Daily Life in Immigrant America, 1870-1920.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: LaVigne, David J.
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Daily Life in Immigrant America, 1870-1920: How the Second Great Wave of Immigrants Made Their Way in America (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Alexander, June Granatir
Accession Number: 209577969
Full Text: Daily Life in Immigrant America, 1870-1920. By June Granatir Alexander (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007. xviii plus 279 pp.).

In this book, historian June Granatir Alexander provides a survey of immigrant daily life in the United States between 1870 and 1920. The book is part of a series by Greenwood Press focused on American social history. With the intended audience of the series being undergraduate students, Alexander does not engage any specific historiographical debate but mainly seeks to provide an account of immigrant daily life. Towards this end, Daily Life in Immigrant America emphasizes two main themes. The first theme depicts the difficulties that immigrants historically encountered in the United States. Exploited by employers, mired in poverty, and condemned by native-born Americans, immigrants struggled in their encounters with the new environment. The second theme involves the ways in which immigrants responded to these challenges. Alexander identifies immigrant agency when discussing immigrant households, work responsibilities, businesses, and religious and ethnic institutions. The strategies of adjustment found in these places, she explains, relied heavily on cultural traditions carried over from the homeland.

Alexander organizes Daily Life in Immigrant America into six thematic chapters. The first chapter is a quantitative review of the who, where, when, how, and why of immigration. It depicts migrants as pragmatic decision makers seeking to better their individual or familial conditions. The next three chapters explore immigrant life in the agricultural West, at the industrial workplace, and in urban locales, respectively. The tone in these chapters is understandably grim, with much of the discussion focused on the hardships that immigrants endured in the United States. Alexander provides balance by indicating how immigrants adjusted to the world around them. Chapter five most directly engages the immigrant perspective by describing ethnic businesses and institutions and stressing the importance of cultural traditions. The final chapter fits a bit awkwardly with the others because it is organized temporally rather than thematically. In this chapter, Alexander discusses how the politically charged atmosphere of World War I altered attitudes towards immigrants and promoted Americanization efforts.

Alexander effectively engages many important themes of immigration history. One of the greatest strengths of the book is its insistence that the immigrant experience extended beyond the borders of the United States. Historians of immigration have long stressed a transnational perspective, and Alexander draws on this research when discussing return migration, letter writing, and remittances. Alexander does a fine job as well when explaining differences between men's and women's experiences. She adds to this an insightful account of children's lives. The discussion of labor history is somewhat less in-depth. Although the workplace environments of industrial America are well laid out, attention to the important topic of worker organization is surprisingly limited. The book's discussion of unions and strikes, for instance, is short. Also, there is no analysis of the racialization of immigrants. Many of the hardships that immigrants encountered stemmed from understandings about immigrant racial inferiority. Popular culture, social sciences, government policies, and legal decisions made these ideas a part of daily life.

While her discussion of European immigration is strong, Alexander might have devoted more attention to non-European immigrant groups. The book includes just a few references to migration from Asia and almost none to migration within the Americas. The argument that Europeans constituted 90 percent of immigrants during the early twentieth century is valid, but for a book entitled "Immigrant America," it understates the often differing experiences of non-European immigrants. This focus results in a strong East Coast emphasis. Little is said of mining towns in the West or of major cities like San Francisco or Seattle. Indeed, the chapter about "life on the land" is framed in terms of westward expansion rather than viewing the West as a field of study in and of itself. On the whole, Alexander's substantive emphasis reflects her reliance on the ethnic studies paradigm of immigration history. Some of the more recent scholarship in the field has suggested alternative ways to conceptualize the immigrant past--stressing the importance, for example, of race and whiteness--but these perspectives are not incorporated in the book.

Daily Life in Immigrant America is a fine resource for college level courses. The prose is clearly written and readily understandable. Numerous subtitles and indented text further bolster its accessibility. Although the text does not contain footnotes, the bibliography of primary and secondary sources included at the end of the book offers students a convenient starting point for further research. Being mostly descriptive, this is not a monograph with a compelling argument that will provoke classroom discussion. It is a synthesis that is comparable to already available texts such as Roger Daniels' Coming to America and Leonard Dinnerstein and David Reimers' Ethnic Americans. Whereas the latter two books span a larger time frame and devote more attention to non-European immigrant groups, Alexander's work provides an in-depth description of the time period 1870 to 1920 with particular emphasis on European immigration.

David J. LaVigne

University of Minnesota
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