Review of The Polish Peasant in Europe and American by William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki.
Emily Greene Balch
THE POLISH PEASANT IN EUROPE AND AMERICA. Volumes I and IIBy William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki. University of Chicago Press. 589 and 526 pp. Price $5.50; by mail of the SURVEY $5.90.
The fruits of Professor Thomas's study of the Polish peasant, a study carried on in Poland and in America for many years, have been long awaited. They are now partially available in this curious and very valuable magnum opus.
The subject of the two volumes now in print is the peasant family and community, and especially the ways in which these are affected by the rising industrial system at home and by emigration, whether for occasional work to Germany, or to America. For the third volume is promised the autobiography of an immigrant, illustrating the effect of the rapid transition from one social system to another in "disorganizing" the individual. The fourth volume is to deal with social and political conditions in Poland. The fifth may be the one of most direct interest to Americans, as it is to be a study both of the disorganization of Polish immigrants in America resulting from "a too rapid and inadequately mediated individualization," and the beginnings of their reorganization.
In the two volumes before us, we have not a historical or descriptive account of concrete conditions but an analytical consideration of states of mind, "attitudes," richly documented with illustrated material in the shape of letters to and from Poles in America. Of over 1,100 pages all but 300 are given to these letters with introductory comments and brief interpreted foot notes, often very meaty.
The publication of these real letters is a kind of spiritual vivisection in the name of science. Scientific and social interest they possess in a high degree, but how far this justifies the method as a method may perhaps be better judged when some of its indirect results are known.
The book opens with a "methodological note" or nearly 100 pages, which in general will be of more use to the theoretical than to the practical sociologist. The 200-page Introduction which follows is the substance of the whole, the rest of the two volumes being made up of the 764 letters which illustrate the generalizations of the Introduction. The subjects taken up are: the peasant family, marriage, the class system in Polish society, social environment, economic life, religious and magical attitudes, theoretic and aesthetic interests.
The thread which unifies the whole is the study of the changes by which the psychology of family solidarity develops into the psychology of individualization with all that this means in different cases. Some of the letters show, as the most striking aspect of the process, a growing moral atomism, a hideous loss of significance in life ; others reveal it as the growth of a new degree of self-consciousness, wider interests, more purposive moral choice and more personal and articulate affections.
Some of the most acute and interesting discussion ís that relating to property and to the attitude toward earning money, borrowing and lending, and saving. To the peasant, economic values are not all alike in kind; they do not differ only in amount. They differ qualitatively and in kind, as the value of a wedding ring differs from the value in money. Land especially has a character all its own as the basis of family life and measure of the social standing of the family through generations. The fact that money invested in land may bring, a return less than might be got from some other investment is an irrelevant consideration. The question is not only one of security but above all of family status and prestige.
In this concern for what Mr. Veblen calls "invidious distinction" may be found a prime key to the situation in its varying phases. The letters are a constant self revelation illustrating the power of this motive.
The controlling force of family and village public opinion follows the wanderer to summer work in Prussia or to the barracks where the period of army service is lived through, or, more or less fully, to distant America whence his conduct ís reported home by friendly or unfriendly gossip in letters or from returning acquaintances. Many letters show how sharp is the sting of blame or contempt actual or imagined among the home group. They show, too, the immense gratification of being able to prove, often through display of real generosity, the fact of success in the new world.
The most dangerous moment is when either because the old life becomes shadowy and remote or because its standards are felt to be outgrown, this regard for what the home group think passes away before any relation with the new social environment has been established to take its place. The break between those in America and those left behind, or between parents and children in the immigrant home ís but a phase of this situation, and is variously, often tragically, illustrated in these letters.
In regard to this and other aspects of the problems of misadjustments among newcomers the lack, on the part of well intentioned Americans, of any sort of realizing ideas of what is in the mind of the party of the other part is the source of much failure to do good or even not to do harm. For this reason this book has a unique claim upon the time of the ever over-busy teacher, judge, court officer, employer, and every sort of social worker.
If the two stout volumes with the thought of more to follow suggest dismay, let the Introduction at least, or even the first part only of the Introduction, be read and digested and the letters sampled.
EMILY GREENE BALCH.