Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Max Nordau, Madison Grant, and Racialized Theories of Ideology

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Max Nordau, Madison Grant, and Racialized Theories of Ideology

Article excerpt

Recently, Jonathan Spiro has undertaken the Herculean task of recovering the ghost of the conservationist and anti-immigrant racist Madison Grant from a very limited archival record. Spiro's biography is an invaluable resource that covers, in as much detail as possible, Grant's life and thought. Although largely forgotten now, in the first half of the twentieth century Grant was a leading figure in the eugenics movement that sterilized thousands of people deemed unfit to reproduce. He was also a prominent advocate of immigration restriction, and he helped southern racists ban miscegenation.1 Like other scholars before him, Spiro argues that Grant arrived at many of his views through the work of such racial scientists as Arthur de Gobineau, Francis Galton, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain.2 While he and other scholars are certainly correct in drawing such a lineage, one unlikely and hitherto unexplored parallel to Grant's thought specifically, and American eugenics in general, was that of Hungarian cultural critic and later Zionist leader, Max Nordau. By elucidating their intellectual kinship, this paper seeks to reveal the extent to which early twentiethcentury transatlantic racial discourse involved widely different actors who were at times unknowingly espousing quite similar racial views for entirely different ends.

The reasons why Nordau's name has not appeared in relation to Grant are several. First, there is a lack of biographical material on Madison Grant: much of his personal correspondence was purloined or destroyed.3 Consequently, evidence that Grant had been influenced by or even read Nordau is largely circumstantial and inferential, and cannot be verified through archival documentation. Secondly, despite a recent Nordau renaissance,4 and notwithstanding certain key publications, he still remains a somewhat marginal figure in the narrative of late nineteenth century history, especially in the American context.5 Thirdly, and more importantly, after the death of Theodore Herzl, Nordau became the most prominent leader of the Zionist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Certainly, someone as committed to Jewish advancement and Jewish emigration to America as Nordau, was hardly likely to share similar racial views with a white supremacist, anti-immigration propagandist, and vicious anti-Semite like Grant. In fact, the only indirect textual connection between the two thinkers is the verbatim use of one of Nordau's articles by Grant's racist disciple Lothrop Stoddard; a connection that has only been explored very briefly in a footnote by Nordau biographer Meir Ben-Horin.6 Otherwise, there has been no attempt to see these two thinkers in the same context. Hence, contrary to current scholarly opinion about both writers, this paper will show that they both operated within the same racial framework. While making no claim here of a direct causal relationship between Nordau and Grant, I do contend that during this period there is enough intellectual crosspollination of racial theories to create a significant, not merely coincidental, overlap of ideas. Simplifying early twentieth-century racial thinking into two distinct camps of non-racists and racists is conceptually flawed, even if, as in this case, the ostensible disparities could not be greater.

The idea Nordau helped introduce to America, and the idea Grant used later, was that there was a hereditary link between race and ideology. Both believed a person's racial makeup directly influenced their political ideology. Grant and other anti-immigration nativists used this logic to justify the exclusion of non-Anglo-Saxon foreigners. Unhealthy, degenerate, foreign bodies presented a danger to the body politic, not just because they were not as productive as the white "Nordics" and therefore caused a drain on the system, but, more significantly, because their inferior type made them susceptible to radical anti-American ideologies like socialism and anarchism. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.