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Wales And The American Dream - An Interview with Author Robert Llewellyn Tyler

user image 2015-12-30
By: AmeriCymru
Posted in: welsh american history

Robert Llewellyn Tyler was born in Newport, Wales. He received his BA from University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, his MA from the Unversity of Pittsburgh, and his PhD from the University of Melbourne. He has taught in Japan and Argentina, and at universities in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. For the academic year 2009-2010, he was the Fulbright Professor at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri. He has been widely published and continues to research Welsh communities overseas.

AmeriCymru spoke to Robert about his latest book Wales And The American Dream

AmeriCymru: Hi Robert and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. Care to introduce your new book  Wales And The American Dream

Robert: I have always been interested in Welsh emigration and the existence of Welsh communities in far off lands. I remember, as a fascinated child, hearing from my father about the Madog legend and the Patagonians who spoke only Welsh and Spanish. I was very fortunate, therefore, to combine a career with the experience of actually living in these distant and not so distant places. I managed to get a teaching assistantship to do an MA at the University of Pittsburgh, where I researched the Welsh historically and met with their descendants socially. I spent a year working in Patagonia and made many new and lasting friendships. I was then lucky enough to be sponsored by the Australian government to research the Welsh who congregated on the goldfields of the state of Victoria and completed my PhD at the University of Melbourne. More recently, a Fulbright year in the USA allowed me to visit Welsh American societies across the country. In addition to a host of wonderful memories, the concrete result of these years has been the publication of numerous articles and two books: The Welsh in an Australian Gold Town and Wales and the American Dream, both of which focus on specific Welsh communities and the ways in which they changed during a specific period of time. Wales and the American Dream addresses the nature of four Welsh communities in Missouri, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Kansas and assesses the accuracy of the image which saw Welsh migrants in the USA as the epitome of the migrant success story as indicated by upward occupational mobility.

AmeriCymru: "The Welsh comprised a distinct and highly visible ethno-linguistic group in many areas of the United States during the late decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. To what extent do you think that distinctness has been preserved in the 21st century?"

Robert:   The distinctiveness of the Welsh has, as with all national/ethnic groups, been modified over time. The Welsh as a group have lost much of what set them apart for a number of reasons: the small numbers involved in the first place, the movement out of specific industries and locations, decline in religious observance, exogamy (marrying non-Welsh) and, most obviously, the loss of the language. Nevertheless, Welsh Americans today do have a discernible presence in the US and the myriad societies and cultural events that take place regularly across the USA is an admirable testimony to their rich national culture and the determination of Welsh Americans themselves to maintain that culture.

AmeriCymru: The Welsh did not emigrate as a result of natural or socio-economic disasters. There were no potato famines or Highland clearances in Wales. To what extent do you think that the motives and circumstances behind Welsh migration have contributed to Welsh American identity today?

Robert: Certainly, Welsh immigrants were never "driven from the land" to the extent of the Irish and Scottish Gaels (One of the reasons for the survival of the language). Nevertheless, Welsh emigration was overwhelmingly promoted by economic considerations: the search for a better life in the face of obscenely bad working and living conditions in both rural and in rapidly industrializing Wales. It would be wrong, however, to ignore the quest for religious, linguistic and even political freedom as motives for many Welsh people to seek that better life in the USA, Australia, South America and elsewhere. As regards identity, Welsh immigrants were invariably and successfully portrayed as models of American citizenship by virtue of their national characteristics, standards of social behavior and socio-economic success. I think this belief still holds sway among Welsh Americans today and who is to say they are wrong?

AmeriCymru: Your book investigates the extent to which the "Welsh as a group occupied a privileged position in the occupational hierarchy". Can you give us a few examples of this?

Robert: Take, for example, the iron and steel town of Sharon in western Pennsylvania. The town attracted significant numbers of Welsh workers who were prized for their skills in an industry that had become a major employer in Wales. The US census of 1880 reveals that 73.3% of the 165 Welsh-born men working in Sharon were employed as skilled iron workers (puddlers, rollers, heaters, boilers, roughers and doublers) with only 20.6% employed in unskilled occupations, primarily as labourers in the iron works. The percentages for Irish-born workers were 22.7% and 72.4%. Clearly, Welshmen had arrived with the skills necessary to establish themselves in the burgeoning industry. This was replicated elsewhere, from the slate quarries of Vermont to the coal mines of central Missouri.

AmeriCymru: In your opinion how can Welsh identity or ancestry made relevant to a younger generation of Welsh Americans, third generation and beyond?

Robert: Being no longer part of the "younger generation" myself, I hesitate to advise on this. I think, however, showing young Welsh Americans the vibrancy of Welsh cultural life as it exists in contemporary Wales is hugely important. The young people from Patagonia I knew, during my time there in the 1990s, were invariably astonished by their experiences on their visits to Wales. Until then, their image of Wales was one of chapels, choirs and the "respectable" aspects of eisteddfodau. These admirable aspects of Welsh culture are still to be enjoyed and reveled in; they are now accompanied by the Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals and the Stereophonics. I am not for one moment being critical of the images of Wales held by the descendants of Welsh emigrants, wherever they are in the world. They, like the decedents of most immigrant groups, naturally have images of the homeland of their ancestors. While that Wales has not disappeared, it has changed, admittedly, not always for the better. That is why groups such as AmeriCymru are so important.

AmeriCymru: What's next for Robert Llewellyn Tyler? Are you currently working on any new projects?

Robert: Yes, indeed. I've just finished an article on the Welsh community in San Francisco and about to begin another on Martins Ferry, Ohio. Next, I will be recommencing an ongoing project on the Welsh in Pittsburgh, which I hope to publish as a book in 2017. Working title: No Mean People: The Welsh in Iron City, USA.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?

Robert: I have always felt privileged to be Welsh. This is in no way intended to imply a sense of superiority. Welsh people, at home and aboard, have been well represented in all elements of society, from the cultured and upstanding to the downright dissolute. Nevertheless, the Welsh contribution to the world has frequently been downplayed or overlooked entirely, particularly by those who, for the moment, govern us. Any national community that can produce an institution, overwhelmingly patronized by working people, like the eisteddfod, is to be lauded. No Mean People, indeed!

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