Reflecting on Uprootedness and Transplantation

The three pieces we read this week were Oscar Handlin’s “Immigration Portrayed As an Experience of Uprootedness”, John Bodnar’s “Immigration Portrayed As an Experience of Transplantation”, and Rudolph J. Vecoli’s “From the Uprooted to the Transplanted: The Writing of American Immigration History, 1951 – 1989*”. The first two pieces are opposing perspectives on the American immigration experience while the third reviews those two essays and elaborates on the development of scholarly work on American Immigration History.

Handlin’s “Uprootedness” makes some very broad generalizations of the American immigration experience. Indeed, Vecoli even points out that Handlin’s oversimplification erases large parts of the true experience. To summarize Handlin’s view, the move to America was horrible because the immigrants were stripped of their home communities and received a culture shock in America when there were no familiar customs, kin, or social hierarchy. Frankly, this belief is both inaccurate and depressing. Many immigrants came to America together, even if it was not with their families, and stayed in general areas with people of the same nationality or religious views. Therefore, the sense of community and traditions from their homelands were not entirely lost. This has shaped America today and can be seen in American celebrations of a wide range of holidays originating from other countries.  Handlin seems to push a perspective that there was only a hope for a lower class lifestyle for the immigrants and that they accepted this due to a refusal to accept further change in their already dramatically changed lives. “Uprootedness” simply treats the move as a loss of identity to the immigrant and that the only benefit of their horrible experience was that the future generations would not have to endure the same erasure.

Bodnar’s “Transplantaion” is far less pessimistic and offers some explanation as to why a sense of loss may have occurred while he declares that appreciation of immigrants was a slow but existing part of their story. Contrary to what Handlin said, Bodnar emphasized that immigration was capitalism, which the immigrants did not understand, and that in their ignorance of capitalism they created communities via kinship, religion, and folk life. Ultimately, Bodnar argues that culture bound that past and present together and in acceptance and resistance they formed the working class of America. Again, he emphasizes their part in capitalism, their need to have structure in a hierarchical sense and the creation of the American ideal of a “bread winner”. “Transplantation” is underlined with positivity through understanding, that though the immigrants were unlikely to obtain political power they, like other Americans, valued individual freedom but also instilled a common national value we have today, which is a concern for communal welfare.

Vecoli addresses Handlin and Bodnar’s statements of loss of culture in sating that there was a cynicism to immigrants and their culture due to the Vietnam War, student uprising, assassinations, etc. However, he makes sure to address that this changed with acceptance of sexuality and race in the sixties. That acceptance coupled with a curiosity of genealogy, Vecoli stated, led to American historical scholarship and historical consciousness, which had to include immigrants. The example Vecoli gives when discussing this shift in Americans accepting their diversity is the state of Ellis Island. While it had been left to decompose upon its closure in 1954, he states that was due to immigrants “repressing their roots” but changes in American scholarship since the sixties improved the quality of resources along with the quantity that led to Ellis Island reopening as a museum. He criticizes Handling for not acknowledging or using new methods and not better assessing backgrounds and heritage before he made his negative conclusion. Bodnar gets less of a harsh critique from Vecoli who asks that the dimension of economics and the immigrant communities be “restored to immigration history”.

The keyword through Vecoli’s piece is selective adaptation. He believes that Handlin and writers of his time completely ignored selective adaptation, focusing instead on assimilation and ethnicity. Therefore, they missed the mark because not only did immigrants become Americanized, but their heritage became a large part of what is “American”. Like his agreement with Bodnar, Vecoli believes that American scholarship needs to be multifaceted, including the histories and customs of the places these immigrants came from along with the details of how they adapted to and changed American society- be it ethnically, religiously, from one generation to the next, etc..

I am inclined to agree with Vecoli’s viewpoint, especially because I am a first generation American and this is a time when America is looking toward isolating itself and possibly erasing some of its diverse culture. Vecoli uses the term “ethnic Americans” and today the term ethnic is frequently put in a box labeled non-white. These three pieces all show a growth and shift in the viewpoints of American immigration. The genre will certainly only change with time as more historians begin to address the influx of Hispanics to America, the hatred surrounding that, how it changes the narrative on immigration’s past and future.

13 thoughts on “Reflecting on Uprootedness and Transplantation

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