Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the ThirtiesHomeIntroductionEditor's NotesArticlesFurther Reading
On Discovering America

by Pearl S. Buck


June 1937

1 2 3 4

I HAVE GONE BACK IN MY SEARCH, "CHINESE FASHION," TO our beginnings. I find we are all immigrants, we Americans. Not one of us is really native in any profound sense. Everybody in the United States, except the Indians, is now or was once, foreign-born. I find it ridiculous to hear a man whose great-grandfather came to this country look down on a man who comes in now, and call him 'alien." For what is a hundred or two hundred years in the life of a nation? The nation is and will be for centuries to come made up of the foreign-born, that is, people from all countries. And looking at all these people, I discover in them all the diversities of the world in race, in culture, in religion. They have only one thing in common with which to become Americans. They are all restless.

For we Americans, we are the restless, the restless of 11 nations. None but the restless has ever come to America. The quiet-hearted, the contented, the peaceful mind are still on old country farms, in old country shops and business offices. They are not here. Not one of us belongs them. A similar spirit has driven us out from among them and has driven us together. When visitors speak with wonder of the ceaseless hurry and activity which is such a part of the American temperament, I am not surprised. For were we not naturally restless, none of us would be Americans at all. There would be no America and Indians would roam our hills and valleys still. Restlessness, then, is our essential nature.

BUT WHEN WE COME TO AMERICA, WE DO NOT ENTER ONLY restless individuals. We come as races, as nations, as transmitters of the past to a country without a history, whose only past is that of forests and streams and mountains and plains and endless seashores and rivers flowing into the sea. America's history is only what we all ring as our own individual histories. What goes to make her is what has gone to make us. The prejudices of all peoples on earth are now American prejudices. Hungarian Catholics still hate Hungarian Protestants on these new shores, and pugnacious Irishmen still wear the green, mernbering forever and with joy that once they were killed for "wearin' o' the green." Everyone of us has this present and this past, the present of a new country, whose very newness makes us hold the more closely to whatever past we have. If we could have come here and exchanged at inherited culture for another, it might have been easier.

It would be easy, for instance, to become a Chinese. One has only to give up all of one thing and accept all of another—give up what one has had and accept another finite, clear system of life and philosophy. But when e come to be Americans there are many systems and any philosophies, and which shall we accept? If we accept all, we are lost in dillusion, and so it is inevitable that we cling to what we have had before, to what we brought with us. We change, perhaps, the material aspect of our lives. We use electricity and running water and we buy an automobile, but inside we do not change. We remain what we are, and to America's endless variety we add our own bit, and so we become American. And even one's children are different from another's children. They have a veneer of similarity„the radio and motion picture nd cheap magazines and the public school system see that„but their hidden unrecognized roots are, through their blood, in their bones. And I observe that those roots never become lost„at least, not yet. Everyone knows what his old country was even though his ticket was on the Mayflower. It will take hundreds of years yet before we reget we came from England or Ireland, Germany or Italy or France.

And I am not at all sure we shall do well to forget, even then. We ought not to forget, or allow our children to forget until in long common national life vve have achieved a government, a tradition, a philosophy, which is secure and integrated and expressed enough to shelter and guide a people—in short, until we have an American culture. And we cannot make an American culture by sitting down and thinking about it and writing it down and giving it out to the newspapers. The Supreme Court cannot do it, and even President Roosevelt cannot do it. Nobody and nothing can do it except time, passing unconsciously and effortlessly over all our diversity, and gradually, with infinite slowness, wearing away differences, and leaving those essentials which will survive our struggles and our climate.

It may be five thousand years hence—it can scarcely be less than a thousand—before the real American culture is here, and before we have a race of Americans. There will be no Negro questions then, because there will be no Negroes, there will be no Jews and Christians, no foreign-born—nobody but that person nowhere to be found today, a pure American. I cannot but believe he will be an extraordinary person, that pure American, who will be standing in my place five thousand years from today. He will have what no other human being has had in just the same richness, the inheritance of all ages, all races, all cultures. He will have a fine direct eagerness which will be our restlessness, refined by centuries, but concentrated, too, into a driving force which will carry him to heights of human knowledge which we cannot even dream of now. He will be a true superman, standing on the shoulders of those from all nations and races of the earth.

And I hope even then that we shall still be taking into our established America the stimulus and the irritation of immigrants. When we cease to allow people to come in from all over the world, we shall ourselves begin to die, as other nations are dying. New people, coming to a new country, bring new impetus in themselves. They are a fresh infusion, uncomfortable perhaps, and even painful, but they are life. We cannot do without them. It is too soon to close our doors. It may always be too soon. For statistics show that those we call our foreignborn are still our best. Crime is less among them than among the native-born. The foreign-born are amazingly the stronger in the creative arts. To shut them out would be to rob ourselves and the future not only of industrious laborers but of great exploring creative mental energy.

BUT I KNOW VERY WELL THAT WHEN I THINK OF OUR America a thousand years from now and five thousand years from now that I am thinking Chinese and not American. The Chinese thinks instinctively in terms of centuries and he sees himself as a particle in time. But the American stretches his imagination to pain if he thinks two generations ahead to the grandchild that is an actuality or a possibility. That is a trait of the restless. We cannot and will not wait, though the truth remains that the only true view is the long one, and the present will not be right if it is an end in itself instead of being as well a foundation for the future. We Americans, that is, cannot and will not think of our nation as a whole in time and space and so choose nationally, though perhaps at immediate inconvenience, what permanent stuffs we want in our making. We demand to know what we shall do now, in our momentary situation, with "aliens," as we call them, in our jobs, on our relief rolls, and sending good American money out of the country.

Unfortunately for me as an American, I cannot froth about any of these things. I see these "aliens" first as human beings, and I observe that many, indeed most of them, are honest and industrious, or as honest and industrious as the upstarts who dare, at this early date in our history, to call themselves, "the Americans." Citizens or not, I cannot see why these good people should be deported. We need honesty and industry. No nation can have too many people with these qualities. I cannot see why they should not be relieved if they starve, nor why they should not send money back to Italy or anywhere else I should think the more money circulates the better. The richer the Italians are, the better for American markets. And in return for this money the people have given good hard labor on roads and bridges and buildings and the money is theirs when they have earned it, my American spirit tells me. And America is still the richest country in the world and likely to remain so.

Nor can I get excited over the differences between us. Hatreds, yes—they are stupid and wrong. It is senseless to hate a man because he is different, and the fault is in our education which has not made us enough above the beast to see this. For though men hate each other when they come here, they should be taught as the basis for American citizenship that here we may differ each from the other, and that diversity is our strength and our nature, and each man is to believe what he feels true, and our one common belief is this.

Practically speaking, of course, our life is carried on upon this basis. The reason why we exist together at all in peace, as we do, is simply because there are so many factions among us that once any of us started to fight there'd be no end to the people to be fought. We could not divide into two nice clean divisions, and have a simple war, for instance, between Fascists and Communists. The Republicans and Democrats would refuse to be anything else completely, and so would the Episcopalians and Presbyterians and the Primitive Baptists and the Townsendites and the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Bostonians and all the people who live in many regions in Virginia and Georgia and Mississippi and all the menagerie of Lions and Elks and Moose and what not. None of these would be willing to be a Fascist or a Communist, because he considers being one of these other thousand things is the only important thing to be, and in so behaving he is being something far greater than a Fascist or Communist. He is being an American.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003