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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: People: Assimilation and the Crucible of the City
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: People
Text 1. The American Metropolis
Text 2. Coney Island
Text 3. Horatio Alger, Jr., Ragged Dick
Text 4. Lewis W. Hine photographs
Text 5. Jacob Riis, How the Other Lives
Text 6. Anzia Yezierska, Russians
Text 7. Two Wives
Text 8. Lee Chew, The Biography of a Chinaman
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Text 9. Exclusion
Text 10. Zitkala-Sa, Native Americans

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Reading Guide
Boarding pass, 1911
Boarding pass, 1911
Lee Chew, "The Biography of a Chinaman," Independent, 19 February 1903

Between 1902 and 1906 Independent magazine ran a series of autobiographical "lifelets" of "undistinguished Americans." Lee Chew, a Chinese immigrant, wrote one of them. Life in his village in China was sheltered, ordered, and precise. From the elders he learned about the Western "foreign devils," who were false and vulgar. Yet they possessed many things that, even though evil, because not Chinese, were nonetheless wonderful. One day a villager who had spent many years in America returned and with the "unlimited" wealth he acquired while away built a "paradise." This so moves Lee that he emigrates to America to become wealthy himself. In this sketch he tells of his slow, steady rise but also of the disappointments and insults he suffered and finally of the alienation he feels toward his adopted country. Could be profitably used with students. 7 pages.

Note: Wu-Ting-Fang was a Chinese diplomat who served in this country in the early twentieth century. He wrote America through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat.

Discussion questions
  1. What role do cities play in Chew's life in America?
  2. Compare the "outsider" experience as portrayed by Yezierska, Cahan, and Chesnutt to its portrayal by Chew.
  3. Compare their treatment of food, clothing, and hygiene among the four authors.
  4. What is Chew's attitude toward his past life in China? Why is return an option for him and not for Yezierska's, Cahan's, and Chesnutt's protagonists?
  5. What has Chew lost in coming to America? What has he gained?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  How was the American cultural mainstream defined at this time?
  •  What messages and strategies of socialization did the government and other culture brokers extend to immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans during this period?
  •  What benefits and costs for these groups were associated with a strategy of assimilation?
  •  How did the city function as a site of assimilation?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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Revised: May 2005