Sunday, March 8, 2009

From Marcus Lee Hansen, "The Problem of the Third Generation"

I'm going to quote one very long selection from this 1938 essay, collected in Werner Sollors's Theories of Ethnicity: A Reader, in part because it recovers a moment in American intellectual history that I find very intriguing, and also because it seems so close to some contemporary academic concerns and goals yet incredibly foreign to their means and modes of address. The emphases are mine.
It is well-known that during the decade of the 1890s the character of American history writing changed. A new emphasis appeared. Scholars looked beyond the older settlements ranged along the seaboard into the communities in the back country. A word that every schoolboy can now explain crept into the textbooks. This word and this theory now almost dominate every page in the volume. The word is 'frontier' and the theory is the 'frontier interpretation of American history.' Older students wise in the ways of the classroom have been known to pass on to the younger students this piece of practical advice: 'In any examination in American history if you don't know the answer, tie it up with the development of the frontier.'

This new emphasis is universally credited to Professor Frederick J. Turner. However, Turner or no Turner the frontier hypothesis was bound to come and to appear in the very decade during which he wrote his famous essay. In fact, the hypothesis may be distilled from the conglomerate mass of information and theory jumbled together in the ten volumes of Scotch-Irish proceedings. It is doubtful whether the pronouncement of one man, no matter how brilliant, could have turned the course of historical writing unless it were already veering in that direction. It is quite possible that Turner who wrote in 1893 drew upon the frontier interest in the Scotch-Irish were arousing by their studies of the part that the Ulstermen took in the movement of settlement into the West. The interest that they awakened united with the scholars that Professor Turner trained to give to American history its new and significant social interpretation.

The frontier doctrine in its original narrow statement has been overdone. We are beginning to see that the Mississippi Valley was for fifty years the frontier of Europe as well as of the eastern states and that it reacted upon England, Germany and Scandinavia with a force comparable to that which it exerted upon Atlantic America. Some historians with the orthodox professional training have recognized this fact and they are attempting, in a rather clumsy way, to analyze the operation of these influences. There is, however, one omission in their training. They know nothing about the hundreds of immigrant communities in America that formed the human connecting link between the old world and the new, nothing about the millions of personal contacts that brought humble public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic so close together.

The next stage in American historical writing will concern itself with this widened outlook. Herein lies not only the great opportunity but also the great obligation of the third generation historical activity. It alone can provide the atmosphere; it alone can uncover the sources; it alone ca[n] interpret the mentality of the millions of persons who had not entirely ceased to be Europeans and had not yet become accepted Americans. The problem of the third generation immigrant is to undertake the job that has been assigned and to perform it well.

The close of this discourse may very properly be a warning. It can be assumed too readily that the history of migration can not [b]e anything but a desirable influence. That is not necessarily the case. Prejudice and super-nationalism may be the product. Societies organized with the laudable intention of commemorating the deeds of which any people should be proud may fall into the hands of those who will use them for instruments of propaganda. Instead of a world covered with a network of associations which will foster an appreciation of the best that each nation has produced, we may find international societies for the promotion of hatred and intolerance. Historians must recognize an obligation to guide the national curiosity to know the past along those lines which will serve the good of all.

If told as it transpired, the epic of migration can add an ideal to take the place of one of the many that recent decades have shattered. For it is a simple story of how troubled men, by courage and action, overcame their difficulties, and how people of different tongues and varied culture have managed to live together in peace.

Removing the androcentrism of the last paragraph and the rather icy “good of all” invitation to technocratic manipulation or censorship, this “next stage” is of tremendous interest to me, particularly in the way that Hansen insists that the third generation’s (hopefully benevolent) ethnic chauvinism can dovetail with the work of academic historians. Not only that, though, but that the enthusiasm of these societies and the particular interests they develop and the new aspects of American history they foreground make possible the next round of academic historiography.

Hansen’s essay is actually the text of an address given to the Augustana Historical Society, a Swedish-American heritage association, and he is encouraging his audience to “faithfully record the experiences and achievements of the particular element in the population or the particular region in the country that it [the historical society] was created to serve.” Hansen warns and yet exhorts: “Men of insight who understand that it is the ultimate fate of any national group to be amalgamated into the composite American race will be reconciled to the thought that their historical activities will in time be merged with the activities of other societies of the same nature and finally with the main line of American historiography itself.” Ethnic or regional heritage societies as outsourced research assistants—an interesting model for scholarship.

The viability of this approach is immensely questionable, certainly, as Hansen himself questions it, and the scholarly ignorance of the effects and even presence of immigrant communities which Hansen castigates is obviously no longer in such a sorry state, but, again, I want to point out that Hansen also goes beyond heritage-societies-as-research-assistants. He is intent on the idea that academic historiography can harness popular energy for reviving the past and turning it into something both locally and transnationally meaningful. His recognition of the dangers of this rather Volkish enterprise is probably not even sufficient, but he also develops this idea explicitly in the context of a multiculture, and that, I think, is an arresting intuition.

Call it a ‘transnational studies from below,’ to be a little flip. But such enthusiasm for ethnic or regional history most certainly exists, and the idea of doing something with it in the service of an historiography that foregrounds the kind of multicultural and transnational development which Hansen describes—that seems much more than flip.

No comments: