Peggy Noonan—On Letting Go: How we become American

Posted by Kendall Harmon

From today's WSJ:

Happy Fourth of July. To mark this Wednesday's holiday, I share a small moment that happened a year ago in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I was at a wake for an old family friend named Anthony Coppola, a retired security guard who'd been my uncle Johnny's best friend from childhood. All the old neighborhood people were there from Clinton Avenue and from other streets in Brooklyn, and Anthony's sisters Tessie and Angie and Gloria invited a priest in to say some prayers. About a hundred of us sat in chairs in a little side chapel in the funeral home.

The priest, a jolly young man with a full face and thick black hair, said he was new in the parish, from South America. He made a humorous, offhand reference to the fact that he was talking to longtime Americans who'd been here for ages. This made the friends and family of Anthony Coppola look at each other and smile. We were Italian, Irish, everything else. Our parents had been the first Americans born here, or our grandparents had. We had all grown up with two things, a burly conviction that we were American and an inner knowledge that we were also something else. I think we experienced this as a plus, a double gift, though I don't remember anyone saying that. When Anthony's mother or her friend, my grandmother, talked about Italy or Ireland, they called it "the old country." Which suggested there was a new one, and that we were new in it.

But this young priest, this new immigrant, he looked at us and thought we were from the Mayflower. As far as he was concerned--as far as he could tell--we were old Yankee stock. We were the establishment. As the pitcher in "Bang the Drum Slowly" says, "This handed me a laugh."

This is the way it goes in America. You start as the Outsider and wind up the Insider, or at least being viewed as such by the newest Outsiders. We are a nation of still-startling social fluidity. Anyone can become "American," but they have to want to first.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-Watch

16 Comments
Posted June 29, 2007 at 2:11 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. libraryjim wrote:

Ah, the blessings of immigration:

Italy: Spaghetti and lasgana
Ireland: Corned beef and cabbage
Mexico: enchilatas and anything con queso
Spain: oranges and other citrus and Christopher Columbus
France: wine (the first wine in the New World was made by French Monks) and bolubaise (sp?)
China: fireworks (roundabout) and egg drop soup
Portugal: Port wine
England:

um. er. ah.

yeah.

give me a minute.

or two.

oh, our rule of law. of course.

June 29, 3:37 pm | [comment link]
2. austin wrote:

I think you’re forgetting apple pie.

June 29, 3:58 pm | [comment link]
3. Jeff Thimsen wrote:

Most Irish immigrants came during times of famine or great poverty. I really doubt that many of the Irish could afford corned beef.

June 29, 4:03 pm | [comment link]
4. libraryjim wrote:

It was actually cheaper than the traditional Irish meal of BACON and cabbage.  In fact, it was made using a very tough cut of meat (brisket) and so was one of the cheapest meals they could make at the time.

June 29, 4:11 pm | [comment link]
5. Terry Tee wrote:

I cannot believe that you are leaving out the greatest gift of all that the Brits gave you:  the English language.  If you doubt that, remember that at one point it was seriously debated whether to underline the break with the old country by making German the national language of the nascent US.

June 29, 4:15 pm | [comment link]
6. Words Matter wrote:

Fr. Tee, we are grateful for the gift of the English Language, but hesitate to mention it, given what we Yanks have done to it. grin

I can walk from my house and have Tex-Mex or real Mexican food, Italian, Eqyptian, “Mediterranean” (they are Bosnians), and plain Fort Worth cafe home-cooking (forget 4 star restaurants - breakfast/lunch cafes are the supreme cuisine here).  I can have Hot Damn Tamales or Japanese take-out around on Berry Street.  From the office, I can walk across the street to the little store run by Palestines where the TV plays Al Jazeera (sp?) news, Arabic soap operas, and, on occasion, Palestinian music videos. The hispanic kid (17 years old, supporting a wife and baby, and hoping to become a truck driver) makes me the best hamburgers for lunch.

All of this in a hick city on the edge of the wild west, where 40 years ago, people were white in my part of town, black in Como and Stop Six, and brown way up on the north side. And that was about it. 

America is an amazing place.

June 29, 4:39 pm | [comment link]
7. William Tighe wrote:

“I cannot believe that you are leaving out the greatest gift of all that the Brits gave you:  the English language.  If you doubt that, remember that at one point it was seriously debated whether to underline the break with the old country by making German the national language of the nascent US.”

The business about German as the proposed “national language” is a mere myth.  The truth is that there was a proposal before the Pennsylvania legislature in the 1780s to make German an official language, alongside English and on terms of equality with it, of Pennsylvania.  It was defeated by two votes in the early 1790s, anf never came up again thereafter.

June 29, 4:49 pm | [comment link]
8. libraryjim wrote:

Fr. Tee,
As you may have guessed, I penned this shortly after lunch. smile

June 29, 5:38 pm | [comment link]
9. azusa wrote:

# 1: England - Great Britain, actually - gave America .... America.
Read your Niall Ferguson. & Andrew Roberts. & Winston Churchill.
(Of course, America gave Britain Churchill.)

June 29, 6:14 pm | [comment link]
10. Invicta wrote:

“(Of course, America gave Britain Churchill.)”
OK folks, half-credit where it’s due!  (Last time I checked, he was born at Blenheim Palace, and his father was English).

June 29, 7:00 pm | [comment link]
11. azusa wrote:

#10: I meant via his estimable mother, of course. America can take pride in her half-American son.

June 29, 7:29 pm | [comment link]
12. Invicta wrote:

Gordian,
I most heartily concur!

June 29, 8:26 pm | [comment link]
13. Baruch wrote:

If you have been to your courthouse or called you now get a choice of English or Spanish.

June 29, 10:06 pm | [comment link]
14. Jim the Puritan wrote:

In addition to giving us Winston, Mrs. Churchill also gave my college its school colors:

Williams’ primary school color is purple.  The story goes that at the Williams-Harvard baseball game in 1869, spectators, watching from carriages, had trouble telling the teams apart (there were no uniforms) so one of the onlookers bought ribbons from a nearby millinery store to pin on Williams’ players. The only color available was purple. The buyer was Jennie Jerome (later Winston Churchill’s mother) whose family summered in Williamstown.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williams_College                 

June 30, 1:06 am | [comment link]
15. Tikvah wrote:

Please, don’t forget the Yorkshire pudding, and Stilton!
T

June 30, 8:15 am | [comment link]
16. DonGander wrote:

I want to someday write a short historical fiction about my great-great-grandfather who left Ireland an ardent Atheist who hated both God and Church. His Atheist drunken son stumbled into a Chicago store-front church and his life, and his decendants lives, were changed forever. Thank you, America, for giving us a home. Thank you Jesus Christ for giving us a life.

DonGander

June 30, 11:24 am | [comment link]
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