that religion does occupy much for a role there and one of the striking things to me as a critic and as a student of contemporary American writing is the extraordinary absence of any kind of religious data in most
American writers today. For them the only reality is society when they talk about the personal life they always mean sex they mean feeling they mean emotions they don't mean. But after all in the past has been the very essence of personal life. Mainly what you I think of my of my life my destiny. Turning from religion to politics Kaizen remarks on the impact of the immigrant experience upon the American political temperament. Well the thing that has made the American epic remark was the fact that from 1812 to the to the ending of the free immigration 1920 you have some something like 50 million immigrants coming to this country which apparently is the greatest migration the greatest recorded deliberate migration in human history which you see that in the historical period. So yes if that is the year that is a 900 century that is the century where Whitehead called a century of hope it's the of course it's the it marks predictably the relative eclipse of Europe and the and the comparative building up of America something was
going to happen. But it also means of course a fantastic change in the character of American society a star that is many of these people not all by any means but many people came from from the peasants the lower classes in Europe and they helped to create what I think has been a very valuable radical temper of the prevailing liberal radical temper American side despite our middle class lives in other societies where people become as prosperous we have become they don't become very bushwah. But the but the memory of so much privation the memory of so much early political revolutionary struggle on the part of Russian Jews. Swedish farmers and of of Germans fleeing various kinds of off the docks repression all these things made for a certain conscious liberalism say which is I think which which is kept is relatively sweet or un bourgeois. Lastly I asked Kazan about a thesis one hears advanced frequently these days namely that the American Negro is today reenacting the immigrant
experience. And in a sense as an immigrant himself struggling for recognition in the way that other ethnic or nationality groups have done in the past and that the American Negro story is going to emerge as the truly dramatic version of transformation in our own time. Objectively of course that's true in the sense that as one can see from living in New York with Puerto Ricans and negroes there is a very obvious and very necessary attempt on the part of these groups which have been the last to rise to last with certain selves a very necessary attempt on the part of these people to duplicate the remarkable progress made by early immigrant groups only. And this is where I draw my necessary exception only the negroes were not an immigrant group. They did not come over voluntarily they came as slaves. And the difference in color is fundamental because color involves people in all sorts of emotional tangles relating to relating to personal relationships. Which obviously make
for a profound kind of difference. I am struck by the extraordinary way in which our political liberalism compels most Americans many Americans to do the decent thing to to act as if the negro were in fact deserving of full rights of citizenship. But all the while as we know perfectly well there is this terrible tension especially the part of people from immigrant groups who have just recently made it so that one is not surprised to discover that again and again the most emotional opposition to full integration comes from people one reason or another. I have just recently made it made just a word for them and one can see in the York for example the sometimes amusing conflict in the part of the Jewish middle class about this where group which is extraordinarily liberal and determinedly liberal as a whole perhaps taken all in all the most aggressively liberal group in the country. Nevertheless when it came to the questions of busing the children all sorts of things told all
sorts of problems simply because this group of course has made it there is no longer a Jewish proletariat as there was up to 20 30 years ago and these people living in very comfortable circumstances and professionally successful to a very notable degree obviously find it very difficult to accept on a full measure of what is happening there. And that's one of the reasons why you see. When I think of transformation I think for granted. I hope my heroes will understand that I do take for granted that there are different but different routes of transformation and sometimes these rhythms tend to collide with each other in a very destructive way. Part of the American as an immigrant in history again and again and still as a lonely man guided by a highly personal vision as an isolationist perhaps as a man on the move as a man constantly making himself transforming himself again and again becoming a new person.
- Portrait of the American
- Immigrants: Again and again
- Producing Organization
- Wayne State University
- WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
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- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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- Innocence and moralism as they react to the European setting; contrast of values; James to Baldwin.
- Series that examines assessments of the American using the themes of innocence, affluence, success and the American self. Features analysis by Dr. Betty Ch'maj, interviews, dramatic readings. Series features interviews with John Dos Passos, James Farmer, Marshall Fishwick, Alan Harrington, Ihab Hassan, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, R.W.B. Lewis, and William H. Whyte, Jr.
- Asset type
- Media type
Host: Ch'maj, Betty E. M.
Interviewee: Kazin, Alfred, 1915-1998
Interviewee: Dos Passos, John, 1896-1970
Interviewee: Hassan, Ihab Habib, 1925-
Interviewee: Cambon, Glauco
Producer: Gouds, Moyra
Producing Organization: Wayne State University
Producing Organization: WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-3-4 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Portrait of the American; Immigrants: Again and again,” 1965-12-31, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 14, 2021, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-hh6c6h8r.
- MLA: “Portrait of the American; Immigrants: Again and again.” 1965-12-31. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 14, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-hh6c6h8r>.
- APA: Portrait of the American; Immigrants: Again and again. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-hh6c6h8r