Term Paper: Diner, Gjerde and Takaki

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¶ … Diner, Gjerde and Takaki

Looking at the documents in Gjerde, Chapter 10, and the article by Stephen Meyer on the "Americanization Program" at the Ford Company, compare and contrast how Progressive Era Americans from different backgrounds defined what being an American actually should entail. Which definition seems to be the most beneficial to the country, and for what reasons?

The period to immediately follow the Industrial Revolution would be one of meteoric growth for the American economy. As immigrants from all over Europe flooded into its major urban centers, production boomed simultaneous to the upward mobility of these immigrant classes. Increasingly, the ambitions of the laborer -- immigrants and the children of immigrants -- would correspond with those of the mainstream America. Namely, channels for labor would quite often become paths for a homogenization of cultural orientation and of personal economic disposition. The coalescence to assimilation would be prefigured by greater opportunity for advancement as presented by such industrial giants as the Ford Motor Company.

As the Meyer article demonstrates, the process of 'Americanization' would be facilitated by the material ambitions that frequently accompanies American cultural identity throughout history. Accordingly, "the Ford plan had several components. As described by the National Civic Federation, welfare-work or industrial betterment programs of the era involved 'special consideration for physical comfort wherever labor is performed: opportunities for recreation; educational advantages; the providing of suitable sanitary homes. . . .plans for saving and lending money and provisions for insurance and pensions.' In short, welfare work was aimed at improving the culture of industrial workers and their families." (Hookers, 47)

This would largely become a defining feature of becoming an 'American.' Immigrant cultures would find a common ground in the appeal of these comforts. The Ford model would not be conducted for the purposes of cultural charity though. This would instead be a model of positive orientation for the capitalist laborer, who could be said to have been compensated duly for his contribution to the broader economy. It is just that we can make the argument that indeed, this would be a positive pattern through which to define the American as he was coming to be known in the 20th century.

For Ford, the opportunity to promote a higher morale, a greater commitment to work and a connection of production goals to goals of personal advancement was presented as the American Dream but was in reality an extremely savvy way of approaching positive labor orientation. The Ford model would effectively limit worker's dissent and, as a positive byproduct, would create a newly thriving consumer economy amongst those in the labor classes who had previously not possessed the resources to participate in the material spoils of its work.

Without idealizing this period too greatly -- as quite certainly labor exploitation occurred widely and such strategies served to undermine any perceived need for unionized resistance -- it would quite certainly mark a point of inflection for immigrant populations. At this juncture, access to mainstream material goods and cultural conditions began to break down the barriers between different groups, who would increasingly cease to identify with their separate places of origin in favor of a homogenous American identity. This would be essential to promoting the idea -- whether mythological, rhetorical or real -- of a singular American identity comprised of many faces and backgrounds.

2. Why did so many European immigrants return to their home country after immigrating to the United States? Compare their reasons, and discuss what they imply for conditions in American society at the time.

In spite of the presented connection between labor and advancement, exploitation and ethnic hostility persisted to define American culture in important economic capacities. For so many groups that were easily identifiable by ethnically distinct appearances, accents and traditions, the experience was one of isolation and discrimination. To many Europeans who had come to America in order to escape what they perceived as intolerable conditions, the squalid overpopulation of America's urban slums represented all the same tragedies as life in their native countries compounded by a sense of cultural exclusion.

This is the experience that Diner notes for so many Irish immigrants, who were particularly easily identified and target with cultural abuses such that their experience was one of deeper hardship and greater peril. Likewise, individuals of this ethnic origin would be all the more likely to return home where at least the conditions faced in America would be alleviated by cultural comfort and familiarity. Diner recounts that "not untypical was the case of actor James O'Neill, the father of dramatist Eugene O'Neill. The son never forgot the tragedy of how his father, a Famine emigrant, refused to adjust to life in America and abandoned his wife and eight children to return to Ireland. His mother spent the rest of her years 'slaving as a charwoman, the family always was ill-fed and poorly clad.'" (Diner, 59-60)

The implications of this experience present something of a complete picture of American society during this time, which truly presented immigrants with the most unwelcoming of experiences. The notion of advancement for one's progeny and for future generations by way of the broader opportunity alleged to be possible in America would quickly be supplanted by harsh realities relating to American ethnic perspective. As the text by Takaki reports, "Race has functions as a metaphor necessary to the construction of Americanness: in the creation of our national identity, 'American' has been defined as 'white.'" (Takaki, 2) This is a logic which extends to those of distinct ethnic or national identity such as the European groups that would create the lowest socioeconomic class in something of an ethnically defined caste system.

For groups such as the Irish, this would denote an experience of terrible exploitation that became increasingly less appealing to many of such immigrants as promises of opportunity proved greatly exaggerated. As Diner reports, "between 1884 and 1890 in New York, Irish men led all the groups in the number of victims of on-the-job mishaps. Irish men took jobs no one else would take, as in the cutlery industry of the Connecticut Valley, where one axe manufacturer noted, 'there have been so many deaths among the grinders that no Yankee would grind, and the Irish were so awkward and stupid that we did not get the quantity needed even by having extra men working at night.'" (Diner, 60)

Simultaneously, the reality of this experience and the derogatory explanation offered by the source quoted suggests something of the social realities in American that might have driven members of various European immigrant groups to return to their countries of origin. America would prove a dangerous and unflinchingly cruel place to those of ethnic distinction, a reality that would not be made clear to Europeans until their arrival to its industrial centers.

3. What were the changes in family roles that happened in immigrant families in the new American urban environment? Were these changes on the whole positive or negative for the affected individuals and their families, and for American society at large?

Immigrant families would find their lives fully dominated by the implications of the bleak labor outlook for so many first generation arrivals. This is to say that the life of the man in an immigrant family would become exclusively one of labor orientation and toil. The absence of labor protection for such groups and the tendency to exploit immigrants in search of work by subjecting them to harsh and dangerous conditions meant that men worked long hours in terrible conditions where they risked exhaustion, illness and death for meager compensation.

At the other end of the spectrum, this rendered the woman as mother and sustainer of the household. Often living in deeply impoverished conditions in overcrowded ethnic slums, the immigrant women of America would be forced to harden considerably in order to face the challenges of keeping healthy, feeding and raising children in such an environment. To an extent, the matriarch of the household would function in these capacities lone, both in the regard that their husbands were subject to labor demands far too heavy to allow them a significant household presence or role and in the regard that many women were often left to these conditions alone.

As Diner remarks, alluding to the intense dangerous of immigrant labor conditions and the tendency of groups such as the Irish to eschew life insurance preparations, "an Irish widow with children became a prime candidate for charity, and the most pathetic descriptions, the most harrowing scenes of Irish-American poverty, involved the indigent widow, surrounded by hungry children, with no visible means of support. The ranks of the almshouse women swelled with Irish widows as did the workhouses, the prisons, and the charitable homes set up by religious orders." (Diner, 60-61) Though reflective of the tragic conditions for so many immigrant families, this pattern would also pave the way for the eventual progress of women in American society. Emerging from elements of America's labor patriarchy, so many women… [END OF PREVIEW]

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