How to Turn Immigrants Into 'Real' Americans: A 1920s Argument

In a vintage Atlantic essay, a child of Italian immigrants rejected the "melting pot" ideal.

In a vintage Atlantic essay, a child of Italian immigrants rejected the "melting pot" ideal.

Immigrant children at Ellis Island gather around a toy horse in 1920 (NYC Vintage Images)

Ralph Waldo Emerson called America a "smelting pot" that would forge "a new race, a new religion, a new state." Historian Frederick Turner saw the Western frontier as a "crucible" where "immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused." Henry James described New York City as "a vast hot pot" where different cultures merged and bubbled together.

By 1920, Gino Speranza was fed up with all of these metaphors. A lawyer and journalist, Speranza was the child of Italian immigrants -- his parents were members of an elite class in Verona, Italy, who became members of an elite class in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Early in his life, Speranza enthusiastically defended the American "melting pot" ideal.

But after World War I, something changed. Americans as a whole had become more suspicious of foreigners. The Immigration Act -- passed on today's date in 1917 -- barred several categories of newcomers from entering the country, from homosexuals to epileptics to illiterate people over the age of 16.

Speranza took this restrictiveness a few steps further. In a February 1920 Atlantic essay, he argued that turning "'raw' citizens" into true Americans was no simple process. It demanded "an unreserved spiritual conformity" that meant shedding every last vestige of foreignness. "There cannot be two nationalisms," he wrote, "even if one is major and one minor, even if one claims to be American first and German second."

Other Atlantic writers have made similar arguments. In a memorable 1939 piece called "I Married a Jew," published just weeks after the Kristallnacht pogroms, an anonymous writer criticized the Jewish people for holding onto an "alien culture." "They must make some practical and rational effort to adapt their ways more graciously to the Gentile pattern," she admonished her husband, "since they prefer to live in Gentile lands."

For Speranza, World War I was the ultimate proof of how unyielding ethnic identity could be. After watching "phlegmatic Flemish burghers" and "ignorant Slav peasants" lay down their lives for their own kind, he wondered how Americans could imagine "that any large body of aliens can be Americanized quickly, if at all."

And how exactly should an "Americanized" immigrant dress and behave? Speranza saw U.S. culture as "the development, essentially, of Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking and doing." In his estimation, most newcomers needed an "apprenticeship" of at least 25 years to fully shed their Old World ways and embrace "New England ideas and ideals."

The alternative, he warned, would be an irreversible shift in the national character. "The foreign vote is already making itself felt in some parts of our country as a distinctly foreign vote," he wrote, foreshadowing political debates that are still raging today. To avoid this, he insisted, potential citizens should be forced to prove their "political fitness and personal worthiness; and if the lawyers argue that these are too subtle and spiritual to be defined by statute, then it were better that we should suspend naturalization for half a century."

Read "Does Americanization Americanize?" in the February 1920 Atlantic.