Book Review: The Great Migrations: 1880s – 1912

The Great Migrations: 1880’s – 1912 (A History Of Multicultural America), by William Loren Katz

This book is a reminder, if any reminder was necessary, of the poisonous tendency of politics to ruin nearly everything. It is probably impossible to write about a subject as contentious as that of migration and immigration without in some way betraying the perspective and bias that one has on such subjects and their associated politics, but this author and likely this series as a whole particularly fail on that account. For one, this book (and again, the series of which it is a part) appears to presuppose the desirability of a multicultural approach to America as opposed to the sort of assimilationist perspective that I hold to myself. When you add to that the author’s praise of radical leftist politics, this book is clearly not aimed in such a way as to provide a receptive audience in this reader. It is certainly possible to write about the great migrations of the late 19th and early 20th century centuries in a way that would be personally appealing to me as a reader, but one cannot do it from the perspective that this author has for it to be appreciated, alas.

This book is a short one at about 100 pages that is divided mainly by ethnic group as the author wishes to discuss the immigrant experience for various Eastern and Southern Europeans (and others) in excruciatingly political ways, focusing on their labor agitation, perhaps the least interesting aspect of their immigrant experiences. The author begins with an introduction and then a discussion of the supposedly “new” immigration involved in the period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (1). This leads to a discussion of the migrations to urban America (2), specifically to the Lower East Side of New York City (3). The author discusses Baltic peoples (4), immigrants from the Balkans and Greece (5), Armenians fleeting genocide and seeking hope (6), the Jewish migration from the Pale and other places (7), Czech, Slovak, and Polish-American immigrants (8), and the work many of these people found in sweatshops to survive (9). After that teh author discusses Italian immigration (10), the path of immigration into the 20th century (11), the progress of many people through inventive genius (12), and the relationship of immigrants and the unions (13). After that the author talks about the Japanese (14), Koreans (15), immigrants from the Middle East (16), India (17), the formation of the Socialist Wobblies (18), the achievement of the American dream (19), journos (20), and the role of women in leading the fight for leftist reform (21), after which the book ends with a suggestion for further reading and an index.

One of the most telling aspects, in fact, of the author’s discussion of the great migrations as being a sign of America’s multiculturalism is the fact that the vast majority of the immigrant populations discussed in this book were eventually assimilated into the American mainstream. Those Italians who did not return home eventually became, for the most part, fairly ordinary Americans appreciated for their cuisine. Eastern Europeans, for the most part, similarly also had no particular difficulty eventually in being recognized even if their names remain hard to spell and pronounce for those of us from Western Europe. Among the immigrants who came in such masses to the United States, it was only those who were ultimately not of European and Christian roots who had a hard time being blended into the larger American tapestry of ethnicities, with some of those cultures fairing well nonetheless, like the Chinese, Japanese, and Jews, with minor exceptions for the way that they demonstrated themselves far more ambitious academically than their percentages of the population would indicate. This book is, therefore, in a way somewhat self-refuting in the way that the author seeks to point to America as being a genuinely multi-cultural nation or wanting to be, in that it discusses people through identity politics who largely were able to blend in by the time their grandchildren were growing up.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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