Henry James is widely regarded as a writer who was deeply disturbed by the new immigrants who came to America after 1890—mainly Jews from Eastern Europe and Italians from Southern Italy and Sicily. James wrote about the new immigrants in The American Scene (1907), an account of his visit to the U.S. in 1904–1905 after an absence of two decades. In their introduction to a selection from The American Scene (1907),the editors of Empire City: New York Through the Centuries (2005) say, “James, revealing the patrician sensibility of his class, . . . recoiled at the sight of masses of immigrants.” James did not recoil at the sight of masses of immigrants. He went out of his way to see immigrants and talk to them. He not only visited Ellis Island, which opened in 1892, but he also walked in the Italian and Jewish sections of New York. He went to restaurants frequented by immigrants, and he observed immigrants chatting and strolling in Central Park.

James was interested in the manners of immigrants—manners understood in the broadest sense. He was curious to see if their move to a democratic and predominantly commercial country had changed them in any way. Having traveled extensively in Italy, James was especially interested in Italians in America. His first encounter with Italian immigrants took place while he was walking in a town on the New Jersey shore, where he was staying for two days as the guest of his American publisher. Seeing Italian immigrants who were working as landscape gardeners, James hoped to chat with them, but they ignored him completely: “It was as if contact were out of the question.” If he had met similar workers in Italy, there would have been a conversation “founded on old familiarities and heredities.” These Italian gardeners were not interested in idle chatter. They were busy working and making money.

The man remained silent, so he addressed him in Italian. No reply again.

A week or two later, James met an immigrant when he was visiting his brother William in New Hampshire. Walking by himself in the countryside, James lost his way, so he asked directions from a man who had just emerged from the woods. Because the man did not reply, James thought he might be French-Canadian, so he addressed him in French. The man remained silent, so he addressed him in Italian. No reply again. James said in English: “What are you then?” This question finally “loosened in him the faculty of speech. ‘I’m an Armenian,’ he replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a wage-earning youth in the heart of New England to be [Armenian].” James is amazed that the man mentions his ethnic identity so matter-of-factly, as if there were nothing out of the ordinary about an Armenian walking in the New England woods.

The encounters with the Italian gardeners and the Armenian constitute evidence for James of “the ubiquity of the alien.” This characteristic was especially obvious to James in New York. Riding in an “electric car” (a streetcar), he saw “a row of faces, up and down, testifying, without exception to alienism unmistakable, alienism undisguised and unashamed.”

According to James, “the great fact about his companions [on the streetcar] was that foreign as they might be . . . they were at home, really more at home, at the end of their few weeks or months or their year or two than they had ever in their lives been before.” The immigrants are at home because the U.S. is a “cauldron” of immigrants from different countries. The country was and still is a “a prodigious amalgam . . . a hotch-potch of racial ingredients.”

The immigrants feel at home in New York, but James doesn’t. He feels dispossessed. “This sense of dispossession . . . haunted me . . . in the New York streets and in the packed trajectiles [the streetcars] to which one clingingly appeals from the streets.” But, quite in contrast to the picture Empire City’s editors would paint, he doesn’t recoil from the immigrants. Indeed, he says native-born New Yorkers “must make the surrender and accept the orientation. We must go, in other words, more than half-way to meet them.”

It is easy to misunderstand what James means by “dispossessed.” He is not saying that these new immigrants are ruining the American character. He completely dismisses the notion of an American character that is based on Anglo-Saxon or Nordic stock: “Who and what is an alien, when it comes to that, in a country peopled from the first under the jealous eye of history?—peopled, that is, by migrations at once extremely recent, perfectly traceable and urgently required. . . . Which is the American, by these scant measures?—which is not the alien, over a large part of the country?”

In his remarks on immigration, James is taking issue with the views of many of his friends, who feared that the new immigrants could not be assimilated. In 1895 Thomas Bailey Aldrich, an acquaintance of James who succeeded William Dean Howells as the editor of The Atlantic, published his poem “The Unguarded Gates,” which begins: “Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,/ And through them presses a wild motley throng.” In his History of the American People (1902), Woodrow Wilson said the new immigrants were “men of [the] lowest class from the south of Italy, and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.” In 1911 William Williams, the Ellis Island Commissioner, said: “The new immigrants, unlike that of the earlier years, proceed in part from the poorer elements of the countries of southern and eastern Europe and from backward races with customs and institutions widely different from ours and without the capacity of assimilating with our people as did the early immigrants.” This was also the view of the Dillingham Commission, which presented a lengthy report to Congress in 1910 and 1911. TheNew York Times reported that the commission had shown that “aliens are not being [assimilated], and cannot be assimilated—cannot be, that is, unless some check is placed upon their continued influx.”

During the second decade of the twentieth century, the opponents of Eastern and Southern Europe immigration often cast their argument in racial terms. In The Passing of the Great Race in America (1916),Madison Grant called for the exclusion of inferior Alpine, Mediterranean, and Jewish breeds as the only means of preserving America’s old Nordic stock. In 1922 the Saturday Evening Post published several articles about “race” by the novelist Kenneth Roberts, who warned that “a mixture of Nordic with Alpine and Mediterranean stocks would produce only a worthless race of hybrids.”

James disagreed with the immigration doomsayers.

James disagreed with the immigration doomsayers. He thought the “wild motley throng,” as Aldrich puts it, would easily be assimilated. “The machinery [of assimilation] is colossal—nothing is more characteristic of the country than the development of this machinery, in the form of the political and social habit, the common school and the newspaper.” Visiting Ellis Island, he is struck by “the ceaseless process of the recruiting of our race, of the plenishing of our huge national pot au feu, of the introduction of fresh—of perpetually fresh so far it isn’t perpetually stale—foreign matter into our heterogeneous system.” James, in effect, says that anyone can become a member of “our race”—i.e., anyone can become an American.

Assimilation works, but in James’s view it has a cost: the Italians he meets in the U.S. are not as charming as the Italians he met on his travels in Italy. “The Italians meet us, at every turn, only to make us ask what has become of that element of the agreeable address in them, which has, from far back, so enhanced for the stranger the interest and pleasure of a visit to their beautiful country. They shed it utterly, I couldn’t but observe, on their advent, after a deep inhalation or two of the clear native air.” Howells, who lived in Italy for several years, agreed with James. He speaks of a “malign change here that has transformed the Italians from the friendly folk they are at home to the surly race they most show themselves here.” In his biography of James, Leon Edel says James “was struck by the alienation of the immigrant Italians when compared with Italians in Italy.” In reality, James was struck by how un-alienated the immigrants are. They are so “at home” in America, where there is “equality of condition,” that they feel no need to have the deferential manners they had in Italy.

James says all immigrants are transformed when they come to the U.S. The foreigner “presents himself thus, most of all, to be plain—and not only in New York but throughout the country—as wonderingly conscious that his manners of the other world . . . have been a huge mistake.” Fifty years earlier Anthony Trollope made a similar remark about the Irish in America. “The Irishman when he expatriates himself to one of these American States loses much of that affectionate, confiding, master-worshipping nature which makes him so good a fellow when at home. . . . To me personally he has perhaps become less pleasant than he was. But to himself—! It seems to me that such a man must feel himself half a god, if he has the power of comparing what he is with what he was.”

What about the Jewish immigrants—Does the machinery of assimilation work for them as well? Many German Jews already were assimilated. Some Christian Americans thought Jews would never become good citizens, but the virulent brand of anti-Semitism that was widespread in late nineteenth-century France—the notion that Jews were a “race” of treacherous cosmopolitans—was not commonplace in the U.S. Henry Adams was the odd man out because he talked incessantly about the noxious influence of wealthy and powerful Jews. When the Dreyfus Affair was boiling over, John Hay said that Adams’s obsession with Jews was so extreme that “he now believes the earthquake at Krakatoa was the work of Zola and when he saw Vesuvius reddening the midnight air he searched the horizon to find a Jew stroking the fire.” (Zola defended Dreyfus.) If few Americans subscribed to Adams’s brand of anti-Semitism, many thought the Jews of Eastern Europe could not be assimilated.

Though clichés about Jewish commercial craftiness occasionally turn up in James’s writings, he was not anti-Semitic. In several letters he refers to Jewish acquaintances. In 1877 he writes that “I dined a week ago at Lady Goldsmid’s—a very nice, kind, elderly childless Jewess, cultivated, friend of George Eliot etc.” In other letters he talks of being a guest at one of the Rothschilds’ country estates.

Though clichés about Jewish commercial craftiness occasionally turn up in James’s writings, he was not anti-Semitic.

In “The Impressions of a Cousin,” a short story written in 1883, James ridicules conventional anti-Semitism. The story takes the form of a diary kept by an anti-Semitic woman. She is a painter who returned to New York after a long stay in Europe, and she is temporarily living with her cousin. The woman dislikes living in New York because the city and its people are not pictorially interesting, but the story is mainly about the interest she takes in her cousin’s financial affairs. She fears that her wealthy cousin’s financial advisor—a Mr. Caliph—is a crook. Her reasoning is simple: He is a crook because he is Jewish. “I have an intimate conviction that he is a Jew, or of Jewish origin. I see that in his plump, white face . . . in his remarkable eye, which is full of old expressions—expressions which linger there from the past.”

The reader soon realizes that the diarist’s version of events cannot be trusted. The diarist is totally in the dark about Mr. Caliph, who may or may not be Jewish. The story is not one of James’s best because the diarist is tedious, but James makes it clear that this nasty, meddlesome, anti-Semitic woman is a fool.

In the 1890s, after the Dreyfus Affair heated up, James was on the side of Dreyfus, but one of his close friends, the French novelist Paul Bourget, was anti-Dreyfus and anti-Semitic. James never broke with Bourget, but in one letter to him he says that he does not understand what is going on in France, adding that in England “we get along well with the Jews” (“le bon ménage que nous faisons avec les Juifs”).

In another letter to Bourget, written in English, he talks about “poor” Ferdinand de Rothschild’s death, saying that “I have always had a lingering liking for him.” The main point of the paragraph is to tell Bourget that the Prince of Wales attended Rothschild’s funeral. “What strikes me more than anything else, in connection with his death, is the difference marked between English and French nerves by the fact that the Crown Prince (by whom of course I mean the P. of W.) assisted [attended] yesterday, with every demonstration of sympathy, at his [Rothschild’s] severely simple Jewish obsequies.” The English royal family does not subscribe to the French notion that Jews are untrustworthy rootless cosmopolitans.

It is a long way from the palace of a Roth-schild to a tenement on the Lower East Side. In England James did not know Yiddish-speaking Jews. He was curious about the culture of these new immigrants to America. And he wanted to see if the machinery of assimilation worked for them as well.

On a warm evening in June 1905 James visited the Lower East Side accompanied by several Jewish acquaintances. (Howells probably introduced him to them.) He walked around the area and had dinner with a Jewish family. After dinner James’s group “wound up” in a “half-dozen picked beer-houses and cafés.” James’s first impression of the Lower East Side is a commonplace one: the area is densely packed with people. In one paragraph James uses the word “swarming” three times. He is also struck by the ceaseless activity of the quarter.

Amazed by the “whole spectacle,” James ransacks his imagination for an appropriate analogy. “It was as if we had been thus, in the crowded, hustled roadway, where multiplication, multiplication of everything, was the dominant note, at the bottom of some vast sallow aquarium in which innumerable fish, of over-developed proboscis, were to bump together, for ever, amid heaped spoils of the sea.” The analogy does not work. Fish don’t bump into each other; the allusion to the Jewish nose—the “over-developed proboscis”—is an unfortunate attempt at humor. After comparing Jews to fish, James compares them to worms and fine glass particles. “There are small strange animals, known to natural history, snakes or worms, I believe, who, when cut into pieces, wriggle away contentedly and live in the snippet as completely as in the whole. So the denizens of the New York Ghetto, heaped as thick as the splinters on the table of a glass-blower, had each, like the fine glass particle, his or her individual share of the whole hard glitter of Israel.” The comparison to worms makes no sense, and the jump from worms to fine glass particles is confusing. A few paragraphs later, James compares Jews to squirrels and monkeys. The fire escapes of tenements are like “the spaciously organized cage for the nimbler class of animals in some great zoological garden. This general analogy is irresistible—it seems to offer . . . a little world of bars and perches and swings for human squirrels and monkeys.” A few sentences later, James says the Jews he sees from the window of the apartment where he is having dinner are “an ant-like population.”

Worms, monkeys, squirrels, ants—some observers reasonably conclude that these analogies show that James was anti-Semitic. In my view, the analogies are James’s misguided attempt to give the reader a sense of how densely populated the Lower East Side is and how energetic its Jewish inhabitants are. It was ten times as densely populated as the rest of New York.

But if we take these clumsy analogies to be signs of James’s anti-Semitism, then why does James say he is impressed by the Jewish immigrants? He speaks of “the intensity of the Jewish aspect,” and the Jewish “reverence for intellect.” He notes that the Jews are an “intellectual people.” He talks to Yiddish writers. He dashes into “a small crammed convivial theatre,” where he sees part of a Yiddish comedy of manners. He admits that he is baffled by Yiddish culture, but he doesn’t subscribe to the popular notion—one advanced by Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives (1890)—that Jews are obsessed with making money: “Truly the Yiddish world was a vast world, with its own deeps and complexities.”

The cafés, he says, were “torture-rooms of the living idiom.”

James enjoyed talking to Jewish writers in the cafés of the Lower East Side, but the way they spoke English pained him. The cafés, he says, were “torture-rooms of the living idiom.” He thought the new immigrants—Jewish immigrants but other immigrants as well—would radically transform the English language: “The accent of the very ultimate future, in the States, may be destined to become the most beautiful in the globe and the very music of humanity . . . but whatever we shall know it for, certainly, we shall not know it for English.”

James was wrong about “the fate of the language,” but he was right to argue that Jews, like the Italians, would be transformed by the colossal machinery of assimilation. The Jews of New York, he says, are different from the Jews he saw in the ghettoes of Europe because the Lower East Side is a New Jerusalem compared to the “dark, foul, stifling Ghettos of other remembered cities.” In the U.S. Jews have a much greater opportunity to better their condition: “What struck me in the flaring streets . . . was the blaze of the shops addressed to the New Jerusalem’s wants and the splendour with which these were taken for granted.”

The main point James makes about Jews is that they are similar to other immigrants insofar in that they too think America is a land of opportunity: “The wants, the gratifications, the aspirations of the ‘poor,’ as expressed in the shops . . . denoted a new style of poverty.” It is a new style of poverty because the Jews assume their poverty is a temporary state. James wonders if the Jews are right to be optimistic about their future given “the icy breath of Trusts and the weight of the new remorseless monopolies.” He concludes by saying that “their dream, at all events, as I noted it, was meanwhile sweet and undisguised.”

Ten years after The American Scene was published, Abraham Cahan made the same comment about Jewish immigrants in The Rise of David Levinsky: “The scurry and bustle of the people were not merely overwhelmingly greater, both in volume and intensity, than in my native town. It was of another sort. The swing and step of the pedestrians, the voices and manner of the street peddlers, and a hundred and one other things seemed to testify to far more self-confidence and energy, to large ambitions and wider scopes, than did the appearance of the crowds in my birthplace.” Moses Rischin, who has written a history of New York’s Jewish immigrants, agrees with James and Levinsky: “Despite unsteady and underpaid employment, tenement overcrowding and filth, immigrants felt themselves ineluctably being transformed.”

James does not say that the U.S. will become a “melting pot,” which was the title of a popular early twentieth-century play by Israel Zangwill. Rather, he argues that ethnic strife is unlikely because the different ethnic groups will be so busy trying to “move up” that they will not be preoccupied with ethnic questions. “The existing order is meanwhile safe, inasmuch as the faculty of making money is in America the commonest of all and fairly runs the streets.”

Walking in Central Park on a Sunday afternoon, James noted that the immigrants all appear to be “enjoying . . . their rise in the social scale, with that absence of acknowledging flutter, that serenity of assurance, which marks . . . the school-boy or the school-girl who . . . expects to ‘move up.’ ” Assimilation works:

It is a drama that goes on, without a pause, day by day and year by year, this visible act of ingurgitation on the part of our body politic and social, and constituting really an appeal to amazement beyond that of any sword-swallowing or fire-swallowing of the circus.

Editor's note: Parts of this essay were drawn from Stephen Miller's fortcoming book, Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers from Walt Whitman to Teju Cole (Fordham University Press, Fall 2014). 

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 10, on page 23
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