Tuesday, April 20, 7pm CT
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About The Names of John Gergen
Rescued from the dumpster of a boarded-up house, the yellowing scraps of a young migrant’s schoolwork provided Benjamin Moore with the jumping-off point for this study of migration, memory, and identity. Centering on the compelling story of its eponymous subject, The Names of John Gergen examines the converging governmental and institutional forces that affected the lives of migrants in the industrial neighborhoods of South St. Louis in the early twentieth century. These migrants were Banat Swabians from Torontál County in southern Hungary—they were Catholic, agrarian, and ethnically German.
Between 1900 and 1920, the St. Louis neighborhoods occupied by migrants were sites of efforts by civic authorities and social reformers to counter the perceived threat of foreignness by attempting to Americanize foreign-born residents. At the same time, these neighborhoods saw the strengthening of Banat Swabians’ ethnic identities. Historically, scholars and laypeople have understood migrants in terms of their aspirations and transformations, especially their transformations into Americans. The experiences of John Gergen and his kin, however, suggest that identity at the level of the individual was both more fragmented and more fluid than twentieth-century historians have recognized, subject to a variety of forces that often pulled migrants in multiple directions.
“No one has brought into print the details of an individual working-class St. Louisan’s life in anywhere near the depth that Moore has done—and this from what started as a handful of crumbling school assignments found in a dumpster. Moore’s point, however, is for us not simply to discover a once-invisible man, but also to reflect upon the extent to which identity itself is, in this nation, shaped by the collective decisions of the people and institutions that shape our lives and record our traces.”—Eric Sandweiss, Indiana University, author of St. Louis: The Evolution of an American Urban Landscape
“This powerful and painstakingly researched book sheds light on a migration network that connected a multiethnic region in Southeastern Europe with South St. Louis. Moore uses the short and tragic life story of a young immigrant to great effect to evoke the hardship faced by labor migrants in urban America. The study retraces the journey of German-speaking Catholics from Hungary to St. Louis and uncovers the story of a forgotten St. Louis neighborhood, long buried underneath an Interstate and warehouses, but once home to migrants from Southeastern Europe.”—Tobias Brinkmann, Penn State University, editor of Points of Passage: Jewish Transmigrants from Eastern Europe in Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain 1880-1914
About the Speakers
Benjamin Moore received his Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Iowa in 1992. He has taught at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri since 1994. Ben began work on The Names of John Gergen after finding in a dumpster John Gergen’s third-grade schoolwork, produced during the 1917-1918 school year. For fifteen years, he spent his spare time in libraries and research centers across the country learning what he could about young John, his family, and his community. The resulting book is both a biography of John Gergen, who died in 1935, and a social history of Soulard and the Banat Swabian immigrants who once lived there. Ben’s growing interest in immigration also led to his work with St. Louis’s Bosnian refugees. In 2006 he co-founded the Bosnia Memory Project, dedicated to preserving the memory of St. Louis’s Bosnians by recording oral histories and collecting personal letters and artifacts. In 2020, the Bosnia Memory Project became the Center for Bosnian Studies, where Ben now serves as Senior Researcher.
Kasi Williamson has taught at Fontbonne University since 2015, where she is now associate professor of communication studies and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. She earned her Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Minnesota in 2013. She has studied discourse related to race and whiteness in the early Twentieth Century U.S., and her teaching and writing continue to explore communication, race, and anti-racism.
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