Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mark Choate's "Emigrant Nation"

Mark Choate is a history professor at Brigham Young University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad, and reported the following:
I’m honored to submit to the 99th-page test, because I’d known about it before my book was published. I decided, this will work out, I just need to make that page really great! But I quickly found that through formatting and page corrections, page 99 is really a random slice of the book. This is a test you can’t prepare for.

As it happens, Page 99 of Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad is the next-to-last page of Chapter 3 (“Migration and Money”). Other chapters in the book deal with ethnicity, language, culture, diplomacy, imperialism, and contemporary comparisons. Page 99 discusses in detail how emigrants chose their destinations, and how the Italian government and the Catholic Church attempted to influence them and steer them in different directions. Here I’m getting into how Italian emigration worked in its peak years (1880-1915), not just as the influx of Italian immigrants into the United States with which Americans are familiar, but as Italians choosing where to go and what to do upon arrival. The Italian government had a vested interest in return migration and remittances, and invested a great deal in the statistical collection and analysis of emigration. Data on charity cases in the early twentieth century revealed

“that the richer and healthier Italian emigrants chose to go to North America instead of South America. Many migrants who would have been rejected by United States inspectors emigrated to South American ports instead, only to find more miserable economic opportunities than back in Italy. They eventually returned home, broken and disgraced.”

Italy’s Liberal government had taken a laissez-faire approach to emigration, while improving emigrants’ status abroad through diplomatic channels and a wide range of subsidies. Because of its mixed results, this policy was controversial in Italy and abroad:

“Critics reasoned that if migration to the Americas had infected and ruined so many lives, without providing the wealth which emigrants sought, surely emigration itself represented a national disaster. Emigrants’ best interests, and Italy’s best strategic interests, were vehemently debated. The Catholic group Italica Gens hoped to steer emigrants toward Brazil and Latin America because of greater possibilities for Italian political influence, even when the United States offered more opportunities for workers. Some imperialists still hoped to limit American migration to help the development of Eritrea and Somalia.”

The anti-emigrant campaign in Italy overlapped with the anti-immigrant campaign in the United States. For example, Adolfo Rossi, himself a former emigrant and a Liberal anti-imperialist, tried to balance domestic and international political pressures in his work as Italian consul:

“Another controversy, which pitted emigrants’ economic interests against foreign policy, was the debate over rural or urban colonization. Emigrants made higher wages in cities and in mines or factories, gathered together in tightly-knit communities; but was this in their best interest? American politicians railed against the crowding of foreigners in big cities and called for immigrants to settle and cultivate the Great Plains. Adolfo Rossi, as inspector for the Emigration Commissariat and later as Italian consul in Denver, Colorado, obliged American authorities by encouraging Italians to settle in the West rather than on the eastern seaboard. In 1905 and 1906, during an official tour, Rossi emphasized to the American press that Italy did not encourage emigration, did not advise Italians to congregate in cities, and did not oppose emigrants’ Americanization. Rossi personally believed this to be the best policy, and it was certainly what Americans wanted to hear.”

And this is why the choice of destination was so politically sensitive, in addition to economic and social ramifications. More than half of Italian emigrants returned to Italy, so their experience abroad affected Italy directly. If emigrants settled in neighborhoods or “colonies” in big cities (New York, Boston, Buenos Aires) they could form a large and powerful group, but might adopt urban vices. If they settled in rural “colonies,” supposedly they would maintain rural values, religiosity, and loyalties.

“Some Italians cited the colony of Tontitown, Arkansas, as a model Italian settlement under the leadership of Father Bandini, a Scalabrinian priest. Far from the evils of urban tenements, filled with disease and immorality, here Italians worked the fields under the watchful care of their parish priest. Most emigrants ignored this official advice and settled in Italian American urban communities, rallying together against religious and ethnic prejudice. In the long run, this was a wise economic decision.”

In truth page 99 is fairly representative of my book’s tone, approach, and subject. I’ve performed the random sample test on Ford and other writers – he passed, and some have failed.
Read an excerpt from Emigrant Nation, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press webpage and Mark Choate's website.

--Marshal Zeringue