Associate 2007-08

James R Barrett



Usually our understanding of Americanization proceeds from the top of society, down – a coerced acculturation into a WASP mainstream through government, corporate, and settlement-house programs. Professor Barrett asks instead how the American identity is created and passed on from the bottom, up. His focus is on Irish Americans and their relations with other migrant peoples in the early-twentieth-century United States.

By the end of the nineteenth century an earlier generation of Irish immigrants already was well represented in American workplaces and churches, on vaudeville stages, in political machines, and on the streets of cities. They provided models and strategies for how the new immigrants might negotiate their urban environments and, in that process, create new “American” identities. What lessons did the Irish convey, and how did this process of Americanization “from below” shape life in American cities?

During his Center appointment Professor Barrett will analyze this process in several venues: on city streets, where gangs carved up urban space in terms of race and ethnicity; within the Irish-dominated Catholic Church, which pressed immigrant Catholics to assume a new “American” version of their faith; in the unions, where Irish activists taught immigrants lessons about democratic practice and class loyalty; in the realm of popular culture, where Irish artists interpreted their own and other ethnic cultures on vaudeville stages and through popular music and literature; and in the ethnic political machine, where Irish politicians negotiated an increasingly complex ethnic mix. Throughout this story, he returns often to the role played by Irish women – as domestic servants, nuns, public school teachers, social reformers, suffragettes, and labor organizers.

While Professor Barrett employs the Irish immigrant experience as a lens, his book-length study considers generally how this era’s large migration of European immigrants and people of color helped to form a new American urban culture, with repercussions reaching up to the civil rights movement and the current generation’s blue-collar conservatism.