Thursday, May 17, 2012
The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.
For many years now, I've dealt with the topic of late 19th/early 20th-century immigration in my teaching by relying on pieces from Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans, as Told by Themselves, a collection of first-person accounts first published in book form in 1906. There are few better ways of dramatizing this epic global transformation, which typically must be dealt with in sweeping generalizations, than vivid primary source documents like "Story of a Polish Sweatshop Girl" or "Story of a Chinaman," which render the daily of immigrant life with vivid granular detail, from monthly budgets to racial harassment. I was interested in Attachments, the companion volume to a new exhibit at the Nation Archives, for the way it might help amplify this primary source approach to the subject. At first I wasn't so sure it would; the approximately 20 primary source brief essays that accompany the documents in the book rarely contain the voices of immigrants themselves. But the cumulative impact of those documents -- photographs, letters, standardized forms, among others -- is surprisingly forceful, given that the book runs less than a hundred pages.
The core of Attachments is three chapters called "Entering," "Leaving," and "Staying." One need not get far in the first to see the striking variety of reasons why people came to the U.S., among them political persecution, the force of family ties (which were sometimes invented to circumvent stringent rules), and economic opportunity. A number of stories involve people fleeing the Holocaust.
Strikingly, the longest chapter is "Leaving," a reminder that a large percentage of immigrants left the U.S., willingly and unwillingly, to return to their native lands. Looking at records of the deported, we see the reasons range from political radicalism to the theft of peas, with the broad category of "moral turpitude" considered capacious enough to include everyone from prostitutes to those unfortunate enough to have the wrong kinds of friends. Even those who were ultimately not deported were forced to endure long periods of waiting. One particularly striking tale in the book concerns an American-born Caucasian who forfeited her citizenship by marrying a Chinese man -- she became a "lawfully domiciled Chinese laborer" in South Dakota -- who was forced to reapply for citizenship after returning the U.S. after a trip abroad.
A disproportionate number of stories in Attachments involve Asians. This reflects the racist attitude of the American government, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the "Gentleman's Agreement" barring the Japanese after 1907. While the east coast's Ellis Island was largely a way station for immigrants to get into this country, west coast's Angel Island was largely an interception station to keep them out. Europeans had their own problems with the quotas established in 1924; in a number of cases people were thrown out of the U.S. on the basis of questionable political beliefs. Even Mexicans, who were not subject to them, still had to scale bureaucratic hurdles.
The poignance of Attachments derives in part from the very fragmentary quality of the tales it contains. We (literally) get snapshots of people in motion, the facts of their lives listed on standardized forms but captured by the emotionally rich faces in their photographs (taken to prevent fraud) and accompanying documents. These people, otherwise lost to history, get resurrected, a haunting reminder of the hopes and struggles of people seeking a promised land achingly in view.