Review of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America
Henry P. Fairchild
The Polish Peasant in Europe and America: Monograph of an Immigrant Group. By WILLIAM I. THOMAS and FLORIAN ZNANIECKI. In five volumes. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1918-20. $25.00.
Two or three years ago a brief note of the first two volumes of this work by the present reviewer appeared in the Journal of Sociology. The entire study is now at hand, and a much more extended treatment is called for.
In discussing a monumental production of this kind the reviewer is faced with the impossibility of giving even a passing comment to all the
( 522) noteworthy features of the work. The most he can do is to indicate the general scope of the undertaking, and then devote whatever space is available to a more detailed consideration of whatever points impress him as particularly significant. In this case, these are two in number---the tendency to moral disintegration on the part of Polish immigrants in America and the development of a Polish-American society in the United States which is neither genuinely Polish nor American.
This study is emphatically based on first-hand material. And what is particularly remarkable, the authors have supplied the reader with an enormous mass of this material itself, enabling him to check up their conclusions and generalizations to whatever extent his time permits.
The first of the five large volumes opens with a methodological note, outlining the nature of the investigation. This is followed by a general résumé of the social situation in Poland, serving as a background to the consideration of the changes induced by modern historical events, and specifically by the migration of individuals and families to the United States. The picture is that of an ancient society, deeply imbued with the principles of family solidarity, tradition, and status, undergoing the upheaval necessitated by the introduction of modern ideas and ways. Then comes the first instalment of the great mass of peasant correspondence which constitute part of the first-hand material referred to, introduced by a note on the form and function of the peasant letter.
Volume II is occupied entirely with further correspondence. Volume III is given over to the autobiography of a Polish immigrant, sordid, mediocre, and yet interesting, as every authentic record of a human life, however humble, must always be. And this document bears every internal evidence of authenticity and veracity, though one is amazed at the wealth of detail running throughout the entire record. It is almost incredible that a commonplace man of mature years, even though enjoying something of the gift of narration, as this man does, should recall all the minutiae of the events of his previous life. Fortunately, for the purpose for which it is presented, it makes no particular difference whether the record is true as a history or not. Even though some of the details are supplied by the imagination they are just as valuable in portraying social facts as if they had actually occurred. For in such a case, the imagination would suggest only such things as might have happened, that is, as did commonly happen in the environments which the writer knew.
Volume IV presents a review of the social disorganization and reorganization in Poland resulting from the introduction of modern
( 523) industrial methods, and the break-up of the old family system and all the medieval feudal customs and institutions which have persisted in Poland until very recently. There are abundant illustrations in the way of excerpts from newspapers and other periodicals. It is a most illuminating portrayal of a society in an important transitional stage.
Volume V, which deals with "Organization and Disorganization in America" will prove by far the most helpful to the ordinary American reader, particularly if his primary interest is in the practical phases of life in this country. Here are developed the two themes which, as observed above, impress the reviewer as of particular significance, and which, of course, could not be fully grasped or appreciated without the background afforded by the previous volumes.
Ever since the "Americanization" movement sprang into prominence the people of this country have been giving an unprecedented amount of attention to the problem of developing national unity out of the enormous and diverse ethnic elements which make up our population. Only very recently, however, has there been dawning a faint but salutary appreciation of the magnitude and difficulty of the undertaking. The early Americanizers cultivated the belief (intentionally or not) that virtually all that was necessary to make an American out of any foreigner was to teach him a little English and the rudiments of American civics and political history, train him to salute the flag and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner," and induce him to take out his naturalization papers. It needs just such studies as this of the Polish immigrant to help us realize how much every foreigner brings with him that is not carried in his oilcloth bag or bulging pack. We need to get some appreciation of the real nature of the transmutation which we demand of the immigrant, and of the utter inadequacy of the means we furnish him to accomplish it.
The failure of assimilation in the United States, even in the case of a group where it would naturally be supposed to be most satisfactory, is demonstrated by the social disintegration of individual immigrants, and by the fact that when some degree of reorganization is accomplished it takes the form of an association which is neither Polish nor American. The social decline is observable in economic dependency, breaks in the conjugal relation, murder, vagabondage, and delinquency of boys, and sexual immorality of girls. Each of these phases is fully developed in this volume, with the customary illustrative material. It is a disheartening picture.
Perhaps even more discouraging is the revelation of the growth of a vigorous, unassimilated Polish-American organization---really a separate
( 524) community within the American community. The existence of such a thing is probably hardly dreamed of even by those who are more familiar than the average with the ethnic aspects of our national life. The realization that the formation of such groups is the natural and inevitable result of our past immigration policy gives food for every sober reflection.
Taken as a whole, this work is unique. As far as the present reviewer's knowledge goes, there is nothing like it in American literature. The selection of the two features emphasized above must not be taken as restricting the value of the book. Others, with different primary interests, will find many other phases of equal importance. The work is of incalculable value to sociology in general, and in particular to that practical sociology which concerns itself with the volitional control of American social evolution and the development of a solidified national life.
HENRY P. FAIRCHILD
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY