The Immigrant Eye

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Anthropology captured the American imagination at the turn into the 20th century. The public flocked to examine artifacts and to hear lectures in such forums as the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. World's Fair exhibitions in Chicago in 1893 and St. Louis in 1904 featured "living communities" of people from the other side of the globe. Newspapers such as the New York Times and magazines such as Popular Science reported the latest findings from distant field expeditions, including Frank Hamilton Cushing's work among the Zuni in Arizona. Anthropologists became participant-observers, living among, observing and recording a culture, and producing a written text called an ethnography.

The turn of the century was also a period of intense immigration. The years 1870 to 1920 brought approximately 26 million immigrants—nearly four times the number that had arrived during the previous 50 years. Most of these "New Immigrants" hailed from Eastern and Southern Europe, from countries such as Poland, Bohemia, Slovenia, and Italy, unlike earlier generations, which had come mainly from Northern and Western Europe. Ironically, at the same time that native-born Americans showed such interest in anthropological accounts of different peoples and cultures, their curiosity turned to alarm when they encountered the New Immigrant in America. Many considered these newcomers members of more "primitive" races and cultures, incompatible with Anglo-Saxon America, and encouraged legislation to restrict their entry.

Immigrant writers challenged this thinking. When the writers Sui Sin Far (Chinese-American), Mary Antin (Russian-American), Anzia Yezierska (Polish-American), and Louis Adamic (Slovenian-American) found themselves confronting an ethnocentric, anti-immigrant climate, they turned to the now familiar discourse of ethnography to argue for their place in America.

Ethnography typically involves two roles: the ethnographer (anthropologist/observer/writer) and the informant (native/observed/ interviewee). Immigrant writers tended to incorporate the perspectives of both roles. In fiction and non-fiction, they wrote as informants on their native cultures; they also frequently offered critical, ethnographic descriptions of their adopted country, seeking both to expose its ills and to enrich its culture.

These writers protested what I call "spectacle ethnography," the practice of Americans, primarily Anglo-Saxons, observing people whom they regarded as racially and/or culturally inferior in order to affirm the superiority of their own race, culture, or both. As Sui Sin Far says in a 1909 autobiographical essay, "Older persons pause and gaze upon us, very much in the same way that I have seen people gaze upon strange animals in a menagerie. Now and then we are stopt and plied with questions as to what we eat and drink, how we go to sleep, if my mother understands what my father says to her, if we sit on chairs or squat on floors, etc., etc., etc."

To combat such views, Sui Sin Far and others tried to transform immigrants from mere spectacles into individuals with valid cultural practices. To undermine anti-immigrant race theories, these writers built upon the work of Franz Boas, an American anthropologist (and immigrant). In works such as The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), and in articles in mainstream periodicals such as the New York Times and Everybody's Magazine, Boas redefined race to include only external physical features unrelated to cultural practices or intelligence, and encouraged what would come to be known as cultural relativism: the belief that cultural differences do not imply levels of superiority or inferiority.

In "The Chinese in America," a series of articles published in Westerner Magazine in 1909, Sui Sin Far detailed everyday Chinese-American life for other American readers, treating work, food, holidays, religion, the interface of tradition and new customs, marital and family relationships—all common subjects of ethnography—and featuring informant accounts by herself and by other Chinese Americans. Countering the stereotype of Chinese stoicism, Sui Sin Far remarks that the Chinese are not "alien to all other races. . . . There is no type of white person who cannot find his or her counterpart in some Chinese." Describing the wonderful color and festivity of the Chinese New Year's celebrations, she moves beyond its spectacle elements to clarify cultural customs, particularly the emphasis on gift-giving. Inviting the non-immigrant reader into the Chinese-American community through these sketches, Sui Sin Far shows her unique customs but also highlights values similar to those of other Americans.

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In other works, immigrant writers turned the ethnographic viewpoint outward to encompass non-immigrant Americans. Readers would discover new and critical insights about a sometimes bizarre, sometimes almost barbarous people: themselves. Louis Adamic consistently describes America as a "jungle" to be negotiated, titling his 1932 autobiography, Laughing in the Jungle. He finds congressmen asleep during the session he observes. He is mugged on his first day in Los Angeles. As he reports, "I discovered all sorts of churches I had never heard of before—churches of Divine Power, of Divine Fire, of the Open Door, of the Blue Flame, of New Thought, of Advanced Thought, of the Higher Things in Life." Adamic expresses skepticism about these organizations, calling a self-styled prophet one of California's "high priests of the Chamber of Commerce whose religion is Climate and Profits."

Mary Antin, writing first in Yiddish, established herself as an American ethnographer in her autobiography, The Promised Land (1912), which contrasts her background as a European Jew with life in this new land, "bewilderingly strange, unimaginably complex, delightfully unexplored." Later, developing an interest in American science, Antin witnessed something darker: the rise of the eugenics movement as an anti-immigrant force. Seeking to preserve a "superior" American gene pool, eugenicists urged the exclusion of New Immigrants, whom they believed to represent a genetic threat. Instead of focusing on improving sanitation, dispersing medical knowledge, and contesting the racism that limited employment and economic mobility, Antin notes, eugenicists blamed slum conditions on immigrants' "hereditary predisposition" to filthiness. Her pro-immigrant tract, They Who Knock at Our Gates (1914), criticizes this misguidedness: "Granted that Sicilians are not Scotchmen, how does that affect the right of the Sicilian to travel in pursuit of happiness?"

Although immigrant ethnographers could be very critical of their new country, they typically offered their observations as a means of helping America grow and develop. Immigrant status afforded a unique perspective on America's cultural direction. As novelist Anzia Yezierska noted, "The moment I understood America well enough to tell her about herself as I saw her—the moment I began to express myself—America accepted my self-expression as a gift from me, and from everywhere hands reached out to help me."

Lori M. Jirousek is a graduate student in English in the College of the Liberal Arts, 34 Scott Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-3942; Her adviser is Susan K. Harris, Ph.D., professor of English, 103 Burrowes Bldg.; 863-3068;

Last Updated January 01, 1999