Oral History of the Origin and Development of The Polish Peasant

CHAIRMAN THOMPSON: We will proceed then. Mr. Thomas has kindly consented to make a brief statement regarding the origin and development of The Polish Peasant.

MR. THOMAS: The question of why and how I undertook this work and the difficulties of securing the materials may be of some interest now. My statement must be somewhat autobiographical to begin with.

Before I entered the University of Chicago as a graduate student in 1893, I had spent two semesters in Germany studying philology. At that time also, I became interested in the Völkerpsychologie represented by Lazarus and Steinthal. I had also been strongly impressed by Spencer's Sociology.

At that time, immigration was a burning question. About a million immigrants were coming here annually, and this was mainly the newer immigration, from southern and eastern Europe. The larger groups were Poles, Italians, and Jews. When I became a member of the faculty at Chicago, I gave, among other courses, one on immigration and one on social attitudes, and eventually I decided to study an immigrant group in Europe and America to determine as far as possible what relation their home mores and norms had to their adjustment and maladjustment in America.

In 1908, I had a conversation with Miss Helen Culver, heiress of the Mr. Hull who endowed the Hull House in Chicago with which Jane Addams was associated, and Miss Culver agreed to support the study to the amount of $50,000.


I was now in a difficult position. I had the money and the hunch, but I had no assurance that adequate materials on the immigrant groups would be accessible in Europe. I expected to find in the numerous journals of folklore rich materials on the peasant, but I soon found that these materials were of no value. They dealt with such things as the coloring of Easter eggs, figures in weaving, hedges, plows, outhouses, magical practices, etc. It was evident that I had to find other sources.

After a year's exploration, I decided to study the Poles, largely because I found there abundant materials, of a kind. In 1863, a Mr. Proszyński had established a weekly journal, the Gazeta Swiateczna, for the benefit and enlightenment of the peasants. It was a feature of a general movement for enlightenment carried on by the aristocracy and better classes. Following numerous revolts against Russia in which they had been cruelly crushed, the upper classes began to turn to the peasant as the hope of the country and to educate and idealize him. This went so far that the upper classes, particularly the artists, in some cases married peasant women. In this connection, the Gazeta played a prominent role. The peasants began to write to this journal all sorts of letters on all sorts of questions. I purchased the files of this journal covering the last twenty years, and this was one of the main sources of our European data. At the same time, during eight periods of residence in Poland, I collected about 8000 documents or items, altogether.

Another reason for my choice of the Poles was their behavior in America. They were the most incomprehensible and perhaps the most disorganized of all the immigrant groups. This may be illustrated by what the American police call "Polish warfare." A policeman might enter a saloon where there was a noisy crowd of Poles and say, "You men be

(105) quiet," and they might subside immediately or one of them might draw a gun and kill him. This was due to the fact that the Pole in America has two attitudes toward authority. One of these reflects the old peasant subordination to authority. They were called "cattle" by the landlords and submitted like cattle. The other attitude reflects the conception that there are no limits to the boasted American "freedom." The greatest chagrin encountered in the course of the study was the loss of about one third of our materials. I was viewed with a great deal of suspicion by prominent Poles, because, while they claimed to be, and were, an oppressed minority, their oppression of the Ruthenians in Austrian Poland was more ferocious than their own oppression in Russian Poland. In this connection, a good many important documents, especially manuscripts, were withheld from me. Eventually, however, they thought better of it and sent a communication to me in Chicago that if I would come or send a representative, I could have everything. I sent an assistant, Mr. Kulikowski, who copied selected manuscripts and secured other materials which had not been revealed to me, and also the earlier files of the Gazeta, of which only two sets were in existence. At this point, however, the war intervened and Kulikowski, fleeing conscription, lost the material in Vilna. I have speculated on how much difference in our final results this loss meant, but on the whole I do not think it was very much.

Kulikowski was lost with the materials for a time, but very fortunately for me, Znaniecki appeared in Chicago quite unexpectedly. He was a brilliant young philosopher who represented also the Polish policy of promoting scholarship in the absence of a state and of institutions of learning. Learning and art were patronized extensively by the great estate owners and others and this was done in part by giving eminent

(106) and promising men some civic duties while they pursued their studies. At any rate, Znaniecki was in charge of a Bureau for the Protection of Emigrants, which meant advising all who planned to emigrate as to desirable destinations and guarding them against exploitation, especially in South America. Incidentally, it meant also, as I understood it, keeping the best elements in Poland and facilitating the departure of the remainder.

In this connection, Znaniecki had a wide experience with peasants both through interviews in his office and through frequent trips to their villages, and a very great deal of what Blumer appreciates as insight shown in the volumes, and of the general conceptual scheme, is due to Znaniecki's philosophical training and his experience with peasant life. I had talked with him in Poland and he had given me some documents. He came to America to promote the translation of Polish scientific works, perhaps also to look into what representations I was making of Poland, but war was declared on the day he sailed, and he remained here and worked with me for five years. So I considered that what I had lost through the war on the one hand, I had more than gained on the other.

CHAIRMAN THOMPSON: Before opening the general discussion, I will ask Mr. Blumer to sum up as briefly as he can what he considers the main points of his critique—just to freshen it in our minds.


No Notes

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