A Nation of Nations

By Louis Adamic
THIS volume sets forth to reveal the diversity of sources in American civilization. Convinced that our heritage is not exclusively Anglo-Saxon but a blend from many lands, Mr. Adamic attempts to correct the conventional distortions that impose an artificial uniformity upon culture in the United States.
The intention is laudable, the execution deplorable. Mr. Adamic falls into the ancient pitfall of justification by “contributions,” measuring the place in national life of each group by the great men it produced — “great” meaning generally “well-known.” Like too many who have dealt with the same subject before, he has industriously but indiscriminately thrown together masses of facts (15,000 by his own count) and catalogued scores of names (on one page, 92 in 44 lines) which really do not matter.
Sometimes the statements are exaggerated — a German printer “fathered the American ideal of freedom of the press”; Mazzei wrote some of the words Jefferson put into the Declaration of Independence. Sometimes they are ingenuous — the uncritical acceptance of the Kensington rune stone, the legend that the Croatan Indians were Croatians, and the plot by “underpaid educators not unmindful of Carnegie Pensions” to distort American history in the English interest.
More harmful is the wearisome discussion of whether the Ulster emigrants were Irish or Scottish or Scotch-Irish. Was the discoverer of the continent an Italian, an Irishman, a Scandinavian, a Pole, a Dalmatian, or a Greek? The claims of all receive countenance here. Remembering the acrimonious debates, the incredible bitterness, such questions have raised in the past, I fear that the revival of these trivial issues may do less to quiet than to stimulate chauvinism.
In any case, irrelevance pervades the whole discussion. Two paragraphs, not unrepresentative, and quoted in their entirety, will illustrate: —
President Harry S. Truman is remotely of part-Dutch
One of Edward R. Stettinius’ grandmothers was a Reilly.
The root of Mr. Adamic’s difficulty is the absence of a basis of selection — a defect that results in a pathetic failure in emphasis. In the chapter on the Russians, the millions of Jews receive less than one-eighth the space devoted to the handful of tsarist émigrés, Alaskan settlers, and the Indians (treated here as immigrants from Siberia). In a long chapter on the French, only seven lines go to the most important group, the French-Canadians.
But then, no such account can succeed unless it recognizes that the key to the understanding of the immigrant lies not in the leaders but in the 35,000,000 followers whose humbler but more significant contributions made this nation of nations.