The first several thousand settlers of Chicago were a mixed lot, frontier characters still hanging around, a goodly number come lately by way of the new Erie Canal from the North-Eastern States, a few from the South, with a sizeable element of the European, mostly newly arrived. The first of these were Irish, then a few Swedes came in, then many Germans and many more Irish, then more Scandinavians, then Bohemians, Jews, Poles, and Italians, not excluding, in fact, people from just about every nationality of Europe and Asia. A leavening and cementing American-born fraction kept coming from the East Central States and the farm region around; some settlers came up the Mississippi Valley from the South. It was not the City today, with its great black population, many white southerners, Puerto Ricans, and Asians. At the end of the Nineteenth Century well over three-fourths of the people were immigrants from Europe and their children. Almost all the rest were domestic midwestern and eastern migrants and their children.
Thus, in the circling eddy in which the Babe paddled, most children would have traced their ancestry in America by under a century, except for the blacks. Still the structures around them, the teachers and what they taught, and the mass media, plus all the ways of doing things, were such that the environment laid down a complete blanket of Americanism with a suffocating effect, some might say; others might be angered at some of its prejudices; still others might argue that there was more of the eclectic occurring than met the eye. So far as the Babe was concerned there was to be perceived no contradiction; it was total, uniform, and self-consistent as a culture, a snugly seamed evangelical tent.
The first settler of Chicago was a black trader with a French name, but a real black movement came only with the demand for workers during World War I when European migration was closed down. Black settlements surrounded the Loop. The blacks here found only the most menial jobs. All (!) of the women were in domestic service; all (!) of the men in unskilled labor; all (!) at the lowest rate of pay, non-unionized, to be hired and fired at will. Income amounted to less than $1000 per year per household. One survey of a hundred companies found not one that would give a black a job said to require responsibility.
The Babe's relations with blacks were more extensive than usual among Chicago children, largely because of the heavy influx of blacks into Franklin Junior High School. He chucked the blacks into the melting pot with everybody else, including himself. He found them friendly and more backward in schooling than the others. He had no idea of caste. He realized that often a "fuss" was being made over blacks. A special set of attitudes of an unfriendly kind could be discovered without much digging. From time to time he play-acted the "white versus black" scenario that many whites seemed to be carrying around in their heads. But he had no special feelings of this kind to begin with, nor did he pick up any throughout his years.
Once he obtained a pocket-knife and on the way home from school fancied that he would be attacked by black boys and would defend himself, valiantly and successfully of course. Carried away by the imagined scene he reported it casually to the Dad on his arrival home, as if it had actually occurred, saying something nonchalant like, "but when they saw me with my new knife, they didn't dare try anything." However, the Dad was seized by indignation and began to organize a posse comitatus to pursue the "scoundrels," whereupon the Babe, caught up in the spiralling consequences of his lie, retreated, saying, that's what I thought might happen, but it didn't happen. So blacks were spared at least this one injustice, and after a couple of days the boy conveniently lost his pocket-knife.
His widowed grandfather had brought an Italian woman to live with him, whom the Babe saw a couple of times and who was referred to by his Mother as "the step-mother." He hardly took note of her or of someone called "the step-brother," who lived in a small frame house not far away and was a thin, sallow, quiet character, whose single appearance cost the Babe no negative vibes; but he became momentarily of interest when the Babe overheard that he was "living with a colored woman;" "married?" he asked, but the answer was vague; he caught some small unsettled signals, one more bit piece in the picture puzzle of a family that for reasons not quite clear, practiced exogamy while ethnic endogamy eventuated with eighty-five per cent of the American families, in binding sexual relations as in social relations.
Aunt Lillie's best friend was Minnie Goldstein who was Jewish; the Mom numbered seven nationalities among her close friends. The Babe exceeded them without trying, but he actually believed from the age of seven that if a family was not intermarried it was not fully American. Although he believed his parents to be superior beings, he would have preferred that they had been ethnically more complex.
This idea, then practically a dogma, has relapsed in recent years, and ethnic boosters have had their victories in the press and legislation. (I lump nationality, race, and religious groups together here, following the Babe's perception of group relations, without attempting to justify him but neither attacking him.) There is profit as well as sense in building up ethnic groups; there is evil in it, too, as in any special pleading, religious, local, business, or familial. And there may be little to gain from a group's isolating itself, except to its sponsors.
At any rate, America was hell-bent for equality, uniformity and Americanism in the Babe's day, and he was right in step. Ethnicity was O.K., meaning "Where did you all come from?" but no foreign language, double loyalties, or cute mazurka costumes. You might argue, if you felt like it, with someone who declared that Irish were better than English, or Italians, but you were entitled to fight if someone said that Irish in America were not good Americans, or Italians or English were not real Americans, particularly if you were one of the ethnic group. That is, no one might claim on ethnic grounds that he was the better American. At least, that's the way it seemed to a small boy, and probably to a great many adults.
The Babe's godmother was referred to as Polak Rose; this was to distinguish her from Rose Peterson, nee Reilly, another close friend of the Mom, who was Irish Rose, married to Arthur, a Swede by origin. The Polish word for Pole was Polak, also the German, and the English, Polack, and the Italian word was Polacco, and later on, Pole became the more proper word in English, and everyone has the right to choose what to be called, and one might note that the Director of the final Opera given at the Auditorium in January 1929 was Giorgio Polacco, the Pole, literally. No one would have minded such matters, if it weren't that many Americans, new and old, went about with nasty attitudes towards others.
Ethnic slurs were a chronic nuisance of the Twenties in America. The Babe relied more upon the vocabulary of his library books and schoolteachers than upon his home or neighborhood for the propriety of language but even in these latter settings neither epithets nor prejudices stuck with him. The words for blacks were "nigger," "colored," or Negro, of which the second was considered the most acceptable in common speech and the third in school, whereas the first was the most common in social and street settings. He disused the word "nigger" almost as soon as he acquired it when it became clear that blacks did not like it. When Uncle Bill, the fan of "Amos 'n Andy," used the word, he let it pass as another malapropism, too habitual to be extirpated.
He did not understand the word "sheeny," for on the occasions that he heard the word up to the age of eight he thought it meant a junk dealer, the "old rags and iron" man who passed with his wagon. When he recognized its application to Jews, he would not use it, in fact never did employ the word.
Observant on such matters, he nevertheless did not escape embarrassment. A new friend, Morton Greenwald came to play ping- pong one day in Ed Dunton's basement and the two were batting the ball back and forth hard, diving and grunting, and when Mort made a tough slam, the Babe exclaimed "Oh, you kike!" smiling ruefully, and moments later the same sequence was repeated. Then he came to his senses. Mort had become quiet in his play. The Babe paused, ball in hand; he had shocked himself. He said, "Do you mind that word?" and as he expected, Mort replied, quietly, "Yes, I do." "I'm sorry," said the Babe, "I will not use it." They went on to play, but the Babe felt ashamed, and time after time would recall compulsively his shame.
How had he learned the word? Nor had he used it before, except perhaps in a couple of roughhouse scuffles with gentile boys when another boy may have used the word, nor did he ever think of Morton as being Jewish, nor had he put his even closer Jewish friends into any kind of special category, except, as it happened, he accorded them an unusual amount of respect as individuals, and he relied upon them (though he did not consider it in this light) for a disproportionate sharing of his better ideas and aspirations.
The words and feelings were in the air, of course, belching out like the puffs from the uncontrolled gas exhausts in the trucks and cars of the time. He knew to whom were applied the terms "hun," and "heinie," "kraut," and "mick" and "turkey" and "bohunk" and "chink" and "limey" and "dago" and "wop" and "greaser" etc. not to mention "yankee," "reb," "gringo," and other historical terms like "redskin," and "roundhead," and "Tory." The use of the adjective "dirty" and "dumb" made special names unnecessary for the slur, thus "dirty Jew," "dirty Greek," or "dumb Swede" (instead of "Scandihoovian") would perform the same obnoxious function.
The Babe heard himself called a "wop" one time, and turned to discover smiling breezy Bill Young, who was playing cornet below him in the band. Surprised, he dug into his kit of epithets, placing Bill who was from Canada, and retorted "Shut up, you dumb Canuck," and they grinned maliciously at each other -- a small, rare incident, in a life that was practically frictionless ethnically amid the rubbing together of many ethnic strains.
The trivial incident has a point for psychologists in that the youths were usually friendly, but Young was older, ambitious, domineering, a star dramatic actor, and set upon being the "Big Shot" at school; perhaps he felt a sudden twitch, a pique at playing second cornet, second fiddle, that is. And up plopped some family antagonism.
The Dad was more concerned about ethnic prejudice for having lived longer, travelled a great deal, and for having been playing the double role of the respected Italian maestro on the one hand and the apologist for the poor untutored immigrant crowd on the other hand, and what sensitivity the Babe had on this score was more attributable to his Father's feelings than to his own experience.
There was an anger in the Dad that ran below the surface, yet he could not be the one to speak up for he was not a prestigious politician, but we can hear William James, the psychologist and philosopher, say it in a talk to students almost a century ago,
Not to our generals and poets, I thought, but to the Italian and Hungarian laborers in the Subway, rather, ought the monuments of gratitude and reverence of a city like Boston to be reared.
Having a name that was unusual, that most kids and adults couldn't pronounce the first couple of times around or spell offhandedly, contributed some sensitivity as well. Those who could handle it, who liked the name, were a minority (if one excludes the large number with difficult names themselves); they were music lovers, true Italian-Italians, German-Germans who were raised with the "ahts" sound; the better educated schoolteachers and the smarter students. He did not deprecate a mispronunciation, but only the aggressive defense that some people throw up quickly when caught in an embarrassing oral bind; after all, most of the population couldn't pronounce the name of the man they had elected President, Roosevelt, as he noted whenever Uncle Bill was calling him "Roozeevelt."
That's not proper, said Ada Dyson, the music teacher, to the Babe when he uttered his name at the beginning of class; your name should be pronounced "De Grots-si-ah" not "De Graze-yah," it sounds so beautiful, too." It may have been so; it was the Dad's way of pronouncing the name, but the boys had gone along with the Mom's notion of the "American" way; in any form, problems would occur; but after consulting with Bro Bus, who had been a pupil of Miss Dyson, it was decided that her point was well taken and they stuck to something near to the correct Italian pronunciation from that time forward, allowing, however, such liberties as were necessary to people who encountered the name for the first time and helping them as patiently as they might, an experience half the American people might sympathize with; and, if ever the blacks were to go African with their names, they would also appreciate the experience.
It was an act of courage for Bro Bus. It is hard to sell the notion that beautiful and distinctive features may develop in the morphological redistribution which comes with age, such that the boy with the beak nose becomes a Barrymore, while the little girl with the cute retrousée nose may look ever more porcine. How could a worrying boy whose names, both first and last, added psychic complication to a large nose and aggravated acne, imagine that one day he would be handsome and that a famous lady poet, bored with signing her name "Marianne Moore," in her books at a reception in her honor, would abruptly say, "I am tired of my name, I'm going to sign a most beautiful name," and signed on the startled purchaser's flyleaf, "Sebastian de Grazia."
The Babe didn't mind being associated in anybody's mind with Italian origins, about which he could muster up as much pride as the circumstances required, but he disliked being carried beyond this point because then he perceived a mental process to be occurring that gave him a false identity: whether it was intended to be flattering or otherwise didn't matter much. He felt it to be untrue and indeed it was untrue, a complexity so exquisite that only a certain kind of Jew could be let to explain it properly: one learned early that to admit the identification to enter in the first place opened the door to the jungle of preconceptions people had, most of which were erroneous, but nobody would want to take the time to lead a person by the hand through the jungle.
It took him a long time to phrase exactly his position on this matter, for he discussed it as such with no one as he evolved it between the ages of eight and eleven. One day during this period, he had been on the way to school joined by Benny whom he barely knew, walking North beneath the gloomy Elevated structure past Beethoven Street when like the highwaymen of fairy tale two large boys, no doubt playing hookey from Jenner School, came at them from behind some crates and demanded his coins and fountain pens; "Come on, let's have them, or else..." He refused. His companion, penless, penniless, poorly dressed, worried over the Babe. Give it to them, he advised. No, said the Babe grimly. Then the boy turned to the brigands desperately, saying, "Look, he's O.K., he's Italiano too, his family will make trouble..." It was a cute unintended ploy: Benny identified himself with the ruffians and then set himself to think and speak for them. But the Babe now turned on him as well as the others with his dirtiest looks and bristling with fury, but he couldn't spit out what he felt, his hatred of special group pleas, and was muttering; "Never mind that... I don't care, you're not getting anything." The brigands hesitated, then said truculently, O.K., we'll let you go, get going, and they watched frustrated, as the small boys went on their way.
His seventh grade teacher was the voluptuous Margaret Mills, who usually exchanged with him enamored glaces (he was fairly sure of this), but showed that she was independent and reproved him on a point of order. He flared up indignantly and in the tough style of the bad boys of the school called out: "Shut up!" She was astounded; so was he, rather; and so were the other children, as he had intended.
She waylaid him after class, confiding to him, "I'm shocked at you, Alfred, that was not nice. You don't want to be like those other Italian boys." That was it: the word "Other." She was lumping him together with boys who gave him more trouble than anybody else; Couldn't she see that he was an authentic tough guy on his own (but he was also ashamed for, in fact, imitating them)? So he corrected her pedantically, "Oh, no, Miss Mills, I'm not Italian, I'm Norman, like you English, you know." The poor lady scarcely remembered that the Normans had invaded England in 1066, much less knew that their cousins had gone to Sicily around the same time to carry forward a civilization that much surpassed the English for 500 years.
When it came down to basics, he refused to let himself be identified with any group but Chicagoans and Americans. They were as all-inclusive as one could want. Still he would raise the banner and fight for his instantly concocted team, his Band, his Scout Troop, his school teams, or any of numerous groups, knowing that these were temporary and that he was risking his precious identity just for the occasion.
He hated labels, realizing that once one is categorized, he begins to lose options, that is, freedom. A sociologist would say that he could support only weak reference groups, and in this was typical of Americans throughout history who disliked being tied down and would occasionally shed their feathers of place, ethnic origins, occupation, social position, school, neighborhood, home, and relatives.
Yet Americans, including himself, have been rendered highly aware of ethnicity and can in the vast majority, as studies have shown, identify their ancestry, even while decrying ethnicity and hailing the "melting pot." It is difficult to explicate for foreigners who were not raised in the great American melting pot, but ethnicity to the Babe meant the flicker of curiosity and recognition of descent that was part of, and even helped to ignite the flame of personal relationships and then expired. It would be incorrect to stress this as a heavy experience, a weight on the mind, an indication of unequal treatment to be dealt out or received, or even an expectation of a cultural difference. He did not expect a "Persian" American to speak, act, or think Persian, or a "German" American to appear or behave germanically. He believed the same of himself, and like the others was quite satisfied that he was ignorant of a second language. If it had to be learned, he would start it at ground-zero like the others, and whether it was Italian, or Spanish, or Russian did not matter.
The Babe spoke American as his language and wondered at the quaint accents springing from English lips. He had never learned to speak or read Italian. As a typical American boy he not only was ignorant of a foreign language but was proud of the fact. The boys tended to look down upon those children who had picked up a second language at home. It was unnecessary and unbecoming. Thus it came about that the U.S.A., which should have held enormous numbers of polyglots into the second and third generation at least, suffered only a few millions of them, mostly in Louisiana and along the Mexican border.
I attempted an inventory of the ethnic backgrounds of the hundred and fifty or so children and youths with whom he spent his free time in school and outside, according to the amount of such time he spent with them, which was about 8% or one-twelfth of his total time, and arrived at the following percentages of time spent by ethnic descent: Italian, 23%; German, 23%; English, Scot, Welsh, North Irish, 22%; Jewish, 6%; Swedish, 6%; Catholic Irish, 3%; all other and unidentified, 17%. He knew fewer, proportionately, of the blacks, because they came into Franklin and the neighborhood later, were not present at all at Lake View, were older, were shyer, and so far as concerned intellectual work and classical music possessed only an unknown potential. By way of contrast, he knew practically every Jewish child who was within range, for the exactly opposite reasons.
Most of the British-Americans and some of the others, too, were children of the internal migrants from the East and the States around, less at home in Chicago than the Babe. Their parents or grandparents had been drawn to the City; they were those who, in the words of Edgar Lee Masters,
...sought work and found it, and soon belonged to the
vast throngs which came home tired at night to sit about the
boarding house table and talk of the events of the day with
their new-found friends. Thousands of middle-age people, and
even people growing old, likewise rushed to the great city,
there to open boarding houses, or to resume lives as
clerks... youths who had learned stenography by themselves
in the country, men who had clerked in the stores of the
villages and had read of the power and glory of Field and
Armour, and wanted to breathe a larger air...
Upton Sinclair wrote his best-selling novel, The Jungle, in 1906, employing a Lithuanian immigrant as hero; it deplored working conditions at the Chicago stockyards and described the slaughter and processing of tubercular animals and the infection of workers. But his readers, not being workers, were mostly upset about having to eat such food, leading the Author to comment, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident hit it in the stomach." Nobody, not even other immigrants, cared much about immigrants, not even other immigrants, nor about industrial workers, not even other workers.
The industrial system was truly cruel, but whether white-collar workers from the midwest or blue-collar workers from Europe, ordinary Chicagoans believed in it, like the Babe did. They vied in pulling the monstrous float of Juggernaut. Both types were poor, unorganized, docile immigrants with no time for anything except to work and to prepare to work to survive; both were ideologically attuned to be anti-socialist, anti-union, social climbers from a-level to a-plus level; but the clerks called the others "dumb foreigners" and the others wanted their kids to become clerks.
At home, the Babe was offhandedly given to understand that all types were basically alike, but that there were good and bad individuals that he had better keep an eye on. This was the general message conveyed in the classroom as well. He was not part of an audience for any concerted effort to make him and the other kids fight against any suspected prejudices of the home and neighborhood. The schools were not into their later systematic effort to breed supporters of the Bill of Rights and Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and to call for abolition of prejudice and for battle against the evils of racial, religious and ethnic discrimination. The image of the "melting pot" was used liberally to foretell what was going to happen to the American population and that was supposed to be enough said.
The five million Italians who journeyed to the United States a century more or less ago carried less wealth among them all than J.P. Morgan and other super-millionaires spent on buying and transporting to these shores Italian works of art. Actually, the adult immigrants imported, since their average age was young-adult, some $3000 apiece in the cost of their upbringing in Europe that made them ready workers the day of their arrival. And I suppose that one might say, if one felt like calculating it, that what they brought in as already-discounted social costs, and what was then converted into largely tax-free profits by way of the industrial system, would come fairly close to all that went back to divest Italian art markets. It does not take an Adam Smith to calculate that the Italian immigrants paid indirectly for all the Italian art in America. But, having helped to bring it here, so to speak, it would be a lifetime before they had the free time to see the art and before the art was available in museums to be viewed.
Somewhat the same could be said of all immigrant groups going back to our beginnings. The English colonists of Massachusetts and of the Carolinas brought with them less valuables than the property kept safely in England by the company managers and aristocrats who were set over them. Once they dispossessed the Indians, for which we are three hundred years later paying out cash, the colonists (and I include the Spaniards with the English) and their later American descendants did have free land and could readily capitalize what they found and sell it amongst themselves and to the Old World.
The Italians, and a high proportion of the rest, moved into a tighter situation; by 1890 all land came to be held in personal or government title: that is, officially, the Frontier was declared not to exist. And land is not only the basis of food and clothing, but can be sold for everything else. The system for treating with immigrants was even more poignantly what it had been all along: start at the bottom and work your way up, passing all failures on the way, including luckless earlier settlers, great in number. There arose a charming paradox in dealing with the chagrin of new immigrants: first, "You are inferior to us, so have no right to complain;" and second, in effect, "Since we are inferior to you, if you apply yourself you will surely get ahead."
Ethnicity was used in the United States as a supplement to and substitute for the weak class system. After the Revolutionary War and the Jacksonian Period had enfeebled class behavior, the ethnic system could be used more heavily to set up levels of social deference, whether in one's mind or in actuality or, and in fact, both.
There were, however, problems: different perspectives of very complicated kinds like the sub-cultural sectional differences and the bonds the educated and rich maintained with Europe and Britain, involving often a snobbery towards the Midwest and South; widespread beliefs in equality regardless of class and ethnicity; interior class systems of the ethnic groups themselves; cross-ethnic classes based on occupation such as lawyers and schoolteachers; and cross-ethnic religious affiliations, such as brought some Germans and Norwegians together in Lutheranism in Minnesota, Roman Catholics together from many ethnic strains and (what is often overlooked) the embracing of many ethnic strains (as individuals) by the ever- organizing and omnipresent Protestant evangelistic sects; I have already indicated here and there the Babe's sympathetic brushes with evangelistic, Episcopalian, and non-sectarian sectarians, such that at the drop of a hat he could have joined and been duly inducted into half a dozen different groups among whom he might find himself.
Governments were mainly neutral, letting the free-for-all and unequal struggle proceed, undiscriminating in principle and spurning the fatal step of separate treatment for the disadvantaged. But let no one make the mistake of believing that American law overall was so much different from other historical systems: in the U.S.A. as in Paris, every man, rich or poor, was permitted to sleep beneath a bridge. If no bridge, a barn would do.
The human costs of the creation of America and Chicago were huge, beyond belief, to those who have lived beyond it or have noted the events from abroad: bewilderment, exploitation, strangeness, neglect, physical poverty, criminality, the stripping away of traditional values and life-styles overnight: but this was the fate of all who came from the beginning down to the present, even in our time, more so in the Babe's. Here was the true "Montezuma's Revenge" and "Pocohontas' Patrimony": this trauma plus insatiable materialism, restless movement, eccentric morality: but, oh, the joy of being "let be" by which is not meant to be released from the whiplash of hard labor but let alone from the ritual, moral, familial, cultural, bureaucratic, police, authoritarian constraints of the old world. This same historical process underwrote the destiny of all who came, whether from France or England, or Germany or Spain or Greece or Russia.
Such historical sociology could not systematically enter the Babe's mind but that he wondered about such matters more and more is abundantly evident. Nor could he even have learned this historical perspective from his teachers, for the study was in its infancy, fittingly enough at the University of Chicago where W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki were preparing their great volumes on the Polish immigrant in Europe and America and graduate students were launching their careers with studies in urban sociology, using Chicago as their model and guinea pig.
Some types began, however, to piss in the melting pot around this time: a Constitutional amendment forbidding the production and consumption of alcohol slipped through the legislative processes, and in the same spirit there came legislation severely limiting immigration and discriminating against the "new" in favor of the "old" immigration. Representing the double kick-back, the Ku Klux Klan revived in force and spread anti-Catholic, anti-semitic and anti- immigrant propaganda, and if there were a disproportion of corn- liquor addicts from the KKK, they were nevertheless standing for the values of the teetotalers of the country.
The Babe encountered the news of the Klan in the newspapers he was beginning to examine from day to day. The Dad liked to tell of organizing bands for KKK rallies composed of Italian, Polish, Irish, and German musicians, most of them nominally Catholic to boot, obligingly garbed in white sheets.
Prohibition did not bother the Babe personally -- milk and soda pop were not yet regarded as harmful, even when imbibed in huge quantities. The Dad, however, and just about everyone else the Babe came into contact with -- his teachers being discreetly silent on the subject -- scorned the liquor laws and felt that their violation was no crime at all but a matter of expedience and prudence. The "new immigrants" were scarcely part of the drunkenness epidemic in America from its earliest days; they treasured, however, the right to nip from time to time. It was the grave psychological and medical problem of the "old" Americans. And since the new were more Catholic by far than the old, it became a religious issue as well. A 1926 poll of the Chicago population ran three to one against Prohibition.
Bootlegging had been a romantic tradition of the Scots-Irish Protestants of the Southern hills, but now in the North became a matter of loving attention on the part of mostly Irish and Italian, but also a melting-pot medley of characters, who, given benevolently negligent Irish-dominated police forces, enjoyed a field day of alcohol trafficking.
The ensuing colorful scene became an American classic, underpinning the myth of the "Roaring Twenties" and the Gangsters and above all, Chicago. All of this was the subject of excited and informed conversation among the schoolchildren of Chicago, of whom the Babe, if anything, was a blue-nose in his attitudes, for many children were delighted by all evidence of the flagrant violation of liquor laws, whereas he rarely defended a crook so defined by the Law, notwithstanding that he had read, mobilizing every erg of psychic support, The Adventures of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and who represented, we often fail to appreciate, the down-trodden Anglo-Saxons' futile resistance against the ruling Norman class.
Meanwhile he had little occasion to talk about the "immigration question" or of ethnic discrimination and ethnic politics -- or very little. The public schools and his peer groups rarely spoke of them. Occasional remarks by the Dad (with appropriate sympathy from the sons) evidenced that he was keenly aware of the problem of the old Americans against the new Americans, not to mention new against old and old against old. Perhaps he was not up in arms so long as there occurred no individual action affecting himself or those about him, and because on his and his wife's side there was no personal interest or family interest in immigration policies. No doubt, too, the Babe dissembled any anxieties he may have felt about being mistakenly taken for anything but a 100% red-blooded American boy; if felt, such uneasiness was buried, like his weaknesses with respect to Bro Bus, or like the tensions provoked by his relative youth in most of his activities: all of these anxieties together being fully employed in firing up the continuous explosion of his energies in all directions.
It is noteworthy that the Babe had rather less contact with Irish Catholics than others, this despite the family doctor having been the jovial Hogan, discounting also a couple of close friends of the Mom, and the Dad's regular associations with priests, nuns, and his pupils. Regis Thornton, Veronica McCormick, and Pat Nolan were friends, but there were hardly others. The Irish had a penchant for hassling people, from what he heard tell; he knew almost no one of Polish descent, yet had never heard the same of them; so his apprehension was probably correct.
The Irish Catholics played a special leading role in Chicago's ramified political life, coming in almost at the beginning and then in heavy numbers; in politics they pushed out most of the Germans, Yankees, and Scandinavians, and then fended off the East and South Europeans and blacks, yet making a place for Jews, who had a triple faculty for employing the law, for making money, and for spending it effectively for influence. Irish politicians were long checked by Republican Yankee and German Party rule, but progressively took over the City as the Twenties advanced into the Thirties. They were largely within the Democratic Party.
The Machine's best builder, however, was Anton Cermak, Czech- born and son of a coal miner, a small businessman who began with a horse and wagon, a tough, unwearying dyspeptic organizer who began at the precinct level of politics among the great many immigrant Bohemians and their families. He was elected Mayor, but then was fatally wounded in an attempt upon the life of President- elect Franklin Roosevelt. His heir was the Kelly-Nash Machine.
"Politics" was for a great many immigrants and their children the equivalent of "affirmative action programs" of a later day, directed against invidious discrimination. Mostly unaware of its larger significance in creating an integrated city, "good" and "liberal" citizens were against the spoils system and tried, with some success, to block it by merit civil service and endless struggles against "corruption." The Babe and his school friends were right with them. Still, in his slack, swashbuckling way, Mayor Big Bill Thompson, and his opponent, Mayor "Pushcart Tony" Cermak, represented what Chicago needed, sociologically.
Meanwhile very many Irish had been engaged in building institutions centered upon the Catholic Church. Although originally and often still economically deprived, they led the coalition of ethnic groups that managed to build a complete set of imposing churches, a system of primary and secondary schools, and several colleges and seminaries, all of this managed in substantial part out of the pathetically small contributions of laboring men and women. They could not be industry-broken, just as Indian slaves could not be made to cultivate plantations; they went into the trades and into the Police and Fire Departments. This immense base in the Church and the protective services assured the ultimate and long-term control of the political machinery of the City and Cook County. The Big City Democratic Political Machine was produced, another Biggest, if not First, for Chicago.
Their initial command of the English vernacular helped the Irish in competition with the European continentals, but more than that, the gift of gab and their general slackness about rules and regulations (outside the rites of the Church) fitted them perfectly for the role of affiliating many diverse groups. Their religious fanaticism impressed the Poles and bespoke some hostility to the Italians, who "had the Pope" but "didn't deserve him," and were too often disrespectful of the Faith. Their linguistic and agitational skills and the boldness of their Anglophobia captured many Germans; it seemed that when an Irishman was isolationist and against the English he was pro- American, but that a German might be considered pro-German when he was anti-English.
German political and cultural leadership suffered from the American entrance into World War I, and, before that, from the very depth and seriousness of their views on politics. It was mostly Germans who wanted a serious labor movement, and who were familiar with the radical new conceptions of modern society. The prototype of the foreign agitator of Chicago for two generations before the Babe was German, as well as of the incomprehensible scientist.
The Irish, originally laborers en masse, split off into middle class politics and left behind a feisty element in the generally suppressed and conservative labor movement that came to tie itself in Chicago eventually to the Police, the Church, and local politics. The Dad onetime in the Thirties passed along the joke to the boys (who did not retell it), "America is owned by the Jews, run by the Irish, and swept by the Italians." The grain of truth in the joke was buried in a larger grain of truth of those times, that "the U.S.A. was owned by Northeast Anglos, operated by Germans, and serviced by whoever had just arrived, regardless of nationality and race; Irish, aided and abetted by Italians and Jews, made a spectacle and casino of the country; and then there were a lot of old Americans out in the hills somewhere." The Higher Culture, especially that of Chicago, was raw and crude or otherwise European. I offer this caricature, outrageous to a scientific sociologist, as the flickering and scratching going on in the minds of the Babe, say, and other children of the same period in Chicago, and perhaps in the country as a whole.
The immigrant generation of any people carried little cultural baggage. An immigrant disembarked with a few songs, a few holidays, some embroidery, several humble favorite cooking recipes, and an idea that one would be free to find a way even while holding on to strange notions of Heaven and Earth. Heavier cultural baggage came with some organized religious groups -- Jesuits, Puritans, Quakers, Anglicans, Jews, and others, and with some rich slave-owners transferring their plantations from the West Indies, and with ambitious individual entrepreneurs. But religion could also be fragile. Where are the Huguenot churches of the French religious refugees who came early to the American colonies? New sects stole the sheep of the old folds.
Furthermore, American religion has always been strong in social and community affairs, picking up and consoling the people who were spilling all over the landscape like beads from broken strings. David Galenson's recent study of White Servitude in Colonial America estimated that during the seventeenth century between half and two- thirds of all white immigrants to the American colonies came as indentured servants. While not so severe and humiliating as the indenture system, the wage-contract was a common means for immigrants to arrive ever after. One-third of the Irish had to die of starvation in order that another third could get to America and avoid the same fate.
Some anthropologists assert that all cultures are relative and complete, meaning that no good or bad exists in a culture except as you or I say from our own perspectives; furthermore, all people fill their days and years with human activity, all of which is culture. There is no gainsaying them. But should we begin to discourse upon quality, we would see that all the causes of emigration to America tended to ensure plainness and mediocrity (granted that, of bright and cultured individuals, there was a certain small number); few claims of excellence, except of "Soul," could be justified. A visit to a large museum of Americana, something that did not exist in the Babe's day, would tend to corroborate this theory, going back to the earliest Mexican and Puritan (leaving out the Amerindians, about whom one may argue what one will) and ending with the "wet-backs" and the Vietnamese.
An Englishman of respectable family, finding himself somehow transported to Boston or Charleston, or a similar Spaniard somehow ended up in New Mexico, both in the Seventeenth Century, would feel himself culturally deprived.
However, if he could not flee, he would become possessed of a new culture, an American culture. Within months of arriving, he would find his life remarkably changed in outlook, routine, priorities, ideas, ambitions. He did not evolve; he suffered culture shock, and quantavoluted. Traditional culture was crippled as the boat made landfall or the wagon was tied up. A new popular culture took over.
Born in Chicago a score of years after landfall, the Mom was full of popular songs, of the newspapers columns, of news of the world of gadgets, and possessed little of a traditional culture except the eternal liturgy of the Catholic Church, as found nearly everywhere, and some mumbo-jumbo scratches on the mind, about as much Russian as Italian. Yet she was a "good girl," not a rebel against the older generation, obedient, hardly self-conscious. She was pleased to call herself Italian, if anyone asked, meaning American of Italian origin, but she could hardly claim more than that, even her meager treasury of Sicilian vocables serving her about as well as an elementary French course would equip an American girl descending upon Paris.
She was too unabstract and even-tempered to curse history, but she could and did ignore it, thus joining the passive resistance to it of which educators have always complained, while getting into the active process of creating American popular culture. She baked as good a cake for Washington's Birthday as Martha did, Italian-style, which George liked, and one he could have eaten without his dentures, and she took the occasion to admonish the boys, "See, always tell the truth," whereupon they asked scornfully, "Where are our new little hatchets?"
Given that the evidence had been both deliberately and unconsciously obfuscated and muddled, it is still most likely that the overwhelming mass of Americans turned their backs on their history from their beginnings here -- they wanted to; they had to -- and that, although some like the Mom did so passively, others did so vengefully, deducting the cost of their passage and survival from the store of positive memories of the Old World. The Dad both denounced his history and exceptionally kept some of it, for his prompt success and the universal medium of music let him rest easier with history, perhaps accounting thus for the Babe's singular appetite for historical materials that extended even to memorizing the probably inaccurate sequence of Egyptian and Assyrian dynasties.
The Babe received with a languishing interest, too, the occasional fiestas that were dedicated to special saints of the Church of whom he knew nothing. He went several times. He listened to part of the Band Concert. He managed on two occasions to be on hand to watch a startled little girl, dressed as an angel and suspended from a wire, glide downward across the street to blurt the Annunciation of the Coming of the Lord to a calm plaster-formed Virgin Mary. He wondered at the carrying of the heavy image of the Saint along the street (why didn't they use a wagon? The notion of penance was foreign to him) while recklessly generous folk emerged from the crowd to pin paper money on her voluminous skirts or cast it into the large receptacle that sat on her ark. Then he glanced into the booths where young bucks were hurling balls at bottles in order to win a Kewpie doll; he stared at the faces in the milling street crowd. After licking and munching an ice cream cone and drinking a bottle of soda pop, he began impatiently to urge that they all bend their footsteps homeward.
The process of becoming an American, for all those who came, whether to Chicago or elsewhere, yes, even for the slaves who were kept apart from the Big Contest for a century, was similar: those who arrived earlier tried to distance themselves in every way from those who came after, whether of their own kind or others. Ethnic distinctions were measured in short generations. But this was enough time for substantial correlations to develop between arrival-time and property-holdings. Thereupon developed correlations of property with power, education, occupation and social rank.
Economists have often wondered why Americans were divided by geographic and ethnic differences and most of them were busy with moving elsewhere, settling down somewhere, adapting to technological change, shedding their ethnic identity, and searching for their elusive all-American identity that would not be the property of one type of American. The Marx-Engels formulation was hardly intelligible.
It's all very well to call for an end to ethnic partiality, and to stir vigorously the melting pot, but when a ruling aggregate goes to much trouble to lay claim to all history as its own history alone, cleans up its own past, maligns the past of others, and allows to others the choice either of being pretenders to the ruling identity or of lacking a significant identity, then appropriate contrasting social policies might be considered. One policy might dig down and bare the roots of all contributing cultures, proudly exclaiming over them and ignoring controversial contributions (like expert wine-making or socialist theory).
Better still would be a thoroughly anthropological survey of roots: who really came to fill up the nearly empty space that the Indians called Chicago? And really why did all of them come and who brought what with them?
Then Chicagoans might resign themselves to singing "We're here because we're here because we're here," to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne," and avoid making too much of the truth, that practically everyone came "to make a buck" or better "to make a bigger buck," or to live upon, "to serve," those who were making the buck.
Chicago's industries and railroads were financed out of the East; the University of Chicago started up with Rockefeller money. Whatever the cherished feelings of greatness and independence stored in the Babe and the others and voiced all too often in triumphal arrogant tones, Chicago when it was young was a puppet of the Great Society and its Managers, and when it grew large was something of a puppeteer as well, but as soon as the Great Society cracked up in the Depression, in agricultural distress and financial distress, yes, down to cultural collapse, Chicago displayed itself again as only an appendage of the Great Society.
The Babe could not get rid of what was, after all, "fact" and "reality" to him, his basic Chicago chauvinism, but he could and did, under the harsh tutelage of the Great Depression, begin to think in terms of the world as a whole, a collectivity, since what happened somewhere happened everywhere. Because of interconnections, and because people were much the same in Chicago and Berlin and elsewhere, they were all becoming dumb beasts moving in line to the same abattoir. He was becoming less of a Chicagoan and more of a realist about the world and human nature.