The Polish Peasant Through American Eyes
M. A. Czaplicka
THE POLISH PEASANT IN EUROPE AND AMERICA. Monograph of an Immigrant Group. By WILLIAM I. THOMAS and FLORIAN ZNANIECKI. 5 vols. —The University of Chicago Press. 1918.
THE announcement of this work, promising a valuable addition to the ethnography and folklore of the European peasant, was welcomed by all who knew the scarcity of such data in the English language. For we must remember that it is not for the lack of written materials regarding Eastern Europe that they are not used in scientific speculation in the west. But it is easier to quote ethnological examples from Australia and Africa, which are to be found in the English language, than from any part of Europe outside France or Germany.
Polish literature stands amongst the richest in monographs on Customs and Traditions, but owing to these detailed studies there seems to be a lack of synthetical books summarising these researches. Hence the difficulty of advising the translation of a particular book on Polish folklore. Nevertheless it is easy to furnish the requisite references to anyone proposing to write a synthetic book. The authors of this work, therefore, were in the particularly happy position of having no predecessors or competitors, either in the Polish or English language. Again, the subject they have chosen is satisfactory in this sense, that, of all the Slays, the Polish peasant is most free of either Turko-Mongol or West European admixture. It is obvious from his customs and traditions that he has never been under Tartar rule, and though for the last century Poland has been under
(249) Russo-German domination, of all the social groups it is the peasantry which foreign influence has affected the least. It can be partly accounted for by the peasants' conservative devotion to old religious and national traditions, but still more by their fanatical attachment to the land.
With the industrial development of Poland many peasants, tempted by higher wages, migrated to the towns and thus broke their direct contact with the land—yet it failed to affect to any great extent their religious and national outlook. But the changes in their individual and social life, due to emigration abroad, are far deeper. Hence a comparative study of the peasant at home and abroad is interesting as a means of observing the influence of change of environment. Here it must be remembered, however, that only the first generation of emigrants can be studied for this purpose, and also it must be taken into account that with the exception of political exiles it is usually one type—and that a highly commercialised one—which emigrated. When dealing with the emigration to the United States particularly (for the Polish peasant emigrates also to Germany, France, Siberia and Brazil) it is most interesting to watch the contact between the least educated members of a nation, conscious of its ancient traditions, and members of the American nation, advanced in culture among all classes but whose traditions are now in the making. Naturally mutual understanding can only arise with the loss of the Polish peasant's original character.
The joint authors of the volumes under consideration have realised the immensity of the subject since on the very first page they say : "The present study was not, in fact, undertaken exclusively or even primarily as an expression of interest in the Polish peasant ... but the Polish peasant was selected rather as a convenient object."
In the same preface, p. 8, the authors give us the contents of the five volumes, which they call " largely documentary in their character."
" Volumes I. and II. comprise a study of the organisation of the peasant primary groups (family and community), and of the partial evolution of this system of organisation under the
(250) influence of the new industrial system and of immigration to America and Germany. Vol. III. is the autobiography (with critical treatment) of an immigrant of peasant origin but belonging by occupation to the lower city class, and illustrates the tendency to disorganisation of the individual under the conditions involved in a rapid transition from one type of social organisation to another. Volume IV. treats the dissolution of the primary group and the social and political reorganisation and unification of peasant communities in Poland on the new ground of rational cooperation. Vol. V. is based on studies of the Polish immigrant in America, and shows the degrees and forms of disorganisation associated with a too rapid and inadequately mediated individualisation, with a sketch of the beginnings of reorganisation."
It is regrettable, after such an introduction, the volumes themselves do not justify the great expectation aroused by the high standard of other American works on immigrants, to mention Professor Boas's eminent researches alone. Thus, although in their programme the authors propose to deal with the Polish immigrant in Vol. V., as a matter of fact he forms the subject of all the volumes without a necessary preliminary sketch of his life in Poland.
If an attempt of this sort is made in the Introduction (pp. 87303), it is as vague and inadequate as may be expected from an American who lacks both access to the necessary printed materials and personal contact with the peasant in Poland —apart from the fact that it is more difficult for an American to study a Polish peasant than for a member of a nation possessing its own peasantry. Hence our disappointment can be ascribed to the Polish collaborator, whose name is well known in a different sphere of research, but who in this instance has neglected such important sources as the series of Wisla (Vistula), an ethnographic periodical which we venture to suggest will give him much more suitable information than the paper Gazeta Swiateczna (Warsaw), to which he acknowledges his indebtedness.
If the reader who approaches this work hopes to learn from it where in the old and new world Polish peasants live, how
(251) many there are, how much land they own, what is the history of their class and their relations with Poland as a whole, what is the difference between Polish and other European peasants and what hopes they raise for the future,—he will not find it in any of these five volumes.
He will find very little of what can be called social anthropology, i.e. the structure of their society and the chief events --" rites de passage "—of their life, and perhaps a little more about the " church " and " folklore " religious beliefs. All these most interesting details are scattered here and there in the first 200 pages of the Introduction, which contains a valuable collection of facts, whilst about 800 pages of the first two volumes are occupied by letters between the peasants who emigrated to America and their kin at home. Possibly three or four of such documents would not be out of place, but to give so much space to monotonous and far from reliable data (the Polish peasant seldom creates his letters, but brings such information as he wishes to convey into the conventional scheme of letter-writing) proves that the authors were unaware of more valuable sources of information. Yet whether we call the work ethnological, or sociological, or place it under the head of folklore, we might have expected to have at least some of the most important social or religious ceremonies described in full with all their crude and symbolic details, instead of being given them at discretion of the authors.
However interesting Messrs. Thomas and Znaniecki's personal methodological note may be (pp. 1-86), it obscures in its erudition the methods of thought and habit of the Polish peasant, to whom after all these five beautifully printed volumes profess to be devoted. M. A. CZAPLICKA.