The Future in America

by H.G. Wells


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter IX - The Immigrants


A picture for the book The Future in America

I

The Flood

My picture of America assumes now a certain definite form. I have tried to convey the effect of a great and energetic English-speaking population strewn across a continent so vast as to make it seem small and thin; I have tried to show this population caught by the upward sweep of that great increase in knowledge that is everywhere enlarging the power and scope of human effort, exhilarated by it, and active and hopeful beyond any population the world has ever seen, and I have tried to show how the members of this population struggle and differentiate among themselves in a universal commercial competition that must, in the end, if it is not modified, divide them into two permanent classes of rich and poor. I have ventured to hint at a certain emptiness in the resulting wealthy, and to note some of the uglinesses and miseries inseparable from this competition. I have tried to give my impressions of the vague, yet widely diffused, will in the nation to resist this differentia[Pg 134]tion, and of a dim, large movement of thought towards a change of national method. I have glanced at the debasement of politics that bars any immediate hope of such reconstruction. And now it is time to introduce a new element of obstruction and difficulty into this complicating problem—the immigrants.

Into the lower levels of the American community there pours perpetually a vast torrent of strangers, speaking alien tongues, inspired by alien traditions, for the most part illiterate peasants and working-people. They come in at the bottom: that must be insisted upon. An enormous and ever-increasing proportion of the laboring classes, of all the lower class in America, is of recent European origin, is either of foreign birth or foreign parentage. The older American population is being floated up on the top of this influx, a sterile aristocracy above a racially different and astonishingly fecund proletariat. (For it grows rankly in this new soil. One section of immigrants, the Hungarians, have here a birth-rate of forty-six in the thousand, the highest of any civilized people in the world.)

Few people grasp the true dimensions of this invasion. Figures carry so little. The influx has clambered from half a million to 700,000, to 800,000; this year the swelling figures roll up as if they mean to go far over the million mark. The flood swells to overtake the total birth-rate; it has already over-topped the total of births of children to native-American parents.

I have already told something of the effect of Ellis Island. I have told how I watched the long procession of simple-looking, hopeful, sunburned country folk from Russia, from the Carpathians, from southern Italy and Turkey and Syria, filing through the wickets, bringing their young wives for the mills of Paterson and Fall River, their children for the Pennsylvania coal-breakers and the cotton-mills of the South.

Yet there are moments when I could have imagined there were no immigrants at all. All the time, except for one distinctive evening, I seem to have been talking to English-speaking men, now and then to the Irishman, now and then, but less frequently, to an Americanized German. In the clubs there are no immigrants. There are not even Jews, as there are in London clubs. One goes about the wide streets of Boston, one meets all sorts of Boston people, one visits the State-House; it's all the authentic English-speaking America. Fifth Avenue, too, is America without a touch of foreign-born; and Washington. You go a hundred yards south of the pretty Boston Common and, behold! you are in a polyglot slum! You go a block or so east of Fifth Avenue and you are in a vaster, more Yiddish Whitechapel. You cross from New York to Staten Island, attracted by its distant picturesque suggestion of scattered homes among the trees, and you discover black-tressed, bold-eyed women on those pleasant verandas, half-clad brats, and ambiguous washing,[Pg 136] where once the native American held his simple state. You ask the way of a young man who has just emerged from a ramshackle factory, and you are answered in some totally incomprehensible tongue. You come up again after such a dive below, to dine with the original Americans again, talk With them, go about with them and forget....

In Boston, one Sunday afternoon, this fact of immigration struck upon Mr. Henry James:

"There went forward across the cop of the hill a continuous passage of men and women, in couples and talkative companies, who struck me as laboring wage-earners of the simpler sort arrayed in their Sunday best and decently enjoying their leisure ... no sound of English in a single instance escaped their lips; the greater number spoke a rude form of Italian, the others some outland dialect unknown to me—though I waited and waited to catch an echo of antique refrains."

That's one of a series of recurrent, uneasy observations of this great replacement I find in Mr. James's book.

The immigrant does not clamor for attention. He is, indeed, almost entirely inaudible, inarticulate, and underneath. He is in origin a peasant, inarticulate, and underneath by habit and tradition. Mr. James has, as it were, to put his ear to earth, to catch the murmuring of strange tongues. The incomer is of diverse nationality and diverse tongues, and that "breaks him up" politically and socially. He drops[Pg 137] into American clothes, and then he does not catch the careless eye. He goes into special regions and works there. Where Americans talk or think or have leisure to observe, he does not intrude. The bulk of the Americans don't get as yet any real sense of his portentous multitude at all. He does not read very much, and so he produces no effect upon the book trade or magazines. You can go through such a periodical as Harper's Magazine, for example, from cover to cover, and unless there is some article or story bearing specifically upon the subject you might doubt if there was an immigrant in the country. On the liner coming over, at Ellis Island, and sometimes on the railroads one saw him—him and his womankind,—in some picturesque east-European garb, very respectful, very polite, adventurous, and a little scared. Then he became less visible. He had got into cheap American clothes, resorted to what naturalists call "protective mimicry," even perhaps acquired a collar. Also his bearing had changed, become charged with a certain aggression. He had got a pocket-handkerchief, and had learned to move fast and work fast, and to chew and spit with the proper meditative expression. One detected him by his diminishing accent, and by a few persistent traits—rings in his ears, perhaps, or the like adornment. In the next stage these also had gone; he had become ashamed of the music of his native tongue, and talked even to his wife, on the trolley-car and other public places, at least, in brief re[Pg 138]markable American. Before that he had become ripe for a vote.

The next stage of Americanization, I suppose, is this dingy quick-eyed citizen with his schooner of beer in my Chicago saloon—if it is not that crumpled thing I saw lying so still in the sunlight under the trestle bridge on my way to Washington....

II

In Defence of Immigration

Every American above forty, and most of those below that limit, seem to be enthusiastic advocates of unrestricted immigration. I could not make them understand the apprehension with which this huge dilution of the American people with profoundly ignorant foreign peasants filled me. I rode out on an automobile into the pretty New York country beyond Yonkers with that finely typical American, Mr. Z.—he wanted to show me the pleasantness of the land,—and he sang the song of American confidence, I think, more clearly and loudly than any. He told me how everybody had hope, how everybody had incentive, how magnificently it was all going on. He told me—what is, I am afraid, a widely spread delusion—that elementary education stands on a higher level of efficiency in the States than in England. He had no doubt whatever of[Pg 139] the national powers of assimilation. "Let them all come," he said, cheerfully.

"The Chinese?" said I.

"We can do with them all."...

He was exceptional in that extension. Most Americans stop at the Ural Mountains, and refuse the "Asiatic." It was not a matter for discussion with him, but a question of belief. He had ceased to reason about immigration long ago. He was a man in the fine autumn of life, abounding in honors, wrapped in furs, and we drove swiftly in his automobile, through the spring sunshine. ("By Jove!" thought I, "you talk like Pippa's rich uncle.") By some half-brother of a coincidence we happened first upon this monument commemorating a memorable incident of the War of Independence, and then upon that. He recalled details of that great campaign as Washington was fought out of Manhattan northward. I remember one stone among the shooting trees that indicated where in the Hudson River near by a British sloop had fired the first salute in honor of the American flag. That salute was vividly present still to him; it echoed among the woods, it filled him with a sense of personal triumph; it seemed half-way back to Agincourt to me. All that bright morning the stars and stripes made an almost luminous visible presence about us. Open-handed hospitality and confidence in God so swayed me that it is indeed only now, as I put this book together, I see this shining buoyancy, this bunting patriotism,[Pg 140] in its direct relation to the Italian babies in the cotton-mills, to the sinister crowd that stands in the saloon smoking and drinking beer, an accumulating reserve of unintelligent force behind the manœuvres of the professional politicians....

I tried my views upon Commissioner Watchorn as we leaned together over the gallery railing and surveyed that bundle-carrying crowd creeping step by step through the wire filter of the central hall of Ellis Island—into America.

"You don't think they'll swamp you?" I said.

"Now look here," said the Commissioner, "I'm English born—Derbyshire. I came into America when I was a lad. I had fifteen dollars. And here I am! Well, do you expect me, now I'm here, to shut the door on any other poor chaps who want a start—a start with hope in it, in the New World?"

A pleasant-mannered, a fair-haired young man, speaking excellent English, had joined us as we went round, and nodded approval.

I asked him for his opinion, and gathered he was from Milwaukee, and the son of a Scandinavian immigrant. He, too, was for "fair-play" and an open door for every one. "Except," he added, "Asiatics." So also, I remember, was a very New England lady I met at Hull House, who wasn't, as a matter of fact, a New-Englander at all, but the daughter of a German settler in the Middle West. They all seemed to think that I was inspired by hostility to the im[Pg 141]migrant in breathing any doubt about the desirability of this immense process....

I tried in each case to point out that this idea of not being churlishly exclusive did not exhaust the subject, that the present immigration is a different thing entirely from the immigration of half a century ago, that in the interest of the immigrant and his offspring more than any one, is the protest to be made. Fifty years ago more than half of the torrent was English speaking, and the rest mostly from the Teutonic and Scandinavian northwest of Europe, an influx of people closely akin to the native Americans in temperament and social tradition. They were able to hold their own and mix perfectly. Even then the quantity of illiterate Irish produced a marked degradation of political life. The earlier immigration was an influx of energetic people who wanted to come, and who had to put themselves to considerable exertion to get here; it was higher in character and in social quality than the present flood. The immigration of to-day is largely the result of energetic canvassing by the steamship companies; it is, in the main, an importation of laborers and not of economically independent settlers, and it is increasingly alien to the native tradition. The bulk of it is now Italian, Russian Jewish, Russian, Hungarian, Croatian, Roumanian, and eastern European generally.

"The children learn English, and become more American and better patriots than the Americans,"[Pg 142] Commissioner Watchorn—echoing everybody in that—told me....

(In Boston one optimistic lady looked to the Calabrian and Sicilian peasants to introduce an artistic element into the population—no doubt because they come from the same peninsula that produced the Florentines.)

III

Assimilation

Will the reader please remember that I've been just a few weeks in the States altogether, and value my impressions at that! And will he, nevertheless, read of doubts that won't diminish. I doubt very much if America is going to assimilate all that she is taking in now; much more do I doubt that she will assimilate the still greater inflow of the coming years. I believe she is going to find infinite difficulties in that task. By "assimilate" I mean make intelligently co-operative citizens of these people. She will, I have no doubt whatever, impose upon them a bare use of the English language, and give them votes and certain patriotic persuasions, but I believe that if things go on as they are going the great mass of them will remain a very low lower class—will remain largely illiterate industrialized peasants. They are decent-minded peasant people, orderly, industrious people, rather dirty in their habits, and with a low standard[Pg 143] of life. Wherever they accumulate in numbers they present to my eye a social phase far below the level of either England, France, north Italy, or Switzerland. And, frankly, I do not find the American nation has either in its schools—which are as backward in some States as they are forward in others—in its press, in its religious bodies or its general tone, any organized means or effectual influences for raising these huge masses of humanity to the requirements of an ideal modern civilization. They are, to my mind, "biting off more than they can chaw" in this matter.

I got some very interesting figures from Dr. Hart, of the Children's Home and Aid Society, Chicago, in this matter. He was pleading for the immigrant against my scepticisms. He pointed out to me that the generally received opinion that the European immigrants are exceptionally criminal is quite wrong.

The 1900 census report collapsed after a magnificent beginning, and its figures are not available, but from the earlier records there can be no doubt that the percentage of criminals among the "foreign-born" is higher than that among the native-born. This, however, is entirely due to the high criminal record of the French Canadians in the Northeast, and the Mexicans in Arizona, who are not overseas immigrants at all. The criminal statistics of the French Canadians in the States should furnish useful matter for the educational controversy in Great Britain. Allowing for their activities—which appear to be based on an education of peculiar religious virtue—the figures bring the criminal percentage among the foreigners far below that of the native-born. But Dr. Hart's figures also showed very clearly something further: as between the offspring of native and foreign parents the preponderance of crime is enormously on the side of the latter.

That, at any rate, falls in with my own preconceptions and roving observations. Bear in mind always that this is just one questioning individual's impression. It seems to me that the immigrant arrives an artless, rather uncivilized, pious, good-hearted peasant, with a disposition towards submissive industry and rude effectual moral habits. America, it is alleged, makes a man of him. It seems to me that all too often she makes an infuriated toiler of him, tempts him with dollars and speeds him up with competition, hardens him, coarsens his manners, and, worst crime of all, lures and forces him to sell his children into toil. The home of the immigrant in America looks to me worse than the home he came from in Italy. It is just as dirty, it is far less simple and beautiful, the food is no more wholesome, the moral atmosphere far less wholesome; and, as a consequence, the child of the immigrant is a worse man than his father.

I am fully aware of the generosity, the nobility of sentiment which underlies the American objection to any hindrance to immigration. But either that general sentiment should be carried out to a logical[Pg 145] completeness and a gigantic and costly machinery organized to educate and civilize these people as they come in, or it should be chastened to restrict the inflow to numbers assimilable under existing conditions. At present, if we disregard sentiment, if we deny the alleged need of gross flattery whenever one writes of America for Americans, and state the bare facts of the case, they amount to this: that America, in the urgent process of individualistic industrial development, in its feverish haste to get through with its material possibilities, is importing a large portion of the peasantry of central and eastern Europe, and converting it into a practically illiterate industrial proletariat. In doing this it is doing a something that, however different in spirit, differs from the slave trade of its early history only in the narrower gap between employer and laborer. In the "colored" population America has already ten million descendants of unassimilated and perhaps unassimilable labor immigrants. These people are not only half civilized and ignorant, but they have infected the white population about them with a kindred ignorance. For there can be no doubt that if an Englishman or Scotchman of the year 1500 were to return to earth and seek his most retrograde and decivilized descendants, he would find them at last among the white and colored population south of Washington. And I have a foreboding that in this mixed flood of workers that pours into America by the million to-day, in this torrent of ignorance,[Pg 146] against which that heroic being, the schoolmarm, battles at present all unaided by men, there is to be found the possibility of another dreadful separation of class and kind, a separation perhaps not so profound but far more universal. One sees the possibility of a rich industrial and mercantile aristocracy of western European origin, dominating a darker-haired, darker-eyed, uneducated proletariat from central and eastern Europe. The immigrants are being given votes, I know, but that does not free them, it only enslaves the country. The negroes were given votes.

That is the quality of the danger as I see it. But before this indigestion of immigrants becomes an incurable sickness of the States many things may happen. There is every sign, as I have said, that a great awakening, a great disillusionment, is going on in the American mind. The Americans have become suddenly self-critical, are hot with an unwonted fever for reform and constructive effort. This swamping of the country may yet be checked. They may make a strenuous effort to emancipate children below fifteen from labor, and so destroy one of the chief inducements of immigration. Once convince them that their belief in the superiority of their public schools to those of England and Germany is an illusion, or at least that their schools are inadequate to the task before them, and it may be they will perform some swift American miracle of educational organization and finance. For all the very[Pg 147] heavy special educational charges that are needed if the immigrant is really to be assimilated, it seems a reasonable proposal that immigration should pay. Suppose the new-comer were presently to be taxed on arrival for his own training and that of any children he had with him, that again would check the inrush very greatly. Or the steamship company might be taxed, and left to settle the trouble with the immigrant by raising his fare. And finally, it may be that if the line is drawn, as it seems highly probable it will be, at "Asiatics," then there may even be a drying up of the torrent at its source. The European countries are not unlimited reservoirs of offspring. As they pass from their old conditions into more and more completely organized modern industrial states, they develop a new internal equilibrium and cease to secrete an excess of population. England no longer supplies any great quantity of Americans; Scotland barely any; France is exhausted; Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia have, it seems, disgorged nearly all their surplus load, and now run dry....

These are all mitigations of the outlook, but still the dark shadow of disastrous possibility remains. The immigrant comes in to weaken and confuse the counsels of labor, to serve the purposes of corruption, to complicate any economic and social development, above all to retard enormously the development of that national consciousness and will on which the hope of the future depends.

IV

The Educational Alliance

I told these doubts of mine to a pleasant young lady of New York, who seems to find much health and a sustaining happiness in settlement work on the East Side. She scorned my doubts. "Children make better citizens than the old Americans," she said, like one who quotes a classic, and took me with her forthwith to see the central school of the Educational Alliance, that fine imposing building in East Broadway.

It's a thing I'm glad not to have missed. I recall a large cool room with a sloping floor, tier rising above tier of seats and desks, and a big class of bright-eyed Jewish children, boys and girls, each waving two little American flags to the measure of the song they sang, singing to the accompaniment of the piano on the platform beside us.

"God bless our native land," they sang—with a considerable variety of accent and distinctness, but with a very real emotion.

Some of them had been in America a month, some much longer, but here they were—under the auspices of the wealthy Hebrews of New York and Mr. Blaustein's enthusiastic direction—being Americanized. They sang of America—"sweet land of liberty"; they stood up and drilled with the little bright pretty flags; swish they crossed and swish they waved back, a waving froth of flags and flushed[Pg 149] children's faces; and they stood up and repeated the oath of allegiance, and at the end filed tramping by me and out of the hall. The oath they take is finely worded. It runs:

"Flag our great Republic, inspirer in battle, guardian of our homes, whose stars and stripes stand for bravery, purity, truth, and union, we salute thee! We, the natives of distant lands, who find rest under thy folds, do pledge our hearts, our lives, and our sacred honor to love and protect thee, our country, and the liberty of the American people forever."

I may have been fanciful, but as I stood aside and watched them going proudly past, it seemed to me that eyes met mine, triumphant and victorious eyes—for was I not one of these British from whom freedom was won? But that was an ignoble suspicion. They had been but a few weeks in America, and that light in their eyes was just a brotherly challenge to one they supposed a fellow-citizen who stood unduly thoughtful amid their rhythmic exaltation. They tramped out and past with their flags and guidons.

"It is touching!" whispered my guide, and I saw she had caught a faint reflection of that glow that lit the children.

I told her it was the most touching thing I had seen in America.

And so it remains.

Think of the immense promise in it! Think of the flower of belief and effort that may spring from this[Pg 150] warm sowing! We passed out of this fluttering multiplication of the most beautiful flag in the world, into streets abominable with offal and indescribable filth, and dark and horrible under the thunderous girders of the Elevated railroad, to our other quest for that morning, a typical New York tenement. For I wanted to see one, with practically windowless bedrooms....

The Educational Alliance is of course not a public institution; it was organized by Hebrews, and conducted for Hebrews, chiefly for the benefit of the Hebrew immigrant. It is practically the only organized attempt to Americanize the immigrant child. After the children have mastered sufficient English and acquired the simpler elements of patriotism—which is practically no more than an emotional attitude towards the flag—they pass on into the ordinary public schools.

"Yes," I told my friend, "I know how these children feel. That, less articulate perhaps, but no less sincere, is the thing—something between pride and a passionate desire—that fills three-quarters of the people at Ellis Island now. They come ready to love and worship, ready to bow down and kiss the folds of your flag. They give themselves—they want to give. Do you know I, too, have come near feeling that at times for America."...

We were separated for a while by a long hole in the middle of the street and a heap of builder's refuse. Before we came within talking distance again I was in reaction against the gleam of satisfaction my last confession had evoked.

"In the end," I said, "you Americans won't be able to resist it."

"Resist what?"

"You'll respect your country," I said.

"What do you mean?"

In those crowded noisy East Side streets one has to shout, and shout compact things. "This!" I said to the barbaric disorder about us. "Lynching! Child Labor! Graft!"

Then we were separated by a heap of decaying fish that some hawker had dumped in the gutter.

My companion shouted something I did not catch.

"We'll tackle it!" she repeated.

I looked at her, bright and courageous and youthful, a little overconfident, I thought, but extremely reassuring, going valiantly through a disorderly world of obstacles, and for the moment—I suppose that waving bunting and the children's voices had got into my head a little—I forgot all sorts of things....

I could have imagined her the spirit of America incarnate rather than a philanthropic young lady of New York.

Return to the The Future in America Summary Return to the H.G. Wells Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson