Immigration, Damon Runyon And New York City

February 27, 2019

Immigration, Damon Runyon,

And New York City

by

R.E. Prindle

 

In the 2019 March-April issue of Foreign Affairs devoted to discussion of the idea of New Nationalism, Jill Lepore a Harvard Professor of History opens the discussion with an article entitled: The New Americanism. No, she isn’t talking about Pres. Donald Trump. Her proposition is this: Why a Nation Needs a National Story.

Apparently Liberals have given up on the idea that there is no such thing as a nation. Even a social construct needs a reason to exist. I quote here first two paragraphs:

In 1986, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, bowtie-wearing Stanford historian Carl Degler delivered something other than the usual pipe-smoking, scotch-on-the-rocks, after-dinner disquisition that had plagued the evening program of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association for nearly all of its centurylong history. Instead, Degler, a gentle and quietly heroic man, accused his colleagues of nothing short of dereliction of duty: appalled by nationalism, they had abandoned the study of the nation.

“We can write history that implicitly denies or ignores the nation-state, but it would be a history that flew in the face of what people who live in a nation-state require and demand,” Degler said that night in Chicago. He issued a warning: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

Unquote.

I empathize with Prof. Degler’s concerns, however ‘nationally defined history’ already exists and has existed for some time, it is called the Immigrant Narrative of American History. According to it ‘Americans’ are good people, indeed, the very best but only because we have opened our hearts, minds and national home to immigrants from wherever and whatever condition provided only that they be colored, POC (People of Color); that is, not White. We know by this narrative that Whites have caused all the ills of the world while not deserving to live.

In the nineteenth century, it’s true that after the country became a nation in 1793 the immigrants, much to our shame today, were White, with the exception of African Negroes who were needed for work that White people wouldn’t do. That immigration would have the direst consequences even though the Negroes are good hearted POC who wouldn’t never do nobody no harm.

The principle port of entry was NYC, first at a facility called Castle Gardens and then the fabled sacred site of the Immigrant Narrative, Ellis Island. It was there that the ‘wretched refuse’ of ‘Europe’s teeming shore’ as Emma Lazarus’ poem quaintly expressed it and she pasted it on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Thus the Immigrant National Narrative was enshrined.

They were coming to America as the Jewish poet Neil Diamond sang in the twentieth century from every country in Europe and a great many of them stuck in New York City giving that town its peculiar character.

Immigration was cut off at the knees by Conservative bigots beginning in the 1920s coinciding with that abominable experiment, Prohibition. This was a license to steal for the immigrants. Whoo, boy howdy, was that a combination- immigration and prohibition. A third ingredient was the introduction of women’s suffrage. The ladies obtained the vote. And somewhen at this time the Hero of our national narrative also arrived in NYC, Damon Runyon. He was the redoubtable historian with the national narrative much longed for by Carl Degler.

Damon Runyon sat in his favorite hangout of Mindy’s Deli in the heart of NYC’s Satan’s Square Mile and surveyed the scene. Of course, his history is fictionalized but no matter it is accurate, playfully accurate.

Some will say his history is too one sided but then so are all national narratives, they’re all fictional too, cut to measure from the whole fabric. It’s something like Einstein’s ‘fabric of space and time’ which no one has ever seen or touched but is still an article of faith.

For those who don’t know Damon Runyon, perhaps America’s least known historian, who wrote about ninety years ago, you may have seen an even more fictional representation of the work in the movie Guys And Dolls starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, two legendary characters that were once flesh and blood, if you follow them, in 1955 nearly seventy years ago if you’re still too young to remember.

So, Damon Runyon sat studying the immigrant type for that is what he portrays. The key nationalities that he describes are the Irish, the Sicilians and the Jews. The main Irish influx arrived in the 1840 and hence were the most assimilated, but only partially so, while the Jews and Sicilians were in the gold rush to America from 1890 to 1914. Those two groups were all only partially assimilated, the Sicilians least of all.

In Runyon’s stories they are all criminals. Like, who else hangs around in Satan’s Square Mile? Runyon really romanticizes these criminal types. Without knowledge of the situation they were all a bunch of lovable guys and dolls. Who could not like the Butch of Butch Mind’s The Baby. The only problem is that Butch is a killer wherein the humor of a thug minding a baby.

I first became acquainted with Runyon’s stories when I was sixteen. Perhaps my attention was called to him by the movie Guys and Dolls that was released at that time. Not being familiar with the context I was entranced by Runyon’s undeniable Flash. I was knocked off my feet and remained so until the last several years. Over time I reread the stories with a fair amount of regularity, each time gaining in worldly experience and a deepening sense of reality as to the deeper meaning of the stories content.

I still read the stories with some regularity having acquired original copies of the collections and a number of collections from a few stories to omnibus comprehensive collections. However when I now read it is with a sickening realization of their underlying brutality. For instance, the story, The Old Doll’s House, that particularly enchanted me, that involves a thug evading a shoot out in the process of which he jumps a wall and seeks refuge in the Old Doll’s house.

The Old Doll, we’re talking Guys and Dolls here and all women are Dolls, is a lady of advanced years. As she is blind she can’t see the thug waving his gun around and pleased to have company invites him to tea. Orienting himself the thug sees a clock that reads 12:30 which is the approximately correct hour. A half hour later it still reads 12:30 and that clues him in to the fact that the Old Doll is blind. Now he won’t have to kill her because she can’t identify him.

The story stops being funny on the third or fourth reading, twenty or thirty years later.

And so with all the stories. Dream Street Rose for instance. On a first reading Dream Street has a figurative meaning but in fact, Dream St. is a couple of blocks in Satan’s Square Mile. When they designate the square mile as Satan’s they aren’t just whistling Dixie either. That square mile was the criminal sink of NYC, the US, the world and without doubt the universe and beyond. The Metropole Hotel was there.

If you start researching Runyon’s characters you find people like the Jewish newspaper columnist Walter Winchell. If you want a fictional portrayal of Walter Winchell view the movie The Sweet Smell Of Success. And then there is the Jewish criminal mastermind called the Brain by Runyon who was Arnold Rothstein. The Brain Goes Home is pretty much a true story. The stories in their own way are real and out of the clothing of ‘poetry’, true.

At this time and experience in my life I find the stories blood curdling, even the Lily of St. Pierre, one of my favorites. You need a little background to understand Lily. St. Pierre is an island in the North Atlantic fishing grounds, back when the cod were plentiful. During Prohibition the Mob moved in and used the island as a way station for booze. St. Pierre et Miquelon was a French administrative unit. So, the world was corrupted by Prohibition and ‘American’ immigrant criminals.

Of course, as ‘Americans’, these partially assimilated Immigrants blackened the eye of native Americans who were tarred with the same brush as these ‘American’ criminals. And in the United States according to the Immigrant National Narrative those natives were styled ‘bigots’ and racists for declining to accept responsibility for what were actually native Europeans activities.

So, Miss Lepore and her hero Carl Degler, the ‘American’ historian may find no national narrative lacking; they’re just not looking in the right place. The national narrative may not be very attractive but then it’s not very American either.  Immigration has consequences.

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