Ethnic Cultures in the 1920s in North America.

Ethnic Cultures in the 1920s in North America. – book reviews

Daniel Walden

The fourteen essays in this collection address issues of ethnicity in the fields of literature, history, politics, and anthropology. Drawn from a Franco-German Colloquium initiated at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in July 1991, this collection includes Heinz Ickstadt, “Transnational Democracy and Anglo-Saxondom”; Dieter Meind, “The Last West: Scandinavian Contributions to North American Prairie Fiction”; Simone Vauthier, “The Other Half of the Family: The Ethnic Double in E. M. Robert’s My Heart and My Flesh”; Michel Fabre, “John F. Matheus, or a Forgotten Look at Multi-Ethnic America by a Writer of the New Negro Movement”; Wolfgang Binder, “The Brown Veil: Constructions of Otherness and Miscegenation – T. S. Stribling and Jessie Redmon Fauset”; Genevieve Fabre, “Zora Neale Hurston’s Challenges to Her Time”; Libiane Kerjan, “A Jewish Cantor in Black Face: Mixed Guises on Broadway”; Alfred Horning, “Ludwig Lewisohn, Charles Reznikoff, Michael Gold”; Hans-Joachim Lang, “The Menorah Journal Crisis and the End of the 1920s”; Catherine Collomp, “Ethnic Identity, Americanization and Internationalization in the Jewish Labor Movement in the 1920s”; Helene Cristol, “The Ethnic Factor in the Sacco-Vanzetti Case”; Hartmut Keil, “The Impact of World War I on the German American Community in the 1920s”; Jean-Pierre Martin, “Prohibition and Ethnicity”; and Stephan Palmie, “The Other Within: American Anthropology and the Study of Ethnic Minorities in the 1920s.”

This is an excellent collection. It rescues from relative oblivion numerous individuals and happenings or movements that have been relegated to the dustbin of history. It also, in its emphasis on ethnic cultures, is a godsend for many of us who feel, as Oscar Handlin put it, that the history of America is the history of the immigrants. Dieter Meind, noting that by 1925 more than three-quarters of a million Norwegians had entered the U.S., writes that since the 1850s an immigrants’ culture and a literature which comprises some one hundred novels in Norwegian and culminates in Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth had developed. For Michel Fabre, a study of the works of John F. Matheus provides a fine introduction to a closer scrutiny of black representation of Euro-Americans, not as an indistinct, massive “White Fog” or overpowering “White Mountain” (the images used by Theodore Ward and Richard Wright) but as separate, and often conflicting, cultural communities. Significantly, Matheus’s story “Fog” won first prize in the 1924 Opportunity contest and was anthologized in Alain Locke’s The New Negro. Matheus not only explored his heritage but also the black-white conflict within the African American community in terms of the “twoness of the soul” so brilliantly articulated by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903. And, as Jean Toomer did, Matheus came closer to the multi-racial and multiethnic conception of America than most black-oriented writers. Contrary to the so-called “melting-pot” ideology, he suggested that only acceptance of ethnic diversity can help establish some degree of democracy and equality. As Fabre perceptively puts it, Matheus’s views “deserve to be remembered and studied.”

For his novel Forge (1933), T. S. Stribling received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Using a formula employed both in African American and white fiction, as described so brilliantly by Wolfgang Binder, Stribling depicted a mulatto in Birthright (1929) as a morally intact, intelligent, sensitive, potentially upwardly mobile and tragic African American person. Jessie Redmon Fauset, literary editor of The Crisis, found the concept anything but convincing, although its depiction of the subordinate characters and “Niggertown” was convincing, but in 1932 she conceded that the book had influenced her, Nella Larsen, and Walter White. “We reasoned,” she wrote, “here is an audience waiting to hear the truth about us. Let us who are better qualified to present the truth than any white writer, try to do so.” In Chinaberry Tree and especially in There is Confusion she answered Stribling, affirming the similarity, not a total identity, between African Americans and Caucasians, and their wide potential, a conservative ideal of women’s function in society, and a moderate but firm attack on the havoc wrought on both sides of the fence by racial discrimination.

It is probably no accident that the greatest number of essays in the book deal with African Americans and American Jews, with one on Norwegians, one on Italians (Sacco and Vanzetti), one on the German community in the 1920s, one on prohibition and ethnicity, and one on the “other within.” In “The Making of Jewish Americans,” Alfred Horning perceptively describes the emergence of ethnic consciousness and ethnic aesthetics, or reorientation, acculturation, and assimilation, in the lives of Ludwig Lewisohn (born in Berlin, Germany), Charles Reznikoff, and Michael Gold (whose parents came from East Europe), while in his article on “The Menorah Journal Crisis” Hans-Joachim Lang explores the journal’s spiritual and progressive quest, from its inception in 1906 at Harvard to the magazine’s death in 1931, with the resignation of its managing editor Elliot Cohen, and its unsteady and short second life and death from 1931 to 1962 under Henry Hurwitz. After 1931, as Robert Alter put it, “The kind of existence the magazine was to lead during its subsequent decline was, perhaps inevitably, an unconscious parody of those qualities which had earlier distinguished it!”

One of the most surprising and excellent articles is Helen Christol’s “The Ethnic Factor in the Sacco-Vanzetti Case.” From the time that Vanzetti arrived in “The Promised Land” he knew that hope withered under the touch of customs officials, even as the 1920s were a transitional period between the expectations and success of first- and second-generation Italians. Yet through the ordeal and the trial both Sacco and Vanzetti understood that poor and working-class Italians were unpopular: Suffice it to say the evidence of anti-foreign and anti-Italian attitudes is overwhelming. All in all – and space does not permit an examination of the other articles – it is refreshing to see the collection conclude with Stephen Palmie’s “American Anthropology and the Study of Ethnic Minorities,” which deals with “The Other Within,” the emergence from 1915 on of the study of American immigrant groups, of the culture of our many peoples, and the “biologistic xeonology” that flourished in what John Higham has called the “tribal twenties.”

This is a splendid collection, a first-class introduction for the newcomer, a splendid sampling of the ethnic cultures in the 1920s in the United States.

Reviewed by Daniel Walden Pennsylvania State University

COPYRIGHT 1996 African American Review

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