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Immigrant Minds, American Identities: Making the United States Home, 1870-1930. (Book Reviews/Comptes Rendus).

Orm Overland. Immigrant Minds, American Identities: Making the United States Home, 1870-1930. Urbana: University of Illnois Press, 2000. Pp., x, 243. Index. US$34.95.

This book reflects the American immigration historian's ongoing fascination with the process of integration and even assimilation into American society. Recent works by George Sanchez, Jon Gjerde, Donna Gabaccia, Mario Maffi, and others have described processes of ethnicisation. They agree widely that ethnicity is invented, not some kind of transplanted cultural "essence." What then can another book on the topic add to this discussion, especially one that emphasizes Western European immigrants that became integrated into American society with seeming effortlessness?

Much indeed, for Overland has made an intelligent and insightful contribution. Unlike other works on ethnicisation, he looks at the process by which immigrant group organizations sought the favour of the wider American society by asserting and even heralding their ethnicities. In these proclamations of ethnicity they did not contest America, but sought to place themselves at its very centre. Each group advocated a particular "foundation story," claiming a seminal place within American culture. The obvious claims Italians had on Columbus the "discoverer" of America, the Irish on the idea of liberty, or the Norwegians on the status of "frontiersman", were made alongside more obscure assertions of Washington's "Italian sentiment" (60), of Columbus's Jewishness, of German socialism's affinity with American citizenship, of Dutch "true religion", of Norwegian "discovery" of fourteenth-century Minnesota. It did not matter that such assertions often were spurious; they constituted a particular strategy of integration .

The book has many strengths. The first is this central thesis. But the many ironies and surprises that support the central thesis make the book a fascinating account. The fluid nature of invented identities undermines any notion of national "essentialism" but the very phenomenon of "myth making", argues Overland was an "essential feature of American ethnicity," the creative identity of white non-English immigrants wishing "inclusion" (21). The drive for inclusion was that of the European immigrant, but "excluded" groups also found paths of integration: African Americans by asserting national partnership with the English, the Chicanos by professing true Spanish descent from the conquistadors. The assimilative message of the public schools diminished immigrant cultures initially, but the assimilative language of "acceptance" propelled the immigrant mind not into a cultural acquiescence but towards ethnic assertions of worthiness. Full acceptance may have been presented to the immigrant in terms of minority-majority relations, but the fact was that the greatest challenge to being accepted lay in outwitting other ethnic groups willing to wage acrimonious interethnic "homemaking wars," each group seeking to weaken the other groups' claims to legitimacy. Thus ethnicity was not about continuity, but was in fact the final act of discontinuity. Its assertion was always an attempt by the immigrant to be integrated into a nation that itself was obsessed with questions of belonging, legitimacy, merit, and acceptance. Ethnic identities did not mark the shibboleth of Ame ricanism, they were its very expression (20).

A second strength of the book is that Overland has identified a phenomenon that is dynamic. The book is specifically about contestation; "how organized groups responded to the problem of being considered foreigners." (2) Much information is offered on the western European immigrant elite -- the journalists, the editors, the novelists, the preachers -- but their writings are never one-dimensional. They arise in the context of immigrant inferiority complexes, Anglo-American exceptionalism, the anomie of assimilation, and the desire to be American. The immigrant groups could see what the host society and its historians could not and that was that the great divide between "history" and "heritage", to employ David Lowenthal's concepts, was duplicitous: the Mayflower Compact was as interwoven with teleology as the most "grotesque" filiopietist narrative of contribution history. And the book is also historical, arguing that the ethnic proclamations marked a particular stage in the integration of European groups; aft er the birth of racial theories of Anglo-Saxon superiority, but mostly before World War II when waning immigrant waves weakened American xenophobia (89).

Each of the three sections of the book carries this message of irony and dynamism. These sections describe three kinds of identity creating myths, the stories placing the immigrant at the very seat of the nation founding, stories suggesting that the immigrant was a truer voice of the nation's ideals that the host society itself, and stories recounting the valour of sacrifice. In this wide coverage the book leaves few gaps.

Still some questions remain. How did the many sectarian immigrants, such as the Amish and Hutterites, who placed their very legitimacy as people on a successful rejection of the wider society, jibe with the book's sweeping explanation of ethnicisation? How can one still argue that the phenomenon of ethnic identities was a New World phenomenon, when scholarship has shown that the mindset of European groups was shaped by monarchical patriotism, religious wars and internal migrations? How can one suggest that ethnicisation ended in the context of the tolerant post-World War II era, when hostilities were directed to such groups as the Haitians, Koreans, and Arabs who in turn were compelled to assert athletic prowess, entrepreneurial skill, or peaceful tradition. The story may just be even more complex than Overland's evocative portrayal demonstrates.
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Author:Coewen, Royden
Publication:Urban History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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