Academic Book Review of Strangers in the Land by John Higham

Published: 2021-06-12 05:25:03
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The book, Strangers in the Land – Patterns of American Nativism, 1860 – 1925 was written by John Higham. The book was published in the year 1954. John Higham was born in New York in 1920 and graduated from the Johns Hopkins University. He has worked for the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the U.S. army air force in its historical division in Italy. He earned his doctorate under Merle Curti in 1949. His experiences at the University and US Army made in him a democratic, sophisticated, American patriotism in which he always believed. He was a great teacher, conscientious mentor and a balanced critic (Ross, 2008).
The book selected for review deals mainly with the anti-immigrant and anti-racial policies that prevailed in America and the post war developments that led to immigrant flow in large scale and the further issues during the period 1860 to 1925. The book attempts to convey a general history of the anti-foreign spirit the author has defined as nativism.
According to the author, Nativism as a habit of mind illuminates darkly, some of the large contours of the American pas. It has mirrored our anxieties and marked out the bounds of our tolerance. The author is concentrating on the hostilities of American nationalists toward European immigrants, who comprised the mainstream of newcomers throughout the chosen period (1860 – 1925) and the preceding century.
The book
Strangers in the Land is an evaluation of the pre-Civil war and post war nativist developments in America. Pre-war period saw the idea of ‘Nativism’ develop through anti-catholic, anti-foreign movements and racism. The author takes us through the early to mid nineteenth century during which immigrants were considered equal to aliens and every step was taken to throw them out of the country. Catholicism was condemned due to its non-applicability in American’s concept of individual freedom and political liberty. Anti-foreign movements were aimed mainly at European and French immigrants since the Americans feared political revolution.
The third movement was a positive approach and it boosted American racism and evolved that Americans belonged to a superior Anglo-Saxon nationalism. The post war scenario changed all these concepts and saw the immigrants in every sector of developing America. The American government started realising the importance of the immigrants who played a major role in post war development. The immigrants later formed the base support for land development and they also formed the consumers for the various industries. Though nativism seemed to have vanished, it did exist beneath the surface of the society.
The author claims that the government supported the flow of immigrants till it helped development and when they started backfiring the nativist inside, the Americans started showing up again. The author describes how the states liberalised the immigration laws initially and then when the trouble started, stringent rules were imposed on immigration. Another area which the author scans is the coming back of anti-Catholic movement through the states’ imposing rules on religious intervention in the field of education.
The author further throws light on how anti-racism and labour rights movements created problems for the still-nativist Americans. The author sites that nativism flourished during the period due to the deep-seated ethnic differences between natives, and immigrants added to the movements and events during the period (Higham, 2002).
Nativism in American History
While evaluating the general history of America, nativism has been an integral part of its past. Americans have discriminated and assaulted immigrants in the early nineteenth century and embraced the immigrants for their own development after the civil war. Alien and Sedition Acts, Protestant Crusade, Chinese Exclusion, Return of Anti-Catholicism, Americanization Campaign and Triumph of Anglo-Saxon Racialism are some of the major movements in American history during the period 1860 to 1925. This has been discussed in various historical works (Cycles of Nativism in U.S. History). 1860 to 1925 is also a time which witness several important events like American Inventions, political developments, World wars and introduction of many important labour laws (Sioux Uprising).
Though there are various books on similar context majority of them analyse the political impact of nativism. Most of the books seem very complex to the reader. Higham’s book was one of the earliest to discuss this important historical factor with a less biased approach about nativism. Books such as Dividing Lines by Daniel J Tichenor and The Party of Fear by David Harry Bennett does discuss about nativism in American history, but the passion and simple prose has made Higham’s book a favourite amongst history students. This book provides simple and effective information about American nativism which can be easily interpreted by laymen.
Higham has included information on many smaller interesting events and movements that added to the main events which makes his study more detailed and understandable. By making the prose simple, the author has however made the content less sophisticated than it should have been. In addition to that, the movement has been described generally and individual references supporting nativism has not been given in the book. Higham has shown nativism as a battle between natives and immigrants whereas the internal clashes such as fights between various ethnic groups among the natives have not been mentioned. Higham sites nativism as an act which is preached rather than practiced (Ueda. 2006 p.180-187).
Higham has discussed very little about the anti-Asian movements though there is a mention about Chinese Exclusion p.187). Another important aspect of nativism Higham neglected is the role of women in the movements (p.191). Higham’s base for the Protestant leader’s role in the movement is based largely on sermons, pamphlets and books. The extent to which they contributed can be assessed only through the correspondence made by the leaders. Only further investigations will reveal and authenticate some of the links mentioned by Higham (p.193).
John Higham’s book Strangers in the Land – Patterns of American Nativism, 1860 – 1925 is a very good guide for a beginner to understand the history of American nativism. Though certain important issues have not been considered, the author has been able to demonstrate his work through interesting events and simple prose.

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