- Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States
Randy McBee’s book, Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States, advances the argument that commercialized leisure had a profound influence on the social experience of newly-arrived immigrants in early twentieth-century America. Specifically, McBee is interested in the ways in which commercialized leisure reshaped gender relations as immigrant women and men found new ways to define homosocial and heterosocial and sexual relationships through engaging activities such as dance hall culture, saloons, and movie shows. The challenge for any historian working in these areas of immigrant history and commercial leisure, however, is to illustrate how one’s scholarship offers a unique contribution to the field. Other books such as Lizabeth Cohen’s The Making of a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939, Roy Rosenzweig’s Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870–1920, Lewis Erenberg’s Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890–1930, and Kathy Peiss’s Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York have established an impressive foundation about immigrant history and its relationship to commercialized leisure from which other scholars can build.1 In Dance Hall Days, McBee attempts to offer new historical analysis on immigrants and their ability to use leisure time to redefine themselves as Americans, but with limited success.
The greatest strength of Dance Hall Days is McBee’s clear affection for his sources and the lives they led. Throughout the book, readers are invited into the immigrants’ leisure time, which McBee presents in engaging detail that reveals both the challenges and joys these individuals faced as they worked to build lives from themselves in the United States. This strength, however, is also a weakness in that McBee has a tendency to romanticize the immigrants’ day-to-day existence at times. For instance, in his first chapter, McBee describes how many immigrants who lived in tenements would take in boarders to make financial ends meet. He emphasizes how these arrangements often led to romantic relationships and marriages. Although there is historical evidence that these types of living arrangements often did lead to positive long-term relationships, there is also scholarship such as Linda Gordon’s Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence: Boston, 1880–1960, which argues that when immigrants shared tenements with boarders some of these individuals were also capable of perpetrating domestic violence and sexual abuse on women and young girls in the household.2 In McBee’s narrative, these types of negative consequences are not addressed and it leaves the reader with a more sanitized vision of tenement life. Without including the complete range of behaviors that emerged in these cramped tenement living arrangements, McBee’s analysis cultivates more nostalgia than historical understanding of both the negative and positive aspects of immigrant life.
On another level, McBee writes of immigrants in rather broad strokes. Specifically, he only engages briefly with the inevitable inter-ethnic conflicts that regularly arose among different immigrant groups. Throughout the text, McBee [End Page 244] makes mention of different ethnic groups including Polish, Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, but no one group gets enough specific description to help the reader understand the differences that these distinct ethnic groups had from one another. Moreover, it seems clear—as Lizbeth Cohen argues in The Making of a New Deal—that one of the most significant consequences of the rise of commercialized leisure in the early twentieth century was the ways in which it broke down boundaries among different ethnic groups. To make a brief autobiographical point, both my paternal and maternal grandparents, who were members of immigrant families, met in the 1930s at sites of commercialized leisure. My paternal grandparents met at a polka dance in the Hamtramck neighborhood of Detroit and my maternal grandparents met at...