Title Reviewed:
American Immigrants and Their Generations: Studies and Commentaries on the Hansen Thesis after Fifty Years

Author Reviewed:
Peter Kivisto; Dag Blanck

Robert M. Taylor, Jr.


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 87, Issue 1, pp 95-96

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Immigrants and Their Generations: Studies and Commentaries on the Hansen Thesis after Fifty Years. Edited by Peter Kivisto and Dag Blanck. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Pp. viii, 222. Illustration, notes, figures, tables, appendix, index. $19.95.)

Historian Marcus Lee Hansen mostly is remembered for his oft-quoted dictum about generational relations: "what the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember" (p. 195). Hansen's "principle of third generation interest" (p. 194) influenced writing on immigration and ethnic history following its exposure in Commentary in 1952, which was fifteen years after Hansen dealt with "The Problem of the Third Generation" before the Augustana Historical Society in Rock Island, Illinois. In 1987 editors Peter Kivisto and Dag Blanck, Augustana College faculty, invited leading historians and social scientists to the school to assess the significance over the last half-century of Hansen's thesis; they now have edited the proceedings.

John Higham, Thomas J. Archdeacon, and Moses Rischin begin with essays that place Hansen's work, including The Atlantic Migration (1940) and The Immigrant in American History (1940), in historical context and propose the terms for its enduring value. Particularly interesting is Higham's contrast of Hansen's narrative writing with that of social historian John Bodnar of Indiana University. Five essays are directed toward application of Hansen's thesis to specific ethnicities. Philip Gleason argues that Will Herberg's Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1960) made the first critical use of Hansen's thesis in applying it to American religion and finds the fit more favorable to Jews than to Catholics or Protestants. Nathan Glazer links generational interaction with specific historical change and shows how generational standing and contemporary events combine to shape the Jewish quest. Arnold Barton notes, with reservations, ways in which Hansen's thesis aids in comprehending Swedish-American history. Standford M. Lyman questions Hansen's treatment of, and the relevance of the generational thesis to, the black experience. Victor Greene amends Hansen's thesis by arguing that the 1920-1950 generation's devotion to native dance and music indicates an affinity with the parent generation. In a final chapter Fred Matthews surveys the shifts in the study of immigrant history.

Although Hansen's thesis has been used to help explain up-drifts of interest in ethnicity, speculations on the connections of his insight to the dramatic rise in immigrant numbers in the 1980s are not apparent in this volume. What does come through is that Hansen gave voice to a demonstrable cultural phenomenon that should be considered in intergenerational research, but one relative to time, place, and group. Moreover, his elevation of the principle as "applicable in all fields of historical study" (p. 194) does not hold up. Readers may find that the critique of Hansen's thesis, finally, is secondary to the welcome positing of current direction in thinking about ethnicity and its historiography.

The book's appendix provides the text of Hansen's Augustana address, along with his long-forgotten essay "Who Shall Inherit America?" delivered in Indianapolis in 1937 before, according to the editors, the National Conference of Social Work (actually he spoke to the concurrent Conference on Immigration Policy). This was Hansen's last address before his premature death in 1938.

ROBERT M. TAYLOR, JR., is director, Research Projects and Grants Division, Indiana Historical Society. He is the senior author of the recently published Indiana: A New Historical Guide (1989), and he directs the society's Ethnic History Project.

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.