Steerage

From Alien to Citizen

Wed, 2009-08-05 04:13 pm

 

Issue: 

 Fall 2008

Author: 

 George Drake '56

Author George Drake '56

 

Originally presented to the Grinnell Fortnightly Club on Feb. 25, 2008.

"When I went down for the first time into the steerage, no one said a word of cheer, no one waved farewell. I left strangers standing on the receding wharf and I was among eleven hundred strangers. I was going to a land full of strangers, and when I reached my bunk in a dark, deep corner of the hold, something which felt like a cold, icy hand gripped my heart. When the ship left its mooring I felt as if my heartstrings were breaking, and I stretched out my hands to the fast receding shore, as if to grasp the loosened cables.

I dimly felt what it meant, but I did not realize how new was the life which awaited me, or how completely I was being severed from my past and my former self. Neither did I realize how, like the shuttle which the Master Weaver holds, I should be thrown back and forth across the sea, nor how closely my whole life was to be identified with that of the steerage." (Steiner, From Alien to Citizen, 1914; p. 36)

These are the words of Fortnightly charter member and Grinnell College Rand Professor of Applied Christianity Edward A. Steiner in his autobiography, From Alien to Citizen. He was the author of over 20 books and more than 50 articles over a 38-year Grinnell career, almost certainly the most "productive" faculty member in College history. Continuing the "steerage" theme and to give you a flavor of his rhetoric, I quote from the Introduction to his 1906 book, On the Trail of the Immigrant.

My Dear lady of the First Cabin:

On the fourth morning out from Hamburg, after your maid had disentangled you from your soft wrappings of steamer rugs, and leaning upon her arm, you paced the deck for the first time, the sun smiled softly upon the smooth sea, and its broken reflections came back hot upon your pale cheeks. Then your gentle eyes wandered from the illimitable sea back to the steamer which carried you. You saw the four funnels out of which came pouring clouds of smoke trailing behind the ship in picturesque tracery; you watched the encircling gulls which had been your fellow travelers ever since we left the white cliffs of Albion; and then your eyes rested upon those mighty Teutons who stood on the bridge, and whose blue eyes searched the sea for danger, or rested upon the compass for direction.

From below came the sweet notes of music, gentle and wooing, one of the many ways in which the steamship company tried to make life pleasant for you, to bring back your 'bon appetite' to its tempting tables. Then suddenly, you stood transfixed, looking below you upon the deck from which came rather pronounced odours and confused noises. The notes of a jerky harmonica harshly struck your ears attuned to symphonies; and the song which accompanied it was gutteral and unmusical.

The deck which you saw, was crowded by human beings; men, women and children lay there, many of them motionless, and the children, numerous as the sands of the sea, -- unkempt and unwashed, were everywhere in evidence.

You felt great pity for the little ones, and you threw chocolate cakes among them, smiling as you saw them in their tangled struggle to get your sweet bounty.

You pitied them all; the frowsy headed, ill clothed women, the men who looked so hungry and so greedy, and above all you pitied, you said so, -- do you remember?--you said you pitied your own country for having to receive such a conglomerate of human beings, so near to the level of the beasts. I well recall it; for that day they did look like animals. It was the day after the storm and they had all been seasick; they had neither the spirit nor the appliances necessary for cleanliness. The toilet rooms were small and hard to reach, and sea water as you well know is not a good cleanser. They were wrapped in gray blankets which they had brought from their bunks, and you were right; they did look like animals, but not half so clean as the cattle which one sees so often on an outward journey; certainly not half so comfortable."

Edward Steiner, who was traveling in Steerage, as he often did in pursuit of his research on immigration, engaged the "lady of the first cabin," explaining the background and prospects of the steerage immigrants and she challenged him to write what he had told her so that others in America could gain the understanding that she had just acquired. On the Trail of the Immigrant is the result, as well as countless other writings in which Edward Steiner explained immigrants to a skeptical and nervous early 20th-century America.

Today, Americans are equally skeptical and nervous about immigration, and we need a new Edward Steiner to convince a divided nation that new generations and nations of immigrants will enrich our society, not destroy it. As an immigrant, himself, and as a Congregational minister and later as Professor of Applied Christianity at Grinnell College, Edward Steiner dedicated his life to convincing Americans that the new waves of immigrants: Slovaks, Russians, Poles, Bohemians, Jews, Greeks, and Italians would assimilate and contribute just as had their predecessors from places like Scotland, Holland, Germany, and Ireland. Steiner's passion grew out of his own immigrant experience as well as his commitment to the example and teachings of Jesus. And he believed that his understanding of Jesus was enhanced by his Jewish origins.

In the Forward to his book about his life in Europe before emigration, Against the Current (1906), Steiner says:

Before I could speak one language, I cried in three, and the first words I uttered were in a tongue so foreign to my later life, that I have forgotten all but a few phrases which cling to me in spite of my neglect of them. 

I played with the children of three distinct races and loved those best who hated my people the most.

My soul awakened in the tumult of three alien faiths and grew into maturity in the belief furthest from that of my fathers. My mind struggled first with the mature if stagnant wisdom of Hebrew teachers, who treated children as if they were sages and sages as if they were children; but it escaped from the bondage into the untrammeled wisdom of the Greeks, their successors, then into that of the Germans, and later became reasonably disciplined under Slavic and Anglo-Saxon teachers.

Born in one country, I lived my early boyhood in another, my young manhood elsewhere and my later life on this side of the great sea -- crossing and recrossing so often that I am nowhere an alien; although by my love of liberty and my faith in its spirit of fair play, I am a loyal American.

It is my calling to study races and groups, to discover in the individual what these have bequeathed to him, and having done this fairly successfully for others, I am now trying to do it for myself. I am searching the background of this complex life of mine, my childhood and boyhood, trying to discover just how much I owe to race and how much to my varying environments.

That childhood and boyhood was spent in the Slovakian village of Senic (Szenic) at the foot of the Carpathian mountains, roughly 100 kilometers east of Vienna and about 30 kilometers northeast of Bratislava. Until the Treaty of Versailles, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with Magyar's the dominant force. Edward Steiner was born on Nov. 1, 1866, six weeks after his father's death in the Austro-Prussian war. He was the fifth child and his oldest brother, Samuel, who had to assume the role of father, was 12 at the birth of Edward. Against the Current mentions frequent beatings from his older siblings, but almost no indication of severe punishment from his mother, whom Edward worshiped. His Catholic nurse, Christina, compared his mother to the Virgin Mary who, she pointed out, also was a Jew.

Edward's Uncle, Isaac, was the leader of a small group of the orthodox Jews at the local synagogue and his opposition to the more liberal elements sometimes led to blows. Young Edward developed a strong aversion to his uncle's fundamentalist legalism and insistence on rigid ceremonial observance. He was much more attracted to his mother's invitation to the local Lutheran pastor to join the family Passover Meal after he had courageously dispersed a hostile crowd of gentile neighbors who pelted their house with stones (Against the Current, pp. 119-132). This invitation was in the spirit of his paternal grandfather, Abraham, who was a student not only of the Talmud, but also of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. However, Edward had to sit under the stern eye of Uncle Isaac during services. The upshot was that he soon rejected his uncle's brand of orthodox Judaism, taking pleasure in his association with Catholics and Protestants even when they persecuted him. He went so far as to perform as one of the wise men in a Christmas pageant ("A Wiser Man,"St. Peter and I, 1959; p. 38).

Edward's was a cultured family of some means, so he was sent to Vienna for gymnasium. Vienna was a revelation to a young boy from the Slovakian hinterland:

"With an old man's thoughts and feelings I stepped into this new and struggling world, coming from the two dim coal-oil lamps of which our town boasted into the gas-lighted streets of a great city." He confesses that his skimpy allowance alone saved him from "plunging headlong into the seductive vice of the gay city."(1) Of his education, he says that he studied Latin because he had to, logic because he liked it, while he found history hard and math a torture. Generally, he found his teachers to be hard and unimaginative. Nevertheless, the gymnasium opened his mind: "for the old men and women within me with their age-old culture began to quarrel with civilization, and I had to take up their quarrel, which I have continued ever since." (2)

It was in Vienna that Steiner's passion for social and economic justice was awakened. His landlady's daughter grew humpbacked from her unrelenting labor as a seamstress: "I grew mad with rage when she told me of the life in the shop, the chicaneries of forewomen, the fines for a crooked stitch or a sweat drop on a delicate garment," (3) The next step for the future Rand Professor of Applied Christianity was taken when Edward had completed a Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg (about which he has almost nothing to say except that he specialized in Slavic philology). At age 20, he determined to visit Leo Tolstoy, walking all the way to his Russian estate, Yasnaya Polyana. This was the first of six visits that Steiner paid to Tolstoy, one of which, in 1902, led to a biography, Tolstoy, The Man and His Message. Apart from Edward's mother, Leo Tolstoy was the most important influence on him. As he wrote in a short autobiographical essay, "Looking Back":

Later in my life a great personality, Tolstoy, the spiritual giant, in far-away Russia opened the door to his home and to his soul, revealing to me the essence of the gospel story. With his piercing eyes he saw through me and made me feel naked. He taught me to hate all shams and to face without fear of the consequences the divine command to love all men. On every visit I made to him he repeated as his warning and benediction: "You must learn to love the unlovely, to regard wealth and honor as of no import and to ask yourself every day, What is the purpose of life?" (4)

It was partly due to Tolstoy's influence as well as fear of conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army that led Edward Steiner to emigrate to the United States. Furthermore, there is a family tradition that he also feared Austro-Hungarian government reprisals for his radical activities. So, in 1886, he sailed from Bremen with 1,100 other immigrants in steerage, an experience that would provide one of the themes of his life. He was to cross and re-cross the Atlantic in steerage at least 12 times. He landed on Ellis Island with no knowledge of English, even though he knew five or six European languages and possessed refined knowledge of one distinctly unmarketable skill: Slavic Philology. Penniless, he was reduced to finding jobs at the bottom of the heap until he acquired competent English many months later. In fact, his experience during the first two years in America mirrored that of many if not most immigrants of the last quarter of the 19th century. In that time he worked at least 17 different jobs, migrated from New York to the Midwest, often riding the rails, and was jailed twice, once for six months.

As was often the case with fresh arrivals, Edward found temporary lodging with a distant relative. Typically, his first job was in the garment industry as a cloak presser. Not for the last time, he had difficulty with the Irish, who having immigrated a generation earlier, often were in supervisory positions. He did not like the Irish forewoman and using the words his fellow workers had taught him, unknowingly cursed her -- with predictable results. His relative also threw him out, obliging him to sleep rough in City Hall Park. He was rescued by a Russian Jew, who both housed and helped him to find another job in the garment industry as a "cutter." However, the garment industry was subject to frequent slack times and soon Steiner once again was jobless. He found intermittent employment in a bake and sausage shop before deciding to leave the insecurity of New York, moving west. In his autobiography of his American experience, From Alien to Citizen, he quotes Horace Greeley's advice to "Go West Young Man," without attributing J.B. Grinnell as the first recipient of this advice. Presumably, Steiner never subscribed to that legend.

At first, the "West" turned out to be Princeton, N.J., where he caught on as a field worker in a nearby farm. There he had his first English literary experiences, as the housekeeper loaned him a volume of Shakespeare's plays from the boss's library. Steiner was pressed into service as the cook when she ran off, prompting him quickly to follow suit because he was a very unhappy cook. On the road he met an itinerant tin salesman with whom he shared a room for the night. The next morning he was left with the tin, but without the $10 he had when he went to bed. He sold the utensils for a few dollars and moved on to central Pennsylvania where he worked briefly on an Amish farm. The family's all-consuming Christianity overwhelmed him, so, though the work was good, he did not stay long. His next job was in a Pittsburgh steel mill where he moved cauldrons of molten metal from room to room. The work was hard and dangerous and he had particularly unpleasant lodging crammed into a boarding house with 20 others. Spring floods caused by jammed ice flows extinguished the mill furnaces, so, once again, Edward was out of work -- but this time with $100 in his pocket.

He quickly found work in a coalmine at Connelsville, Pa. Among the many unpleasant experiences of these first two years in the United States, this was the worst. He lodged in a hovel occupied by a Polish family, sharing the bed of the father, who seldom awoke when Steiner arrived or left. Not only was mining difficult and dangerous work, but Steiner was caught up in a strike, where, without realizing it, he had become scab labor. A friend who was crushed by a rock fall bequeathed him his rusty revolver, which landed Edward in jail when he was caught in the middle of a fight between striking workers and scabs. He was arrested by the police for carrying a concealed weapon, but since the bullets were rusted in the chamber, he was given a "light" sentence of only six months in prison. Those months were lonely and difficult, particularly under threat from the Irish prisoners. Not surprisingly, no one visited him. He was isolated and terribly lonely.

Edward Steiner had nothing when he was released. He slept in a coal car that first night, hopping a freight headed west the next day. He became a hobo and his autobiography has mostly good things to say about his companions. Between train hops toward Chicago, he would work a day or up to a week on farms. He was thrown off of one farm when he defended the Prussians in a discussion with the Alsatian farmer. Before reaching Chicago, he worked at an Oliver plow factory stamping ploughshares. The stamping mill, however, was located in a basement and Steiner fell sick from the damp, causing him to move on to Chicago.

He was appalled by Chicago. It was rough, ugly, and unfriendly. His attitude was not helped when, while looking for job postings in a saloon, he was dropped through a trapdoor into a chute at the bottom of which he was mugged. He had little to "give" and was thrown unconscious into the alley where the Chicago police jailed him overnight for vagrancy. So unpleasant were these first days in Chicago that ever after Edward Steiner suffered a form of depression when he visited the city, even though he mixed with good friends such as Jane Addams.

Not all of his Chicago experience was negative as he settled with a welcoming Bohemian community on the West Side. He felt at home with Czech speakers among whom he gave his first public speeches since arriving in America, mostly on the subject of Tolstoy. It was clear that Steiner could flourish when in command of language -- as was the case when his English became good enough to function effectively within "Anglo" society,

Edward Steiner took a job as a house builder in the Bohemian community, staying with the owner. When the house was finished, he landed a job in a machine shop, which he promptly lost when he tried to give a noon-hour speech despite the foreman's opposition. Discouraged, he decided to move on to Minnesota for the grain harvest, occasioning one of his most harrowing experiences when he scrambled across the Mississippi on a railroad bridge and was forced to hang underneath when trapped by an oncoming freight. He enjoyed the harvest, even dreaming of becoming a farmer. He also read books from the public library, falling in love with Carlyle, while rejecting Dickens whose characters he thought unconvincing and too frivolous for his admittedly serious tastes. The farmer read the Bible aloud every evening, and though he did not take to its message, Steiner loved its cadences. He also noticed the connection between this man's Puritanism and his own Judaism, even to the names of his family members: Esther, Samuel, Isaac, Joseph, Jeremiah, and Ruth.

Once the harvest was in, Steiner was forced to move on despite having found a temporary "home" on this Minnesota farm. He had heard that one of his Slovak steerage mates had settled in Streater, Ill., so he decided to take a riverboat south on the Mississippi and then traveled overland to Streater to look for work, which he found in a lumberyard; however, soon losing that job because he offered a sleeping place to an itinerant German who made off with the owner's horse and buggy during the night. He started English classes for Slovak miners and was able to find a job with them at the pit face in Mine Number Three. He did not remain long in that dangerous and unrelenting labor, confessing that he was afraid every time he descended. He recalled a visiting American girl he had met at age 8 back in Slovakia, so he moved on to her town, which he describes only as "the most wicked in the state." (5) Because the family remembered him and because his English by now was passabl e, he was hired as a clerk in their factory. This family persuaded Edward that he should become a rabbi, providing him with railroad transportation back East as a cattle prodder. When not prodding, he rode in the caboose, where he accused a young Irish trainman of stealing his $20 gold piece, resulting in the Irishman shoving him from the top of a cattle car as they passed through the Ohio countryside. The fall left Steiner with a permanently twisted leg, but also the avenue to a new life. Retrospectively, he regarded this incident as so providential that he calls the town into which he limped, "Bethlehem," where a Jewish woman took him in and nursed him.

Edward Steiner no longer was fit for hard labor, but by this time his mastery of English allowed him to begin making a living with his mind. He became a store clerk in Bethlehem, establishing a small library at the back of the store. Later, he started a science club in the upstairs and was soon regarded as the town intellectual. He led a modern language and literature class, whose star pupils were three spinster teachers. In gratitude, they gave him a set of Shakespeare that was to assume pride of place in the library of his Grinnell home. In these classes, Steiner was the agnostic, frequently confronting the Christian piety of his star pupils. However, their "honest culture, strong character and spirit of service ... proved more convincing than the many ingenious arguments with which the met my assaults on their faith." (6) Edward became conscious of a "spiritual hunger" through his interactions with these Christians who actually lived their faith.

Bethlehem was a town where a Jew could attend Christian services without occasioning comment, and he fell under the spell of a Christian pastor and wife. "I was especially attracted to a church whose self-sacrificing pastor and his wife were, and still are to me, most convincing examples of the Christian life." (7) He continues, the "Christian atmosphere of [this] home completely captivated me." Together with the pastor, Steiner organized a public reading room, giving his first speech in English at the dedication. He also began his lifelong work, aiding immigrants in Bethlehem, a rail junction where they often stayed between journeys. In this time of transformation, "Christ, that rigid wooden form nailed to the cross which I had so long known and as a child repelled me -- began to look human. His artificial halo disappeared. I saw him working among men and began to feel His power. ... I saw the face of Tolstoy, whose touch upon my life had never been lost."(8) The Professor of Applied Christianity was finding life in a small Ohio town. The gestation, however, was neither smooth nor rapid, as he struggled with the so-called easy path for a Jew: conversion to Christianity. While struggling, he was influenced by a young woman from a family of converted Jews, her example persuading him that conversion could be authentic.

Nowhere does Edward Steiner write about a singular conversion moment. However, toward the end of his life he reflected on his conversion; responding to a question from a Jewish friend, he says:

I always avoided answering these questions because I realized how mixed motives are, and mine were not 100 percent pure. Long before the decisive step was taken, I wanted to escape Judaism. Heinrich Heine called it one of the three incurable diseases from which he suffered. Jews as a people seem to be destined to suffer because they are Jews, and but few escape it. 

Of course I wanted to escape, for I knew the mob's hatred when I was a boy. Nevertheless I would again want to become a Christian, not because it offers me an easy salvation, for salvation is not easy, is not acquired by any sort of magic. For me it meant a battle with self and a continued struggle to grow toward the divine ideal.

Also, paradoxical as it may seem, becoming a Christian made me a better Jew. Being a follower of Christ has not only separated me from the Jews, it has brought me closer to them. ... I have never profited by being a converted Jew, nor have I suffered from being one. (9)

This remark that becoming a Christian made him a better Jew may seem odd. However, Edward Steiner's brand of Christianity in the Social Gospel tradition focused on ethics and a profound longing for social and economic justice. Jesus was not so much the Christ, as the great teacher and exemplar of a life lived in selfless service to others. These themes also permeate Judaism, which, by the way, willingly honors Jesus the teacher and rabbi. As Steiner says: "A Rabbi asked me to state my belief about Jesus. I hesitated and asked him to tell me what he believed. 'He was a man fuller of God than any man ever born.' There was not much I could add to this answer to a difficult question." (10)

The two years of wandering across the "wilderness" of immigrant America had prepared Edward Steiner not only for his conversion to Christianity, but also for his fight to bring justice to the poor and the outcast. "In Wilkes Barre, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Minneapolis, hopping freight trains from one city to another, comrade of tramps and criminals, I was again being prepared to voice in sermon, lecture(11) and book the bitter cry of the poor. In these practical ways God was leading me not only to my life's work but also to spiritual rebirth." And with rebirth, Steiner adds: "I desired salvation, not for myself alone, but for the world I knew to be in need of it." (12)

Having stopped providentially in Bethlehem on his way to rabbinical school, Edward Steiner diverted to theological seminary. First, he enrolled in a Presbyterian seminary, unnamed, where he found both curriculum and devotion to be too rabbinical and legalistic for his taste. He found little of the Christian spirit that he had come to know in Bethlehem. Luckily, a Jewish visitor suggested Oberlin Seminary to the unhappy Steiner, offering financial assistance. When Edward arrived in Oberlin, a chance street encounter with the president led to his admission. These associations along with several others described in From Alien to Citizen suggest that Steiner must have had considerable charm. Once command of English released him from the underbelly of immigrant life, he seems to have won a place in more than one sympathetic heart.

Oberlin was a perfect fit with its ethos of democracy and social justice. Three years later, in 1891, Edward Steiner graduated, having been selected to give the graduation address: "The Old Prophets and New Problems." While at Oberlin, and five years after passing through Ellis Island, he became a citizen. Of his citizenship, he wrote: "It is no wonder that strangers like myself love this country, and love it, perhaps, as the native never can. Frequently I have wished for the careless American citizen who holds his franchise cheap, an experience like my own, that he might know the value of a freeman's birthright." (13)

In the year of his graduation, Steiner also married to Sara Levy of Oxford, Ohio. The marriage endured until Sara's death in 1940, but Edward makes almost no reference to it or his wife in his voluminous writing, much of which is directly or indirectly autobiographical. The marriage produced three children: Gretchen, Henry York (killed in a 1911 accident), and Richard (a 1924 Grinnell College graduate).

In the 12 years between 1891 and 1903, Steiner led four Congregational parishes: St. Cloud and St. Paul, Minn., and Springfield and Sandusky, Ohio. It was in St. Paul, at a church located between two railroad yards, that Steiner felt most at home. There he ministered to poor immigrant families in their struggle against scarcity and railroad "barons." However, with the birth of his first child, he found that he had to seek a more lucrative pulpit, moving to Springfield, Ohio, where one third of the population was black. This brought Edward Steiner into contact with yet another of America's great soc