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Short Essay 1: Holt’s Reasoning (100 pts)
a. Two or more reasons
b. Uses direct quotations from Holt
and/or Sollors
c. References at least 3 lifelets
Short Essay 2: Time Period (100 pts)
a. Be specific about time period
b. Discussed aspects that shaped their
c. Used at least 3 lifelets

Score: /100

Score: /100
The life stories
of undistinguished
Americans as told
by themselves
The life stories
of undistinguished
Americans as told
by themselves
Hamilton Holt
Werner Sollors
Routledge, New York & London
Published in 2000 by
29 West 35th Street
New York, NY
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003.
Published in Great Britain by
11 New Fetter Lane
London EC4P 4EE
Copyright © 2000 by Routledge
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be
reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or
by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now
known or hereafter invented, including photocopying
and recording, or in any information storage or
retrieval system without permission in writing from
the publishers.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The life stories of undistinguished Americans as
told by themselves/edited by Hamilton Holt;
with a new introduction by Werner Sollors.
—Expanded ed.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 0-415-92510-X (bpk.)
1. Minorities—United States Biography.
2. United States Biography. 3. United States—Ethnic
relations. 4. United States—race relations. I. Holt,
Hamilton, 1872–1951.
E184.A1L52 1999
ISBN 0-203-90190-8 Master e-book ISBN
ISBN 0-203-90194-0 (Adobe eReader Format)
ISBN 0-415-92510-X (Print Edition)
Introduction by Werner Sollors (1999)
Note by Hamilton Holt (1906)
Introduction by Edwin E.Slosson (1906)
1. The Life Story of a Lithuanian
2. The Life Story of a Polish Sweatshop Girl
3. The Life Story of an Italian Bootblack
4. The Life Story of a Greek Peddler
5. The Life Story of a Swedish Farmer
6. The Life Story of a French Dressmaker
7. The Life Story of a German Nurse Girl
8. The Life Story of an Irish Cook
9. The Life Story of a Farmer’s Wife
10. The Life Story of an Itinerant Minister
11. The Life Story of a Negro Peon
12. The Life Story of an Indian
13. The Life Story of an Igorrote Chief
14. The Life Story of a Syrian
15. The Life Story of a Japanese Servant
16. The Life Story of a Chinaman
17. The Life Story of a Florida Sponge Fisherman
18. The Life Story of a Hungarian Peon
19. The Life Story of a Southern White Woman
20. The Life Story of a Southern Colored Woman
21. A Northern Negro’s Autobiography
22. Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian
23. The Story of Two Moonshiners
24. The Experiences of a Chorus Girl
25. Autobiography of a Football Player
26. The Confessions of a Woman Professor
27. The Story of the Waitress
by Werner Sollors
AMERICANS ALL! shouted the slogan of a famous poster of
the last century. Who were these “Americans” of a hundred
years ago? How can we get a sense of the many kinds of lives
that native-born and immigrant men and women of different
races and classes lived in this country? Few single books give us
as vivid a picture of life in the United States as does the
remarkable collection The Life Stories of Undistinguished
Americans As Told by Themselves, originally put together by the
reformist newspaper editor Hamilton Holt in 1906. In the brief
autobiographies he collected, “lifelets” as they are here called,
we hear the voices of immigrants from many lands, including
not only European countries but also Syria, China, and Japan,
as well as African American, Native American and AngloAmerican stories of success and failure, of dreams and harsh
realities, of saving and spending, of progress and loss. Their
pasts go back to four continents; and their futures are not all
tied to that of the United States.
Holt was the editor of the New York Independent, to which
he gave a slant toward issues of “labor, social and government
reforms,…politics, socialism, women’s rights, simplified
spelling, immigration, race relations, birth control, and
journalism,” as his biographer put it, issues many of which
have remained pressing to this day. In his journal, Holt wanted
to let the common men speak, and he used the term
“undistinguished” as a badge of honor in the collection that he
drew from contributions to the Independent. His team of
journalists looked for “average” and representative people in
order to get answers to such questions as, where do you come
from? if you were not born here, then why, when, and how did
you come to America? are you better off or worse than you
were in the past? what is your job? how much money do you
make? what house do you live in? how do you spend your
day? what are your pastime activities? and, are you happy?
The answers are touching and fascinating, and they go far
beyond the sociological information they also provide, as
bootblack and sweatshop worker, cook and nurse girl, butcher
and businessman, peddler and minister, farmer’s wife and peon
speak or write about their lives, giving readers a strong sense
of individual characters. The language of the lifelets ranges
from native English expression to rich traces of translated
sensibilities. More than fulfilling Holt’s intention to present a
“complete picture of America in all its strata,” these lifelets
give us glimpses of individual hopes and aspirations and of
setbacks, of triumph and of despair, of happiness in America
as well as of the wish to find it elsewhere.
Holt’s book opens with Antanas Kaztauskis, a Lithuanian
refugee from Russian oppression who works in the brutal
Chicago stockyard and joins a union, and ends with the
Chinese merchant’s wish to return from New York’s
Chinatown to his native village in China: Lee Chew even
draws a map of his father’s house. The American Indian Ahnen-la-de-ni is prevented at his Pennsylvania school from
expressing himself in the only language he knows; and the
African American experiences the hell of a Georgia peon camp.
The farmer’s wife in Illinois has to struggle against an
overwhelming workload and her husband in order to be able
to even begin to follow her calling as a writer; and the itinerant
Southern Methodist minister pursues his career against the
physical handicap of his defective eyesight. Nothing is more
telling than the sweatshop worker Sadie Frowne’s understated
and almost casual remark: “Where the needle goes through the
nail it makes a sore finger, or where it splinters a bone it does
much harm.” Even the financially most successful immigrant
autobiographers do not generally idealize America: the peddler
remembers the flavor of fruit in Greece and mentions a ten
percent reemigration rate; and the dressmaker knows that
there is only one Paris and is looking forward to the voyage
that will take her back to France. Yet in a harsh world that is
hardly idealized in this book, there is also fun and leisure, and
we hear of fortune tellers, cafés, the theater, picnics, or
concerts, and again and again of Coney Island—where,
however, the Igorrote chief is on display, brought to America
from the recently conquered Philippines, and thus serves as a
reminder of the stark inequality that is present even in the
world of entertainment. And this is not the only instance of
social tension among the various Americans who speak here:
they belong to different classes, so much so that a part of the
Greek peddler’s income could have completely saved the
African American from peonage: and because of their
differences in culture, religion, and language they measure
each other by incompatible yardsticks and at times look at
each other with skeptical and biased eyes—as “foreigners” or
“devils,” “red haired savages” or “infidels.” Is the freedom, is
the growing wealth, of some Americans bought at the expense
of the oppression and declining fortunes of others? the reader
may ask—and find that, indeed, some “undistinguished”
Americans directly respond to the lifelets of others. This was
not only true in the original collection itself (here reprinted in
its entirety), but also in the dozens of other life stories which
appeared in the Independent, several of which have been
selected (and are reproduced here exactly from the pages of
that journal) to accompany Holt’s collection in this new,
enlarged edition.
In these additional life stories, there are explicit responses to
the published lifelets, contrasting and correcting them at times.
They also make the reader wonder what happened to all those
undistinguished Americans. One could easily imagine more
conversations, dialogues between some of the undistinguished
Americans, between the Southern colored woman, for
example, and the Swedish farmer and the Chinese businessman
to whom she compares herself. More people at work appear,
from the waitress, the chorus girl, and the football player, to
the woman professor and the moonshiners. The ethnic groups
broaden and cross national and color lines, giving voice also to
Afro-European, Franco-Italian, or Eurasian lives, to categories
that do not easily “fit” into popularly accepted social types,
and to tales of “passing,” of difficult choices, and of the wish
for more connections among the opposing groups. And there
are true writers among these authors, whether they sign by
name—Fannie Barrier Williams and Sui Sin Far—or whether
they do not. Edmund Morris spoke of the Japanese
manservant’s lifelet as a “brokenly eloquent story,” and that
phrase also characterizes a great number of the previously
uncollected tales.
The life stories that appear here together in book form for
the first time give the reader an unusually rich sense of
inwardness of the diverse lives lived in the modern world that
already appears quite transnational. The lifelets take us back
to a time at which immigration, the color line, and suffrage
were fiercely debated, but they give us a sense of the people
who lived these issues. One wonders who among our
contemporaries, which among our new media in this century,
would explore the world of average people and the key issues
of class inequality, race discrimination, gender relations,
immigration, and citizenship with the same sharpness and
inwardness that Hamilton Holt and his Independent brought
to the undistinguished Americans of a hundred years ago.
THE INDEPENDENT has published during the last four years
about seventy-five autobiographies of undistinguished
American men and women. The aim of each autobiography
was to typify the life of the average worker in some particular
vocation, and to make each story the genuine experience of a
real person. From this list have been selected the following
sixteen lives as most representative of the humbler classes in
the nation, and of individuals whose training and work have
been the most diverse. Thus we have the story of the butcher,
the sweatshop worker, the bootblack, the push-cart peddler,
the lumber man, the dressmaker, the nurse girl, the cook, the
cotton-picker, the head-hunter, the trained nurse, the editor,
the minister, the butler and the laundryman. They also
represent the five great races of mankind, the white, yellow,
red, brown and black, and include immigrants from Lithuania,
Poland, Sweden, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Greece,
Syria, China and Japan. I am aware that some of these
autobiographies, or “lifelets,” are crude from a literary point
of view, but they all have a deep human interest and perhaps
some sociological importance.
THE LATE Jules Verne about a year before his death created
something of a sensation by saying that the novel had reached
its height and would soon be displaced from its present position
of influence and popularity by new forms of literature. Whether
the fact that his later romances had not sold as well as his earlier
had anything to do with this pessimistic view of the outlook for
his trade, there is much to indicate that he was right. It is true
that there are more novels written and read than ever before,
and there is no decline in quality, whether we consider the
average or the exceptional. But the habitual readers of fiction,
notwithstanding their conspicuousness and vocality, form only
a small and continually smaller proportion of the total number
of readers. Most men and many women prefer to come into
closer touch with reality and seek it, often in vain, in the
newspapers. Consequently fiction is undergoing a process of
fission; the cleft between the realistic and romantic novels is
widening. The former are becoming more nearly a transcript of
life, and the latter, no longer tethered to earth, are soaring into
the ether of the imaginary and impossible. In the same way the
old-fashioned melodrama is differentiating into the drawingroom comedy and the burlesque opera.
When you propose to tell a story to children they interrupt
at the first sentence with the question, “Is it a true story?” As
we evade or ignore this natural and pertinent inquiry they
finally cease to ask it, and we blur for them the edges of reality
until it fades off into the mists. The hardest part of the training
of the scientist is to get back the clear sight of his childhood.
But nowadays our educators do not do quite so much as
formerly to encourage the mythopoeic faculty of children. It
has been found that their imagination can be exercised by
other objects than the imaginary. Consequently the number of
readers who are impatient of any detectable deviation from
truth is increasing.
Besides this, most people—perhaps all—are more impressed
by the concrete than the abstract. The generalized types of
humanity as expressed by the artist in painting and sculpture,
romances and poems do not interest them so much as do
individuals. A composite photograph of a score of girls is very
beautiful, but one is not apt to fall in love with it,
notwithstanding the stories for which this has served as the
theme. The scientist has a very clear and definite conception of
kinetic energy when it is expressed by the formula mv2, but he
is more forcibly struck by it when he is hit on the head with
a club. Formerly botanists used to talk a great deal about
species and types; later they turned their attention to varieties,
and now the men who are making the most progress are
experimenting with one plant and a single flower of that one.
The candidate for a Ph.D. watches a single amoeba under a
microscope and writes his thesis on one day’s doings of its
somewhat monotonous life. The man who can describe the
antics of a squirrel in a tree has all the publishers after him,
while the zoologist has to pay for the publication of his
monograph on the Sciuridae. The type of the naturalist, the
ideal statue of the sculptor, the algebraic formula of the
physicist and the hero and heroine of the romancer have a
symmetry, universality and beauty above that of any individual
and in a sense they are truer, but their chief value is not in
themselves but in their use as guides to the better
understanding of the individual, from which they originate and
to which they return.
To these two forces tending to develop new forms of
literature, the love of truth and the interest in the concrete, we
must add one other, the spirit of democracy, the discovery of
the importance of the average man. This, after all, is the most
profitable branch of nature study, the study of Homo sapiens,
and of his wife, who, in this country at least, usually also
belongs to the species sapiens. Wild adventures, erratic
characters, strange scenes and impossible emotions are no
longer required even in fiction. The ordinary man under
ordinary circumstances interests us most because he is most
akin to us. In politics he has gained his rights and in history
and literature he is coming to be recognized. We realize now
that a very good history of France could be written, better
than most of the oldfashioned kind, without mentioning the
name of Louis XIV or Napoleon.
The resultant of these three forces gives us the general
direction of the literature of the future. It will be more realistic,
more personal and less exceptional. The combination of these
qualities is found in the autobiography, which, as Longfellow
said years ago, “is what all biography ought to be.” It has
always been a favorite form in fiction, from “Apuleius,”
“Arabian Nights” and “Robinson Crusoe” to the present.
Now when we publish a “Life and Letters” we lay the
emphasis on the latter part. A great deal of fun has been made
of those who preferred to read the love letters of the
Brownings rather than the “Sonnets from the Portuguese” and
“One Word More,” but who will say that the verdict of the
future will not vindicate these readers rather than their critics?
One other characteristic of the modern reader must be taken
into consideration, his love of brevity. The short story is more
popular than the novel, the vaudeville sketch than the drama.
We have, then, a demand for the brief autobiography, the life
story in a few pages. Since this form of literature seems likely
to become a distinct type we might venture to give it the
provisional name of the “lifelet.” Its relation to other literary
forms is shown most succinctly by this equation:
lifelet: autobiography:: short story: novel
The short story is older than the art of writing but it is only
recently that it has attained a perfection and definiteness of form
which has caused it to be recognized and studied by
rhetoricians. The lifelets now being written are like the average
short stories of fifty years ago in crudity and indefiniteness of
aim, but already we can see something of the laws and
limitations of this new literary type. In its construction the same
general rules apply as to the short story, and condensation,
elimination, subordination and selection are necessary in order
to make it readable and truthful. It really demands as much
literary skill as any form of fiction, but when it is strictly
autobiographical this is likely to be lacking. However, the
number of persons who can write fairly well when they have the
material is great and increasing with the spread of education. It
has been said that every one’s life contains the material for one
good novel. It would evidently be more plausible to say this of
the lifelet.
Short autobiographies of undistinguished people
occasionally appear in most of our magazines, but The
Independent has published more than any other, for its
Managing Editor, Mr. Hamilton Holt, has for several years
devoted himself to procuring such narratives with the object of
ultimately presenting in this way a complete picture of American
life in all its strata. These life stories found favor with the readers
of The Independent, so a few of them have been selected for
publication in this volume. In the selection the aim has been to
include a representative of each of the races which go to make
up our composite nationality, and of as many different
industries as possible. The book has, therefore, a unity of theme
and purpose that may compensate for its diversity of topic and
style. It is a mosaic picture composed of living tesserae.
In procuring these stories two methods were used; first and
preferably, to have the life written upon his own initiative by
the person who li …
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