H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Women@h-net.msu.edu (June, 2000)
Katrina Irving. Immigrant Mothers: Narratives of Race and
Maternity, 1890-1925. Urbana and Chicago: University of
Illinois Press, 2000. x` + 148 pp. Index, illustrations. $29.95
(cloth), ISBN 0-252-0234-2.
Reviewed for H-Women by John McClymer ,
Department of History, Assumption College
Is There Discourse Beyond Race and Gender?
At the end of her discussion of Americanization, Katrina Irving
writes: "The hysteria that accompanied Americanizers' activities
during the war years resulted from the reformers' assumptions
about the obdurate traditionalism of the immigrant woman" (p.
90). How did she come to such an extraordinary conclusion? Not
by examining actual instances of wartime hysteria. Had she, for
example, considered the efforts of the federal Committee on
Public Information (the Creel Committee) to control the
foreign-language press or to organize "I Am An American" Day
parades for July 4, 1918, she would have encountered the specter
of the "hyphen." Were German-Americans or Irish-Americans or
Swedish-Americans, many of whom had vigorously opposed American
entry into the war, loyal? Did the hyphen indicate a divided
allegiance? Was the United States threatened by a kind of
Balkanization? These and other fears had much to do with the
political activities of immigrant men and little or nothing to
do with the domestic traditionalism of immigrant women.
Irving does mention, in another chapter, that the Immigration
Act of 1917 empowered the government to deport immigrant aliens
and notes the deportation of Alexander Berkman (misidentified as
"the would-be assassin" of Andrew Carnegie) and Emma Goldman for
radical political activities(p. 98). It is telling that the
crusade for "100% Americanism" does not figure in her discussion
of Americanization and receives only this brief comment in the
chapter on cultural pluralism.
It is often unfair to complain that an author did not consider a
particular topic or event or piece of evidence. One of the
privileges of authorship is to construct one's own argument. But
this is a privilege, not a license. One cannot affirm that the
"hysteria" that accompanied wartime Americanization resulted
from assumptions about immigrant women stubbornly clinging to
tradition and ignore a large body of evidence, readily available
and widely discussed, that supports alternative explanations.
How does Irving reach this remarkable conclusion? She cites
Frances Kellor's essay on "Neighborhood Americanization," but
not her voluminous writings on immigrant male workers. She links
Jacob Riis's How The Other Half Lives to the "sentimental"
fiction of "such mid-century writers as Maria Cummins, Harriet
Beecher Stowe, and Susan Warner." Is this because she has reason
to think that Riis read any of these authors? No. She instead
cites the view of Laura Wexler that Americanization programs
"coupled the imperial agenda of sentimental fiction with 'the
social control of marginal domestic populations'"(p. 72). Even
though, according to Irving, such fiction had declined in
influence by the Progressive Era, it nonetheless informed the
work of Riis. Why? Presumably because, once "discourse" has
joined together agenda items, no mortal power can sever them.
What was this "imperial agenda"? Judging by Irving's treatment
of several Riis photographs and of an anecdote in Lillian Wald'sThe House on Henry Street, it entailed remedying the immigrant
mother's deficiencies by teaching her "modern" (aka American)
forms of child care and homemaking. In Wald's autobiography, she
recounted how she came upon an Italian woman with two starving
children. She made sure the family received enough food and then
arranged to have the father released from jail where he had been
wrongfully confined. For Irving, "Wald's relation to the
immigrant is shown to be an aestheticized one before her
textualization of the event: 'Her face brought instantly to my
mind the famous picture of the sorrowing mother'"(p. 79). It is
"the immigrant woman's failure to approximate the maternal
ideal" which "calls for Wald's intervention." The episode "is a
striking example of how the rhetoric of sentimental motherhood
can be mobilized both to legitimate native intervention into
immigrants' lives and mount an argument for their potential
recuperability for the American way of life"(p. 79) One can
doubt Wald felt her "intervention" required legitimating. Of
course she could have allowed the mother and her children to
starve. She could have allowed the husband to rot in prison.
Fortunately for these immigrants, Wald was a sentimental
imperialist of the deepest dye.
Any line of argument which leads to such absurdities should be
quickly and quietly abandoned as should be the book which
contains them. Immigrant Mothers does have an additional
claim upon our attention, however. It strikingly exemplifies a
current reductionist tendency in Culture Studies, namely, to
explain everything in terms of race, gender, and (diminishingly)
In her discussion of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth,
Irving seconds the call of Elizabeth Ammons to "consider the
'actual, important presence of race as a category in Wharton's
work'"(p. 39). In the novel that presence takes the form of the
"'invading Jew'" Simon Rosedale. This is as close as Irving
comes to discussing anti-Semitism in the construction of
nativist discourse. She does not advert to it again, not even
when analyzing Horace Kallen's theory of cultural pluralism. Nor
does she mention Zionism or the widespread concern among
American Jews over how to maintain their own identities as Jews
as they modified or abandoned traditional religious and cultural
practices. Instead she treats Kallen as another voice in the
chorus of native-born Americans concerned about immigration.
Anti-Catholicism receives no more attention. In her extended
analysis of The Damnation of Theron Ware, Irving does point
out that in the novel, Harold Frederic reversed a number of
stereotypical views of Irish Catholics. This does not distract
her, however, from seeking to show how the novel illustrates the
"engendering of the new immigrant." Irving writes: ". . .
trembling on the cusp of nativism, the representation of the
immigrant woman [in Frederic's novel] portends although does not
fully mirror that construction of the alien female as the
compaction of her race's essence and therefore as especially
noxious" (p. 34).
The immigrant woman in question is the "wealthy, cultivated" and
"beautiful" Celia Madden. She is not a "new" immigrant as that
term was used, to refer to newcomers from southern and eastern
Europe. This detail does not slow Irving down. Nor does the
problem that those nativists who did see the immigrant woman as
"the compaction of her race's essence" never included wealth,
beauty, or cultivated sensibilities in their descriptions of
that essence. Nor does the problem that Frederic did not present
Celia as quintessentially Irish. After all, Irving is dealing
with what the novel "portends" rather than with what it "fully
Similarly, Irving seizes upon Frank Norris' use of the word
"swarthy" to describe Trina's hair in McTeague to link the
novel to nativist fears of "'swarthy white' races"(p. 65). Trina
is a Swiss-German immigrant. Nativists like Clinton Stoddard
Burr, whom Irving cites at this juncture, did not classify Swiss
Germans as "swarthy whites." Irving offers a description of
their categories in her first chapter. They divided European
peoples into Nordic or Aryan, Alpine, and Mediterranean. As one
proceeded from north to south and from west to east, the
differentiation between old and new immigrants, one encountered
"swarthy whites." Trina's beautiful black hair may "intimate her
latent depravity" (p. 65), but it is not a racial signifier in
the sense Irving intends.
Is there, finally, nothing worth salvaging from this account of
"the racialization of the immigrant woman at the turn of the
nineteenth [sic] century"? (p. 110) Yes. The question which lies
at its heart, how did ideas of gender and ideas of race enter
into debates over national identity, very much deserves asking.
We need to rethink, however, how we frame the question.
Americans, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman observed, categorized
virtually every human trait as masculine or feminine. They could
not think about any issue, as a consequence, without employing
gendered terms and notions. Racial ideas were equally pervasive.
So it contributes little or nothing to our understanding to
point to the "engendering" or the "racializing" of the
"discourse" about any topic. This suggests that race and/or
gender lay at the heart of whatever we happen to be discussing
when all we have actually shown is that people were using
An example may help. As southern states moved toward secession,
northern cartoonists frequently portrayed them as headstrong
young women asserting their independence from that old patriarch
Brother Jonathan or his newer incarnation Uncle Sam. Oliver
Wendell Holmes, Sr. composed an ode from Brother Jonathan to his
sister Caroline. (I include several examples of these cartoons
and the poem in This High and Holy Moment). Does this mean
that Northerners "engendered" secession? Yes. Does using this
term contribute to our understanding of the way they understood
the South's actions? I would answer that it does not. What can
contribute is a study of how the ongoing public debate over
woman's rights during the 1850s, combined with the coincidence
that many southern state names were female, provided a frame
which Northerners could use to describe events which were
irreducibly political. What can also help is a study of how
popular images of Reconstruction showing a contrite southern
bride renewing her marriage vows, especially obedience, provided
a frame for criticizing woman's rights as a threat to
fundamental social values.
Discovering that Americans thought in terms of race and gender
is like discovering that fish swim in water. It is necessary to
know but it is not sufficient.
Laura Wexler, "Tender Violence: Literary Eavesdropping, Domestic
Fiction and Educational Reform," in The Culture of Sentiment:
Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America,
Shirley Samuel, ed., (N.Y.: Oxford U. Press, 1992), 9-38.
Elizabeth Ammons, "Edith Wharton and Race," in Cambridge
Companion to Edith Wharton, Millicent Bell, ed., (N.Y.:
Cambridge University Press, 1995), 68-86.
John F. McClymer, This High and Holy Moment: The First National
Woman's Rights Convention, Worcester, 1850, and the Origins of
Feminism (Harcourt College Publishers, 1999).
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