The First Lithuanian Immigrants in the United States: Their Image in the Jungle by U. Sinclair VS. Documentary Heritage of Their Culturalpublic Life at Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania.

January 15, 2015

Lithuania has recently seen the release of the sixth edition of the Jungle, a novel by the American novelist Upton Sinclair, portraying early twentieth century Chicago and the slaughterhouses in its suburbs in which emigrants from across Europe worked.

The main characters in the Jungle are Lithuanians working in Chicago’s slaughterhouses. They immigrated to the United States along with their large families and usually took hard and exhausting jobs, facing harsh living conditions. This novel is often presented as based on true events, claiming to be an authentic account of the history of Lithuanian emigrants, which reveals their quest for a better life and a better-paying job in a foreign land, which is relevant even today.

This latest edition of the Jungle includes a discussion between Sigita Pūkienė, the director of the publishing house “Aukso Žuvys” that brought the book to light, Giedrius Subačius, Lithuanian scholar and professor at University of Illinois, Chicago; Aurimas Švedas, the associate professor and historian at Vilnius University, and Valdas Adamkus, former President of the Republic of Lithuania. In this discussion, Valdas Adamkus, who had spent many years in the United States shared the following thoughts: “While reading this book, you will have a chance to experience the ‘primitive conditions’ which surrounded the Lithuanian community of that time. By ‘primitive conditions’, I primarily mean the overall cultural-intellectual level”.

However, an abundant collection of documents relating to Lithuanian expatriates dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, compiled by Aleksandras Račkus, a Lithuanian physician, numismatist, prominent cultural and public figure, kept in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of Martynas Mažvydas National Library, allows us to see the life of Lithuanian emigrants in the United States from a slightly different angle. The collection contains a number of documents from expatriate associations (over 800 document folders) including protocols, finance accounting books, receipt books, postcards, envelopes with associations’ emblems, and other marks, correspondence of the societies, and so on. The chronological range of the documents extends from 1892 to 1939.

Aleksandras Račkus, who had an avid interest in numismatics and museology, founded the Museum of the Lithuanian Society of Numismatics and History in 1917 in Chicago. Among the collectibles were documented Lithuanian records from the life of the Lithuanian emigrant community in the United States. In 1935, a part of the collection was donated to Lithuania. The personal stamp of A. Račkus as well the hand-written inventory number identifies the ownership of the aforementioned documents.

The first wave of immigrants from Lithuania to the United States in the late 19th century sought not only better-paying jobs or a better place to live, but also the opportunity to speak, read, and pray freely in their native language, and to join clubs of like-minded people. Lithuanians settling in a free country became actively engaged in cultural and civic activities and joined many different associations and societies. In Pennsylvania State alone, a total of 150 Lithuanian societies were active in the period between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Meanwhile, there were 25 Lithuanian societies in Chicago in the period portrayed in U. Sinclair’s novel. The majority of the first Lithuanian societies can be described as Catholic benevolent societies. It may partly be explained by the Lithuanian emigrants’ wish to help one another to settle in a foreign country, to provide and to receive financial aid in case of a disease, funeral or other circumstances.

Protocols of society meetings and finance books are one of the sources that help identify the financial situation of Lithuanian emigrants as well as their activities. The documents from Lithuanian expatriate societies contained in the Aleksandras Račkus collection provide an opportunity to extend the scope of the studies of the history of expatriate communities in the late 19th and early 20th century, to clarify existing information and to grain a fresh look at the history of Lithuanian emigrants.

Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, Aleksandras Račkus manuscript fund (F63)

Alma Masevičienė
Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania