William I. Thomas - The Person
by Lewis A. Coser
From: Lewis A. Coser  Masters of Sociological Thought:
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Thomas was born in Russell County, an isolated region of old Virginia, on August 13, 1863. His father, Thadeus Peter Thomas, combined preaching in a Methodist church with farming. His son said that the social environment in which he grew up, twenty miles from the nearest railroad, resembled that of the eighteenth century. He felt that in his subsequent moves to a southern university town and later to the metropolitan cities of the Middle West and the North he had lived in three centuries, migrating gradually to the higher cultural areas.
That this became possible, Thomas stated, was due to some obscure decision on the part of my father to attend an institutionof learning — Emory and Henry College, Virginia. His fathers father, Thomass grandfather, was a stubborn Pennsylvania Dutchman, rich in land but with narrow peasant prejudices against cultural pursuits. He opposed his sons search for booklearning and punished him by sharply reducing his inheritance and forcing him to take up farming in an undesirable geographical location and on poor and marginal soil.
Thomass father, however, remained deeply attached to the idea of learning. When he realized that his seven children had no adequateeducational opportunities in the provincial backwater where hewas making a poor living, he moved with his family to Knoxville,Tennessee, the seat of the state university.
Young Thomas spent his childhood and early adolescence with the mountain people, sharing their passionate interest in shooting and hunting. My zeal for this, he writes, was fanatical. I reckon that I passed no less than seven years of my youth in the woods alone with a rifle, without a dog, shooting at a mark, regretting the disappearance of large game and the passing of the Indian and of pioneer life. There exists no record of the impact that the new urban environment of Knoxville must have made on the young mountain boy, but it would seem that he managed the cultural transition without experiencing a major shock. Having enrolled at the University of Tennessee in 1880 and majoring in literature and the classics, Thomas soon became a leader among the undergraduates, excelling not only scholastically but socially as the big man on campus. He won honors in oratory, became president of the most prestigious literary society, and at the same time captained the universitys officer training unit.
During his first two years at the University, Thomass zest for learning was less than conspicuous. But after that, under the influence of two teachers, Professors Alexander and Nicholson (the first a Greek scholar, the latter a devoted Darwinian who taught zoology, geology, and other natural sciences), Thomas decided to become a scholar. I recall, he has written, that on a hot August day in the summer vacation, between the sophomore and the junior year, I had a conversion. After some … profound reflection I determined that I was to go in for scholarship. This decision taken, he immediately paid a visit to Professor Alexander and announced his life plan. He also recalls that soon afterward, impressed by German scholarship, he resolved to seek further enlightenment in German universities. (At the time, it was generally assumed that German universities provided graduate instruction vastly superior to what was available in America. Hence, young academics were motivated by values and attitudes to study in Germany.) When friends inquired about his future career, he replied: I am going to Germany. But that time was not yet. After graduation he stayed on at the University as an instructor, teaching Greek, Latin, German, French — most of them, as he later admitted, rather inadequately. Now carrying the honorific title of Adjunct Professor, he was also entrusted with instruction in natural history. The new fangled idea of specialization, it would seem, had not yet reached the University of Tennessee.
Throughout this period, the eager and ambitious young instructor never abandoned the idea of going to Germany. He finally obtained a leave of absence for a years study and spent the academic year 1888-89 at Berlin and Göttingen. This year was decisive in determining his future intellectual orientation. It was in Germany that his interests changed from natural history and philology to ethnography, although this interest was not entirely new. Already at Tennessee reports of the Bureau of Ethnology had come to his attention. Moreover, as an adolescent he had roved over the Cumberlands and the Smoky Mountains in search of game, and, as he noted in his autobiographical sketch, he had later collected a list of about 300 Chaucerian and Shakespearian words surviving in the speech of the mountaineers. These early interests led him in Germany to immerse himself in the writings of the German folk psychologists Lazarus and Steinthal and to pay close attention to Wilhelm Wundts Völkerpsychologie. At the same time he attended courses in old English, old French, and old German, given by some of the leading German experts in these fields; he also continued his study of Greek culture under the great German classicist Wilamowitz.
Returning from Germany, his cultural horizons having been decisively broadened, he resolved not to go back to the University of Tennessee, and instead accepted a professorship in English at Oberlin. This was a traditional subject, to be sure, but Thomas taught it mainly within a comparative framework. His concern with ethnography also led him to a careful perusal of Herbert Spencers Principles of Sociology and to further comparative studies suggested by Spencer. His three years at Oberlin were among the most satisfactory of his life. I was not at that time sufficiently irreligious, he noted later, to be completely out of place, and yet a sufficient innovation to be a novelty.
Nevertheless, when the news reached him of the opening of the first American Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, he gave up what looked like an established career at Oberlin to become a graduate student at Chicago. Though attracted by the departments offerings in sociology and anthropology, Thomas took relatively few formal courses in the department doing most of his work in courses marginal to sociology, including biology, physiology, and brain anatomy. Although he paid but scarce attentionto his directors of study, Albion Small and Charles Henderson, and seemed more inclined to explore the city of Chicago than the departmental library, Thomas must clearly have impressed his mentors. After only one year in residence he was invited to offer his first course in sociology in the summer of 1894. In 1895 he served as an instructor, and in the following year, having completed his doctoral work (his thesis was entitled On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes), he became an assistant professor. In 1900 he was promoted to associate professor, and in 1910, having by this time assumed a prominent position in the department, he became a full professor.
While Albion Smalls teaching focused on theoretical issues and historical data, and Charles Hendersons on social problems and their remedies, Thomass interest was mainly in ethnographic and comparative studies. At that time the Chicago Department was a joint department of sociology and anthropology, and Thomas offered courses in what today would be called cultural and physical anthropology. In line with this orientation he returned to Europe immediately after receiving his doctoral degree to visit a variety of cultural settings. He travelled as far as the Volga, preparing to write a comparative study of European nationalities. This project was shelved, but he returned to it around 1909 when he revisited Europe for the purpose of studying peasant backgrounds with reference to the problem of immigration.
In 1908, Helen Culver, heiress of the founder of Hull House, offered Thomas $50,000 to study problems of immigration. For the next ten years he directed the Helen Culver Fund for Race Psychology, which enabled him to finance the studies that eventually led to the publication of The Polish Peasant. Without this generous endowment it is unlikely that the work would ever have been published.It enabled Thomas to make a number of trips to Poland in search of pertinent materials and also covered other research expenses.
Thomas had originally planned to study a variety of Eastern European immigrant groups, but he gave this up as being too ambitious an undertaking. He focused instead on the Poles, the largest and most visible ethnic group in Chicago, who seemed to be beset by a number of social problems, from family disorganization to crime. It is also likely that this son of a southern rural minister had some special sympathy for the uprooted sons and daughters of Polish villagers struggling to find a foothold in the urban jungles of metropolitan Chicago.
After deciding to concentrate his study on the Polish community, Thomas, befitting his ethnographical training and following established procedures among anthropologists, mastered the Polish language. He then set out to develop extensive contacts with the Polish community in Chicago, as well as to take field trips to Poland. At that point, Thomas still used methods that had been developed in studies of nonliterate peoples and did not yet think of gathering written information.
One rainy morning, while walking down the back alley behind hishouse, Thomas had to side-step to avoid a bag of garbage which someone was throwing from a window. As the bag burst open at his feet, a long letter fell out. He picked it up, took it home, and discovered that it was written in Polish by a girl taking a training course in a hospital. It was addressed to her father and mainly discussed family affairs and discords. It then occurred to Thomas that one could learn a great deal from such letters. This was the unlikely accident that led to Thomass development of the life-history method for which he has since become famous. Letno one be tempted to interpret the incident as confirmation ofthe "accidental theory of history." It took a very peculiar kind of man with very special gifts and training to pay attention to a bag of garbage thrown at his feet.
For more than a decade after this incident, Thomas moved back and forth between the Chicago Polish community and communities in the old country to gather written materials to supplement oral information. The 2,244 pages of the final work are largely given to the reproduction of these materials. Thomas used 754 letters acquired through an advertisement in a Chicago Polish-language journal, apparently offering 10 to 20 cents for any letter received from Poland. He used some 8,000 documents bought from the archives of a Polish newspaper that he approached during a visit to that country in 1909-10. He also used data and documents from Polish parish histories in Chicago, from immigrant organizations, from the files of charitable and legal aid associations, and from diaries of Polish immigrants (for which he paid the authors).
During his trip to Poland in 1913, Thomas met the Director of the Polish Emigrants Protective Association, Florian Znaniecki, a young philosopher who was not allowed to teach in Russian-dominated Poland because of his commitment to the idea of Polish nationalism. Znaniecki proved to have a wide knowledge of Polish peasant life — a rarity among members of Polands gentry intelligentsia. The materials he collected for Thomas from the archives of the Polish Emigrants Protective Association proved invaluable. A year later, when WorldWar I broke out and Germany invaded Poland, Znaniecki left his home country and went to see Thomas at Chicago. It is not entirely clear whether Thomas had formally invited him or not, but the important fact is that Thomas asked him immediately to join his project as a research worker. Soon thereafter Znaniecki became his co-author, working closely together with him until the completion of the monumental work.
During the many years of preparation for the book, Thomas and his wife Harriet Park, whom he had married in 1888, actively participated in the social and intellectual life of Chicago. They had close connections with various social work agencies and were identified with many of the social-reform activities described in earlier chapters of this book. At times, Thomass advanced viewson such social problems as crime and delinquency did not suit the established powers. The Chicago Vice Commission, for example,which was set up by well-meaning but timid establishmentariansouls, seemed to recoil in horror at some of the progressive suggestions of Thomas, who had done considerable research work for the Commissions use. Not only Thomass views, but also his life-style offended some of the bien pensants. He certainly did not conform to the image, prevalent at the time of a staid and withdrawn academic. He dressed well, enjoyed the company of attractive women, mixed in bohemian quarters, and dined in posh restaurants as well as local dives. He was, as they say, a controversial figure. His unfashionable ideas and flamboyant life-style made him attractive to students but also aroused a good deal of animosity, even enmity, among the more settled denizens of the faculty club and administration building.
In 1918, those who had been secretly gunning for him finally had an occasion to move in for the kill. The Chicago Tribune, which had long been perturbed by the unsound ideas of professors at the University, announced one day in big headlines that Thomas had been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The charges? Alleged violation of the Mann Act (which forbade the transport of young women across state lines for immoral purposes) and false hotel registration. These charges were later thrown out of court, but in the meantime the publicity had been extensive, especially since the lady with whom he was involved, one Mrs. Granger, reported that she was the wife of an army officer then serving with the American forces in France. Why the F.B.I. got involved in this case is unclear, but it has been suggested that Thomass wife was under surveillance for her pacifist activities and that the F.B.I. might have thought it expedient to discredit the husband so as to humiliate the wife. While such an interpretation might have seemed farfetched a few years ago, it does not seem so now.
What followed constitutes one of the shameful chapters in the history of American universities. The president of the University of Chicago, Henry Pratt Judson, supported by the trustees, moved immediately to dismiss Thomas. Albion Small, the chairman of his department, offered no public defense, although he made some private moves to protect Thomas and wept in his office over the loss of his prize student and colleague. There was no faculty protest and hardly a voice was raised from the ranks of Thomass immediate colleagues. Everett Hughes writes me that this could not have happened at Harvard. No Boston paper would have mentioned an incident involving a Harvard professor. Chicago was too parvenu to control the papers. (Personal communication, April 12, I976.)
Thomass career was shattered at the age of 55, and he never again was given a permanent position at any university. The University of Chicago Press, which had issued the first two volumes of The Polish Peasant, broke its contract with the authors and refused to publish the succeeding volumes (which were later issued by an obscure house, Richard G. Badger of Boston). Despite his twenty years services, the University of Chicago and its minions did everything possible to drop his name into an Orwellian memory hole. Even the University of Chicago archives contain nothing to remind one of Thomas, except for a few administrative letters.
The Carnegie Foundation behaved just as badly. It had earlier commissioned Thomas to write a volume in their Americanization Studies series. When, after the unfortunate incident, the manuscript, Old World Traits Transplanted, was delivered, the Foundation insisted that Thomass name not appear as the author; the book was published under the names of Robert E. Park and H.A. Miller, who had done some minor work on the volume. Only in that way could the reputation of the Foundation and of the social sciences be protected. A recommendation for Thomass appointment to the staff was vetoed by the directors. It was a famous victory for the philistines.
After the Chicago disaster Thomas moved to New York. He lectured for a number of years at the New School for Social Research, then a haven for such unconventional scholars as Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard, and Harold Laski, but at that time it was nonetheless a marginal academic institution. In 1936-37 Pitirim Sorokin, one maverick recognizing another, appointed him to a visiting lectureship on the Harvard faculty, where he was lionized by the graduate students and instructors. This was his last academic position.
During the New York years, Thomas, despite his public hounding, nevertheless was able to do a good deal of research, much of it sponsored by Mrs. W. F. Dummer of Chicago, a wealthy woman philanthropist who never faltered in her support of him. In later years he also received grants from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial and the Bureau of Social Hygiene. In the late thirties he served for a while as a staff member of the Social Science Research Council and was closely associated with the Social Science Institute of the University of Stockholm.
Thus, even without a regular university appointment Thomas was given the opportunity to continue his research. Yet the philistines did not relent easily. When some of the Young Turks of sociology, backed by Robert Park, argued in 1926 that it was high time that Thomas be offered the presidency of the American Sociological Society, leading sociologists, among them the ministerial Charles A. Ellwood, argued that this would be inappropriate and would sully the honor of American sociology. When his name was entered for nomination, the old guard sought to find an appropriate candidate to defeat him. Thomas considered with drawing his name under these circumstances and was only persuaded to stay in the race by Ernest Burgess who assured him that the Young Turks, Louis Wirth, George Lundberg, Stuart Chapin, Stuart Rice, Kimball Young and others, would mobilize their younger colleagues on his behalf. They did, and he won by a wide margin.
Despite his trials and tribulations, Thomas, the dirt farmers tough son from the Virginia hills, seems never to have been discouraged. His zest for life stood him in good stead. He managed to cope with whatever problem he tackled, in work or in private life. Earlier in his career, when he was dissatisfied with the finish on his dining table, he invented a better furniture polish. Later, disliking his inferior golf balls, he invented a better one — and enjoyed the proceeds of his patent. In 1935, after his first marriage had broken up, the seventy-two-year-old man married his thirty-six-year-old research associate Dorothy Swaine, who later became a leading student of demography and the first woman president of the American Sociological Society. Nothing in his life, and a rocky life it was, could defeat William I. Thomas. Even in his last years of semiretirement he continued his research in New Haven and Berkeley. He died at the age of 84 in December 1947.
dr. Albert Benschop
Social & Behavioral Studies
University of Amsterdam
|Last modified||22nd January, 2017|