Old and New New Englanders: Immigration and Regional Identity in the Gilded Age

Old and New New Englanders: Immigration and Regional Identity in the Gilded Age

by Bluford Adams


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ISBN-13: 9780472052080
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 12/31/2012
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Bluford Adams is Associate Professor of English at the University of Iowa, with a joint appointment in the American Studies Department. An expert on 19th-century U.S. literature, culture, and social history, he is the author of E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture.

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Old and New New Englanders

Immigration & Regional Identity in the Gilded Age

By Bluford Adams

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-07208-8


World Conquerors or a Dying People?

Racial Theory, Regional Anxiety, and the Brahmin Anglo-Saxonists

Although he was best known in his time as a politician and popular historian, Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge also occasionally weighed in on cultural matters, particularly when they touched on his abiding concerns of race, nation, and New England history. In an essay from the 1890s titled "Shakespeare's Americanisms," he argued that one measure of the power and mobility of a people was the feasibility of standardizing its language:

It is quite possible to have Tuscan Italian or Castilian Spanish or Parisian French as the standard of correctness, but no one ever heard of "London English" used in that sense. The reason is simple. These nations have ceased to spread and colonize or to grow as nations. They are practically stationary. But English is the language of a conquering, colonizing race, which in the last three centuries has subdued and possessed ancient civilizations and virgin continents alike, and whose speech is now heard in the remotest corners of the earth.

It is not the least of the many glories of the English tongue that it has proved equal to the task which its possessors have imposed upon it. Like the race, it has shown itself capable of assimilating new elements without degeneration. It has met new conditions, adapted itself to them, and prevailed over them. It has proved itself flexible without weakness, and strong without rigidity. With all its vast spread, it still remains unchanged in essence and in all its great qualities.

Lodge's distinction between stagnant and growing races — as well as his classification of his own race among the latter — sprang from his background as an Anglo-Saxonist. In an era that saw Anglo-Saxon chauvinism pervade the upper reaches of American scholarly and political life, Lodge was one of his race's most energetic and influential champions. Like most Anglo-Saxonists, he believed he belonged to the world's dominant race, one with a special capacity for absorbing other peoples and cultures without losing its purity. Lodge also joined many other Anglo-Saxonists in the belief that the traits of his race extended to its language. He presented English as a tongue uniquely capable of absorbing other languages and adapting to local conditions while remaining "unchanged in essence." The idea of measuring all the speakers of such a language by the standards of one place (e.g., "London English") was ludicrous. Lodge insisted that the "only possible standard for English speech" was the "usage of the best writers" and "best educated and most highly trained" speakers throughout Anglo-Saxondom.

On the other hand, Lodge believed languages such as Italian, Spanish, and French were subject to a different set of racial and cultural forces. He embraced the Anglo-Saxonist view that the Latin race — to which the speakers of those three tongues belonged — was characterized by decadence and lassitude. They were "practically stationary" peoples who lacked the vigor and suppleness to absorb other races and cultures. Lodge believed the inertness of the Latin nations manifested itself in their languages, whose "stiffness and narrowness" was a sure sign that their speakers had "ceased to march, and that expansion for people and speech alike is at an end." At that point it became feasible to hold everyone to the linguistic standard of a single place.

Despite his contempt for Latin senescence, Lodge also knew what it felt like to belong to a "practically stationary" people, one whose days of conquest and absorption were long since over. I refer, of course, to the Anglo-Saxons of New England, in particular members of the patrician class to which Lodge belonged, whom Oliver Wendell Holmes had famously christened Brahmins. It was they, not the Castilian Spanish, Tuscan Italians, or Parisian French, who were best known among American ethnic groups for "stiffness and narrowness," for condemning cultural innovations by inherited standards, and for failing to assimilate new people and ideas. In this chapter I explore how this tension between their racial and regional identities shaped the thinking of Lodge and the other Gilded Age Brahmin Anglo-Saxonists.

I will be discussing the Brahmin Anglo-Saxonists as a group, but they had professional and ideological differences that must not be overlooked. Although most of them were Mugwumps, they included the stalwart Republican Lodge; although most of them were academicians, they also included the politician Lodge and the sometime public servant Francis Amasa Walker. The Brahmin Anglo-Saxonists also differed in the methods they adopted to promote their racial views, with some joining organizations such as the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Good Citizenship and the Immigration Restriction League and others remaining aloof from them. But what they all shared — aside from their patrician status — was the enormous pride they took in their dual identities as Anglo-Saxons and New Englanders and their belief that those identities were mutually defining. Wherever they looked in New England's history — from the Pilgrims and Puritans to the patriots at Lexington and Concord to the Yankees who died at Gettysburg — the Brahmin Anglo-Saxonists saw proof that to be a New Englander was to be an Anglo-Saxon. But not just any Anglo-Saxon. The Brahmins believed that settling New England and building its institutions had enhanced the racial characteristics of their ancestors, turning them into the finest members of their race — the most pure-blooded, independent, inventive, and self-governing Anglo-Saxons — not just in America but on earth. Thus, to study New England's history was to appreciate not only the past triumphs of the Anglo-Saxon race but also its potential for even greater accomplishments in the future.

Yet, when the Gilded Age Brahmins turned from their region's past to its present, they felt an increasing incompatibility between their identities as Anglo-Saxons and New Englanders. All of them had reached adulthood at a time when the New England Yankees — particularly those of the elite class — were becoming notorious for their decadence. Commentators both inside and outside the group blamed its decline on an array of social and demographic forces, including overcivilization, falling birthrates, poor diets, declining maternal instincts, and out-migration. Confronted on all sides by signs of their demise in New England, many Brahmins longed for the good old days when their region was the heartland of Anglo-Saxondom. Others gave themselves up to despair. Among the most despondent was literary scholar Barrett Wendell, who lamented that "we Yankees are as much things of the past as any race can be. America has swept from our grasp. The future is beyond us."

But outside New England the prospects for the Anglo-Saxons looked considerably brighter. Indeed, many Brahmins believed their race was embarked on a mission of conquest that would not end until it ruled most of the earth. Dazzled by that fantasy, the Brahmins sometimes managed to forget how badly they were faring in New England. Even Barrett Wendell could sound remarkably muscular as he argued that the future belonged to "the domination of that race which in the struggles of the ages proves most worthy to survive. And that race, I hope and believe, is the race of which we form a part and in a certain sense the advance guard." Not surprisingly, most Brahmins preferred to focus on the victories of their race in the far corners of the globe rather than its defeats in their corner of the United States. But the historical identification between the Anglo-Saxons and New England made it impossible for them to keep their racial and regional identities separate.

Granted, at times the Brahmins could swagger with the boldest Anglo-Saxonists, but just as often regional worries made a mockery of their racial brag. The results are the unique mixture of power and impotence, arrogance and despair, expansionism and defensiveness that characterizes their writings about race and distinguishes them from their counterparts in other parts of the country. The Brahmin Anglo-Saxonists were particularly contradictory when it came to their relations to other peoples. When they succeeded in setting their regional worries aside, they spoke confidently of enlarging and strengthening their race by incorporating outsiders, particularly those from the "best" non-Anglo-Saxon peoples. But, when the shadow of New England fell over them, the Brahmins saw those same outsiders as menacing invaders whose fecundity and vigor contrasted painfully with their own sterility and decay. This contradictory attitude toward other groups is most evident in the Brahmins' response to immigration, an area where they wielded an outsized influence over national policy.

The case of the Brahmin Anglo-Saxonists thus prompts us to attend more carefully to the power of regional identities to shape how we theorize and live racial ones. That power is particularly evident when we compare the Brahmins to their Anglo-Saxonist allies in other parts of the country. In this chapter I argue that regional influences help explain why the Brahmins responded to immigrants so differently than a prominent group of their Anglo-Saxonist contemporaries from the Mid-Atlantic region. The latter shared the Brahmins' concern about the arrival of millions of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, but they were able to allay their racial fears by mythologizing the West as a site of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. That was not an option for the Brahmins, however, whose racial fortunes were tied to the one part of the country, indeed the one place in the world, where the Anglo-Saxons seemed to be faring worst.

Anglo-Saxon Cowboys

To be sure, the Anglo-Saxons of New England were not the only members of their race in the late nineteenth century to be suspected of racial decay. Many leading Anglo-Saxonists feared that their entire race was at risk. They were convinced that modern civilization threatened the moral fiber, physical strength, and mental health of all the "advanced" peoples, and they anxiously scanned the globe for signs that their race was deteriorating. Particularly worrisome were the struggles of the British army in its wars against the Boers, the falling birthrates of the Australians, and the growing taste for luxury among the upper classes everywhere. While these symptoms were anything but definitive, taken together they suggested the need for vigilance lest the Anglo-Saxons join the Latins among the world's decadent races.

According to many commentators, the one place in the world where the decadence of the Anglo-Saxons had already passed the tipping point was New England. There they identified signs of degeneration among Anglo-Saxons of all social classes in both rural and urban areas. The region that had long prided itself as the chief stronghold of the Anglo-Saxon race in America was now being taken over by more vigorous and prolific races. Things had gotten so bad for the Yankees that the Boston Pilot, the leading Irish Catholic journal, joked that the last descendant of the Puritans should be placed in a glass case and put on display as a national curiosity. New England? Many suggested that the region should rechristen itself "New Ireland" or "New France."

The decay of New England's Anglo-Saxons was widely discussed by natives and outsiders alike, and in much the same terms. There is little to separate the portrayals of New England decadence by outsiders such as William Dean Howells and Brahmins like Henry Adams and Barrett Wendell. But the outsiders and insiders did disagree about what the decay of the Anglo-Saxons in New England meant for the race as a whole. Anglo-Saxonists outside the region certainly worried about what was happening there, but they did not believe it spoke to the overall health of the race. To the contrary, some of them constructed an image of Anglo-Saxon strength over against the weakness of the Yankees. Those who did so included a group of mid-Atlantic Anglo-Saxonists who romanticized the West as the place where their race still retained the vigor it had given up in the homeland of the Puritans.

Gilded Age elites outside New England routinely idealized the West as a stronghold of Anglo-Saxon power. This was particularly true of three friends, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederic Remington, and Owen Wister. They saw the history of the West as the second great Anglo-Saxon invasion, one that replicated the mythic conquest of Britain by the Angles and Saxons. They celebrated the Anglo-Saxon settlers of the West for killing and driving out the Indians in the same manner that their ancestors allegedly had exterminated the original inhabitants of Britain. Granted, race war between Anglo-Saxons and Indians was already becoming a thing of the past by the 1880s, when Roosevelt, Remington, and Wister began visiting the West and representing it for the American public. Nevertheless, their personal experiences of rejuvenation in the region taught them to cherish its powers of renewal for their race as a whole. They believed that in the West the Anglo-Saxons could recover the youth, courage, and aggression that had been stripped from them back east, particularly in that epicenter of overcivilization, New England.

Roosevelt, Wister, and Remington all portrayed the settlement of the West as the latest chapter in a larger narrative of Anglo-Saxon world conquest. All saw the American settlers as a predominantly Teutonic group that had continued on this continent the inexorable sweep across lands and peoples that had begun on the coastal plains of ancient Germany. Moreover, all celebrated their western heroes for preserving undimmed the traits of courage, restlessness, and violence that had distinguished their Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Thus, Roosevelt began his four-volume history, The Winning of the West, with an account of the birth and spread of the "English race" or "English-speaking peoples" (the terms that he, like many of his colleagues, preferred to Anglo-Saxon) that paints them as ruthless destroyers of their racial enemies. As historians Gail Bederman and Sarah Watts have pointed out, these are precisely the qualities that Roosevelt celebrates in the American frontiersmen. In one lurid episode after another, Roosevelt shows how the pioneers wrested the continent from savage Indians, just as their Anglo-Saxon forebears had relentlessly overrun the original Britons. Wister and Remington likewise portrayed their western heroes as reincarnations of their Anglo-Saxon forefathers. In his Harper's New Monthly essay "The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher," Wister traces a genealogy for the cowboy that includes the Anglo-Saxons who fought at Hastings, defeated the Spanish armada, and defended the Reformation.

Thus, late in the nineteenth century, was the race once again subjected to battles and darkness, rain and shine, to the fierceness and generosity of the desert. Destiny tried her latest experiment upon the Saxon, and plucking him from the library, the haystack, and the gutter, set him upon his horse; then it was that, face to face with the eternal simplicity of death, his modern guise fell away and showed once again the medieval man. It was no new type, no product of the frontier, but just the original kernel of the nut with the shell broken.

As Ben Merchant Vorpahl points out, what Wister is describing here is not the "evolution" promised by his essay's title but repetition. No matter whether he is writing of eleventh-century England or nineteenth-century America, Wister believes sufficiently harsh conditions always bring out the same rugged traits in the Anglo-Saxon. Remington underscored that point in one of his five illustrations for Wister's essay. Titled "The Last Cavalier," it depicts a mounted, pistol-wearing cowboy surrounded by a vast, ghostly crowd of armored knights, plumed swordsmen, and buckskinned frontiersmen. The Anglo-Saxon's external trappings might change, but his essential traits of mobility, virility, and violence were constant through the ages.


Excerpted from Old and New New Englanders by Bluford Adams. Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Regional Identity in an Age of Immigration 1

1 World Conquerors or a Dying People? Racial Theory, Regional Anxiety, and the Brahmin Anglo-Saxonists 14

2 New Ireland, New France, New England: The Place of Immigrants in American Regionalism 38

3 New England Delicacy: Immigration and the Regional Body 79

4 "Rural New England Is in a State of Transition": Immigrants and Yankees on the Land 122

5 The New New England: Yankees and Immigrants in the Old Northwest 164

Coda: "The Pilgrims Were Illegal Aliens" 201

Notes 205

Index 247

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