A Great Nation of Immigrants

A Little Background

A Great Nation of Immigrants

This week, to highlight our country’s heritage as a great nation of immigrants, we’re featuring several famous adoptive citizens that have had a lasting impact on the United States. 


John Muir

Naturalist, explorer, writer and conservationist John Muir was an immigrant to the United States. Muir’s family arrived in the US from Dunbar, Scotland in 1849 when John was 11. The family settled in Wisconsin and when not working on the farm, Muir would roam the countryside, beginning to develop what would later become a deep and abiding passion for the natural landscape. After suffering an injury that blinded him for a month in 1867 Muir, upon regaining his sight, began traveling the world, walking 1000 miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, sailing to Cuba and Panama and later traveling up the west coast where he finally settled for a time in San Francisco. He started writing of his travels and his philosophies about nature in 1874 and would continue to do so throughout his life, influencing and inspiring his many readers with his dedication and spiritual connection to the natural world.



Muir eventually became an activist for the preservation of wilderness in the United States and his efforts helped to protect national treasures such as the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park. Muir also founded the American conservation organization, The Sierra Club and has been referred to as one of the “patron saints of twentieth-century American environmental activity”. Muir is pictured above with President Theodore Roosevelt, who Muir convinced on a camping trip in 1903 to preserve the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove as part of Yosemite National Park.




Madeleine Albright

The tenacious 64th Secretary of State and the first woman to ever hold that position, Madeleine Albright was an immigrant to the United States.

Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15th 1937, Madeleine was a nickname given to her by her grandmother. The Korbel family was Jewish but converted to Christianity and Madeleine was raised Catholic. Her parents never spoke of their roots and Albright was an adult before she learned of her Jewish heritage and that three of her grandparents had died in concentration camps during the Holocaust.

When the communists took over the Czechoslovakian government in 1948, her father, a journalist and diplomat who was then working for the United Nations, was sentenced to death. The family was granted political asylum by the United States and settled in Colorado. Madeleine devoted herself to academics and earned a scholarship to Wellesley College in MA where she studied political science. She would go on to help campaign for Democratic Presidential hopeful, Senator Edmund Muskie, later becoming his legislative assistant, served as a National Security Advisor during the Carter administration, and in the 1980’s moved to the private sector working for various non-profits before accepting a position as Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University. Throughout her career Albright became known as a tough and outspoken problem-solver and was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1996 for Secretary of State, becoming the first woman to ever hold the office in January of 1997.




Claude McKay

Writer, Poet, and influential figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay was an immigrant to the United States. Born Festus Claudius McKay in Sunny Ville Jamaica on September 15, 1889, McKay was the son of peasant farmers of Malagasy and Ashanti African heritage. His parents taught him pride in his race and heritage and he was further educated by his older brother, a schoolteacher, and an English neighbor. McKay’s writing would be influenced throughout his life by this combination of ethnic pride and a love of English poetry.

Leaving predominantly black Sunny Ville at the age of 17, McKay experienced racism probably for the first time in his life when he arrived in the overwhelmingly white capital of Jamaica, Kingston. His experiences there affected his writing and in 1912, he published a book of verse in dialect titled Songs of Jamaica in which he tried to convey the incongruous aspects of life in Jamaica – a peaceful and celebratory portrait of peasant life juxtaposed with writing critical of urban life in Kingston. For this work he received an award and a stipend from the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences that he used to finance his move to the United States.

Studying briefly at Tuskegee University and Kansas State University, McKay settled for a time in Harlem where he became an influential voice in the rebirth of African American arts, known as the Harlem Renaissance.




Willem de Kooning

Arguably one of the twentieth century’s most influential artists, Willem de Kooning was an immigrant to the United States. Born April 24, 1904 in a tough, working class neighborhood in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, de Kooning was apprenticed to the design firm Gidding and Sons when he was 12 and impressed by his emerging talent, the owners encouraged him to enroll in night school at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts.

In 1924 de Kooning, with no documents and speaking no English, stowed away on a ship sailing for New York City, settling briefly in Hoboken NJ. Working a series of odd jobs including house painter, de Kooning then moved to New York City in 1927 where he met other artists including Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, and John Graham. His work at this time was abstract and figurative and heavily influenced by the Cubism and Surrealism of Picasso. During the Great Depression de Kooning worked for the mural and easel divisions of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, but when this initiative was dissolved he took up painting full-time.



By the late 1940’s and early 1950’s de Kooning and his New York contemporaries were rejecting the artistic norms such as Regionalism, Surrealism, and Cubism and de Kooning was instrumental in shifting attention from Paris to the New York avant-garde post WWII. His grand abstraction, Excavation, in 1950 has been hailed as one of the most important paintings of the 20th century and throughout an unconventional career spanning 50 years, de Kooning became one of the most influential painters of the day and helped create the market for modern American art.



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