When emigrants become immigrants

It says something about my origins that I never heard, and seldom read, the word “immigrant” until I was living in England. Among ourselves, we were always emigrants, just as, for the Old World emigrants of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was always “America”, not the USA. The very word “America” was charged with the promise of adventure and freedom from want, not to mention persecution, debts, duties, disgrace and, in the case of eastern European men, military conscription. The dream was that, once you were over there, you could leave all that behind and start over. And if you had the inclination, and the luck, you might be a link in the chain that would help more of your people do the same.

We all need dreams – the triumph of hope over experience – just to keep us going, but it must be said that the American dream of Irish-born emigrants was, often literally, down to earth. They knew very well that the streets were not paved with gold, were more than pleased to pave them with bricks and asphalt. As country people – peasants with no capital, and no entrepreneurial culture to speak of – they found their starts in the swelling cities of the Atlantic seaboard. They had the advantage of being white English-speakers and their most immediate challenge, besides learning how to light the gas and live by “clock” time, was the scale of things in the big smoke: the crowds and the traffic, the skyscrapers and the bridges, the steaks, the department stores, and so on. But these novelties were trivial, compared with the psychological enormity of some of the differences noted by the writer Isaac Don Levine, a Russian-born Jew who reached America in 1911 (“Letters of an Immigrant” in American Jewish Archives, vol. 33).

Levine appreciated the relative efficiency of the US mail service, and the fairness of streetcar conductors, who didn’t require bribes. He liked the straps in the streetcars, so convenient for standing passengers; the serene and unpoliced libraries; the cheap and comfortable clothes; the female schoolteachers; the eggs that were large and oval, not small and round like Russian eggs. He was startled by the body language of American men, their way of hitching up their trouser legs and putting their feet up on table tops and windowsills; mystified by his first sight of a woman chewing gum, of a man sitting in a “rocking” American chair. When he saw the extremely tall American policemen he wasn’t too nervous because they were swinging clubs, not sabres, as they walked along. Some of these policemen would have been Irishmen called Seamus, which is one explanation for the Yiddish word shamus, for a guard, detective, unimportant hanger-on…

Less delightful, for the open-minded, open-eyed Levine, was the number of saloons: “some of the streets are literally covered with them”. These pubs were men-only social networking centres. The policy of John McSorley, founder of the famous saloon, was: “Good ale, raw onions and no ladies”. And if the onions didn’t do the trick, and a woman gained entry, old McSorley would say: “Make haste and get yourself off the premises, or I’ll be obliged to forget you’re a lady.”

There was a rough gallantry to old McSorley’s use of the term “lady”. Female immigrants had a more fraught understanding of the notion that “horses sweat, men perspire and ladies gently glow.” Sweatshops were sweatshops; so were kitchens and laundries. Keeping up a feminine façade for the “unmentionable” female animal aspects of your nature was more work, not “simply” a matter of soap and water, hats and gloves. And for women from the cloudier realms of the northern hemisphere there was also the shock of the weather. I couldn’t get over the heat when I first arrived in New York, en route for a summer job as a chambermaid in a Catskills Hotel. As my eyes began to slide from my face I understood why the television Americans were always washing themselves, and storing non-perishables in the fridge.

According to one of Oscar Wilde’s most versatile quips, America is a country that passed from barbarism to decadence without an intervening period of civilization. But he was flattering an audience for whom civilization often pertained to table manners. Barbarism was liberating if, besides being a license for a friendly informality, it enabled you to use your fork like a spoon, and eat a pear or a chicken leg with your bare hands. It must have been a relief, for those early immigrants, to find some variation in the “done thing”.

No matter how divided they were by the manners and customs of their origins, female immigrants shared a dream that wasn’t particularly American, insofar as it was about securing love and sustaining it, ideally in the comfort of your own household. Irish-born female immigrants were unusual because so many of them were single, unchaperoned by “elders and betters”. But while it’s tempting to see them as pioneering, feisty individuals, the general reality is that they settled for routine, indoor jobs and looked to their religion for the “higher things”. I can appreciate that low-risk survival strategy, just as I can understand the paradoxical yearning of the disbanded soldier for the orderly austerity of regimental life. Even so, I don’t think it’s too much to imagine that the experience of coming over and finding work on their own marked these lone females in positive ways. For one thing, it’s very hard for a husband to be the “lord and master” of a wife who did, for a while at least, depend on no one but herself.

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