Book Reviews -- the Ambivalent Welcome: Print Media, Public Opinion and Immigration by Rita J. Simon and Susan H. Alexander

Article excerpt

Believers in the jolly old Melting Pot image of a welcoming and democratic United States will find it painful to wade through the carefully documented book by Rita J. Simon and Susan H. Alexander. It illustrates how unwelcoming the American press has been of those huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

In 1920, for example, novelist Kenneth Roberts told Saturday Evening Post readers (a generation after Emma Lazarus' poem was carved onto the base of the Statue of Liberty) that newly-arrived Italian, Polish, Czech, and Hebrew immigrants were mere refuse. Another Post writer referred to them with a shorter, harsher word: "scum."

It is well known that a nativist thread has run through American history, but rarely has a study shown the intensity of the vitriol with which many segments of the American media greeted the 40 million immigrants who arrived on these shores between 1880 and 1990. Popular Science Monthly wanted to know "what shall we do with the dago" in 1890. "Instead of the best class of people," the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, "we are now getting the refuse of Europe... the out-scourings of the world." Even Joseph Pulitzer's New York World joined in 1905, speaking of hordes of "criminals" and "dissolute women" who brought in "diseased baggage bearing counterfeit certificates. " Newspapers and magazines also published articles by immigration commissioners such as Francis Walker. He wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1896 that American citizenship had been degraded by the hordes of "beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence."

The study by Simon, professor of justice, law, and society at American University, and Alexander, associate professor of sociology at Lycoming College, examines more than a century of editorials and articles on immigration in general circulation, literary, religious, and news magazines, as well as the New York Times. It is an exhaustive study which is a bit wearying to examine in detail, but filled with pertinent material that is especially useful in preparing lecture notes.

They note that some distinguished writers turned out anti-democratic articles urging severe restrictions on immigration. These included President Charles Eliot of Harvard, Samuel Gompers of the AFL, and urban designer Robert Moses. Some magazines were especially harsh, among them the Saturday Evening Post, Scribner's, Reader's Digest, and the North American Review. …