Interpretation of Unguarded Gates
Aldrich and the Immigration Restriction League
Texts Related to the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett
By Thomas Bailey Aldrich
by Terry Heller
Thomas Bailey Aldrich's notorious poem, "Unguarded Gates," first appeared in Atlantic Monthly 70 (July 1892): 57. He subsequently included it in his 1895 collection, Unguarded Gates and Other Poems. This annotated edition with accompanying commentary is included in the Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project because the very close friendship between Aldrich, Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields has led a number of scholars to conclude that the two women almost certainly shared the attitudes Aldrich expresses in this poem.
The poem has become a main exhibit to support assertions about Aldrich's nativism, that is, his belief that immigration to the United States should be restricted by race and national origin. All writers who comment on Aldrich seem agreed that he was an ardent nativist, as demonstrated by this poem and by his supposed membership in the Immigration Restriction League (IRL) which was founded in 1894 with the purpose of promoting legislation to bar or limit immigration by some racial and national groups.
The biographical case for Jewett's nativism that rests in part on this poem has been offered as evidence that American regionalism as a whole was complicit in various racist projects, including the new nativism, represented by the IRL, that developed at the turn of the 20th century in response to the new immigration that brought waves of European immigrants to America from southern and eastern Europe.
This annotated edition of "Unguarded Gates" accompanies two other documents: an interpretation of the poem and an essay on Aldrich's association with the IRL. These materials call these assertions into question by offering an alternative reading of Aldrich's poem and by examining the evidence regarding his association with the IRL and his interest in nativist ideas. While these materials cannot establish finally what Aldrich and Jewett thought about the new nativism, they do suggest strongly that more study is necessary. In Jewett's case, for example, it would seem essential -- before reaching conclusions about her thinking on nativism and immigration --, to follow the lead of Jack Morgan and Louis A. Renza, in The Irish Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett (1996), by examining how she represents immigrants and immigration in her fiction.
By Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Annotated edition of the 1892 Atlantic Text
WIDE open and unguarded stand our gates,
Named of the four winds, North, South, East, and West;
Portals that lead to an enchanted land
Of cities, forests, fields of living gold,
Vast prairies, lordly summits touched with snow,
Majestic rivers sweeping proudly past
The Arab’s date-palm and the Norseman’s pine —
A realm wherein are fruits of every zone,
Airs of all climes, for lo! throughout the year
The red rose blossoms somewhere — a rich land,
A later Eden planted in the wilds,
With not an inch of earth within its bound
But if a slave’s foot press it sets him free! [ 1895 text: him free.]
Here, it is written, Toil shall have its wage,
And Honor honor, and the humblest man
Stand level with the highest in the law.
Of such a land have men in dungeons dreamed,
And with the vision brightening in their eyes
Gone smiling to the fagot and the sword.
Wide open and unguarded stand our gates, [ 1895 text: line is indented ]
And through them presses a wild motley throng —
Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes,
Featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho,
Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav,
Flying the Old World’s poverty and scorn;
These bringing with them unknown gods and rites,
Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.
In street and alley what strange tongues are these, [ 1895 text: are loud, ]
Accents of menace alien to our air,
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!
O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well
To leave the gates unguarded? On thy breast
Fold Sorrow’s children, soothe the hurts of fate,
Lift the down-trodden, but with hand of steel
Stay those who to thy sacred portals come
To waste the gifts of freedom. Have a care
Lest from thy brow the clustered stars be torn
And trampled in the dust. For so of old
The thronging Goth and Vandal trampled Rome,
And where the temples of the Cæsars stood
The lean wolf unmolested made her lair.
Thomas Bailey Aldrich
A later Eden: The Garden of Eden appears in Genesis 2-3, as a place of fruitfulness and comfort, and of an original innocence, in which God places Adam and Eve, the first people.
if a slave’s foot press it sets him free: Though slavery was legal and widely practiced throughout the United States from 1776 until 1863, Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the rebel states of the Confederacy during the Civil War (1860-1865), with his Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. After the Union won the Civil War, the thirteenth amendment to the Bill of Rights of the American Constitution abolished slavery in the United States in December 1865.
the humblest man / Stand level with the highest in the law: The United States government takes as one of its principles Thomas Jefferson's statement in The Declaration of Independence (1776) that "all men are created equal." In legal terms this means that all individuals are entitled to due process of the law regardless of their ancestry, wealth or social position. The motto on the front of the United States Supreme Court building (1932-5) reads: "Equal Justice Under Law."
Gone smiling to the fagot and the sword: Aldrich says that people have willingly given their lives as martyrs (death by fire or by sword) and, perhaps, risked their lives in armed conflict, in service of the vision of a land like the United States, where the gifts of freedom are available to all.
Wide open and unguarded stand our gates: Aldrich refers to the general policy of the United States that all immigrants may freely enter the country, a policy that began to erode at the end of the 19th century. In general, business interests resisted calls for restrictions on the grounds that free immigration insured a plentiful labor supply. Further, Americans had long thought America was uniquely defined by its open borders, as expressed in the sonnet by Emma Lazarus (1849-1877), "The New Colossus," that was placed on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty in 1903. The poem concludes:
"Give me your tired, your poor,However, in 1892, there were restrictions upon immigration, the main one being the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, renewed in 1892 and extended indefinitely in 1902. Encyclopedia Britannica says: "The Chinese Exclusion Act, formally Immigration Act of 1882, U.S. federal law that was the first and only major federal legislation to explicitly suspend immigration for a specific nationality. The basic exclusion law prohibited Chinese labourers—defined as “both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining”—from entering the country. Subsequent amendments to the law prevented Chinese labourers who had left the United States from returning. The passage of the act represented the outcome of years of racial hostility and anti-immigrant agitation by white Americans, set the precedent for later restrictions against immigration of other nationalities, and started a new era in which the United States changed from a country that welcomed almost all immigrants to a gate-keeping one."
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
John Higham, in Strangers in the Land (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1955) notes that the first serious immigration control law after 1882, passed in 1891, included authority to deport undesirables, to prevent their arrival, and to exclude certain categories of immigrants on grounds of health or morality (99). The Ellis Island immigration station was opened in 1892 to aid in enforcing these controls.
Volga and the Tartar steppes: Aldrich lists national and racial groups of people who came to the United States, "Flying the Old World’s poverty and scorn" and seeking the dreams of liberty, equality, and opportunity he describes in the first stanza.
The Volga is the principal river of Western Russia.
Tartar steppes: Britannica says "Tatar, also spelled Tartar, any member of several Turkic-speaking peoples that collectively numbered more than 5 million in the late 20th century and lived mainly in west-central Russia along the central course of the Volga River and its tributary, the Kama, and thence east to the Ural Mountains. The Tatars are also settled in Kazakhstan and, to a lesser extent, in western Siberia." Britannica identifies the steppe: "belt of grassland that extends some 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometres) from Hungary in the west through Ukraine and Central Asia to Manchuria in the east. Mountain ranges interrupt the steppe, dividing it into distinct segments; but horsemen could cross such barriers easily, so that steppe peoples could and did interact across the entire breadth of the Eurasian grassland throughout most of recorded history."
Featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho: Britannica: "Huang He, Wade-Giles romanization Huang Ho, also spelled Hwang Ho, English Yellow River, principal river of northern China, often called the cradle of Chinese civilization. It is the country’s second longest river, with a length of 3,395 miles (5,464 km), and its drainage basin is the third largest in China—an area of some 290,000 square miles (750,000 square km)."
In describing the Chinese as featureless, Aldrich apparently deploys the stereotype of the "inscrutable Oriental." In The Stillwater Tragedy (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1880), Aldrich presents a Chinese character who is described in Chapter 11 as a "featureless Celestial." In Chapter 17, he elaborates by saying that upon returning to the New England village of Stillwater after his laundry business was wrecked by strikers in his absence, he appears "with no more facial expression than an orange."
Malayan: Britannica identifies Malayans as "any member of an ethnic group of the Malay Peninsula and portions of adjacent islands of Southeast Asia, including the east coast of Sumatra, the coast of Borneo, and smaller islands that lie between these areas. The Malays speak various dialects belonging to the Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) family of languages."
Scythian: Britannica identifies the Scythians as members of "a nomadic people originally of Iranian stock who migrated from Central Asia to southern Russia in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. The Scythians founded a rich, powerful empire centred on what is now Crimea. The empire survived for several centuries before succumbing to the Sarmatians during the 4th century bce to the 2nd century CE. Much of what is known of the history of the Scythians comes from the account of them by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who visited their territory."
Teuton: Britannica says that Teuton is an alternate name for Germanic peoples, those Indo-Europeans who speak Germanic languages.
Kelt: Of Celtic languages, Britannica says: "also spelled Keltic, branch of the Indo-European language family, spoken throughout much of Western Europe in Roman and pre-Roman times and currently known chiefly in the British Isles and in the Brittany peninsula of northwestern France. On both geographic and chronological grounds, the languages fall into two divisions, usually known as Continental Celtic and Insular Celtic." The main western European language groups in the 19th century were Romance (Latin based), Germanic and Celtic. Modern Romance languages include Italian, French and Spanish. Modern Germanic languages include English, German and the Scandinavian languages. Aldrich's readers would certainly have identified the Irish as Celts, though most at that time were English speakers.
Slav: speakers of Slavic or Slavonic languages. Britannica says these Indo-European languages are "spoken in most of eastern Europe, much of the Balkans, parts of central Europe, and the northern part of Asia."
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew: Britannica summarizes the Biblical story from Genesis 11: 1–9. The account of its construction "appears to be an attempt to explain the existence of diverse human languages. According to Genesis, the Babylonians wanted to make a name for themselves by building a mighty city and a tower 'with its top in the heavens.' God disrupted the work by so confusing the language of the workers that they could no longer understand one another. The city was never completed, and the people were dispersed over the face of the earth."
O Liberty, white Goddess: While it would seem common sense to assume that Aldrich refers to the Statue of Liberty in this line, this allusion is problematic. While it is true that Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi's monumental sculpture on Liberty Island in New York City had been dedicated in 1886, that bronze sculpture would never have been white. However, there were many other popular images of versions of the Roman goddess Libertas that were white or in which she was depicted as dressed in white. Perhaps the most familiar image in the 21st century is the logo for Columbia Motion Pictures. Reasonably familiar to Aldrich and his contemporaries would have been the Enrico Causici statue of Liberty (1817), now in the National Statuary Hall; this depiction once stood behind the speaker's desk in the old chamber of the House of Representatives. Perhaps more familiar would have been Thomas Gast's 1872 painting that was widely distributed as a engraving.
Thomas Gast, "American Progress," 1872
Columbia Motion Pictures
waste the gifts of freedom: Aldrich has enumerated the gifts of American freedom in his first stanza: access to a rich land, where slavery is outlawed, where one's work is rewarded, where what is honorable is recognized, where all are equal before the law.
Lest from thy brow the clustered stars be torn: Representations of the Goddess Liberty with stars upon her brow also are abundant, though perhaps the best known of these also is bronze, Thomas Crawford's (1814–1857) "Statue of Freedom" which appears at the top of the Capitol dome in Washington, DC. In the Gast painting above, Liberty wears a single star upon her brow.
Goth and Vandal trampled Rome: Of the Goths, Britannica says they were: "a Germanic people whose two branches, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, for centuries harassed the Roman Empire. According to their own legend, reported by the mid-6th-century Gothic historian Jordanes, the Goths originated in southern Scandinavia and crossed in three ships under their king Berig to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, where they settled after defeating the Vandals and other Germanic peoples in that area. Tacitus states that the Goths at this time were distinguished by their round shields, their short swords, and their obedience toward their kings. Jordanes goes on to report that they migrated southward from the Vistula region under Filimer, the fifth king after Berig and, after various adventures, arrived at the Black Sea. This movement took place in the second half of the 2nd century CE, and it may have been pressure from the Goths that drove other Germanic peoples to exert heavy pressure on the Danubian frontier of the Roman Empire during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Throughout the 3rd century Gothic raids on the Roman provinces in Asia Minor and the Balkan peninsula were numerous, and in the reign of Aurelian (270–275) they obliged the Romans to evacuate the trans-Danubian province of Dacia.
Britannica describes the Vandals as "a Germanic people who maintained a kingdom in North Africa from ad 429 to 534 and who sacked Rome in 455."
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College
Copyright, November 2014