Related Texts
Annotated Text of Alrich's "Unguarded Gates"
An Interpretation of Aldrich's "Unguarded Gates"

Texts Related to the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett

  Thomas Bailey Aldrich and the Immigration Restriction League
  by Terry Heller

     Among Sarah Orne Jewett scholars, there is virtually universal agreement that her close friend, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, was an active and prominent member of the Immigration Restriction League (IRL). The IRL was a nativist organization founded in 1894 to change American immigration policy toward excluding classes of immigrants for reasons of race and national origin. The consensus about his membership is important because his association with the IRL is offered as a main part of the case that Aldrich and Jewett shared with their class of New Englanders and with New England regionalist authors in general a deep discomfort with post-Civil War social and economic changes that led them to yearn for a nostalgic vision of America as racially pure. This consensus is problematic because of the paucity of documentary evidence that Aldrich had any relationship with the IRL.  While exhaustive research on this topic may be impossible, I have diligently searched in both published and unpublished materials for evidence of any sort of material connection between Aldrich and the IRL.  Not only have I found no such evidence, but what I have discovered suggests fairly strongly that, if Aldrich had shown awareness of IRL ideology and policy proposals, he would have opposed nearly all of them.  This lack of factual evidence does not prove that Aldrich harbored no nativist sympathies, but it does require reexamining Aldrich's writing as a precondition for making any new case concerning his beliefs about race and immigration.  It cannot be regarded as established by evidence uncovered as of 2014 that Aldrich was an avowed nativist.

     Sandra Zagarell, in "Country's Portrayal of Community and the Exclusion of Difference," argues that post-Civil War, elite New Englanders felt besieged by social unrest and that shifts in political and social power threatened their position of national leadership.  An important source of this threat, they came to believe, was immigration from southern and eastern Europe.  Prominent among those who shared this fear was Thomas Bailey Aldrich, who was editor of Atlantic Monthly (1881-1890), and who was within the inner circle of friends of Jewett and Annie Fields from the early 1880s.  Aldrich was "vehemently opposed to the unchecked influx of foreigners.  Along with Henry Cabot Lodge, he was one of the most prominent proponents of the Immigration Restriction League."    Zagarell is not alone in connecting Aldrich with the IRL.  Ellery Sedgwick, in his history of Atlantic Monthly, says that Aldrich was generally uninterested in politics; his "only political association was a lifetime membership in the Immigration Restriction League" (168).

    Zagarell and Sedgwick are so certain of Aldrich's association with the IRL that neither cites a supporting documentary source.  These critics and those who agree with or accept their assertions have pointed to just one piece of existing documentary evidence of Aldrich's connection with the IRL, his poem "Unguarded Gates," which first appeared in Atlantic in July 1892.  This poem, says Zagarell, provides an outline of IRL beliefs, with its list of undesirable immigrants and its warning to the "white Goddess," Liberty, against allowing this threatening throng into the United States (40-2).  To the contrary, I argue in "An Interpretation of Thomas Bailey Aldrich's 'Unguarded Gates,'" that the poem, while it does advocate for restricting immigration, does not propose that race or nationality become a basis for exclusion.  Aldrich's infamous list of undesirable immigrants proves, upon close reading, to refer to the variety of peoples who have successfully assimilated to what Aldrich considers core American values.  He does not specify a people or race to be denied access, mentioning only those who would "waste the gifts of freedom."  In an 1892 letter, Aldrich explains that he particularly had anarchists in mind for exclusion, but he adds as well that he would like to exclude criminals, beggars, and, perhaps, the mentally incompetent.  Since the IRL's program was aimed quite specifically at controlling the immigration of particular European "races," Aldrich's poem supports the IRL only insofar as the organization, in practice, backed almost any restriction that might have the effect of reducing the influx of those who belonged to wrong races.  While excluding individuals because of their political beliefs or even because of a criminal record is deeply problematic, still this is radically different from using race or nationality as a standard.  As I am the only reader I know of to offer such a contrarian reading of the poem, my interpretation should not be accepted without careful examination.  But if I am right about the poem, then Aldrich probably has published not a single word in which he openly befriends nativism, which in its post-Civil War forms argued for racial and national restrictions on immigration.

     When one searches for other corroboration of Aldrich's relationship with the IRL, one soon encounters problems of chronology.  Therefore, a brief chronology will be helpful.

    1890    Aldrich (1836-1907)  leaves his editorial position at Atlantic Monthly, and this turns out to be the beginning of his retirement from magazine work.

    1891    Immigration Act of 1891 establishes border stations to inspect immigrants and authorizes exclusions on several grounds. 

April.  Aldrich attends an anarchist meeting and is so appalled at what he observes that he writes "Unguarded Gates" in response.

  Passage of the Geary Act, extending the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

May.  Aldrich writes to his friend, George E. Woodberry, explaining that the poem will soon appear in Atlantic Monthly and describing his purpose and motivation.

July.  "Unguarded Gates" first appears in Atlantic, p. 57.

     1894    Spring.  "... a handful of Brahmin young people formed a committee which became the Immigration Restriction League of Boston,"  says Barbara Solomon.

    1895    "Unguarded Gates" is included in Aldrich's collection, Unguarded Gates and Other Poems.

    1901    Aldrich's son, Charles, develops tuberculosis; Aldrich devotes himself to his care, which significantly limits his public life.

    1903    Immigration Act of 1903 adds, among others, restrictions on anarchists.  (See Zolberg, 228-9).

One minor implication of this chronology is that Sedgwick's assertion about Aldrich's "lifetime membership" in the IRL, even if it were accurate, proves virtually trivial.  His membership could have lasted only through his final thirteen years, beginning after he had retired from his influential position at the Atlantic, and including that period of his life when his public visibility waned rather quickly.  Still, public knowledge of Aldrich's membership in or sympathy for the group could have added to its respectability.

    A more important implication of the chronology arises from noting that Aldrich's poem precedes the founding of the IRL by two years.  Thomas F. Gossett says that in 1894:
A serious campaign was initiated for the restriction of immigration.  The Immigration Restriction League, formed in Boston in 1894, advocated federal laws to stem the tide.  John Fiske was the first president, and the executive committee consisted of a number of conservative and wealthy New Englanders.  The next year Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in a widely discussed poem, "Unguarded Gates," published in the Atlantic, expressed the typical fears of the conservative restrictionist.  (306)
Gossett suggests that Aldrich's poem is connected with the founding of the IRL, that the league burst upon the public view in 1894 and the next year, Aldrich published his poem expressing his agreement with IRL analysis of immigration as a threat to America and restriction by race as the solution.  This is problematic in several ways.  Most obviously, Gossett misstates the Atlantic publication date of 1892; he has substituted the date of the book publication in 1895.  Second, as a result, it appears to Gossett that Aldrich's poem is connected materially with the founding of the IRL, at least as a sign of Aldrich's active support.  Solomon's overall account of the IRL, which squares on the whole with Higham's Chapter 4 of Strangers in  the Land, shows that Gossett also is misleading in the above quotation about the IRL's activities.  Though it was formed in 1894, the league did not exactly spring into action with proposals for racial limitations on immigration.  About Aldrich, Solomon says "Unguarded Gates" expresses "a racial venom, prophetic of things to come" (88).  That is, she reads the poem not as written somehow in concert with the IRL, but as a precursor event, pointing toward the ideology the IRL would gradually disseminate.  While Solomon believes the poem shows Aldrich was sympathetic to imposing racial and national restrictions upon immigration, she does not associate him with the IRL or any organized nativists. 

    In Chapter 5 of Ancestors and Immigrants, on the founding of the IRL, Solomon says that Aldrich's generation, though expressing a variety of anxieties about perceived changes in the American population, was not ready to take action.  Active policy advocacy fell to the younger generation, specifically to the group of Harvard graduates of 1889, who became the founding members of the IRL (99-102).  In Solomon's three chapter history of the IRL, she emphasizes how difficult it proved for the league to gain support for the idea of restricting immigration on racial grounds.  This is a difficult, but crucial point to grasp.

      From a twenty-first century perspective, it is easy to assume that, in the decade leading up to the legal establishment of racial segregation by the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision (1898), all white Americans shared the same set of beliefs about the racial inferiority of non-whites.  Therefore, one might easily assume that proposals for racial restrictions on immigration would face little opposition among power elites in the 1890s.  Solomon argues that, in fact, opposition to IRL proposals was strong and complex. 

    A major complication in the accounts of Solomon and Higham, for example, was that a main goal of the IRL was to limit immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and these immigrants were officially white.  Not until the years just before World War I did a convincing rationale for distinguishing among different white "races" gain popular attention.  For another example, Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican senator from Massachusetts (1893-1924), was a firm supporter of the IRL and an advocate in Congress for its legislative proposals, yet in the 1890s he avoided becoming publicly associated with the league, and he evaded public acknowledgement that the policies he supported were designed to impose racial limits on immigration (111-20). The first legislation put forward under IRL guidance was a revival of a late 1880s proposal for a literacy test: immigrants should be rejected if they are not literate in their own languages.  Lodge sponsored this bill in 1896, in the hope that it would at least slow down immigration of undesirables, and it passed both houses of Congress.  Solomon says that President Grover Cleveland understood that the bill's effect would be to reduce immigration of some nationalities and, denying its implicit "racial distinctions between the old and new Americans," he vetoed it (118-9, also Zolberg, 228-9).  Another attempt to pass such legislation failed in 1898, helping to push the IRL into stasis for several years.

    Aldrich sometimes commented on American politics in the letters that appear in Greenslet's biography, but he seems generally unaware of recent legislation on immigration.  He says nothing in his May 1892 letter, for example, about the Immigration Act of 1891 and the 1892 Geary Act.  The first actually had enacted some of the restrictions he recommends in his poem, and the second was in Congress even as he was writing to Woodberry.  Had he been aware of the 1894 immigrant literacy proposal, he might well have supported it.  However, like most Americans, he probably was unaware that this proposal was a discreet effort by Lodge and the IRL to move the country toward the idea of racial immigration restrictions.  Because the IRL took pains to remain in the background and to conceal its ideology from a public known to be unsympathetic, it is unlikely that Aldrich became aware of the organization's goals (Solomon 201-2).  Solomon points out that the IRL really came into its own after 1901, as the league began to work systematically to build a popular following on its foundation of mainly academic supporters (Chapter 7). 

    Chronology again is important. Solomon's account of the history of the IRL shows that Aldrich was not directly connected with the founding of the league and that he was unlikely to have been aware of its ideology and its true policy goals before 1901.  After 1901, Aldrich's participation in public life became severely restricted as he dedicated himself to caring for his afflicted son, and only then did the IRL undertake to "market" its ideas to the general public.

     It seems highly unlikely that Aldrich ever was a member of the IRL or knowledgeable about its ideology and policy proposals.  If my interpretation of "Unguarded Gates" is persuasive, then Aldrich almost certainly would have opposed IRL ideas and, had he understood the intent of the literacy restriction, he probably would have opposed that as well.  However, that Aldrich is unlikely to have been associated with the IRL does not reveal much of importance about his attitudes toward immigration.  My reading of "Unguarded Gates" shows that he supported immigration restrictions like those that were enacted in 1891 and 1901, to filter out individuals for reasons of ideology, health, wealth and criminality, but that he presented no rationale for controlling immigration by race.  However, others have argued that, at various points in his career, Aldrich expressed indirect sympathy for nativist ideas. 

    John Tomsich, in A Genteel Endeavor, says that Aldrich was the most radical opponent of free immigration among the genteel intellectuals of the Gilded Age whom he profiles (82), a case he builds mainly upon "Unguarded Gates."  He points out that in his fiction, Aldrich routinely draws negative portraits of immigrants, for example the Italian labor unionist, Torrini, in The Stillwater Tragedy (1880).  However, a careful reading of The Stillwater Tragedy shows that, while Aldrich was critical of political exploitation of immigrants and of the importation of socialist ideas, his portrait of the many immigrants in Stillwater is mainly sympathetic, even including Torrini. Still, Aldrich also could write negatively of immigrant groups.  He seems quite critical of Irish and, perhaps, other immigrants in Boston.  They presumably are among the participants at the anarchist meeting that sparked his poem.  In the May 1892 letter to Woodberry he strikes at immigrants while mourning the passing of Trip, his beloved dog:
The dear little fellow! he had better manners and more intelligence than half the persons you meet "on the platform of a West-End car." He was n't constantly getting drunk and falling out of the windows of tenement houses, like Mrs. O'Flaharty; he was n't forever stabbing somebody in North Street. Why should he be dead, and these other creatures exhausting the ozone? (Greenslet 167-170)
Aldrich rails against immigrants in the slums, whom he also characterizes in the same letter, as manipulated by unscrupulous politicians in ways that degrade democracy, but his animus does not extend to those immigrants of the same nationalities whom he considers respectable.  For example, Annie Fields recounts stories of Aldrich's genial relationship with the Irish servant, Bridget, who accompanied Aldrich and his wife on an 1896 Caribbean cruise that included Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett.  At the end of an unpublished letter to Woodberry of 15 May 1894, Aldrich reports reading "The Kearsarge,"  by the Irish immigrant poet James Jeffrey Roche (1847-1908), and thinking it better than anything by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or John Greenleaf Whittier.  He reflects, "It's funny, though, to have an Irishman writing our best national poems." 

    An especially interesting example of Aldrich showing a positive attitude toward immigrants is a revision he made to his memoir-essay "Odd Sticks" (1889) before including it in An Old Town by the Sea (1893).  In the final chapter, he recalls the African American barber in the Portsmouth, NH of his childhood, reflecting condescendingly that the man "possessed his race's sweet temper, simplicity, and vanity."  He goes on to say that there were "few exotics" in Portsmouth during his youth, and, then, he inserts text that did not appear in "Odd Sticks":  "The situation is greatly changed. I expect to live to see a Chinese policeman, with a sandal-wood club and a rice-paper pocket handkerchief, patrolling Congress Street."   While it is possible that Aldrich expected his readers to understand this future as deeply disturbing, there is nothing obvious in his text to suggest this.  Though he expresses nostalgia, he seems on the whole genially reconciled to changes that bring even Chinese immigrants into respectable positions in American society.  This example is doubly interesting because Aldrich added this revision close to the time he published "Unguarded Gates."  One would expect that he would seize this opportunity to complain about Chinese immigration, if his listing Chinese among supposedly undesirable immigrants shows that he favored the Chinese Exclusion act that was renewed in 1892.

    Though this final example does not concern immigrants directly, still it sheds a provocative light upon Aldrich's attitudes toward other races.  Rebecca Walsh recounts Aldrich's support of the Anti-Imperialism League and his angry reaction to American suppression of democratic revolution in the Philippines (311).  She quotes Aldrich's 27 April 1899 letter to R. W. Gilder in which he describes Filipinos as "an unoffending people fighting for freedom and self-government -- as we did in 1776" (See Greenslet, 204).  Aldrich's ability to sympathize with distant non-white foreigners, enriched perhaps by his world travels, contrasts sharply with the views of nativist Henry Cabot Lodge, who characterized Filipinos as "excluded from those to whom 'the free consent of the governed' should apply" (Solomon, 120).  Aldrich appears confident that Filipinos are capable of governing themselves democratically.  This would imply that he did not share the nativist panic that the American annexation of the Philippines would initiate a new wave of inferior immigrants.

    These examples should make clear that we critics and biographers have not yet understood Aldrich well enough to speak authoritatively about his attitudes toward immigration and  nativism.  While there is little doubt that Aldrich wanted to restrict immigration, I have found no unqualified evidence that he made common cause with the racist nativism that was percolating at the end of his career and that gushed into public awareness after his death.  While we have long thought that we had him securely labeled as an avowed nativist, in fact, we have not yet successfully characterized him.  We owe him the simple justice to a fellow human being of getting his character right.  But perhaps more important to literary study, we need to develop a more nuanced understanding of how Aldrich, Jewett, and New England regionalists thought about race, immigration, and nativism.


Sandra Zagarell, "Country's Portrayal of Community and the Exclusion of Difference," in New Essays on The Country of the Pointed Firs, edited by June Howard, New York: Cambridge UP, 1994, 39-60.  [ Back ]

Ellery Sedgwick,The Atlantic Monthly, 1857-1909. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. [Back ]

Ferris Greenslet, The Life of Thomas Bailey Aldrich.  Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1908, 167-70. [ Back ]

For a full history of American nativism in this period, see John Higham, Strangers in the Land (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1955).   Aristide Zolberg, in Chapter 7 of A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), elaborates this history by developing a careful explanation for why it took 30 years from the first proposal of a literacy restriction to its enactment in 1917.  His account emphasizes the complex international and American political, economic and social factors that determined the course of this proposal, and he notes that, though racial arguments played a role throughout, they only gradually came to carry significant weight in the debate, coming more openly into public discussion after Theodore Roosevelt's election in 1901.  [ Back ]

Immigration Act of 1891.  Wikipedia says "Section 1 of the 1891 Act relisted categories of excludable aliens, adding some new categories.[3] The new types of excludable aliens included persons likely to become public charges, persons suffering from certain contagious disease, felons, persons convicted of other crimes or misdemeanors, polygamists, aliens assisted by others by payment of passage."[ Back ]

The Geary Act. Wikipedia.  [ Back ]

Barbara Solomon, Ancestors and Immigrants. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956, 102.  John Higham says that five "young bluebloods," recent Harvard graduates, became the founding members of the IRL (102-3).  [ Back ]

Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963.  [ Back ]

John Tomsich, A Genteel Endeavor: American Culture and Politics in the Gilded Age.  Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1971.  [ Back ]

Thomas Bailey Aldrich, The Stillwater Tragedy Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1880.  [ Back ]
Mark Antony De Wolfe Howe, Memories of a Hostess: A Chronicle of Eminent Friendships Drawn Chiefly from the Diaries of Mrs. James T. Fields. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1922, 292.  [ Back ]

Thomas Bailey Aldrich to George E. Woodberry, 15 May 1894.  The Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1587 (7), folder 5.  [ Back ]

Aldrich's representation of the immigrant Chinese laundry owner in The Stillwater Tragedy is an interesting mixture of stereotyping for humorous ends and sympathy for the plight of Han-Lin, who, like the local Black barber, is harassed by out-of-work laborers, when their prolonged, mainly unsuccessful strike leads them to seek scapegoats on whom to inflict their anger (Chapter 17).  Also, the protagonist, Richard Shackford, expresses his deep confidence in the power of assimilation in America, offering the prophecy that within 500 years, the United States will have a Chinese-American President (Chapter 11). [ Back ]

Rebecca Walsh, "Sugar, Sex, and Empire: Sarah Orne Jewett’s 'The Foreigner' and the Spanish–American War," in A Concise Companion to American Studies, edited by John Carlos Rowe (Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 303-319.   [ Back ]

Copyright, November 2014 by Terry Heller, Coe College

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