Review of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America

Peter Brock

William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. 2 vols. New York: Dover Pubs. [n. d.]. xv, 1114; vi, 1115-2250; $12.50.

This massive work is a classic of sociology. First published

( 188) in 1918- 1920 in five volumes and several times reprinted — the present edition is an unabridged republication of the second edition — it results from the collaboration of two well-known sociologists, one Polish, the other American. It holds an assured place in the history of sociological thought. It also contains a mine of invaluable documentation for Polish social history, sources which have hitherto scarcely been touched by Polish historians. The greater part of the illustrative material, as well as of the authors' introductions to the various sections, is in fact concerned with peasant life in Poland itself. So far as I know, the work has never been published in a Polish version. The fact that original sources for Polish history are so scantily represented in English translation gives it additional value for English- speaking scholars.

The first volume of the present edition (on primary group organization) contains 764 letters exchanged, for the most part, between immigrants and their families back in Poland; and these letters were chosen out of a total of some 10,000 collected by the authors. Most of the writers came from a peasant background, while several belonged to the urban artisan class or to that peculiarly Polish social group of the "peasant nobility" or were manor servants; and the letters were all written in the first fourteen years of this century. The Polish peasant is a frequent and lengthy letter writer; all his letters can be reduced to one or another of a basic category called by the authors the "bowing" letter, which serves to give expression to "familial solidarity" between members divided in space.

The source material in the second volume of the present edition (on disorganization and reorganization in Poland and America) is of a somewhat different, and perhaps less original, character. The documents deriving from Poland are largely made up of extracts from peasant newspapers in the Congress Kingdom, in particular the rather conservative Gazeta Świąteczna and the radical Zaranie, and from the archives of the Emigrants Protective Society in Warsaw, of which Znaniecki himself was director at the time of the initiation of the study. The American material is taken mainly from court records and the archives of charitable societies and Polish parishes. At the end is printed a detailed and fascinating autobiography of a Polish immigrant of peasant origin, "a typical representative of the culturally passive mass which ... constitutes in every civilized society the enormous majority of the population."

The present work is essentially a study in social disintegration, the dissolution of the traditional and static Polish peasant community as a result of the impact of new and dynamic movements like industrialism and immigration, and in subsequent social reorganization as fresh positive forces — new leadership, the spread of popular education and press, co-operative institutions, and the growth of national and political consciousness among a hitherto inert mass — come into play. Especially valuable for the historian of Polish society and culture is the lengthy introduction to the first volume covering some 215 pages and representing an analysis and systematic arrangement of a considerable amount of original source material. Here we see the life of the Polish village both before and after elements of dissolution have got to work on the traditional framework. The

(189) character of the "family group" and the smaller " marriage-group," and the complicated relationships existing within them which form the basis of "familial solidarity," are gradually altered with increasing personal individualization. One of the most important subjects treated is that of social classes in Polish society. The gradual disintegration of the old rigid hierarchy takes place as a result of such factors as the political oppression of the partitioning powers, industrialization and the agrarian crisis of the late nineteenth century, and the spread of democratic and revolutionary ideas from above. This leads both to a transformation of the "social environment" of the Polish peasant, who in many cases ceases to be a merely passive, and becomes an active, member of the national community, and to a radical alteration in prevailing attitudes to authority and in the traditional loyalties.

The authors give an illuminating account of the economic life of the village. Here of course it is the land that is all–important in the peasant way of life. At the turn of the century, land hunger was the overriding issue facing the Polish peasant, and emigration was closely related to this problem. The authors throw much light on such questions as: who emigrated, and why did they go, and in what circumstances; what were the relations between the emigrants and those who stayed behind; what effect did their new environment have on the immigrants; etc. Considerable attention is devoted also to the religious and magical attitudes of the peasantry, the authors basing their account largely on the work of Kolberg and later Polish ethnographers, as well as on the data assembled in the present volumes. Perhaps today the less satisfactory parts of the work are those in the second volume on the political side of the peasant movement where the source material used by the authors is limited, and where a considerable number of monographs, etc., on the subject have been published in Poland over the last four decades. Nevertheless here, too, there is much acute comment and analysis.

I hope that it will not be only sociologists who will continue the study of Thomas and Znaniecki's volumes. Not only do they make absorbing reading. As I have attempted to show, they are of primary importance for any students and teachers of Polish history and culture, who are interested in the development of Polish society in recent times.

Peter Brock
University of Alberta


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