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David Levering Lewis : Immigration
David Levering Lewis In 1900, as the immigrants come down the gangplank into Jersey City they expect the streets to be paved with gold, and they were only paved with gold in Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, of course. That was a modern fable about another issue and yet one that tied in, and that was to make America a democratic experience in an economic sense you had to keep the bankers in line and you had to keep the evil Eastern Establishment at bay. And that story, that fable, The Wizard of Oz, is exactly a fable about good people trying to keep the Wicked Witch of the East, representing capital, in place and doing so with good honest wood cutters and not very well educated, but wise grandmothers, so that in fact finally Dorothy can, with silver shoes, walk on the yellow brick road and all they need do is have more silver. Unfortunately, in 1898 we had the Klondike Strike and gold now pours in and so the whole argument about 16 to one silver to gold becomes somewhat antique, obsolescent, not somewhat, but rather quickly, indeed, and populism is defeated in large part with that slogan and that maxim, that goal in mind. If you looked through the lens of Jacob Reiss' How the Other Half Lives, if glasses are half empty and half full, yours is half empty. Though this is the land of in migration, it's also the land of out migration. I think maybe one-third or more of all the immigrants who came didn't stay. They went back to Italy and they went back to Poland, they went on to other parts of Central and South America.

They came to get their grubstake. They came to make it, to save enough or to send back to the village whence they came something that when they returned would represent an improvement. After all, a little money made in this country was a lot remitted to the metzojorno, say, or to Poland. The business of return migration is a phenomenon that historians have, indeed begun to look at, but it is rather an ignored and underplayed story and one that we need to know more about.

As the plight of so many immigrants is so unappetizing, their living conditions so deleterious to the health of their children that you have soon a very vigorous settlement house movement. The Progressive Movement, identified with people like Jane Adams, who launched with the support of some conscience stricken philanthropists, a major movement for urban renewal and for the construction of ideal housing. Unfortunately, government perceived that it had a very little role in making life better for the immigrants. That was, of course, part of the American ideology. It's exceptional, work hard, be frugal, and you would improve your lot.

Government doesn't do much for the new Americans. The assumption is that they'll take care of themselves if they work hard enough. And I suppose, depending on where you are, if you vote the right way. And from that point of view, government did do quite a bit for itself in that you had machines growing up in, of course, Tamany in New York and in Chicago and in Kansas City and elsewhere and those machines wrested their power upon the new Americans. And that had the consequence of giving to that settlement house, or Progressive Movement, a definite political tincture. There had to be reform. There had to be civil service reform. The bosses had to be turned out, and so you have a very impressive period of robust progressive activity, which leads to the capture of city hall in Cleveland and in some other American cities. After the experiment or progressivism, though, things tended to be a repetition of what had gone before.

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