How Many Elite Early European Immigrants to US Were There?
August 10, 2018, 10:38 AM
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When I was a kid, Stravinsky (who in 1913 composed “The Rite of Spring,” the climax of pre-Great War European high culture and more or less the finale of classical music) lived not far from me on the other side of the Hollywood Hills, just above the Sunset Strip. He composed the opera The Rake’s Progress in his favorite booth at a Hollywood IHOP.

By then it was pretty normal for famous Europeans now known to history by one name — e.g., Einstein, Toscanini, Auden (who had written the libretto for The Rake’s Progress), Nabokov — to live in America. For example, Schoenberg had lived near Stravinsky in West Hollywood in the 1940s (they didn’t get along).

But my impression is that America didn’t get many elite European immigrants before the 20th Century. America just wasn’t a desirable destination for European celebrities until roughly the 20th Century. A few famous names washed up on American shores, but the list of people who were already famous in Europe don’t really add up to much:

Talleyrand, the protean French foreign minister, sat out the Reign of Terror here for a few years in the US before returning to his titanic career in France.

Da Ponte, the Jewish Venetian Catholic priest and pimp who was a friend of Casanova and then, after a run for the border Mozart’s librettist for Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and Cosi Fan Tutte (his most important artistic decision was agreeing to Mozart’s supremacy — You da boss, Wolfie was more or less Da Ponte’s realistic response to the balance of talent in their relationship. Da Ponte was always having to flee whatever country he was in to escape imprisonment. He washed up in the U.S, and after years of obscure struggle as a shopkeeper in Mid-atlantic states became, in his old age, an early Manhattan celebrity, being appointed Professor of Italian Literature at Columbia U. and a founder of the first opera house in America. On his death bed, he was accepted back into the Roman Catholic Church in a scene that was admired as fittingly operatic.

The pioneering industrialist and socialist utopian Robert Owen came to the US to build his utopian community at New Harmony, Indiana in the 1820s. He went back to Britain, but three of his sons immigrated and carved out impressive careers, two as academics, one as member of the House of Representative, sponsoring the Smithsonian Institution

Lajos Kossuth, who had been head of Hungary briefly in the wake of the 1848 revolution, spent some of the 1850s in the U.S.

Carl Schurz was perhaps the most famous Forty-Eighter who wound up in the US, but he’d only been a teenager in 1848.

Thomas Paine quickly enjoyed a spectacular career as the most leftist Founding Father after his arrival in the US after meeting Ben Franklin in England in 1774, but he was obscure and unsuccessful in England before his immigration.

William Penn spent a number of years in Pennsylvania, but always returned to England.

Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury, came from an elite family in Geneva of the kind that generally didn’t send sons to America.

The Revolutionary War brought in various minor celebrity officers such as Lafayette, but Von Steuben appears to have been fleeing a gay scandal in Prussia so he wasn’t exactly the pick of the European pack.

I’m sure there are vastly more elite European migrants to the US that I’m not mentioning. But there were comparable numbers of talented American migrants to Europe: painters such as Benjamin West, James McNeil Whistler and Mary Cassatt, and writers such as Henry James and T.S. Eliot.

Ben Franklin, a global superstar of the Enlightenment, seriously considered moving permanently to England for the more interesting company but eventually returned home.

So, America for a long time tended to be restricted to homegrown geniuses like Franklin, Charle Pierce, Josiah Willard Gibbs, etc., along with obscure immigrants who made good like Carnegie. But the influx of mature, recognized geniuses that we became familiar with in the 20th Century mostly didn’t happen earlier. So American life, while prosperous and lively, tended to be deficient in very high end intellectual distinction until quite late. Americans didn’t begin to win lots of Nobel Prizes until the late 1920s, for instance.

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