Edward A. Steiner: A Writer on Immigration

Posted on August 24, 2012


Steiner’s portrait in his autobiography, From Alien to Citizen.
All other images and captions on this page are from On the Trail of the Immigrant.

I stumbled upon Edward Steiner while I was reading resources describing the experiences of immigrants arriving to the United States. I saw a phrase cited in a paper, looked it up, and once I found it I could hardly stop reading.

The Wandering Convert

Steiner (1866–1956) was a professor of Applied Christianity, for what it means, in Grinnell College in Iowa. He was born to a well-to-do Jewish-Slovak-Hungarian family in a Carpathian village, and was educated in Vienna and Heidelberg, from where he made a pilgrimage to his venerated Tolstoy in Russia. This pilgrimage was followed later by five more, as well as by a written biography.

Isrealites Indeed

Isrealites Indeed
The root of the persecution of the Russian Jew is found in his superior ability to cope with the difficulties of existence, in his thrift and shrewdness which knows no bound.

His immigration to the United States in 1886 and his later American experiences are quite incredible, precisely because it seems that he made every effort not to miss any of the steps of the immigration experiences; not only the familiar sweatshop saga of his fellow east European Jews, but also  metal works in Pittsburgh; mining with Poles in Pennsylvania; cropping for the Amish; being Jailed for months for having been indirectly involved in a strike; getting trapped on a railway bridge as the train was running against him; being brutally mugged in Chicago; being shoved off a cattle train car in Ohio while on his way to becoming a rabbi in the East Coast; and finally, finding a warm Christian home in a small Mid-Western town with a pastor and his wife. Ultimately, in this environment, and under the continuing inspiration of Tolstoy, he became a Christian and a pastor himself, and ever active for progressive causes.

A Jew of the Poorer Type: A product of persecution and orthodoxy.
A Jew of the Finer Type: A Russian Jew; cultured, artistic and cosmopolitan.

He had what appears to be a complex relation with the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. He was repulsed by its ways, converted to Christianity (which made him “a better Jew”), and often criticized the weaknesses of the Jewish character in a language that would not be admissible today, speaking seriously of racial characters such as short hands, long heads, etc.

But he was clearly and wholeheartedly dedicated to deliver to the American public the message that Jews, as well as other new immigrants, should be understood and accepted, and while their nature may have been crooked due to the circumstances in which they lived and their decaying religion, they are ultimately capable of becoming decent Americans. Upon reading his descriptions of the conditions of east European Jews and their migration to the United States, it is apparent that he saw himself within the people he had described. “Being a follower of Christ has not only separated me from the Jews, it has brought me closer to them.”

Judgement Day

His descriptions are often crammed with pathos and sentimentality, but always full of great empathy for fellow human beings. Along side a ranking he ascribed to the dirtiness of the immigrants of the different nations (“The passengers were all fairly dirty, the Italians being easily in the lead, with the Russian Jews a close second, and the Slavs as clean as circumstances allowed.”), there are heart breaking accounts that can not fail to deliver the humanity of his subjects into the minds of his readers. A nice example is a report of an interrogation of an elderly Jewish immigrant who arrived in Ellis Island along with his son, but was suspected of not being able to support himself and of becoming a burden on society. Whether he could enter or whether he had to go back, and what was to happen with his son, that was to be decided in the following procedure:

The Sheep and the Goats

The Sheep and the Goats
In the great examination hall, they wait, some curiously, some with anxiety, the decision that shall give them entrance to the new home or consign them again the the Old World strife.

A Russian Jew and his son are called next. The father is a pitiable looking object; his large head rests upon a small, emaciated body; the eyes speak of premature loss of power, and are listless, worn out by the study of the Talmud, the graveyard of Israel’s history. Beside him stands a stalwart son, neatly attired in the uniform of a Russian college student.

His face is Russian rather than Jewish, intelligent rather than shrewd, materialistic rather than spiritual. “Ask them why they came,” the commissioner says rather abruptly. The answer is : “We had to.”
“What was his business in Russia?” “A tailor.”
“How much did he earn a week?” “Ten to twelve rubles.”
“What did the son do?” “He went to school.”
“Who supported him?” “The father.”
“What do they expect to do in America?” “Work.”
“Have they any relatives?” “Yes, a son and brother.”
“What does he do?” “He is a tailor.”
“How much does he earn?” “Twelve dollars a week.”
“Has he a family?” ” Wife and four children.”
“Ask them whether they are willing to be separated; the father to go back and the son to remain here ?”

Back to the Fatherland

Back to the Fatherland
Not Merely the dangerous elements are refused admission, but those who for reasons of ill health of mind and body, or inability to work, are likely to prove a hindrance rather than a help.

They look at each other; no emotion as yet visible, the question came too suddenly. Then something in the background of their feelings moves, and the father, used to self-denial through his life, says quietly, without pathos and yet tragically, “Of course.” And the son says, after casting his eyes to the ground, ashamed to look his father in the face, ” Of course.” And, “The one shall be taken and the other left,” for this was their judgment day.

The Sparks in the Dark Room

Steiner went back and forth on steamships crossing the Atlantic, travelling on steerage as an ordinary passenger, avoiding the cabins and reenacting time and again the experience of immigration that he himself had gone through as a young man, as if the first time was not sufficient for nine lives. In the introduction to his book on return migration The Immigrant Tide: Its Ebb and Flow, he contrasted his approach with that of the statistician studying migration:

There are two ways in which to reveal the import of those vital connections between the continents, as established by the immigration of European peoples to America. One way is to record its volume, measure its fluctuations, classify the different groups and statistically determine the value of this movement to them; to trace the effect upon its sources and its significance to the country which receives them.

Yes, way #1 does sounds like me and my fellow economic historians…

The statistical method is of value; but it must be exceedingly painstaking [agreed!], and even then I doubt that it can serve in all cases the purpose for which it is intended. [also agreed…]

Way #2 was Steiner’s:

I have therefore chosen the second, the interpretative method. It sees the sparks in the dark room, it interprets the flying flame and feels the influences on both sides of the sea. It crosses and recrosses the ocean with these human cables which bind together the continents; it listens to their stories and records them, hesitatingly draws conclusions and undogmatically tries to teach some lessons.

And so he did.

On the Day of Atonement

On the Day of Atonement
The distance between synagogue and church is really not so great as some suppose. Many a Jew is Christian in spirit if not in creed.

Moschele Amerikansky

An evidence to that is a story that I particularly liked,  Moschele Amerikansky from his book  The Immigrant Tide. It tells of a shop in a small Hungarian town, probably similar to the place where he grew up. The owner of the shop, Uncle Isaac, was an elderly Jew who lived inside his Talmudic books, and couldn’t be bothered by the material state of his business. His pragmatic son took off to America and became a manager in a department store. Steiner, who frequently visited the town on his travels, helped Uncle Isaac (“who knows whether he eats Kosher“) bring back his son to the town. The son agreed, but on the condition that his father will have nothing more to do with the family shop. For a while, against generations of tradition keeping in the decaying shop, the son was successfully bringing America to the Hungarian small town. But the clash of old and new could not have ended without a crisis.

Further Reading

There wasn’t even a wikipedia page dedicated to Steiner. The best I could find was this address given at the Grinnell Fortnightly Club, honoring Steiner who was “almost certainly the most ‘productive’ faculty member in College history”.

Fortunately, some of his books are freely available on-line, and offer a living and telling account of the immigration of that period. On the Trail of The Immigrant (1906) tells step-by-step the stories of immigrants by their ethnicities, and The Immigrant Tide: Its Ebb and Flow (1909) deals with the immigrants coming back to their home country.

Also see his autobiography, From Alien to Citizen: The Story of My Life in America (1914), and his 1904 biography Tolstoy the Man.