What I Owe to America

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What I Owe to America

Book excerpt

By: Edward Bok

Date: 1921

Source: Bok, Edward. The Americanization of Edward Bok, Chapter 39. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1921.

About the Author: Edward Bok (1863–1930), a Dutch immigrant to the United States, was the editor of the Ladies' Home Journal for thirty years.


The editor and author Edward Bok came to America from the Netherlands in 1870 and quickly went from rags to riches. He demonstrated that an immigrant with no money and little formal education could succeed in the United States through hard work. Bok emphasized this notion through his writings.

Bok was born in Helder, Netherlands, in 1863, and settled in New York City upon his arrival in the United States in 1870. In 1876, he became an office boy for Western Union Telegraph. Later, he worked as a stenographer taking dictation at publisher Henry Holt and, later, for publisher Charles Scribner's Sons. In 1886, he founded the Bok Syndicate Press, which marketed a variety of feature articles to newspapers throughout the country. The syndicated "Bok page" was unique in that it featured articles by women writer's on women's interests. The success of this enterprise attracted the attention of publisher Cyrus Curtis, who invited Bok to become editor of his Ladies' Home Journal.

Bok spent thirty years at Ladies' Home Journal, becoming one of the most respected journalists in the nation. He introduced many innovations that later became standard in the field, including the advice-to-readers format, the polling of readers, and correspondence columns. Bok always emphasized that there was no such thing as luck. Immigrants could only succeed as he had done, through hard work, thrift, and absolute honesty. He was convinced that the business elite of the Gilded Age, such as John D. Rockefeller, owed their position to superior talent and he romanticized their achievements in the pages of his magazine. During the final years of his life, Bok devoted his energies to philanthropy. His autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. "What I Owe to America" is its concluding chapter.


Whatever shortcomings I may have found during my fifty-year period of Americanization; however America may have failed to help my transition from a foreigner into an American, I owe to her the most priceless gift that any nation can offer, and that is opportunity.

As the world stands to-day, no nation offers opportunity in the degree that America does to the foreign-born. Russia may, in the future, as I like to believe she will, prove a second United States of America in this respect. She has the same limitless area; her people the same potentialities. But, as things are to-day, the United States offers, as does no other nation, a limitless opportunity: here a man can go as far as his abilities will carry him. It may be that the foreign-born, as in my own case, must hold on to some of the ideals and ideas of the land of his birth; it may be that he must develop and mould his character by overcoming the habits resulting from national shortcomings. But into the best that the foreign-born can retain, America can graft such a wealth of inspiration, so high a national idealism, so great an opportunity for the highest endeavor, as to make him the fortunate man of the earth to-day.

He can go where he will: no traditions hamper him; no limitations are set except those within himself. The larger the area he chooses in which to work, the larger the vision he demonstrates, the more eager the people are to give support to his undertakings if they are convinced that he has their best welfare as his goal. There is no public confidence equal to that of the American public, once it is obtained. It is fickle, of course, as are all publics, but fickle only toward the man who cannot maintain an achieved success.

A man in America cannot complacently lean back upon victories won, as he can in the older European countries, and depend upon the glamour of the past to sustain him or the momentum of success to carry him. Probably the most alert public in the world, it requires of its leaders that they be alert. Its appetite for variety is insatiable, but its appreciation, when given, is fullhanded and whole-hearted. The American public never holds back from the man to whom it gives; it never bestows in a niggardly way; it gives all or nothing.

What is not generally understood of the American people is their wonderful idealism. Nothing so completely surprises the foreign-born as the discovery of this trait in the American character. The impression is current in European countries—perhaps less generally since the war—that America is given over solely to a worship of the American dollar. While between nations as between individuals, comparisons are valueless, it may not be amiss to say, from personal knowledge, that the Dutch worship the gulden infinitely more than do the Americans the dollar.

I do not claim that the American is always conscious of this idealism; often he is not. But let a great convulsion touching moral questions occur, and the result always shows how close to the surface is his idealism. And the fact that so frequently he puts over it a thick veneer of materialism does not affect its quality. The truest approach, the only approach in fact, to the American character is, as Viscount Bryce has so well said, through its idealism.

It is this quality which gives the truest inspiration to the foreign-born in his endeavor to serve the people of his adopted country. He is mentally sluggish, indeed, who does not discover that America will make good with him if he makes good with her.

But he must play fair. It is essentially the straight game that the true American plays, and he insists that you shall play it too. Evidence there is, of course, to the contrary in American life, experiences that seem to give ground for the belief that the man succeeds who is not scrupulous in playing his cards. But never is this true in the long run. Sooner or later—sometimes, unfortunately, later than sooner—the public discovers the trickery. In no other country in the world is the moral conception so clear and true as in America, and no people will give a larger and more permanent reward to the man whose effort for that public has its roots in honor and truth.

"The sky is the limit" to the foreign-born who comes to America endowed with honest endeavor, ceaseless industry, and the ability to carry through. In any honest endeavor, the way is wide open to the will to succeed. Every path beckons, every vista invites, every talent is called forth, and every efficient effort finds its due reward. In no land is the way so clear and so free.

How good an American has the process of Americanization made me? That I cannot say. Who can say that of himself? But when I look around me at the American-born I have come to know as my close friends, I wonder whether, after all, the foreign-born does not make in some sense a better American—whether he is not able to get a truer perspective; whether his is not the deeper desire to see America greater; whether he is not less content to let its faulty institutions be as they are; whether in seeing faults more clearly he does not make a more decided effort to have America reach those ideals or those fundamentals of his own land which he feels are in his nature, and the best of which he is anxious to graft into the character of his adopted land?

It is naturally with a feeling of deep satisfaction that I remember two Presidents of the United States considered me a sufficiently typical American to wish to send me to my native land as the accredited minister of my adopted country. And yet when I analyze the reasons for my choice in both these instances, I derive a deeper satisfaction from the fact that my strong desire to work in America for America led me to ask to be permitted to remain here.

It is this strong impulse that my Americanization has made the driving power of my life. And I ask no greater privilege than to be allowed to live to see my potential America become actual: the America that I like to think of as the America of Abraham Lincoln and of Theodore Roosevelt—not faultless, but less faulty. It is a part in trying to shape that America, and an opportunity to work in that America when it comes, that I ask in return for what I owe to her. A greater privilege no man could have.


Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1921 in the same year that The Americanization of Edward Bok was published. The legislation established annual quotas for each country outside of the Western Hemisphere. Three years later, Congress refined this legislation to severely limit immigration from eastern and southern European countries. Bok's book, although popular and well-respected, did not significantly change American attitudes toward immigration. While northern European Protestants, such as Bok, remained welcome, the golden door was slammed in the faces of all others.

Dutch immigrants were among the first to settle on American shores. They established a settlement in the Albany, New York, area in 1619—only a few years after British colonies founded Jamestown. After the colonial era, the peak years of Dutch immigration to the United States were 1830 to 1857, 1880 to 1893, 1900 to 1914, and 1945 to 1965. Most immigrants settled in rural areas of New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Prior to World War II, the Dutch government neither hindered nor encouraged emigration. After the war, which left the Netherlands devastated, the Netherlands' governent wanted people to leave, but immigration has remained small in comparison to other groups such as the Irish and Germans. Many of the Dutch immigrants matched Bok in initiative and drive. Dutch-American successes include Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt as well as their cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt; President Martin Van Buren; and millionaire railroad entrepreneur Cornelius Vanderbilt.



Krabbendam, Hans. The Model Man: A Life of Edward William Bok, 1863–1930. Amsterdam: Rodep, 2001.

Steinberg, Salme. Reformer in the Marketplace: Edward W. Bok and the Ladies' Home Journal. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1979.

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