‘Are Americans People?’

The question was asked, in 1923, by the editor of The Story World and Photodramatist, as the topic of a discussion between several writers and readers of the magazine. The discussion originally revolved around the writer H.L. Mencken and his coterie of cosmopolitan-minded writers. They styled themselves ‘The Young Intellectuals’, representing an anti-traditional viewpoint and style, and this raised the hackles of the more traditionally-minded readers and writers. Several articles resulted, and the discussion was an interesting one, touching not only on literary matters but on American culture, ethnicity, and ultimately nationalism.

Mencken, of course was an anti-Anglo-Saxonist, and he thought none too highly of Americans generally, especially the rural Americans and the middle class (the ‘Booboisie’, obviously an object of disdain to him.) Mencken’s obviously cosmopolitan attitudes elicited some spirited responses. Among those was a piece by writer Emerson Hough. I was not familiar with Hough, but apparently he was a pioneer, a settler of the old West, and he wrote novels with Western themes: The Sagebrusher and The Covered Wagon among them. Some of his works were translated to the screen in the silent film era.

His strongly expressed opinions are strikingly relevant to our day; the 1920s were a time when Ellis Island immigration was changing the country to a degree that alarmed many Americans, and Hough was definitely not an open-borders sympathizer. He is writing with some irony and sarcasm here:

“Of course, in certain circles, it is unfashionable, inept, deplorable to confess an American origin; yet I cannot deny that unhappy truth in my own case. Alas! I know my grandfather. My family dates back to 1683 in America. It is most unfortunate, but they did not come steerage from England — indeed, I think they owned an interest in the ship that brought them, when they came over with William Penn. Myself, I can have had no chance in letters, because my first American ancestor had no statue of Liberty before which to prostrate himself on the ship deck when he greeted the land of Liberty, Cloaks and Suits, and Literature.

My said ancestor helped to make the village of Philadelphia. Obviously, I can have passed through no Melting Pot. Woe is me! I have had no chance.”

Evidently, even in 1923, the immigrants were being exalted as being the best hope fr the future, as quintessentially genuine ‘Americans’. Later, Hough writes:

“I think it was Mr. Israel Zangwill who was the proud author of that contemptible phrase, the “melting pot.” Mr. Zangwill apparently still takes himself rather seriously. He goes wider than the regulation of our literature, and would run our government as well. I am shocked, pained and grieved that Mr. Zangwill no longer seems to like us! We must endeavor to bear up under it.

I have no special ambition to be a John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. But John the Baptist said, “And even now the ax also lieth at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.”

How can you and I do some good in the world? Well, it occurs to me that we could be useful if we could put before all the inhabitants of America, alien, foreign and native, a proposition or so like this: Let those who do not like America get out of America — we do not need them. Let those who cannot be decent citizens be sent out of America — we do not need them. Let those who cannot obey the laws of America, who cannot accept the flag of America, and who cannot in every way become actual Americans themselves, be forever debarred from admission to America — we do not need them.

What we do need is a nationalism.”

Today we call this ‘civic nationalism’, and no, it’s not the kind we need, but remember Hough was writing at a time when we still had relatively few non-European immigrants, so perhaps it was easier for Americans to believe that the Europeans who made up the majority of immigrants might be assimilable. Then, even if ‘assimilation’ (read: amalgamation or mixing) did its supposed magic, we would still have people of many European ethnicities and cultures, some of whom had grudges (like H.L. Mencken) against the founding stock of this country, or against some other ethnic group. But it was not always easy to foresee today’s situation, from the viewpoint of the people of 1923.

Hough, though he was evidently an ethnopatriot, taking pride in his founding-stock ancestry, took his fellow Americans to task for their complicity in allowing the flood-tide of immigration, culminating in the Ellis Island influx which was still ongoing. He writes of how Americans were too fearful of the ‘feelings’ of non-Americans, particularly the immigrants, and how they failed to speak their minds, being reluctant to exhibit any pride in who they were, choosing to be self-effacing — then as now.

“The trouble with our civilization is that we have lacked courage to enforce rigid selection in our foreign immigration. Now, well nigh too late, we begin in that obvious duty. I don’t know that we need set any absolute or arbitrary date in the past as the proper shutting down point — although, since my ancestor Richard Hough came over in 1683, I could not be blamed for the conviction that 1683 would have been a very good time to bar all further foreign immigration! Had we stopped all immigration in 1783, or in 1883, we would have today close to the same 110,000,000 population, and it would be a better population. The influx of latter day immigration has taken the roof from the home of the American middle-class woman, the fire from her hearth-stone — yes, and the child from her bosom. And you ask me, dear Editor, Are Americans people?

Criminally careless — is that their one fault? No, I think they also have been guilty of criminal cowardice.”

‘Spineless Americanism’ was Hough’s phrase. Another aspect of this ‘spinelessness’ was the tendency to want to play Santa Claus to all the world’s needy, and that what we did was to give away our patrimony:

“But, in all these displays of caution or of cowardice we rarely ever help our own business one whit; and we always do damage our country. It is a grandiose gesture to call America the land of the free; to invite to our shores every item of dead broke and wholly inefficient humanity which could not make a living even in commercialized vice, at theft or highway robbery in any other country in the world. Drawing to us the dregs of humanity with yet another grandiose gesture, we always have declared the certainty of our remaining the greatest people in the world.

[…]I think it was the tremendous alteration of the population of this country. The lifted gates let muddy waters into our stream. We can trace back a great many American evils — a great deal of American discontent, uneasiness, anxiety, restlessness, apprehension, timidity — fear, if you please; fear of the future — to that one great cause. We have settled this country too fast, used it up too soon. In material ways the richest country in the world today, in the intangible, imponderable values we soon will be the poorest in the world.

The old America is gone, and we shall see it again no more forever. No crusade can bring that back. Out of the immoderate abundance of the richest table in the world we have only a half loaf left. And all that we can do today must be done in reference to that half loaf. Our patrimony is wasted.

He sounds pessimistic there, but was he wrong? However it seemed that, bleak as things looked to men like Emerson Hough in 1923, just ahead was an effort to curtail this immigration onslaught. The Immigration Act of 1924 was a step in the right direction. But Hough did not live to see that; he died less than six weeks after he wrote the piece I’ve excerpted here.

And the 1924 immigration bill was later to be nullified by further legislation which again opened the gates, and as time went on the immigrants were even less compatible with the founding stock. But that was by design. Hough and many of those alive then didn’t foresee fifth-columns and treasonous One-World types in the driver’s seat.

 

 

 

 

 

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