ALL OF US FOREIGNERS
by James Ryan
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
The Congress of Vienna, 1814-1815, essentially a “gentlemen’s agreement” among the great powers in post-Napoleonic Europe, supposedly ushered in a century of world peace. The borders of European nations were finally settled. Of course, Europe’s wise gentlemen ignored the realities of freedom and democracy unleashed by the French Revolution. In their self-centered wisdom, they even restored the monarchies. Temporarily, the wise gentlemen of the world were relieved of their usual destructive cravings for power. But the people were not satiated from their yearnings for democracy, freedom and a better life. And these powerful forces, along with the regenerated cravings for power by the sons and grandsons of the wise gentlemen, would seed the fields of France for the disastrous explosion that came precisely one hundred years later. The aftershocks continue to this day. And while there may have been peace for the great nations and their “wise” progeny, there was neither peace nor prosperity for the people. Revolutions, economic depressions, untenable population growth, property seizures and subdivisions, exploding industrialization, relentless worker exploitation, and widespread and recurring crop failures resulted in a witches brew of fear, famine and dislocation. And during that so-called “century of peace” the people fled Europe, millions of them.
From 1815 to 1915, thirty million Europeans flooded into America, twenty-five million through the port of Whitman’s populous city, New York. The first deluge, 1840-1880, rose in the north: Germany, Austria, and Ireland. With the second, as the century turned, came hordes of Russian Jews and the Italians. By 1910, forty percent of the population of New York City was foreign-born. With over 5 million people, New York was bigger than the next three largest American cities combined: Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis. Fifty percent of New York City was of German and Irish born immigrants and their descendents. There were more people of Irish descent in New York City than the entire population of Dublin. And New York City had also become the third largest “German” city in the world. And nowhere were the powerful effects of this Irish-German juggernaut more directly felt than in The Bronx. The working-class Irish in southernmost Mott Haven section was bounded in the north by 149th Street. Beyond lay Melrose and Morrisania where the industrious Germans lived and prospered.
SHOUTS is a novel of love and war. It tells of a once-thriving, long-vanished urban immigrant society. I am a hybrid third-generation child of these Bronx people, an Irish-German American “mongrel.” And such mongrels are legion in America. German and Irish blood courses through the veins of almost 100 million of us. Indeed, America is a mongrel nation.
SHOUTS recreates the nature of that time when a century of world peace was shattered by an assassination in Sarajevo of an archduke and his wife on June 28, 1914. A month later the world went to war and in four years it had killed seventeen million of its citizens. Whatever innocence was left died too.
SHOUTS tells of the destructive forces of war on the home front. To the people, their hopes and dreams, their loves. To the community, to its economic and social achievements, and its reputation. And to democracy with its high-blown principles, its rock-solid protections, its fragility. How quickly things change. All that was once indisputably solid indeed can melt into air. Now, as then, we live in the stink and shadow of war. Now, as then, we struggle to confront the real relations with our fellow citizens of this world. Then, the danger was the Germans. Now, it is someone else.
In SHOUTS it is 1915 and the American melting pot has become a crucible. The Great War looms. You are in The Bronx, a bastion of ethnic German enterprise and struggling Irish laborers. German spies and saboteurs roam New York City. Firebrand Irish street corner orators denounce the “British” war. Paranoia and politics rage in the streets. Everyone’s patriotism is suspect. Mistrust and antagonism rule. The government cracks down and the social and economic fabric of the city begins to unravel.
This book is a romance, a written choir that sings, plays and shouts. It speaks as profusely as the people of that century-ago time spoke: priests and bartenders, boxers and violinists, politicians and longshoremen, brewmasters and spies. They shout out loud their stories, telling of their origins, their hopes, their fears, their dreams, their loves. While of Irish and German roots, these people stand for all the subsequent generations of races, colors and creeds who still come from distant lands to make new lives in America. They stand for all of us. We are their children. They live in our marrow. We are one with all distant lands, all of us Americans, all of us from some place else, all of us foreigners.
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