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Time Essay: The Emigrants: A Dream Survives

7 minute read
Stefan Kanfer

Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee: and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great.


IT would undoubtedly astonish Jan Troell, the director of The Emigrants, to learn that he has made the most political film of the year. On the surface the movie is an epic celebration of 19th century Swedish immigration to the promised country. But within its rich textures is an oddly lucid explanation of some current American phenomena—among them the ethnic clashes in Newark and Canarsie—and for the landslide re-election of Richard Nixon.

Prematurely aged by his back-breaking tasks, buffeted by climate, indentured to a severe land, a Swedish Job is sometimes tempted to curse God and die. Instead, he retains his faith—in a remote ideal called the United States of America. His family is similarly enchanted; one of them chortles at the notion of a liberty so unrestricted that “you can say ‘you’ to the President.” (English is one of the few tongues without familiar and formal pronouns; thus the notion of American freedom begins with the grammarian.)

Finally, even the farmer’s child-wife, played by Liv Ullmann, is intoxicated by notions of unrestricted bounty and freedom. In the 1850s, the Swedes set sail. Ulysses had no more epochal journey than the ones made by 19th century aliens. Seasick, verminous, unable to hold their meager rations, the passengers think themselves in hell without the intervening grace of death. When the survivors reach harbor their true journey begins. Aboard a riverboat, they become aware of the flaws in the fable. Rich folk stride upon the top deck; down below are the new arrivals. Below them are Negro slaves, chained to each other and to a corrupted ideal.

The Swedes—like most immigrants—are astonished at the inequities of their adopted country. Is this not the land of liberty? Yet they will not relinquish their Edenic myth. Despite disappointments, America remains the fateful, blessed place—a land where sweat is more important than station.

For some years now, social commentators have devalued that myth by stressing the doubts and disappointments lurking in the garden. The American Dream, in their interpretation, has been dimmed if not extinguished by decades of hypocrisy and crass materialism, by the revelation of technology-as-monster, by the horror and divisiveness of the Viet Nam War and the rising of Consciousness III on campus.

But if the election and its after-mathematics prove anything, it is that the majority of the U.S. does not accept a negative print of America. Manifestly the ancient immigrant dream maintains its obstinate hold on the national imagination. Nor does it appear only on election days. It can be observed any time, disguised but perceptible, at gatherings where social progress is hooted down by bootstrap sociologists—”We pulled ourselves up, why can’t they?”

It is this familiar bias to which the President appealed in his campaign. When Nixon dedicated the Museum of Immigration in New York Harbor, his address jogged millions of memories. The immigrants, he said, “believed in hard work. They didn’t come here for a handout. They came here for an opportunity, and they built America.”

As many liberals and other Administration foes saw it, the President was making a summation to the blue-collar jury. In praising the old values of diligence and thrift, he was really advising the blacks, in code language, to go and do likewise. He was asking the nearly impossible. The black has no parallel; he is neither stolid native nor willing immigrant. No historian, presidential or otherwise, can undo 300 years of social damage with the simple-minded caveat “America—Love It or Leave It.”

Yet Nixon’s decision to play on this theme cannot be dismissed as mere electioneering. As Sociologist Oscar Handlin puts it, “The immigrants were American history”—a history that has been the envy of much of the world. Neither William Blake nor Franz Kafka ever saw the New World. But Blake spoke for all Europe when he apostrophized it in America: A Prophecy:

…had America been lost,

o’erwhelmed by the Atlantic,

…earth had lost another portion

of the infinite…

In Amerika, Kafka’s ubiquitous K. figure finds the Statue of Liberty mysteriously illumined, and ends his journey in the wondrous “nature theatre of Oklahoma.” According to Biographer Klaus Mann, Kafka, like many armchair immigrants, “imagined that all Americans wore a perpetual smile.”

These naive notions of the United States may seem merely ironic today. But the potent audience reaction to The Emigrants suggests that the concept is more than merely alive. If it can survive the Viet Nam War and its hard lesson—that the U.S. is capable of the tragic follies that mark other nations—the American Dream could be immortal.

With good reason. The majority of U.S. citizens, after all, are graduates of the steerage class, and many of them can remember family tales of the crossing. Most have an intimate knowledge of the laborious ancestral climb from sweatshops to Blue Cross and double time for overtime, from the reeking streets to tract housing. They remember, they are grateful, and they have a very low threshold of tolerance when it comes to criticism of the nation that made the advance possible. For them, the criticism does not apply; they give it the lie by invoking their own past.

If that is insufficient, Americans can point to new arrivals who retain the same dream of their forebears. The new immigration codes may have changed the complexion of the immigrants: Mexico and the Philippines are now the No. 1 and 2 countries sending citizens to America; Scandinavia is not even among the top 25. But the tales remain the same: juntas and taxes, poverty and oppression left behind.

Like their predecessors, the new immigrants perceive the true goddess of America, Technology, not as villain but as savior. The factory, however sordid or boring, has legally limited hours and, customarily, provides a string of fringe benefits. “Adam Smith” points out in Supermoney: “Somebody who has spent 16 hours a day looking at the wrong end of an ox for sub-subsistence on a patch in Poland may not complain at all when he emigrates with a paper suitcase to a steel mill on the South Side of Chicago.” The message is quite clear: in the history of American immigration there is but one story. It is told in different languages, but the ending is identical: prosperity and dignity ever after. Like The Emigrants, it is both art and politics, both splendid documentary and dangerous legend.

To believe in an enchanted fatherland is to risk the trap of national incorruptibility. Many a nation has followed an imperial “destiny” to holocaust and self-destruction. Some of those countries have produced the very hordes who fled from jingoism and flag raving to America. They looked to the New World as the antithesis of the old one, a land where an individual could be more than a soldier in the unholy forced march to empire.

Despite the electoral consensus, then, smugness is not in order. The majority of blacks still ride belowdecks. The machine has raped the countryside (it is significant that the producers of The Emigrants returned to Sweden to film a “Minnesota” lake because they could find none in America that was sufficiently untouched). And if the war was not the major issue in the ’72 campaign, surely it has left gaping and permanent tears in the country’s psyche.

This is not to invalidate the legend or to dismiss its power. It is simply necessary to see the legend whole, as a potential moral force not a national anesthetic. As William Butler Yeats observed: “In dreams begins responsibility.” Over there, the dreamers conceived the American idea; they dream it still. Over here, the awakening can no longer be postponed. To defer the responsibilities of the American Dream is to invite the U.S. to produce its own Emigrants some day. And where in the world could they go?

∎ Stefan Kanfer

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