Historian Dominic A. Pacyga grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a working class Polish family. His grandparents had moved to the United States before World War I and Dominic heard the sounds of the Polish language and celebrated Polish customs throughout his early life. So it comes as no surprise that Pacyga’s newest book, American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago, focuses on the Polish immigrant experience in Chicago. Pacyga’s family lived it, and now he’s sharing their story. Which is also the story of many immigrants past, present and future.
We spoke with Pacyga about American Warsaw, his writing process, and similarities between past immigrants and the modern immigrant experience. Read on to learn more and then hear from Pacyga on December 10 at the American Writers Museum as part of our My America program series. He’ll read from and discuss the book alongside special guest Sara Paretsky, bestselling writer and fellow Polish-American. RSVP to Pacyga’s December 10 event here.
AMERICAN WRITERS MUSEUM: What made you want to write this book in the first place?
DOMINIC A. PACYGA: Well you know, I’m a historian and I write about Chicago and I write about the Polish immigrant experience, so this was a natural for me. I like to call it sort of closing circles. Lots of research that I began earlier in my career bore fruit in this book. And it was important for me to try to write an overview of Polish American history in Chicago. No one had done that as of yet. And so I felt this was a book that was needed. And I often tell my students, sometimes you pick your topic and sometimes your topic picks you. And of course I grew up in the community so in a way it picked me.
AWM: I’m surprised to hear that no one’s written an overview of Polish history in Chicago.
PACYGA: Yeah. The last book I did was called Slaughterhouse, a history of the Chicago stockyards. And I also worked in a stockyard as a kid, worked my way through college. This was an overview of what happened there too and nobody had done that either. It’s just kind of my way of trying to put things to, for lack of a better word, to bed. Complete the story.
AWM: I know you wrote a whole book about it, but how would you characterize Polish history in Chicago?
PACYGA: Well there’s some basic themes that run throughout. One of the themes is the idea of Polishness. What is Polishness? How is it defined? How does that definition change over time? And how does it change in the diaspora? I think that was really important. I feel that Polish historians treat immigration by saying things like, “Yeah well there was immigration and it’s great.” And they move on with Polish history. But I think the immigration had a tremendous impact on Poland itself. It of course had a tremendous impact on Chicago and on American society. So that’s a major theme. Another theme that I wanted to explore was the sense of community and also the sense of divisiveness because there’s a lot of division in the community, ideological, religious. To the outsider it looks like a unified community but to the insider one knows that there’s this constant kind of argument over what is Polish? What is Polish Chicago? What does it mean to be Polish? And what does it mean over the generations? So I think that’s another theme. Another theme is that throughout its history Polonia — that’s what we call the Polish community — throughout Polonia’s history whenever Poland was threatened, it steps up and it does something to try to help the country, the homeland. And you know Poland has sort of been at the center of every twentieth century crisis: World War I, World War II started in Poland, the Cold War started in Poland, the fall of Communism started in Poland. So it’s been a crucial country that’s often ignored and in turn that ignores the immigration. The immigration plays an important part. The immigration is sometimes called the fourth partition, the fourth section of Poland.
AWM: What do you mean by the fourth partition?
PACYGA: Poland was divided by its three neighbors in the eighteenth century. So there were three partitions: the German-occupied part of Poland, the Russian-occupied part of Poland and the Austro Hungarian-occupied part of Poland. And in fact at the end of the nineteenth century influentials in Poland started to refer to the immigration of Poles moving abroad as the fourth partition so that it could step in and help Poland regain its independence.
“American-ism is really immigrant-ism…being an immigrant doesn’t take away from being pro-American or pro-democracy or pro anything else that you want to wrap up in the flag.”
AWM: You mentioned that idea of Polishness, and in our new exhibit My America, one of its major themes is exploring the idea of Americanness or how do you define what it means to be American. In what ways do you think that notion of Polishness has been affected by immigrants coming to this country?
PACYGA: Well, first of all, America is sort of a polyglot community, a very diverse community, people from all over the world and that’s part of its strength. And sometimes it’s part of its weakness. There’s often reaction against immigrants, like we’re going through right now with anti-immigrant feelings in the country. But American-ism is really immigrant-ism, in a way, because we’re all immigrants. Franklin Roosevelt, when he spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution, he said, “My fellow immigrants…” He sort of blew their mind. But that’s actually true. Even Native Americans came originally from some place. So it’s a world that’s been totally remade by human populations that have moved over time. For Polish Americans, we have a saying: “Two homelands, one heart.” And I think that’s a feeling among a lot of people, especially for an immigrant or second-generation or even third-generation immigrant. Two homelands, one heart. So being an immigrant or being an ethnic American, I don’t think takes in any way away from being pro-American or pro-democracy or pro anything else that you want to wrap up in the flag. Because, you know, World War II was fought largely by second and third-generation people, along with Native Americans and African-Americans. So it’s a blending of cultures.
“What I don’t understand today is how the grandchildren of immigrants can now be anti-immigrant.”
AWM: You mentioned the anti-immigrant sentiment we’re seeing in this country today…at the times of heavy Polish immigration, did they face similar backlash?
PACYGA: Oh absolutely. I mean, you had the Dillingham Commission which basically said that Eastern and Southern Europeans—Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Italians, Greeks—could never be assimilated. Those impossible sounding names. They pray in a different language, Latin if they’re Catholic or if they’re in the Orthodox Church it’s Slavic or Greek. They have unpronounceable names, 27 letters and only two vowels. I mean, how can they ever be Americans, right? That was the sentiment. Finally in the mid-1920s, Congress closes the gate, basically cuts off immigration except for a little bit of a trickle. And that really changes the whole ballgame and makes it more and more difficult. So, between World War I and World War II, the Polish community and other ethnic communities often felt under attack in the United States, even changing their names some of them. For the Polish community there was this feeling that they were being spoken of poorly in the media, spoken of poorly in Congress, that people didn’t trust them. And there were real social problems in the immigrant communities because poverty is always a social problem, right? So you’ve got people who are alcoholics, people who are thieves. There’s juvenile delinquency, there’s broken homes. That all comes out of poverty, not some sort of subculture. So those problems are there but in particular it seemed to be used very harshly against these immigrants. And what I don’t understand today, is how the grandchildren of these immigrants can now be anti-immigrant. I mean, that really bothers me because if it weren’t for their great-grandparents and their grandparents coming here as immigrants—people who faced a tremendous amount of prejudice against them—how could they now hold that feeling against other people? But that’s the human condition I’m afraid.
AWM: You make a great point there. And to follow that, are you yourself an immigrant?
PACYGA: No, my grandparents came to Chicago before World War I. So I’m actually third-generation. My parents were born here. But I was raised to speak Polish. My grandmother was still alive and I remember she told me, “If you wanna eat you have to ask in Polish.” And I like to eat, so there you go.
AWM: Would you say you’re fluent in Polish?
PACYGA: I wouldn’t say I’m fluent. I can get by. Also, my family came from the Polish mountains in the southern part of Poland, so we spoke a very distinct dialect that often other Poles don’t understand. So I grew up with that. I tell people I don’t really speak Polish, I speak the Chicago Polish dialect. It’s like Spanglish. You take an English word, add a Spanish ending to it. Well the Poles did the same kind of thing. And Poles from Poland often make fun of it. When I went to Poland they looked at me like, “What are you saying?” And then it dawned on me. So yeah, I wouldn’t say I’m fluent, I’m ok. I understand a lot, I read Polish, I understand conversations. I am a little bashful or ashamed to speak because Polish grammar is extremely difficult. It’s an extremely difficult language to figure out the grammar in. And so I always am embarrassed by that. So when I taught in Poland for a year, I lectured in English. I would never try an academic lecture in Polish. But when I went to stores I’d talk Polish and when I rented my apartment I talked Polish.
AWM: Does knowing Polish in the way you know it impact your writing in any way?
PACYGA: Yeah I guess a little bit. It probably doesn’t have an impact on my style or the way I write. I’ve been told I write very simply and straightforwardly, almost in a kind of journalistic style. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I think that comes more from being schooled and growing up on the South Side of Chicago than it does from speaking Polish.
“Once I started writing I really wanted to write. And I’m 70 years old now and I’m still writing and still happy.”
AWM: What led you down this path of writing history books? Why did you want to become a writer?
PACYGA: Well gosh, I think I always wanted to be a writer. Outside of playing outfield for the Chicago White Sox, I just wanted to be a writer. I come from a working class background. I worked my way through college. My father worked at the Western Electric factory in Cicero. My grandparents all worked in meat packing at one point or another and I worked in the stockyards. So I came from a working class background and my goal when I went to college was to become a high school teacher. I went to De La Salle Institute on the South Side, a boys’ Catholic school at the time that is now coed, and I was really impressed by some of the teachers I had and I wanted to be a teacher. When I was in undergraduate school, I became interested in doing graduate work and I stayed on to work toward a PhD where I had to write a dissertation. I actually had my first book done before the dissertation was finished, and several articles as well. So I had sort of a jump on that. Once I started writing I really wanted to write. And I’m 70 years old now and I’m still writing and still happy. I think writing is a noble and wonderful profession. I think it’s a way of expressing oneself. And for a historian, just like novelists and others, truth is always just around the corner. You never really catch it but keep trying to pursue it. And I think with the human theater that we live, you should always contribute one way or another. And I’ve been lucky, my major topic has been one of the most important cities in the world: Chicago. I’ve always written about Chicago, and the immigrant experience and neighborhood life in Chicago. That has always been part of my being. I remember in high school walking down the street and thinking at one point that I would write a book of poetry about Chicago and take my own photographs. And I talked to one of my English teachers and he said, “Yeah, good luck with that. Don’t give up your day job.”
AWM: When you start to write a book what’s your process like? How much of it is research, how much is writing? Are you writing as you’re researching?
PACYGA: I write as I research most of the time, though as a historian there’s a lot of work in the archives. There’s a lot of reading. There’s always research to do. And sometimes you do research and it doesn’t really fit for years, you just kind of put it aside. But the first thing I do is write a book proposal. I just wrote another book proposal and I just got a new contract to write a new book on Chicago politics tentatively called Cloud City: Chicago Politics Since the Great Fire. I wrote a 35-page book proposal and had a 48-page addendum to it. So I outline quite a bit based on what I know already. But that’s going to change as the book develops because you do research and you find new things and you go on. It’s a process. And you know how some people journal at night? I journal as soon as I wake up to get myself thinking about how to write and thinking about the day and just sort of waking up my brain. I do that in the very beginning of the day and it’s a good way to warm up. And then I try to do research and I try to write, whatever I’m doing. I do a lot of my work at the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry Library, UIC, University of Chicago, other archives like Loyola, DePaul. My process is to get an idea, put it on paper as an outline, try to sell it, and move on.
“Write everyday. And understand that every word you write is not that damn perfect.”
AWM: How long does this process usually take until you’ve got a finished book?
PACYGA: I get a book out pretty much on average every four or five years. I’ll do articles and other stuff during that time too. And sometimes the books are based on some of the articles I’ve written, sort of preliminary research I let out to then get feedback on. I think a really important secret [to writing] is having a good editor and having a good relationship with that editor. Because a good editor will stop you and say, “You know, you’re going off the rail here. Remember, we told you 90,000 words. Get back in line.” And it’s really important because this book is I think about 90,000 words. I probably wrote 140,000. And my editor said, “Come on, look at this. Do you really need to mention every time somebody’s name is Polish in Chicago?” So it was helpful.
AWM: As a historian you might have fun with this one. If you could meet one American writer of the past who would it be and why?
PACYGA: Oh, wow. Well, there’s a whole bunch of them I’d like to meet! Some of them are still alive, some of them are dead. I’m a big fan of Philip Roth as a novelist because he writes about the immigrant experience and was real important for me. So I’d like to meet him. He’s gone now, though I once saw him from a distance. I would like to meet Jack Kerouac. There was a very dark period of my life one time in graduate school and I started reading all of Kerouac. And it made me darker [laughs]. But also it made me think about the human experience and how it can affect my writing. So those are the two novelists I’ve always had an affinity for. Another one is Don DeLillo, he’s still alive. I’d like to meet him. And you know Sara Paretsky is going to be at the event with me and I’ve met her, she’s great. Also Dickens, you know? Meeting Dickens would be great because in a way Dickens is a historian.
“Writing is worth doing. It’s the greatest profession. I really believe that.”
AWM: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and/or historians?
PACYGA: Sure. One: don’t be afraid of rejection. People are rejected all the time. I could’ve covered a wall in pink slips before I published a book. If you want to do it, do it. And if you don’t have the fire in your belly to put up with that kind of stuff then this isn’t the game to get into. Like everything in life, if you really want to do it, do it. Don’t let anybody dissuade you. The other bit of advice is write everyday. I don’t care if it’s just writing in a journal. I don’t care if it’s just putting down notes. Write everyday. And understand that every word you write is not that damn perfect. I mean, this was a mistake I made as a young historian. I would write a sentence and I just thought it was perfect. And my editor was like, “What the hell is that?” I’ve been lucky at the University of Chicago Press to have three really good editors and they’ve made me a better writer. I remember in the last manuscript one of my editors, Bill Savage, he wrote across it, “What the hell are you doing? Stop it!” But he was right. And also I think what you do is you put aside for a while, come back and read it, and then reread it and rewrite it and reread it and rewrite it. Writing is constant. You know, Philip Roth said it was the worst work anybody had to do, just sit there all day and try to write. You sit at that blank screen and it just mocks you. One thing I find to be really helpful and I always tell my students to do this, if you have writer’s block just close your mind, think of a subject and the first word that comes to mind write it down. The second word, write it down. Then see how they’re connected once you got ten of them on the page. I draw little circles and I make little connections. What’s the theme you’re writing about? Because I think one part of the brain is kind of energetic and creative, and the other side of the brain is the one that puts everything in order. And I think you have to get the creativity out first.
AWM: I like that method. I might use that myself.
PACYGA: Well good luck! I think writing is worth doing. It’s the greatest profession. I really believe that.