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Editor’s Note, November/December 2005

Becoming American

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, November/December 2005 | Volume 26, Number 6

"The magic of America is much more than the sum of its comparative advantages. It is that idea that Americans can be as different as sisters and brothers are and still be part of the same family." The words are those of Bette Bao Lord, who came to this country from Shanghai when she was eight. Lord's novels, including Spring Moon, have chronicled the dualities of culture.

For Lord, the introduction to America was difficult at times but exhilarating--"I was a happy immigrant," she tells NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, a book based on her experiences as a newcomer to Brooklyn in the 1940s, has been chosen for this year's We the People Bookshelf program. The bookshelf, which consists of fifteen books for young people, will be distributed to 2,000 libraries around the country.

"The We the People Bookshelf reveals the many and varied influences that have shaped our nation's history and culture," Cole says. "These classics also provide another powerful lesson--that there are traits and values shared by all those who, by birth or choice, become American."

For those who had arrived here a half century before, numbers and conditions made life more daunting. In Chicago, for instance, twenty settlement houses sprang up to aid the newcomers, among them Jane Addams's Hull-House. At the time she opened Hull-House in 1889, the city had doubled and doubled again to more than a million people, 41 percent of them foreign born. In the Nineteenth Ward, where her settlement was, there were Belgians, Bohemians, Chinese, Danes, French, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Irish, Italians, Lithuanians, Norwegians, Poles, Russians, Spaniards, and Swedes--twenty-six nationalities in all.

Addams and a partner, Ellen Starr, began classes in art, painting, sewing, and citizenship. A neighborhood policeman, who earlier in life had been a sailor, became a permanent fixture there, giving evening classes to the boys on how to weave baskets and hammocks. A social activist to her core, Addams also took on the task of cleaning up the Nineteenth Ward, which was hardly an American utopia. Dead horses and dead dogs "abounded" in the streets, as the Chicago Evening Journal described it, and one alley was "impassable because of the piles of manure." Addams got herself appointed a garbage inspector in the ward and followed the garbage collectors as they made their rounds to make sure the job was done properly.

Addams may have been righteous in her causes, but she did not always see eye to eye with others of same stripe, notably the equally righteous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. The briefest of encounters between the two takes us from Russia back to the kitchen of Hull-House and yields the unexpected sight of Jane Addams baking bread in the back-to-basics spirit of Tolstoy.

Whereas Addams helped people pursue the American dream, Sinclair Lewis satirized those who had chased the dream, and had settled into lives of complacency and conformity. Lewis would later say that the publication of Main Street, with its portrayal of American provincialism, represented the start of his writing career. But as an account of the novel's own debut shows, beginnings are fraught with anxiety and high hopes--and a faith in the American dream.