Migrant Knowledge

‘The Book That Would Not Die’

William Foote Whyte’s study of Italian immigrants in the North End of Boston was not particularly successful after its release in 1943. In the years after 1970, though, Street Corner Society garnered great success and became, in the words of its author, “the book that would not die.”1 Paradoxically, specialists in Italian American studies found little to love in the book. Here I argue that a hidden history of gender and ethnic dynamics in the academic production of knowledge can explain the paradox. In the book’s second edition, revised and expanded, Whyte’s ethnographic methods, his penchant for story-telling, and his personal reflections on research provided beginning students in sociology an accessible introduction to qualitative methods in an increasingly quantitative discipline. Specialists, by contrast, saw Whyte choosing to study a depression-era immigrant community in Boston’s North End not out of any interest in immigration or Italian immigrants but as a typical and conveniently located slum—a foil for dated theoretical debates.

William Foote Whyte was a second-generation academic, his father being a professor of German. By the time he was born in 1914, the study of immigrants in American cities was well advanced. Male and female researchers associated with settlement house reformers (for example, at Jane Addams’s Chicago Hull House), the University of Chicago’s School of Social Administration (founded in 1903), and New York’s Russell Sage Foundation (established in 1907) had lived and worked among immigrants, developing survey methods and also publishing richly detailed case studies of immigrant women, children, families, and communities.2 When Whyte graduated from Swarthmore College in 1936 and moved to Cambridge as a Harvard fellow, empowered to undertake research on a topic of his own choosing, the work of these earlier researchers was under critique from sociologists at the University of Chicago, who theorized immigrants rather abstractly as marginal men disorganized both individually and socially by their move from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft. One result of shifting intellectual preferences was the gradual exclusion of female PhDs from the academy; their work on immigration was increasingly dismissed as either biased by advocacy or insufficiently theoretical. At Harvard, Whyte understandably proposed research that would depart from surveys (which he dismissed as descriptive) and from theoretical studies of “undifferentiated members of ‘the masses'” (xvi). Whyte may not have been aware of the gendering of changing scholarship, but one of his Harvard mentor’s revealed himself when he advised Whyte in highly gendered terms against adopting the model (unrealistic for a single researcher) of an ambitious “ten-man” survey. Such a survey of Greenwich Village’s Italian immigrants and bohemians—undertaken by a team of male and female researchers—had just been published in 1935 by Vassar cultural historian Caroline Ware.3

Encouraged by Harvard anthropologist Conrad Arensberg, Whyte sought out a typical slum to begin a community study. He would live there as a participant observer. By the time he relocated to Chicago in 1940 to begin a PhD in sociology, Street Corner Society was already fully drafted. It introduced readers to two circles of men in their twenties—the “corner boys,” led by Doc, and the “college boys,” also immigrants, led by Chick. These were no gangs (although Whyte called them that) of juvenile delinquents but young adults who passed their free time together and who became Whyte’s friends. Analyzing racketeering and politics, Street Corner Society portrayed the corner boys and local “big shots” organizing a community in ways Americans found alien and threatening. Submitting his manuscript as a dissertation, Whyte knew it would provoke the Chicago theorists, who saw criminality as a product of the disorganization characteristic of immigrant slums. When objections were raised at his 1943 defense, Whyte’s PhD committee required him to prepare a literature review. Loathe to burden his accessibly written manuscript, Whyte published the reviews and other materials excluded from Street Corner Society in academic journals.4

During his Chicago years, Whyte personally experienced the ongoing exclusion of women researchers. In 1941, anthropologist Robert Redfield had shared with Whyte a copy of a manuscript written by Redfield’s graduate school colleague, Charlotte Gower. Gower had completed a Chicago PhD in anthropology before undertaking field work in Sicily. Gower and Redfield had both seen ethnography in migrants’ homelands as a means to establishing “baselines” for the assessment of immigrants’ urban adjustments. Redfield immediately became a prominent Chicago professor, while Gower saw her manuscript, supposedly vetted by Redfield, twice rejected for publication. She quickly lost her position at the University of Wisconsin and moved to southern China to work. At the time Redfield shared her work with Whyte, Gower had been imprisoned by Japanese invaders; she and her friends believed her manuscript had been lost after delivery to a colleague in the UK. According to one account, Gower’s Wisconsin colleague Ralph Linton had already borrowed, without citation, from Gower’s highly original manuscript, “Sex and Age,” to structure two published articles.5 In 1943, his dissertation completed, Whyte himself published an article on the “sex code” of the corner boys, though we cannot know if his inspiration was Linton or Gower.

In a second 1943 article, “Peasant Society in Sicily,” Whyte explicitly acknowledged his debt to Gower. He praised Gower’s description of village social structure as providing a valuable baseline for his own work. But he also claimed to have developed his analysis from four volumes published early in the century by Sicilian folklorist Giuseppe Pitrè. A full assessment of that claim is impossible as Whyte’s article, in the flagship American Anthropologist, included only four footnotes. Because I am familiar with both Gower’s manuscript and Pitrè’s volumes (which catalogued material culture, rituals, stories, proverbs, and songs), I conclude that Whyte adopted the overall structure and details of his analysis from Gower. Whyte’s follow-up note to Redfield also provides direct evidence of male scholars casually excluding women’s work. Whyte praised Gower’s analysis of social structure but compared her work unfavorably to recent work by male anthropologists, expressing disappointment with the “diffuse” nature of her material and with the absence of both statistical detail and “personal material.”6

Unhappy when a university press editor required him to make substantial cuts for the first edition of Street Corner Society, Whyte reinserted stories and voices of the corner boys into the book’s second edition, and he appended personal reflections on participant observation and the making of the book. Only with this 1955 edition did sales explode. By then, however, Whyte had recovered from polio, shifted his scholarly focus, and moved to Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Although he remained a storyteller willing to discuss what is today called positionality, he never again wrote about Italian immigrants, and he almost never engaged with the new scholarship on Italian immigrants that began to explode in the 1970s.7

As one of those new scholars, I can report not being much impressed when I first read Street Corner Society in the early 1970s. The book richly described male sociability but left the corner boys completely unconnected to family and community life. In contrast to Whyte’s study, new scholarship by upwardly mobile Italian American scholars, many of them female, rediscovered the earliest studies of immigrant family and community, making Whyte’s silence on the subject a fatal flaw. Even studies of Italian American crime criticized Street Corner Society for ignoring the relationship between family and criminality.8 Ironically, Charlotte Gower’s manuscript became a prized source in the newer scholarship after a Chicago Anthropology student, Australian Constance Cronin, found it in departmental files in Chicago and arranged for its publication in 1971. By then, Charlotte Gower Chapman had married and changed her name, and had been working for two decades at the CIA. Over twenty studies subsequently revisited the village Chapman had studied.

In the 1955 second edition, Whyte admitted that ignoring family and religion had weakened Street Corner Society. He knew readers might find it inconceivable that “one could write a study of Cornerville without discussing the family.” But he excused himself, saying he had done “no systematic work upon the family,” despite having lived with and learned Italian from a restaurant family during his early months on the North End. He claimed “I was at a loss as to how to proceed in tying family studies” to the main themes of Street Corner Society. Newer scholars of Italian American life easily identified such ties. Whyte’s corner boys were adult, unemployed men, living with and financially dependent on parents and married sisters. They had failed to achieve their community’s ideal of married adult masculinity, so a sense of failure haunted their perspectives on recreation, sex, local and “outside” girls, dating and courtship. It also colored their connections to racketeers and politician “big shots” who might offer employment. Once Whyte admitted the importance of family, he felt he also had to “confess” that “for quite unscientific reasons, I have always found politics, rackets, and gangs more interesting than the basic unit of human society” (324). Whyte’s “unscientific reasons” reflected his positionality, notably his gender and ethnicity.

Like all men of his generation, Whyte worked at a university struggling with new dynamics of gender, race, and ethnicity. Unlike other male scholars, Whyte reflected on some of these in his 1994 memoir, Participant Observation. Women had joined Whyte’s first post-dissertation research team, and he confessed to retrospective embarrassment about the sexism of titling his 1961 book Men at Work; the study analyzed female workers and supervisors in the restaurant industry among other workers.9 But while describing in detail his successful navigation of fraught relations with Cornell’s Black students during the 1960s,10 Whyte seemed less comfortable reporting that a favored female PhD student had rejected co-authoring with him a book about the worker-directed plant they had both studied. Ultimately, the student published her book with a Canadian press; Whyte’s Making Mondragon, co-authored with his wife,11 obtained a much wider readership.

Most upsetting for Whyte was a critique of Street Corner Society launched by the Dutch student W.A. Marianne Boelen, whose 1971 Columbia Sociology MA thesis revisited Boston’s North End and disputed Whyte’s portrait of the corner boys as a gang with criminal connections, unconnected to family and living in a slum. In the late 1980s, The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography organized a special issue in which Whyte deemed Boelen’s article a “sloppy hatchet job.” His response was a convincing and thorough, if bland review of evidence from his files. In his memoir, Whyte admitted to the controversy’s emotional impact and expressed a desire to “get even.”12 But it was Whyte’s North End co-researcher, Angelo (Ralph) Orlandella who took up the hatchet in the special issue. His response was “Boelen May Know Holland, Boelen May Know Barzini, but Boelen ‘Doesn’t know Diddle about the North End.'”13 Aside from noting Orlandella’s ad hominem attack on a marginal female graduate student, I found little new in the special issue. Variations in viewpoint and interpretation are routine when participant observers return to another scholar’s field site, as one detailed assessment of revisits to Charlotte Gower Chapman’s site makes clear.14

The controversy over Street Corner Society does, however, point to ways the scholarly world had—and had not—changed during Whyte’s lifetime. In the 1970s, Chapman had reported improbably to a graduate program survey that her sex had caused her no disadvantages. By the 1990s, women were again a sizable group of scholars, and they were more aware of past exclusions. Overall, William Foote Whyte’s admirable penchant for self-reflection served him well in confronting the changing university. Still, as a respected retiree, Whyte possessed considerable power to “get even.” His understandable and enthusiastic participation in fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Street Corner Society’s publication allowed him to tackle (and reject) the uncomfortable intellectual challenge of postmodernism, to which he attributed the Boelen controversy, without ever addressing the vast scholarly literature on Italian American Studies that ignored the book. To my knowledge, Ralph Orlandella was the only Italian American celebrating it alongside his mentor.


Donna R. Gabaccia is Professor Emerita of History at the University of Toronto. Her many books include Gender and Migration: From the Slavery Era to the Global Age (co-authored with Katharine Donato); Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective; and We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Her Twitter handle is @drg1949.

  1. Quotation: William Foote Whyte, Participant Observer: An Autobiography (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1994), chap. 41. The book in question: William Foote Whyte, Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1943). Still in print, the book saw a second edition in 1955, a third in 1981, and a fourth 1993. All parenthetical citations in this article reference the third edition. ↩︎
  2. Mary Jo Deegan, Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892–1918 (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1988). ↩︎
  3. Caroline Ware, Greenwich Village, 1920–1930: A Comment on American Civilization in the Post-War Years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935). ↩︎
  4. “Social Organization in the Slums,” American Sociological Review 8, no. 1 (February 1943): 34–39; “Instruction and Research: A Challenge to Political Scientists,” American Political Science Review 37, no. 4 (August 1943): 692–97; “A Slum Sex Code,” American Journal of Sociology 49, 1 (July 1943): 24-31; “Sicilian Peasant Society,” American Anthropologist, n.s., 46 (January/March 1944): 65–74. ↩︎
  5. Maria Lepowsky, “Charlotte Gower Chapman and the Subterranean History of Anthropology,” in Excluded Ancestors, Inventible Traditions: Essays toward a More Inclusive History of Anthropology, ed. Richard Handler (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 123–70, here 149. ↩︎
  6. Lepowsky, “Charlotte Gower Chapman,” 152. ↩︎
  7. Whyte and one of the Corner Boys did publish short memoirs of their relationship in ItalianAmericana 13, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 166–87. ↩︎
  8. Scholars revisiting the North End were more attentive to family and community. See Anna Maria Martellone, Una Little Italy nell’Atene d’America (Naples: Guida, 1973); William M. DeMarco, Ethnics and Enclaves: Boston’s North End (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981); Herbert Gans, The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1962). See also Constance Cronin, The Sting of Change: Sicilians in Sicily and Australia (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Charlotte Gower Chapman, Milocca, A Sicilian Village (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1971); Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, Family and Community: Italian Immigrants in Buffalo, 1880–1930 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977). On criminality, see Francis A.J. Ianni and Elizabeth Reuss Ianni, Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1972); Humbert S. Nelli, The Business of Crime: Italians and Syndicate Crime in the United States (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981). ↩︎
  9. Whyte, Participant Observer, 255. ↩︎
  10. Whyte, Participant Observer, 258–62. ↩︎
  11. Whyte, Participant Observer, 278–80. ↩︎
  12. Whyte, Participant Observer, 323. ↩︎
  13. “Street Corner Society Revisited: New Questions about Old Issues,” ed. Patricia Adler, Peter Adler, and John Johnson, special issue, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 21, no. 1 (April 1992). “Barzini” is presumably a reference to a character in Mario Puzo’s bestselling mafia novel, The Godfather. ↩︎
  14. Sam Migliore, Margaret Dorazio-Migliore, and Vincenzo Ingrascì, “Living Memory: Milocca’s Charlotte Gower Chapman,” http://www.messana.org/MILOCCA/living-memory.htm, undated (archived at Wayback Machine, November 13, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20201113180347/http://www.messana.org/MILOCCA/living-memory.htm). ↩︎

Suggested citation: Donna R. Gabaccia, "‘The Book That Would Not Die’," Migrant Knowledge, November 13, 2020, https://migrantknowledge.org/2020/11/13/the-book-that-would-not-die/.
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