Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Idea of "Campanalismo"

How Villagers from the Mezzogiorno Became Italian-Americans

And how similar processes are at work today.

In today's America, the development of pan-ethnic identities like "Asian-Pacific American" and "Hispanic" seems novel. Only a few decades ago, these labels didn't even exist, at least not with their present meanings. Yet the process that has given rise to them is not new. In the early 20th century, many immigrant groups developed wider identities than they had maintained in their home countries. 

A graphic attempt to convey the geographical breadth and ethnic diversity of the flow of immigrants to America at the height of "Great Wave" immigration. From Howard B. Grose, Aliens or Americans

Immigrants from Italy may be the best example. During the Ellis Island era (c. 1890-1924), Italians were the largest immigrant group, totaling more than 4 million. Yet Italy had only unified as a nation in 1870. Before then, the Italian peninsula was divided into city-states, papal fiefdoms, and regions under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most who came to America were from the Mezzogiorno, the southern portion of the geographical boot we recognize today as Italy. They had little attachment to the central government in the North, which exploited them through taxation and military conscription. 

Garibaldi fought several campaigns to unify Italy as a nation. His message of unity won fewer converts in southern Italy and Sicily than elsewhere. Most immigrants from Italy to America came from the South and brought with them distinct regional identities. They became 'Italian' in the United States.

The Italian nation emerged largely through the unifying efforts of Giuseppi Garibaldi (1807-1882). In Italy's Many Diasporas, historian Donna Gabaccia recounts that when Garibaldi's partisans marched through Sicily, his men sought to rally local support for their leader and the cause of unification. They chanted, “Viva Garibaldi, Viva Italia!” The peasants mistook the second part of the chant as, “Viva Talia!”, thinking that Talia had to be Garibaldi’s wife (and their new queen?). Italy was to them a vague abstraction. They knew their village and region of origin. These were the loyalties that they carried with them to America, not some allegiance to a political idea.

The idea of campanalismo helps explain Italian identity at the time. It may help us understand what is happening with some of today's ethnic groups in America. Campanilismo derives from the Italian word campanile for “bell tower.” The term implies a sense of fellow feeling among those who lived within earshot of the village church bell. That bell would toll daily for morning Mass and evening vespers, as well as for baptisms, communions, weddings, funerals, feast days, and general emergencies. Each locality had its own church and campanile, as well as its own dialect, traditions, customs, foodways, and sometimes even distinct modes of dress.

The local parish church and its belltower drew villagers together in small-town Italy and nurtured a sense of fellow feeling among them.
Photo of San Gimignano (Tuscany) courtesy of Marco Lazzaroni

It has been said that only after arriving at Ellis Island did immigrants from Abruzzo, Catania, Messina, and other regions learn that they were Italian. Even then, they tended to recreate the home village by clustering together in their own neighborhoods. Americans used the term “Little Italy” to describe an Italian enclave, but each enclave typically consisted of regional blocs. A street or tenement would be dominated by people from a particular part of Italy. At first, these newcomers stuck to themselves. They found jobs through family and friends from the home, built churches devoted to local saints, took spouses from the same region of origin. Yet, over time in this strange new environment, they recognized commonalities with neighbors from different parts of Italy, commonalities not shared with immigrants from other countries or with mainstream Americans.

For their part, old-stock Americans rarely distinguished among newcomers from different Italian homelands. Instead, they lumped them all together as “Eye-talyin,” or worse, as “dagos” and “wops.” The immigrants were relegated to menial work and generally were looked down upon. The discrimination they experienced became a unifying force among them. The old home-based differences, once so important, now lost significance in the American urban environment. In sharing neighborhoods, parish churches, worksites, theaters, and schools, immigrants from the Italian peninsula became Italian-Americans within two or three generations. Similar processes worked among other immigrant groups from Europe, and they are at work among today’s newcomers. Mexicans come here with strong regional identities, as do many Asians, but these identities tend to weaken in the new American context. 

Contemporary immigrants are generally less limited in cultural outlook than the peasant immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. American popular culture has become more pervasive with globalization. Through the Internet, social media, satellite television, and other advances in communication, today’s newcomers come here with greater knowledge of American culture, elements of which they have already absorbed. They may be racially more diverse than their European predecessors, but through a kind of cultural leveling, they are more cosmopolitan than the peasant ancestors of today's European-Americans.

The very term "European-American" projects into the past a coming together of distinct peoples (The map above labels them "races"). This convergence happened over the course of the 20th century. We are seeing a similar kind of streamlining in the 21st century with the development of new, broader multi-ethnic allegiances among previously distinct peoples. For example, several of the largest Asian immigrant groups come from countries that have historically fraught relationships. Think of Japan's occupation of Korea and Taiwan early in the 20th century, its invasion of China during WWII (e.g., the Rape of Nanking), or of China's recent territorial expansion in the South China Sea, which Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines all dispute.  These conflicts and rivalries had great relevance for first-generation immigrants, but they matter less to the younger generation who find it easier to identify as Asian-Americans. Recent anti-Asian violence has fostered this broader perspective, just as past discrimination helped make Italian-Americans. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Samuel Morse: Anti-Immigrant Genius

Samuel Morse (1791-1872) is remembered as the inventor of the telegraph. Less well known is that Morse was an accomplished painter, perhaps the foremost American portraitist of his day. Retired presidents John Adams and James Monroe sat for him, as did the Marquis de Lafayette of Revolutionary War fame. All told, Morse completed more than 300 paintings. He was also a pioneer of photography and mentor of the great Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady. 

Samuel Morse photographed by pioneering American photographer, Matthew Brady. 
Morse was a contradictory character. He despised the Irish in general but took the young Irishman under his wing, teaching him the fundamentals of the daguerrotype.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Morse must also be remembered as a fervid opponent of immigration. His writings against America’s first mass influx of foreign-born were so influential that Morse might well be considered the Father of Nativism. In 1834, he inspired the fledgling anti-immigrant movement with a series of letters to the New York Observer. Writing under the pen name, "Brutus," Morse railed against "priest-ridden Irish" who came here, he believed, to advance a papal plot against American democracy. These letters were compiled and published in 1835 as Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. They would later inform the political platform of the anti-immigration American Party also known as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner or the Know-Nothings. It is ironic that a man of such wide intelligence as Morse could inspire men who embraced the nickname “Know-Nothings.” Sworn to secrecy when questioned about their party, they are supposed to have responded to questions about membership by claiming to “know nothing.” 

The Know-Nothings’ strongest objection to immigration was not cultural. Nor was it economic. It was religious. In this, they took their cue from Morse, who was convinced that immigrants, notably the Irish and German Catholics then crowding cities of the eastern seaboard, were loyal to the Church of Rome (Nativists almost never said “Catholic Church.”). Their growing numbers, especially as naturalized citizens, would undermine America’s core principle, the separation of church and state. To Morse, the Irish were a particular danger because they naturalized in droves and the law allowed them to vote even before they had become full citizens. Their unquestioning obedience to the Catholic Church meant that they would cast their ballots as their priests dictated. Thus, these foreigners would sway elections and eventually deliver the country into the hands of the Roman pope. 

All this may sound absurd now, but Morse passionately believed it. His biographers have pointed to his travel in Europe as critical in shaping his anti-Catholic convictions. Morse traveled abroad twice. As a young Yale graduate, he spent several years (1811-1815) in England. This sojourn allowed him to refine his technique as a painter but seems to have had little impact on his attitude toward Catholicism. In 1830, he embarked on a two-year tour of Italy, Switzerland, and France. This trip left a deep impression on his politics. 

In Rome, Morse was fascinated by the art, architecture, and rituals of the Catholic Church. It was at one of these ceremonies that Morse’s disdain for Catholicism hardened into dread. Out for a walk on the holy day of Corpus Christi, Morse came upon an elaborate procession on the Via del Corso. He joined a crowd of spectators who watched as the Host, shielded by a canopy and ensconced in a monstrance, was solemnly borne through the street. Unlike those around him, the American did not remove his hat as the Host approached. Whether he deliberately refused to show deference to the sacred spectacle or absent-mindedly omitted the courtesy is not clear, but commentators have made much of this incident because of what happened next. As the procession passed, a soldier in the entourage knocked Morse’s hat from his head and may even have forced the American to the ground with a blow from the butt of his rifle. Threatening the stunned American with a bayonet, the soldier cursed Morse and called him “Il Diavolo” (Devil). 

The incident is reminiscent of St. Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, as related in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul is not yet a saint, nor is he even Paul. Instead, he’s just workaday Saul the Pharisee, a Christian martyr-maker, intent on rounding up the followers of the false prophet Jesus and bringing them to summary justice. Galloping towards Damascus, where he expects to find a gaggle of early Christians, Saul is forced from his horse by a blinding light. Jesus appears to him and says, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” This vision marks a turning point in Saul’s life. Within days, he takes the new name Paul and becomes Jesus’s greatest advocate. An Evangelical Christian today might say that Paul was at that moment “born again.” 

The Via Del Corso episode had a similar albeit less dramatic impact on Samuel Morse. It provided what he would later consider his deepest insight into Catholicism. Prior to his being assaulted, Morse was ambivalent about Roman Catholic ceremony. Yes, he thought it violated the simplicity of the Gospels, but the elaborate protocols, pomp, and regalia of the liturgical display intrigued the artist within him. One account of the Corpus Christi event has him scribbling down a wide-eyed description of the procession before he is blind-sided by the bullying soldier. Although Morse judges the soldier a “poltroon,” he holds his assailant less to blame for the assault than the clerics who ruled over the procession. It was they who had demanded that spectators be controlled. After all, Morse concluded, Roman Catholicism was “the religion of force.” 

Not long after his return to America, Morse set about composing the Brutus letters. It is hard to say how much their preoccupation with “Popery” as a dangerous political force owed to Morse’s experience on the Via del Corso. St. Paul became a new man after being forced from his horse. Morse’s blow to the head did not change the trajectory of his life, but seems instead to have intensified a part of him that was already there, his antipathy towards “political Romanism.” 

In a CSPAN interview on YouTube, biographer Kenneth Silverman claims that Morse never forgot the incident and mentioned it over and over in his speeches and political tracts. On August 10, 1834, just days after the publication of the Brutus letters, an anti-immigrant mob sacked and burned down the Ursuline convent school in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Morse’s hometown. Morse is said to have been appalled by the destruction, and in an age when communications were slow (His telegraph was not yet working), it seems unlikely that Morse’s writings could have prompted the attack. Yet, Morse’s followers would soon know all about the Il Diavolo episode, which became a symbol of the Old-World despotism that had no place in America. Over the next two decades, Catholic church burnings and anti-immigration riots became commonplace. 

Today, when some Americans are predisposed to dethrone once-iconic heroes, Morse presents a quandary. He ranks among our finest artists and inventors. He also championed higher education for women and became in his later years a great philanthropist. Yet, in addition to his writing against immigration, Morse would go on to publish tracts in defense of slavery.  In sum, Samuel Morse was a complicated man. His artistic and scientific accomplishments suggest the expansive genius of a polymath, while his convictions about immigrants and Blacks were bigoted and small-minded. Perhaps it is best that Morse’s technological genius has overshadowed other aspects of his personality. A quick Google search reveals that several American schools are named in his honor and his statue occupies a prominent place in Manhattan’s Central Park. Were his attitudes to be considered more important than his accomplishments, we might have to expunge his memory altogether.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Incompatible Cultures?

I recently saw that University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Amy Wax continues to ruffle feathers. Wax is a contrarian thinker who does not shy away from controversy. She may even welcome a fight, as seems the case with her comment on Ruth Bader Ginzberg shortly after Ginzberg’s death last September.  Back in 2017, Wax blamed many of America’s problems on the decline of “bourgeois values.” She went on to say that the US would benefit from admitting fewer immigrants from cultures that are “incompatible” with ours. This is a mantra that Pat Buchanan has repeated in such best-sellers as Suicide of a Superpower (2011), and State of Emergency (2006), The Death of the West (2001). Today’s immigrants, he says, come from “cultures never before assimilated." Buchanan offers this critique as unique to contemporary “Third World immigration.” Yet, it's a very old complaint raised throughout US immigration history. 

In the 1850s, many Americans considered Irish and German immigrants as incapable of assimilation. Here the drunken, belligerent Irishman teams up with his German partner to steal an election as their fellow immigrants riot in the background.  Unknown artist (John H. Goater?), “Irish Whiskey and Lager Bier",” courtesy of The Civil War Era

When America experienced its first mass immigration in the mid-1800s, it was said that the Irish and Germans who dominated the influx would never fit in. Protestant America thought the Catholic Irish were ignorant drunks ruled by the Pope. If allowed to become citizens, they would undermine American Democracy. The Germans, especially those who fled the revolution of 1848, were considered radicals and free thinkers who had little respect for American institutions, particularly the Sabbath, which they consistently violated with dance, drink, and song.

Uncle Sam is scolded by the editor of Judge magazine for allowing a horde of unsavory immigrants to enter the U.S. "If Immigration was properly Restricted you would no longer be troubled with Anarchy, Socialism, the Mafia and such kindred evils!"  Grant E. Hamilton, “Where the Blame Lies,” Judge, April 4, 1891. Library of Congress.

By the time Ellis Island opened in 1892, the countries of immigrant origin had shifted to southern and central Europe. Critics like MIT President Francis A. Walker complained that the newcomers were “beaten men from beaten races.” Having been repressed for centuries by church and state, the Italians, Jews, Greeks, Poles, and others had no experience with Democracy and were, he believed, unfit for American citizenship. This unfitness went deeper than their history of persecution. It was in their blood. Many Americans considered these “new immigrants” racially inferior to the northern European colonists who had established the country.

Of course, the critics were wrong. Today, German-Americans are the country’s largest ancestral group and are stalwarts of mainstream American culture. Irish-Catholics have been instrumental in making the once “Romish” church more Protestant in outlook. As for the Ellis Islanders? More than 40% of Americans have an Ellis Island ancestor. These “beaten men” fought bravely for the U.S. Army in World War I, many as volunteers. They and their women would help nurture America’s “Greatest Generation.”

As long as the United States continues to afford new arrivals with the freedom and opportunity they could not find in their “incompatible” home countries, they, too, will contribute greatly to our society. If by "bourgeois values," Professor Wax means hard work, frugality, family orientation, respect for education, and other socially conservative norms, immigrants pose less danger to America than native-born Americans.    

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

How the Klan Copied the Catholics

An army of Ku Klux Klan stalwarts drives St. Patrick, representing Roman Catholicism and Irish immigration, back across the Atlantic. From, "Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty" (1926), by Bishop Alma White. Irish-Catholic lore tells of how St. Patrick drove the snakes from Hibernia. Here, papist snakes flee America with St. Patrick. 

After the riots at the U.S. Capitol last January, white supremacist organizations like the Proud Boys and Boogaloo Boys have gotten a lot of media attention, but America’s oldest and most infamous hate group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), is rarely mentioned. Is it that the Klan just ain’t what it used to be?

Many Americans are familiar with the Klan’s history of intimidation, violence, and murder against African-Americans after the Civil War (1861-1865). The Klan declined in the late 19th-century under pressure from the federal government, but it reemerged in 1915, expanding in reaction to the movement of Blacks and immigrants into the cities of the North and Midwest.  While the KKK maintained an abiding hatred for Blacks, it added immigrants to its enemies list, because those coming through Ellis Island at the time were non-Protestants, notably Roman Catholics and Jews.

The KKK was not the first organization to oppose the entry of Catholics into the US. As early as the 1840s, the American Party (aka “Know-Nothings”) warned that Irish-Catholic immigrants were under the control of the pope, who sought to take over America. Nativists observed that the “Romish Church”—a term then used—was organized like the military. The Pope was its commander-in-chief. He demanded unquestioned loyalty from a hierarchy of cardinals, bishops, and priests. In turn, this clerical hierarchy held sway over the immigrant masses and dictated how the newcomers would vote.  Once the immigrants had achieved overwhelming numbers, they would rise-up at the Pope’s command and transform the United States into a theocracy.  

This alien religion, they said, was nothing like American Protestantism. Steeped in egalitarian traditions, Protestant believers owed allegiance only to the Lord Jesus. The Klan and other nativists also ridiculed the ostentation of Catholic religious practice. They mocked priestly vestments, the use of incense and holy water, the veneration of saints, and the deference shown Catholic prelates. All of this was described variously as “mumbo-jumbo,” “pope’s toe-ism,” and “idolatry.”  

It now seems obvious that the Klan, in making such criticisms, lacked self-awareness.  Just look at their regalia. Klansmen may have declared themselves fiercely opposed to papists, but that that did not stop them from wearing gowns that mimicked the garb worn for ages by Catholic “penitent societies” in the countries from which the immigrants the Klan so despised came. So closely do the two resemble each other that the BBC recently used photographs from Ku Klux Klan ceremonies to illustrate a story on Catholic brotherhoods in Spain. 


Some years ago, while visiting a cathedral in Spain, I stopped at a nearby shop selling religious articles. On display were rosaries, prayer books, saintly images, incense, and the like. The store also sold hooded robes for members of the local penitent society. A mannequin of baby Jesus was used to model toddler-sized robe and accessories. Today, such shops may assure tourists with labels that state, "No Ku Klux Klan - Spanish Tradition!"  

Other aspects of Catholicism that were anathema to evangelical Klansmen were the complex hierarchy and elaborate rituals of the Church. Hadn’t the Reformation rejected these trappings in favor of a spiritual return to the Gospels? True Protestantism would be egalitarian and austere in practice. Yet, when the Klan was going strong in early 20th century America, its rallies were notable for elaborate rigamarole and pageantry—burning crosses, flaming torches, solemn processions, and somber hymns—all presided over by a hierarchy of officers with arcane titles like “Grand Dragon” and “Imperial Wizard.”

A father and daughter, perhaps African-American tourists, pose in front of a Holy Week procession in Spain. The young woman looks upset at the resemblance the penitents bear to Klansmen. Her father seems to recognize that the similarities are superficial. Image courtesy of lipstickalley.com

Isn’t it ironic then that at least in its outward trappings the KKK adopted two medieval aspects of the Catholic Church it hated so much? No sane person would welcome the Klan's replacement by the likes of the Boogaloo Boys, but one can wish the hateful and anachronistic organization good riddance. 


Sunday, February 21, 2021

Mr. Dooley and the Birds of Passage


I recently came across a wonderful anecdote in a book written near the height of early 20th-century immigration to America.  In 1904, journalist Broughton Brandenburg published Imported Americans, documenting his and his wife’s experiences posing as immigrants from Sicily. Leslie's Magazine had financed their adventure, sending them to Italy, where they lived for a few months before making the voyage back to America in steerage. Brandenburg’s book described the entire experience, from the couple’s language and cultural orientation in New York’s Little Italy to the screening they passed through at Ellis Island on their return. Brandenburg illustrated the book with sixty-six of his own photographs.

One of the small stories Brandenburg tells gives insight into an important aspect of Italian immigration, the “Birds of Passage” phenomenon. One morning in a village outside Messina, Brandenburg is awakened by the voice of a child singing. The child is picking grapes in the vineyard below Brandenburg’s window. Brandenburg knows the song, but he's flummoxed to be hearing it here. It’s a popular American tune called “Mr. Dooley,” named for a comic Irish-American character created by Chicago newspaperman, Finlay Peter Dunne.

These are the days before radio. The song is best known via sheet music and an Edison recording sung in a thick brogue by an Irish tenor. But “Mr. Dooley” now comes to Brandenburg's ears under entirely different auspices. Journalist that he is, Brandenburg rousts himself from bed and ventures into the vineyard to find the source. The singer turns out to be an eight-year-old Sicilian boy who lived for two years in New York, where his father had contracted tuberculosis while working on the subway. The family had recently returned home so that the father might recover his health, but the boy tells Brandenburg that as soon as he’s big enough he’s going to run away and sail to America where he can go to school and make money selling newspapers.

Few Americans today realize that many immigrants, particularly during the Ellis Island Era (1892-1924), returned to their home countries. This was especially true for those from southern and central European countries. Italians had among the highest rates of return. More than forty percent went back.  They were thus described as “birds of passage.” Their reasons for return were many. Most were single men, who had traveled to the United States to work for a time and save enough money to get married, buy a plot of land, and build a house back home, where it was said they could live like Rockefeller. They were “target laborers” who never planned on staying in the United States. A few even made repeated trips, arriving in the spring and returning in the winter. During the sailing ship era, this would have been almost impossible, but the advent of the steamship made passage cheaper, faster, and less grueling.  

"The Immigrant. Is he an acquisition or a detriment?" An Italian laborer is the center of attention. Immigration from Italy was reaching its peak in 1903. For the first time in US history, annual immigration was exceeding one million. Artist: Victor Gillam, Judge Magazine, September 19, 1903. Courtesy of the American Social History Project

Americans hated this return migration. They accused the Italian laborer of exploiting their hospitality, caring nothing at all for the country that was treating them so well! In fact, a good many of the return immigrants went home as broken men. As one said, “America took us in, chewed us up, and spit us out.” These were the days before “workman’s compensation” and occupational safety practices. Injuries and deaths were common for laborers, especially those who did the dirty, dull and dangerous work that was the Italian’s lot in America.

Debilitating disease also sent many back, as was the case for the young singer’s father. The Italian immigrants lived disproportionately in America’s eastern seaboard cities. Many dwelled in tenements, where contagious diseases, particularly tuberculosis, thrived. At congressional hearings in 1924, witnesses said that Italian immigrants wanted to go home as soon as they had contracted the disease. Some must have believed that they would recover more quickly at home. Others returned in order to die. It was said that the hospitals and sanitariums in Sicily were crowded with tubercular patients returned from America.

No matter what the reason for return migration, Americans said they despised it. Their complaints were not unlike the complaints against Mexican immigrants today. They said the newcomers were nothing like the immigrants of old who had helped “upbuild” the nation. They accused the Italians of remaining loyal to the old country while acting with mercenary motives toward America. The birds of passage, the critics said, cared only for money, which they would take out of this country. Even worse, Americans believed that because the Italian laborers sought only to save enough to live well in Italy, where it was cheap, while in America they would take any kind of job, submit to the worst exploitation, and live under horrid conditions to achieve their target. In sum, the birds of passage were an affliction for the honest American working men.  

In the Sicilian village where Broughton Brandenburg stayed, ten percent of the population was away in America and the movement between countries was quite regular. Immigration from Italy to America grew explosively in the late 1800s. The U.S. Census of 1850 counted some 3,600 Italians in the entire country.  In 1903, the year Brandenburg visited southern Italy, more than 230,000 Italians arrived. Between 1900 and 1915, a total of 3 million migrated. As this stream of newcomers matured, fewer repatriated. Instead, those single men who had pioneered the process were joined by family and friends. Many birds of passage sent for fiances or wives, settled down and became full-fledged Americans. Whether that young boy who sang outside Brandenburg’s window ever returned to America we may never know, but I like to think he did.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Irish and Chinese Railway Workers, "Meat vs. Rice"?

This 1860s illustration is entitled, "The Great Fear of the Period." Given that Civil War and Reconstruction dominated the decade, it seems strange anyone then could think of immigration as a major concern. Yet, fear that the country was being consumed by foreigners, namely by the Irish and the Chinese, was particularly strong in states like California and Utah.  In this cartoon, the two chief rivals of mid-19th century foreign labor, the Irish “Paddy” and the Chinese “coolie,” stand astride a sketched landscape of America as they compete to swallow Uncle Sam whole. Not only does the Chinaman consume most of Uncle Sam, but he also eats the Irishman, his jacket bursting at the seams as he wears Paddy’s hat. Both immigrant groups were criticized for underbidding native-born labor and for their willingness to work under what Americans considered sub-human conditions. By the 1860s, the Irish had done most of the work on the railroad in the eastern part of the country. Many then sought to work on the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. “The Last Spike” ceremony outside of Provo, Utah, marked the completion of the line on May 10, 1869. 

From this iconic photograph of "The Last Spike" event, we might assume that the Chinese were not invited. There is not a Chinese face to be seen. 

In 1881, painter Thomas Hill offered a retrospective and romanticized interpretation of the same occasion. He depicted railroad baron Leland Stanford driving that final spike. At least a couple of Chinese workers can be seen in the foreground (holding shovels). Stanford, who became governor of California in 1862 spoke out against the Chinese as an inferior race whose presence would have a “deleterious influence” on American society, but this did not deter him from importing thousands of Chinese men as cheap labor. The good governor would go on to found Stanford University with a generous endowment no doubt deriving from his railroad fortune.
Thomas Hill painted this romanticized version of the "Golden Spike" event eleven years after it took place. Railway magnate Leland Stanford ceremonially drives the last spike. Just behind his kneeling helper on the left, one can see Chinese workers bearing shovels and wearing blue shirts.

Ironically, 1881 marks the year that Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the immigration of Chinese workers to the U.S. Both native American and Irish-born laborers supported the ban. In fact, Irish-born union organizer Dennis Kearny agitated against all immigration from Asia. The Irish had grievances in common with the Chinese—both were sorely exploited—but the Irish saw the Chinese only as competitors. As for Americans in general, they feared and distrusted the “Chinese coolie,” believing that Asian labor would lower living standards for native-born workers. 

This belief was suggested by the title of union leader Samuel Gompers’s book, “Meat vs. Rice?” Gompers was himself an immigrant (from England) and a champion of the working man, but he opposed Chinese immigration. As has so often been the case with America, just as one wave of immigrants starts to find its feet, a newer, hungrier wave follows. The newest arrivals are willing to work for less and under harsher conditions. This, of course, discomfits those who came before them. In 1892, the Scots writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, traveled America's Far West by rail and commented on such anti-immigrant feeling, “Awhile ago it was the Irish, now it is the Chinese that must go.”  

Of course, Chinese workers were already barred from entry. Not until after World War II, when the exclusion law was lifted, did immigration from China become numerically significant. In 2018, China displaced Mexico as the top country of origin for new immigrants to the U.S. In the wake of the declining relationship between China and the U.S. during the Trump years, we can only guess how immigration from China will fare under the Biden administration.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Dirty Words and Captain Clock 

French Priests Among First Americans

Portrait of Jesuit missionary, Fr. Jacques Marquette, by Wilhelm Lamprecht (1838-1906).
This romanticized vision contrasts with more realistic depictions, such as portrayed in "Black Robe," the Brian Moore novel, and the movie which it inspired.  

Once again, I have been perusing “TheJesuit Relations” online. It’s a collection of letters that French missionary priests in North America, particularly in Canada, sent their superiors back home in the 1600 and 1700s. The letters are fascinating sources of ethnographic detail on indigenous peoples, especially on Iroquoian and Algonquin tribes. The letters also provide insights into the attitudes of these priests, which could range from earnest concern for the souls of “les sauvages” to the self-righteous condescension of proselytization. The letters can be fascinating, horrible, and sometimes hilarious.

I recently came across a funny scene in which a young priest ruefully recounts how an Indian host embarrassed him. This host, an old man, was intrigued by the Jesuit’s ability to write and read. He decided to test the priest by dictating Huron sentences to him, insisting that every word be transcribed exactly.  This is no small task for the priest. He is still struggling to learn the Huron language. He doesn't understand what he's hearing. He simply writes phonetically what the old man says. After he has managed to take down a few words, his host asks him to read them aloud to the assembled company.

Here, it deserves mention that one of the things that could drive the more contemplative priests nuts was that there always seemed to be company. Being alone was something the Indians rarely did!

Anyway, the audience reaction to the priest’s recitation is overwhelming. As the young man slowly enunciates each word, his listeners start to laugh. Before he can say more than a few words, the lodge is filled with fits of gasping, howling laughter. This earnest young Jesuit, who has hoped to enlighten the benighted, has brought down the house!

But the young priest is no dummy. It doesn't take him long to realize that he's been set up. The old man has dictated to him obscenities. And the young man is bound to be struggling with their pronunciation, perhaps repeating them syllable by syllable, which makes them even more hilarious.  The priest wants to stop, but his host tells him it’s out of the question. He’s got to continue! And a grand old time is had by all (save one), especially when the Indians see that the young priest is truly embarrassed.

If we are to believe the Jesuit accounts, the Indians routinely used language that the French considered obscene. Men and women, boys and girls, young and old, cheerfully bantered, using terms for sexual acts and bodily functions. And yet, from what the priests say, the Indians were not “libidinous” in behavior.  

Canadian writer Brian Moore seems to have depended heavily on the “Jesuit Relations” for his fine novel, “BlackRobe” (1985), the English rendering of the name the Indians used for the Jesuits. In turn, Moore’s book inspired the film of the same name (1991) directed by Bruce Beresford.  The movie includes a scene where the Indians gather together around a clock the Jesuits have brought into the forest. The Indians call the timepiece, “Captain Clock.” The priests seem to have told them when to expect the tolling, and there’s a sense of anticipation among them as the hands move into position. The priests have also encouraged them to think that the captain is under priestly command, and they order it to stop just in time.

If memory serves, I encountered a description of this scene years ago from another reading of the “Jesuit Relations.” It makes the Indians seem childlike and naïve. What I most like about the account of the young priest taking dictation is that it shows how the tables could be turned. For a time, in the forests of North America, it was the Europeans who were like naive children.