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Alan Kraut's Life in History

By Angela Modany

Alan Kraut

University Professor Alan Kraut (Photo: Angela Modany)

It’s no coincidence that Alan Kraut became a historian, or that he chose to focus his studies on immigration in the United States, the topic of his upcoming book. His parents and hometown of New York all had a hand in putting him where he is today.

“My own forebearers were immigrants,” Kraut said. “When I was born, my family had been in this country for less than 40 years.”

Kraut, an AU history professor, affiliate faculty member in the School of International Service, and president-elect of the Organization of American Historians grew up in New York City, which he described as a “world of immigrants.”

“One of my friends once said when he and I grew up in New York, Europe was much closer,” he said. “What he meant was when you walked the streets, you heard different languages, you smelled foods from other countries. That made it a very rich experience, but it also interested me in how all this works for the United States.”

Kraut’s mother’s family was from Hungary and Prussia and his father’s family was from Poland. It was his father, a factory worker, who sparked his interest in history, which he talks about in a book he worked on with David Gerber coming out in 2013 called Ethnic Historians and the American Mainstream. Kraut said they asked historians to write articles based on personal experience about why they chose to study their field.

Kraut’s story recalls spending time with his father, when they would either go see the George Washington statue in front of Federal Hall and the George Washington museum above Fraunces Tavern, or the toy soldiers in the Macy’s toy department.

“Because we didn’t have much money, we couldn’t buy those toy soldiers, but we could look at them and talk about them, and the wars in which they participated,” he said. “That’s really where I got my first taste of history, in the museums and in the parts of New York City when we would walk together.”

Now, years later, Kraut is combining that love of history and interest in immigration into a book: Forget Your Past: Negotiating Identity, Becoming American.

“The idea of the book is that after we have a big wave of immigration, there are a number of years during which people become integrated into American society,” he said. “It’s that process of integration of immigrants and their children that fascinates me.”

The book will look at three different time periods, from the 1850s to the present. Kraut said in each era he wants to look at how people negotiate their place in American society, what they give up, and what they retain.

Although immigration is not currently at its highest level ever, Kraut said 38 million foreign-born people in the United States makes immigrant integration a very important issue.

“People are interested and want to know how did we do this before,” he said. “Only a historian can say how we did it in the past.”

One way immigrants past and present have integrated themselves is by changing their foreign names to something in English.

“One summer I worked with a young man who came from Vietnam, and his name was a real tongue twister,” Kraut said. “He was an engineering student in Florida, but he took summer jobs in New York. Every summer, he took the name of a different celebrity. The summer I worked with him, he was calling himself Jerry Lewis.”

Besides changing names, immigrants sometimes also undergo surgery to change their appearance and immerse themselves in American culture through television and sports.

“Sports are very important in America,” Kraut said. “There was a great cultural historian named Jacques Barzun, and he wrote once, ‘To understand America, you must understand baseball,’ because it’s reflective of American values.”

Kraut said he’s been wanting to work on this book for years, and will take next year off to do so. Now is the appropriate time for the book because the country is always getting new immigrants, he added.

“They’re going to be your neighbors. They’re going to be the people that work with you and for you, or whom you work for,” he said. “They pay taxes. Shouldn’t we be concerned about integrating them into society?”