The Problem of Personality in the Urban Environment


The problem of personality in the urban environment.— The assumption is made that habit formation is the most important factor in personality development. Behavior traits are the outcome of a series of definitions of situations, resulting in psychological sets. The definitions are derived through institutions, but the unique attitudes of individuals are closely connected with certain critical experiences particular to the individual. But the same experience will have a totally different meaning for different persons, dependent on the totality of the experience of the individual and the way the experience is organized in memory. The traditional character of our life gives the experience complex a long history. In the case of the Polish immigrant, three experience complexes are dominant in determining the behavior reactions of the Poles in America : the first derived from an imitation of the extravagant and grandiose behavior of the Polish aristocracy, the second from the partially misinterpreted American lawlessness, and the third from familial and community conditioning in Europe. The immigrant is not so important a problem as the American young person, but the problem of the two is the same in this respect, that the American child is as alien to the standards of the older generation, generally speaking, as the immigrant is alien to America in general. The demoralization of the young person in America is to be viewed from the standpoint of the numerous and conflicting experience complexes developed in a rapidly moving environment and, more particularly, from the standpoint of the disparity in experience complexes as between the older and younger generations. The study of the development and integration of the experience complexes will also throw light on the relation of fantastic phantasying to realistic phantasying, which seems to be the critical point for the control of behavior.

I am assuming that habit formation is mainly responsible for the behavior traits of individuals, races, and nationalities, that these traits change much as fashions in dress, and almost as freely, only within decades and centuries instead of seasonally, and that dispositional traits, while they certainly do exist, are not distributed in blocks to national and racial groups, but rather to individuals in various proportions, so that there is an assortment of temperaments in all groups, seeming uniformities like the phlegm of the Englishman and the explosiveness of the Italian being mainly due to habit formation and the tendency of all dispositions to conform themselves to the prevailing fashion.

There are, in fact, two great techniques for getting our effects 

( 31) — composure and agitation. Each has its merits, and any group may be predominantly conditioned in either direction. I shall speak presently of the Poles, a Slavic group, which is more agitated, if anything, than the Italians— has, in fact, been called the "Dancing Slav," Slavus Saltans, in punning allusion to some statue in Italy, but I conceive that with a different historical conditioning the Poles would have become as composed as the American Indian. It is idle, indeed, to speak confidently of biologically determined behavior tendencies in races and nationalities as a working idea when we see daily that the social distance and the disparity of attitudes between American parents and children— or, shall we say, grandparents and grandchildren— is, generally speaking, greater than the same differences between nationalities— say, the Swedes and the English, or even the Americans and the Japanese. A New York father was reported as saying he was gratified by the fact that his children still spoke to him.

Now, it appears that behavior traits and their totality as represented by the personality are the outcome of a series of definitions of situations with the resulting reactions and their fixation in a body of attitudes or psychological sets. Obviously, the institutions of a society, beginning with the family, form the character of its members almost as the daily nutrition forms their bodies, but this is for everybody, and the unique attitudes of the individual and his unique personality are closely connected with certain incidents or critical experiences particular to himself, defining the situation, giving a psychological set, and often determining the whole life-direction. An example of this was given two winters ago by the scenic artist, Bakst, who narrated a circumstance leading to his artistic conditioning. At the age of four he was taken by his parents in St. Petersburg to hear Madame Patti. In the course of the opera the prima donna drank poison and fell. At this point the boy protested uproariously, and. after the performance he was taken to Patti's dressing room to be reassured. She took him on her knee and with her make-up materials drew long black brows and long red streaks on his cheeks. At home they began to wash his face, but he wouldn't have it. He went to bed with the make-up on, and, psy-

(32) -chologically, this make-up was never washed out; his artistic style was modeled after the make-up of his own face.

I am the more impressed with the incident in the life of the individual since reading the records of a number of psychoneurotic personalities. It is surprising to find how many persons are conditioned to a life of invalidism by a single incident, and apparently the same principle is valid in normal life. I believe many of you will be able to confirm this in your own experience.

But an incident may contain a totally different meaning for different persons; its effect in a given case will depend on the totality of the experience of the individual and the type of organization of the experience in memory at the moment. We know certainly, from the cases of dual and multiple personality, if in no other way, that memories tend to arrange themselves in blocks or groupings, each group maintaining a certain integrity, somewhat as we arrange studies in a curriculum, and I have called any group of experiences hanging together in the memory, within the totality of experience, an experience complex. The dependence of these experience groupings on our institutions and customs is also evident, but, since the institutions are eventually formed by the wishes, it is more important to view this problem from the standpoint of the wishes, meaning by this nothing Freudian, but simply what men want. I expect that much light will be thrown on this matter of the experience complex and its relation to the development of personality by the surveys being carried on by Park, Burgess, Bogardus, and others, and by the documents and life-records which the social psychologists are assembling.

But the human race lives by tradition, largely. The point which Child emphasizes in his great work, that the organism is never again the same after a given stimulus, holds with us also, and over a vast stretch of time. Our behavior is historically, as well as contemporaneously, conditioned, and I will devote the middle part of my present time to an outline of the process by which certain experience complexes and behavior reactions were historically developed in a selected national group, namely, the Poles; more specifically, the Polish immigrant.

The Polish peasant who comes as immigrant to America has as

( 33) one element of his background perhaps the most elaborately developed and hierarchized aristocracy of Europe. The Polish state was originally a nobility state, none participating who did not do military service. Immigrants from the West, Germans and Jews, were excluded, and consequently there was no bourgeoisie. Other classes than the nobles were treated as "political minors." The nobility family was an agnatic organization— kinship through the male line only. Military life, achievement, glory, distinguished males. There was great sensibility as to relationship and status. Every individual was expected to know for many past generations all the connections between his family and others, and at least the most important connections of the families connected with his own. While the peasants did not enter this world, it was, or became latterly, a region for phantasying, the more so as some peasants had been made petty nobles on the field of battle. You may see them now sitting somewhat apart at social gatherings, often poorer than the others, but wearing gloves.

It was also a fundamental tendency of the great nobility to avoid all positive political obligations usually imposed by the state. They held themselves above the state and above the law, but wished to give service voluntarily, felt an obligation to make meritorious and distinguished sacrifices, though repudiating any theory of compulsion. The king of Poland was a sovereign presiding over sovereigns. In this connection the Polish nobleman developed a great ostentation, magnificence, grandiosity, and graciousness. Also certain bizarre, excessive, and almost incomprehensible attitudes. It is hardly too much to say that to the Pole the only meritorious actions are those of a supererogatory nature: not demanded and not useful. Notoriously they have fought everybody's battles more consistently than their own. I have in mind John Sobieski and the Turks; the fact that the Polish kings were obliged to fight the Teutonic order largely with Bohemian mercenaries; the exploitation of the Poles by Napoleon; the behavior of the Polish regiments in the Prussian army during the Franco-German War, who took a French position in an attempt so suicidal that German tacticians would not engage their own troops, on the sole condition of being permitted to wear on this occasion the white eagle, forbidden emblem of

(34) Poland. These traits were not produced by the partition of Poland; they were, rather, the cause of the partition. But the partition added a frenzy to their expression.

Unconsciously, then, and consciously all classes of Polish society have been deeply marked by this distinction-seeking of the nobility. A large Polish estate, say that of the Lubomirskis, may have as many as 1,500 servants, and these will arrange themselves in twenty or more categories of superior and inferior. Scholars and artists are affected in the same way. I have the autobiography of a distinguished Pole, himself of the small nobility, whose life has running through it as the constant motif either to penetrate the great nobility directly or to find an equivalent distinction in some activity. First, marriage was arranged with a daughter of the great nobility, but that was abandoned because it would not get him in. Then followed art; then, the salvation complex; and finally, scholarship. The superb achievements of the Poles in art and science might have been accomplished otherwise, but these achievements always seem, in a way, surrogates for that distinction which was originally nobility of family. With the Pole it is not utility selection, not so greatly hedonistic selection, but mainly recognition selection. Almost any sort of distinction seems pleasing to a Pole. I read at one time the manuscript of a Polish philosopher who was essaying a volume in the English language, and I was of course, reading it solely with regard to the correctness of his language. But at one point I remarked: "You know, I do not in the least understand what you are talking about." I felt that this was somewhat blunt, but it was a source of pleasure to him. If I did not understand it, it would do very well.

A logician in Warsaw addressed an audience of perhaps a hundred, beginning early in the evening and continuing until 3 A.M. Gradually the audience tided away until only three remained, and the reaction of the lecturer to this was distinctly pleasurable. Not many lecturers, he said, could talk above the heads of so many people for so long a time.

When the movement for enlightenment began to affect the

( 35) peasant, among his first reactions were those seeking distinction. There were, for example, several newspapers established for the benefit of the peasant, and communications from him were encouraged. I examined at one time about 8,000 of these, and more than half of them were in poetry. There is hardly a peasant who can write at all who does not write poetry. I remember also reading a letter written from Mukden to a newspaper by a Polish soldier during the Russian-Japanese War. At the end he said he had not written to his wife, but hoped that this communication would come to her attention. At another time I was in the office of the Gazeta Swiateczna in Warsaw when a young peasant entered and reproached the editor for not printing a poem he had sent in. The editor pleaded that the poem was not sufficiently meritorious. The writer finally admitted this, but added that there had been a death in his community, and that he wished the editor to mention the fact and say that he had his information from the caller, in order that he might at any rate see his name in print. Narration is developed to the point of an art among the Poles; many of them are fascinating raconteurs. I had as guests two famous raconteurs, one older and one younger. The older held the table spellbound for two hours. Finally the younger, after some vain attempts at interruption, appealed to me in a whisper and said: "We shall never stop him unless we change the room." And we changed the room.

Now the indirect aristocratic conditioning of the peasant who comes to us as immigrant is not nearly so deep as the conditioning by family and community, and that is a point which I do not need to elaborate here. Nevertheless the familial attitudes tend to disappear rapidly in America, while the aristocratic ones tend to blossom out. At first the boy writes home: "Dear parents, I have work. I send you 75 rubles. I can send you much money." After some months, or a year, he writes: "Dear parents, I like to send you money, but yon ask too much." A boy in South Chicago writes: "Dear parents, I kiss your hands, and I inform you that it is difficult to live without a wife. Will you send me a girl, one suitable to my condition, for in America there is not one single orderly girl." The parents reply that they are sending one of the Malinowski

( 36) girls. The boy kisses their hands again, writes some news, and at the end of the letter inquires: "Dear parents, are you sending Stanislawa, the taller one, or Hanka, the shorter one?" This boy was killed in the steel works before his bride started, but another boy, who had been here longer, writes: "Dear parents, you speak of marriage, but in America it is not necessary to marry at all."

On the other hand, the aristocratic attitudes which there were in the hinterland of consciousness tend here to enter more actively the region of phantasying, especially since America is conceived as the land of absolute freedom. Frequently, therefore, the immigrant boy appears here with somewhat grandiose expectations and gestures. A Polish youth writes:

When I came to America I brought nine extra suits of clothes. . . . . My first job was in a factory where they painted ribbons for typewriters. . . . . My ten suits were soon spoiled, for I was ashamed to wear overalls. Finally the only suit I had was a Prince Albert affair, and I went to work in that. I remember passing a line of fellow-workers, leaning against a wall and smoking their pipes. When they saw me coming in my Prince Albert they took their pipes out of their mouths and bowed low, saying "Isle Lord" as I passed.

You will say that he is most certainly jesting, making fun of himself. And that may be true, but I am sure also that he had his satisfaction, and still has it, in the fact that he was called "My Lord."

Another determining factor in the behavior of the immigrant is American lawlessness. Translations of American dime novels are popular in Poland, stories of American freedom and banditry are carried back by returning immigrants, the grandiosity of the Polish aristocracy preadapts the consciousness of the immigrant boy to some spectacular exhibition of his freedom, and the copy may be banditry. In the first letter written home a certain immigrant said: "I am walking on North Clark Street. I have a revolver. Just let anybody give me a dirty look." Four Chicago boys, one of them not a Pole, decided on a holdup. They met a farmer in the early morning coming in with a load of garden truck. He gave over his watch and money. This did not seem satisfactory; they held a conference and decided to kill him; and so they did. Even this did not

( 37) seem a very distinguished exploit, not harrowing, so they cut off a piece of his leg and stuffed it in his mouth. They were very young, but they were all hanged on account of the last act of atrocity.

Generally speaking, I should say that the Polish immigrant tends to be a dissociated personality, a consciousness divided, like all Gaul, into three parts, as result of three dominant experience complexes— the community conditioning, the aristocratic conditioning, and the conditioning by American freedom— in terms of the wishes, desire for stability, desire for recognition, and desire for new experience. These features are not all, but they are outstanding. It is on this account that the behavior of the Pole newly come to America is so completely incalculable. You can never know, under a given stimulus, which experience complex will come to the front and determine the behavior reaction. A policeman may enter a public place where there is loud noise and call for quiet. The place may become silent as a tomb, or one of the men may draw a gun and shoot the officer— on the one hand, the older conditioning to the authority of the home, the upper classes, and the Russian police; on the other hand, the newer conditioning to freedom. Two men exchanged some blows one evening in a boardinghouse. One of them went to work in the morning. The other, a night worker, slept. About ten o'clock in the morning it occurred to the day worker to go back and kill the night worker. He did this, putting a pistol to his ear, and returned to work. After some days of excitement, during which no suspicion was directed toward the murderer, he simply appeared and said: "Why, I killed that man." He felt that he was being cheated of his distinction. The police call behavior of this kind "Polish warfare." During the war Paderewski and others were addressing an audience of Poles. The previous speakers had been annoyed by the noisy behavior of the audience. When Paderewski rose his first words were: "Be quiet, cattle!" There was no more noise. The speaker had used an old expression of the Polish nobleman as applied to the peasant. Perhaps he took a chance. If the freedom complex had come to the front there might have been trouble.


I have spoken at this length of an immigrant group not because I think the immigrant is the chief problem in the city environment. Evidently the chief problem is the young American person. The immigrant is never assimilated anyway. He becomes here something else, but not an American. If he returns, say, to Poland, he has to be re-Polonized, and that never happens either. He becomes still something else, but not a Pole. The second-generation immigrant becomes nearly an American, but is still somewhat conditioned by the adult family habits, while the third-generation representative (if the family has not encountered too much race prejudice) is practically just an American child. So the problem becomes again one of the child.

The problem of the immigrant and the child is the same in this respect: that the American child is as alien to the standards of the older generation, generally speaking, as the immigrant is alien to America in general, and in this connection the frequently complete resistance of the older generation to change (seeking stability) seems as much out of place as the partial demoralization or incomplete organization of the younger generation (seeking new experience).

The ethnogeographers speak of a moving environment in connection with those tribes which have to emigrate with the seasons, in pursuit of grass and water, and psychologically we are also living in a moving environment, so that the question of the formation, balance, and interaction of the experience complexes becomes more acute, especially in the urban environment. It is investigation along this line, as it seems to me, that will lead to a more critical discrimination between that type of disorganization in the young which is a real but frustrated tendency to organize on a higher plane, or one more correspondent with the moving environment, and that type of disorganization which is simply the abandonment of standards. It is also along this line, and I refer still to the study of the experience complexes, that we shall gain light on the relation of fantastic phantasying to realistic phantasying— a question, as Professor Giddings has pointed out, which deserves our attention, and which is one of

(39) the outstanding points in the wild behavior of the Poles which I have outlined above.

It will prove true, I think, that demoralization is the result of the formation of experience complexes which are nevertheless not integrated or organized among themselves sufficiently to secure behavior reactions corresponding with reality or with existing social values; that for the most part disorganization is a transitional stage between two forms of organization, and that the element of phantasy may contribute either to disorganization or to a higher type of organization.


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