Ancestors and Immigrants

Ancestors and Immigrants: A Changing New England Tradition by Barbara Miller Solomon. A Phoenix Paperback. The University of Chicago Press. 276 pp. $2.95

JAMES MICHAEL CURLEY'S second-youngest son came to my grandfather's wake. You may remember the caricature of this son in The Last Hurrah, showing up in white tie at his father's campagn headquarters the night the old man lost his last election, breezing in from a night on the town to find that his father had died. The fictional son was quite the bon vivant a happy-go lucky playboy without a care in the world. The real life model never quite lived up to his fictional counterpart.

The night he came to my grandfather's wake. James Michael's son was a beaten man. He was wearing a cashmere coat with the elbows worn out, a shirt from Brooks with frayed cuffs, and a suit which hadn't seen a pressing in months. He was living on the income from a sinecure given him by a sympathetic Republican governor, in a dingy Back Bay apartment. That night, standing in the front parlor of O'Brien's Funeral Home, reeking of liquor, with a flask filled with John Jameson's in his pocket, he was living testimony to the fact that a Boston Irishman couldn't make it in Brahma society.

Pity. His only problem was that he was born too soon. Nowadays, his Beacon Hill accent and Andover education would get him places in Boston society, where it's almost respectable to be Irish, as long as you don't talk about it. While New York is witnessing a rebirth of Irishness, the Boston Irish are moving to Milton. Wellesley, yes, even to Dover, and trying desperately to bury their past, their customs, and their culture. These days, most of the people who line Dorchester Street and West Broadway for the St. Patrick's Day Parade are Harvard undergraduates, newspaper reporters, and other worthies trying to find out what the Irish are like. The politicians at the annual Dorgan's St. Patrick's Day dinner are likely to be Italians or WASP's, and Republicans at that and the shortage of nuns has led the Boston Archdiocese to close down dozens of porochial schools.

THE YOUNGER generation is moving from South Boston out to Field's Corner and Ashmont, to replace the more affluent Irish who escaped to suburbs. James Michael was lucky he died when he did, still mourned by a generation of the faithful, who flocked to his big house on the Jamaicaway to pay their last respects. No longer does the Irish mayor receive his people, solve their problems, dole out money from his own pocket for funerals, make the round of wakes, bully the bankers and stomp into the Somerset Club to confront the State Street money. What passes for Irish politicians nowadays are an Ivy League educated mayor who lives on Beacon Hill and hangs out at the Ritz and an ugly caricature of a Congresswoman whose reputation is based on a record of bigotry that would have shocked the people who put up the "No Irish Need Apply" signs fifty years ago. The Irish have been mixed into the melting pot, and have emerged without their past.

The Boston Irish needed their culture a hundred years ago. It was the only frame of reference they had during their war with Boston's Brahmins. Now the war is over, although neither side emerged the victor, and the truce has brought with it a free intermingling of the two, and an erosion of the Boston Irish community. The assimilation has affected other ethnic groups as well, to the point where Boston's suburbs are a melange of nationalities (with blacks and Spanish-speaking people, of course, neatly excluded), all whipped into one bland, suburban culture. The Brahmin oppression is dead forever, and so are the ethnic cultures.

What Dean Solomon had done in her book. Ancestors and Immigrants, is to show the origins of the battle. Her book focuses on the founding and flowering of the Immigration Restriction League, a Boston-based national organization which was eventually successful in having strict quotas placed on immigration. Although the new Phoenix paperback is only a reprint of the original Harvard Press edition, the book still deserves notice; it has aged well over the fifteen years since its original issue.

MRS. SOLOMON has written a fascinating study of the racial attitudes of Brahmin leaders during the ninettenth century. She does a vivid depiction of the hardening of heart of such men as James Russell Lowell and Charles Eliot Norton occasioned by the growth of immigration. Her book reveals a shocking degree of bigotry in some of the most impressive intellectual figures of the day--as Henry Adams's pronouncement to a friend: "Poor Boston has fairly run up against it in the form of its particular Irish maggot, rather lower than the Jew, but more or less the same in appetite for cheese."

With attitudes like these prevailing, it is not surprising that the Boston intellectual community was willing to subscribe to a theory of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. Henry Adams, John Fiske, and Henry Cabot Lodge all taught this doctrine at Harvard at one time or another, while Francis Amasa Walker held forth across the river at MIT. When Dr. Lodge left Harvard for a life in politics, he took his racial theories with him. It was with a firm basis in academic theory that the Immigration Restriction League began its existence.

The roster of founders and officers of the League--Fiske, Henry Lee, Henry Parkman, Robert Treat Paine, Leverett Saltonstall, Charles Warren,--is like a list of the academic and social leaders of Boston in 1894. By the time the League was founded, they were no longer the political leaders, for Hugh O'Brien had been elected Mayor a full decade before, and the Brahmins had forever lost undisputed control of the city. But they still had influence at state and national levels, and the League exercised its influence to the fullest. The League had the car of Theodore Roosevelt, who adopted much of its platform as his own. But its final triumph did not come until the 1920's, when a series of laws clamped a lid on immigration, leaving it open mainly to people of "Teutonic" stock, in keeping with the League's eugenic principles. Partly as a result of the League's activities, millions of refugees from Hitler's Germany were turned away from this country. The legacy of hatred left by the League had its effect long after its first authors died.

THERE WERE of course, some Brahmins who opposed the league and its activities, people Mrs. Solomon refers to as "The Minority with Faith." Charles William Eliot was one of these: his successor. President Lowell, was not, Eliot, Josiah Royce, William James, and Emily Balch all rejected the Ango-Saxon superiority theories of the restrictionists. As Mrs. Solomon says of Eliot:

Not a single argument for further restriction of immigration satisfied his Brahmin conscience, and he asked. "Is this generation to be frightened out of this noble policy by an industrial, racial, political, or religious bogies."

But these people were in a minority, and the majority finally prevailed, closing off America to the foreign-born. The words of Emma Lazarus carved on the Statue of Liberty became meaningless, and the limits of American society were determined. In Boston, the melting pot has been hard at work this past half century, since the end of immigration, and social mobility has put an end to most of the ethnic stereotypes. There is a new kind of protectionism in the city now: of the middle class, white, English speaking against the poor, the black, and the Spanish speaking. And you wonder, just exactly what was it that our ancestors, the immigrants, fought for: freedom from oppression, or the right to be oppressors themselves? The descendants of the immigrants have become fitting heirs of the restrictionists.