The Rise of Multicultural America: Economy and Print Culture, 1865-1915

The Rise of Multicultural America: Economy and Print Culture, 1865-1915

The Rise of Multicultural America: Economy and Print Culture, 1865-1915

The Rise of Multicultural America: Economy and Print Culture, 1865-1915

Synopsis

Between the Civil War and World War I the United States underwent the most rapid economic expansion in history. At the same time, the country experienced unparalleled rates of immigration. In The Rise of Multicultural America, Susan Mizruchi examines the convergence of these two extraordinary developments. No issue was more salient in postbellum American capitalist society, she argues, than the country's bewilderingly diverse population. This era marked the emergence of Americans' self-consciousness about what we today call multiculturalism.

Mizruchi approaches this complex development from the perspective of print culture, demonstrating how both popular and elite writers played pivotal roles in articulating the stakes of this national metamorphosis. In a period of widespread literacy, writers assumed a remarkable cultural authority as best-selling works of literature and periodicals reached vast readerships and immigrants could find newspapers and magazines in their native languages. Mizruchi also looks at the work of journalists, photographers, social reformers, intellectuals, and advertisers. Identifying the years between 1865 and 1915 as the founding era of American multiculturalism, Mizruchi provides a historical context that has been overlooked in contemporary debates about race, ethnicity, immigration, and the dynamics of modern capitalist society. Her analysis recuperates a legacy with the potential to both invigorate current battle lines and highlight points of reconciliation.

Excerpt

In 1899 Mark Twain published an essay, “Concerning the Jews,” that is rarely considered today because it confronts an embarrassing topic: the commercial expertise of the Jews. Responding to a letter from a Jewish lawyer seeking an explanation for anti-Semitism, Twain highlighted “the average Christian's inability to compete successfully with the average Jew in business.” It was not that Jews were uninterested in other pursuits; they cultivated money-getting, according to Twain, because in country after country they were systematically expelled from other trades. Now in America at the turn of the twentieth century, Jews had a strategic advantage in the financial and entrepreneurial activities that preoccupied everyone. They comprised such a social presence, Twain observed, that he was convinced their number was at least twice that confirmed by population figures. His essay was unusual in minimizing the religious causes of anti-Semitism and in attributing Jewish commercial aptitude to historical rather than essential factors. He was tentative about how far Jews as Jews might go in America but was confident that they would continue to thrive within limits.

This was not the first time that Twain had probed connections between ethnicity and economy. the sign that the slave Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is prepared for citizenship is Jim's interest in capital and monetary speculation. Twain saw that blacks' mastery of finance would be required in the turbulent years ahead, and he was one of the few who anticipated, after the broken promise of “forty acres and a mule” and the failure of the Freedmen's Bureau Bank, that some of the most profitable opportunities for blacks in the post-Emancipation era would derive from . . .

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