Academic journal article Shofar

Mary Antin's Progressive Science: Eugenics, Evolution, and the Environment

Academic journal article Shofar

Mary Antin's Progressive Science: Eugenics, Evolution, and the Environment

Article excerpt

While Mary Antin's best-selling autobiography The Promised Land (1912) often has been considered an immigrant success story that celebrates assimilation, Antin's texts reveal criticism of the America she observed and a desire to reshape rather than merely assimilate into it. This essay demonstrates that Antin wrote as a Progressive activist, who believed that scientific research and legislative reform could bring positive social change, including protecting and improving living conditions for immigrants. Examining Antin's writing in the context of historical scientific debates surrounding immigration enables a more thorough understanding of her struggle to legitimize her position both racially and culturally in American society. This essay clarifies the ways in which the scientific theories concerning eugenics and the environment, along with evolution, became significant factors in her rhetorical design. Strategically incorporating the discourses of eugenics, evolution, and environmental reform. Antin became a Progressive champion for immigrants.

Following the 1912 publication of her best-selling autobiography, Tfce Prom- ised Land, the immigrant writer Mary Antin lectured across the United States, promoting open immigration.1 After speaking before Rabbi Abraham Cron- bach's congregation in South Bend, Indiana, Antin writes to the rabbi optimis- tically: "I shall be entirely at your command when you have made a scientific survey of your immigrant population and coordinated your educational, civic, and philanthropic agencies till it becomes difficult for an alien to remain an alien in your midst."2 Antin alludes to the "scientific survey," a new social science technique that became a staple of reform efforts to understand and improve living conditions, particularly in ethnic communities.3 She clearly anticipates scientific interventions to solve immigrant problems; however, Antin's interest in science, both social and biological science, remains largely unexamined.4 In fact, Antin actively engaged in the scientific debates surrounding immigration in the early twentieth century, particularly addressing eugenics, evolution, and the environment. She wrote within an era of multiple scientific agendas, many part of the Progressive movement, which historians Arthur Link and Rich- ard McCormick describe as "the only reform movement ever experienced by the whole American nation,"5 incorporating causes as varied as temperance, women's suffrage, improved labor practices, upgraded housing, and better health education. I would characterize Antin as a Progressive activist, who shared a belief that scientific research and legislative reform could bring about positive social change, including protecting and improving living conditions for immigrants. While Tfce Promised Land often has been considered an immigrant success story that celebrates assimilation into America, this autobiography and other Antin texts reveal criticism of the America she observed and a desire to reshape rather than merely assimilate into it. I will argue that Mary Antin participated in scientific debate to pursue her reform ideals, specifically supporting efforts of medical doctors, social workers, and politicians to apply science to protect immigrants. Examining Antin's writing in the context of historical scientific debates surrounding immigration enables a more thorough understanding of her struggle to legitimize her position both racially and culturally in American society, a struggle that she shared with many immigrants.

Although science in general held the promise to enhance immigrant life in America, one particular pseudo-science threatened immigrants: the eugenics movement that typically stigmatized them as genetically inferior. Characterizing immigrants as an inherently unhealthy, weak, "interbreeding" menace, antiimmigrant eugenicists distegarded physical and environmental concerns that many Progressive reformers emphasized, such as poor nutrition or dangerous housing, and rather categorized immigrants into inferior races unsuitable for citizenship. …

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