- Old and New New Englanders: Immigration and Regional Identity in the Gilded Age by Bluford Adams
I would change only one thing about Bluford Adams’ Old and New New Englanders: Immigration and Regional Identity in the Gilded Age. I would put “Regional Identity” before “Immigration” in the subtitle because it would more accurately describe what Adams does in his book. Each component opens with fascinating discussion of how New England debated its identity in the post-Civil War years, debates addressing the region’s racial essence and the longevity of that race; its physical health, especially of its women; its rural life; and its relationship to the Old Northwest (roughly, a band from Ohio to Wisconsin). Once that context is established, Adams then [End Page 279] discusses—with notable depth—how the immigrant presence reinforced or complicated what it meant to be a New Englander. The emphasis, as I say, is more on regional identity, almost exclusively from native-born perspectives.
I mention this to prepare readers, not to dissuade them, because Adams’ prose is clear and concise, and his scope is far-reaching. Approaching immigration with a regional lens instead of the usual national one is enlightening. This is particularly the case regarding the widespread discourse on the Anglo-Saxon in the U.S., discourse that had a profound influence on the rise of immigration restriction legislation during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. As their titles suggest, the myth of the vanishing Anglo-Saxon in the U.S. was propounded in popular works such as Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and Lothop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy (1920). The discourse covered by Adams stops before these works appeared on the scene, but he reveals that New England was probably the source of the myth. In contrast, he explains, advocates of Anglo-Saxonism from the mid-Atlantic states saw a promised land for their racial “stock” in the West.
Adams similarly ties topics such as women’s health and rural life to immigration issues. His method is to organize the many writers of the period into camps, giving each group names such as “racial regionalists,” “medical moralists,” and “progressive farmers.” Remembering the many groups can be a challenge, but there is only one that I sensed was mislabeled. While exploring the fears that Irish and French Canadian immigration might transform New England into “New Ireland” or “New France,” Adams explains that some commentators “viewed their identities as New Englanders as dynamic, multiply determined formations. . . . They were pluralist in their wiliness to acknowledge the many peoples who had contributed to the region.” It becomes clear, though, that these “regional pluralists” do not advocate the kind of heterogeneous pluralism that Horace Kallen had in mind in his seminal essay “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot” (1915). Rather, they contribute to the amalgamationist or Melting-Pot rhetoric describing diverse races blending to form one homogeneous race. But, of course, language isn’t math (and, very likely, neither is math).
In the end, Old and New New Englanders serves as a very valuable source for understanding how the dominant culture of the powerful Northeast saw itself and its immigration during the Gilded Age. Adams’ selection of primary sources is impressive in itself and useful for further research. [End Page 280]