“What Then Is The American, This New Man?”
The bosom of America is open to the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions. [...] Whereas by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures and laws: in a word, soon become one people.
The time [...] is anticipated when the language, manners, customs, political and religious sentiments of the mixed mass of the people who inhabit the United States, shall have become so assimilated, as that all nominal distinctions shall be lost in the general and honourable name of Americans. Jedidiah Morse, The American Universal Geography
The first author to be credited with describing American society as a melting pot is John Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813) (cf. Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 75), a French aristocrat who emigrated to North America in 1755. While back in Europe in 1782, he arranged for the publication of his Letters from an American Farmer in London, which is the key text for tracing the history and origin of the melting pot myth and may very well be looked upon as “the first sustained attempt by a European-born writer to define Americanness” (Moore,
Introduction ix). The Letters consist of semi-autobiographical accounts of rural life in 18th-century America, American flora and fauna, politics, family life, and culture; but most noteworthy in the context of my discussion of the melting pot myth is Crevecoeur’s description of the ‘American’ in the third letter:
What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. (43)
Crevecoeur envisions the ‘melting’ of distinct Western and Northern European ‘races’ (French, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian) into a new American one. He “uses the word ‘new’ seventeen times in letter 3, often in company with such words as metamorphosis, regeneration and resurrection” (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 75; cf. Nye, American Literary History 157). At various points in his letters, Crevecoeur also includes Native Americans in his melting pot, a fact that has often been omitted in standard interpretations of the Letters. In a recent edition of Crevecoeur’s writings, we find the following description (rendered in the original version in which he wrote it):
the Sweed the low the high dutch the French the English the scotch the Irish, Leaving behind them their National Prejudices soon Imbibe those of the new country they are come to Inhabit, they mix with Eachother or with the Natives as conveniency or chance may direct. (More Letters 137)
Whereas Native Americans became more and more identified in public discourses of the 18th and 19th centuries with savagery (in contradistinction to the ‘civilized’ white Europeans) and were thus increasingly excluded from white- authored melting pot visions of the future American (along with African Americans and Asian Americans), in Crevecoeur’s account of America/nization they are (still) included (albeit in a homogenized fashion). ‘Mixing with each other and with the Natives,’ Europeans are transformed into Americans by a process of biological hybridization that is invested in a heteronormative ideology of repro?duction. Concerning the relations between Europeans and Native Americans, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in a similar vein and around the same time proposes “to let our settlements and theirs meet and blend together, to intermix, and become one people [incorporating themselves with us as citizens of the U.S.” (To Benjamin Hawkins Washington). Jefferson’s semantics of ‘blending’ comes close to ‘melting’ and indicates the potential he sees for a kind of ‘new race,’ a potential that is also expounded by other founding fathers (George Washington, for instance; cf. this section’s first epigraph). In fact, “several prominent southerners in the eighteenth century proclaimed intermarriage the solution to the Indian problem” (Dippie, Vanishing 260). However, Jefferson’s utopian “vision of interracial nationhood” (Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire 52) is ambivalent as it also prefigures and accepts the dissolution of the Native Americans and their cultures through racial mixing; ultimately, he did not favor the melting pot as an allembracing model but instead argued for “the separation, or elimination, of disparate ethnic groups - Indians and blacks - who refused to disappear through civilization and assimilation, or were, in his view, incapable of participating as citizens in the republic” (Anthony Wallace, Jefferson 338). Today, Jefferson is seen as both “the scholarly admirer of Indian character, archaeology, and language and as the planner of cultural genocide, the architect of the removal policy, the surveyor of the Trail of Tears” (ibid. vii). When he tells the chiefs of the Upper Cherokee that “your blood will mix with ours” (qtd. in Roger Kennedy, “Jefferson” 105), it is not quite clear whether this is meant as a promise or a threat. In later scholarship, this vision will be explicitly connected to Anglo- American plans to annihilate the Native population through racial mixing. According to the phrenologist Charles Caldwell (1772-1853), the “only efficient scheme to civilize the Indians is to cross the breed” (qtd. in Haskins, History 111). This view was also shared by Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), the founding figure of American anthropology, who noted that “the only way to tame him [the Indian] is to put in the white blood” (qtd. in Bieder, Science 225; cf. also Eggan, “Lewis H. Morgan”), and by cartographer and geologist John Wesley Powell, who thought that “mixing blood” was a way to avoid “spilling blood” and spoke out in favor of “rapid amalgamation” (qtd. in Dippie, Vanishing 248). As Brian Dippie points out, amalgamation fit very well with the larger programmatic notion of the ‘vanishing Indian:’ “Assimilation would effect the same end as extermination and more insidiously and more surely because it annihilates without raising a sword or a murmur of protest” (Vanishing 244). The notions of ‘melting’ and miscegenation in this melting pot design thus point to and justify what amounts to extermination policies - or what Matthew Jacobson in a different context has termed “malevolent assimilation” (cf. his essay of the same title, esp. 154) - that were part of what white colonizers liked to call their ‘civilizing mission’ (cf. Bieder, Science 226, 231-33).
Echoes of the melting pot myth as a foundational narrative of the American experience and as an American ideal reverberate beyond Crevecoeur’s articulation of the idea of the melting pot and Jefferson’s half-hearted (or even disingenuous) embrace of a mixed-race future America in essays, poetry, and historical works by a number of writers in 19th-century North America. These texts prefigure the immigration debate that was to gain momentum in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through melting pot imagery - referred to by this or any other name - that is often ambiguous, idiosyncratic, and impressionistic. Most of these articulations of the melting pot take a top-down rather than a bottom-up perspective and display the same kind of inherent tension and volatility that we have found in Jefferson and, to a lesser extent, in Crevecoeur, especially as to questions of inclusion and exclusion and the potential or problems anticipated in the process of mixing. Whereas we can note that “[b]y the middle of the nineteenth century it was widely accepted in America that the nation had a cosmopolitan origin and that the unifying element of American nationalism for the time being was neither a common past, nor common blood, but the American Idea” and that “[t]he motto of American nationalism - E Pluribus Unum - stresses the ideal of unity that will arise out of diversity” (Lissak, Pluralism 2), the perspectives on just how this ideal was to be achieved varied greatly and were mostly inconclusive.
Philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is among the American writers of the 19th century who are often considered to be proponents of the melting pot. References to Emerson’s usage of the (s)melting pot metaphor are linked to the following passage from a journal entry:
Man is the most composite of all creatures. [...] Well, as in the old burning of the Temple at Corinth, by the melting and intermixture of silver and gold and other metals a new compound more precious than any, called Corinthian brass, was formed; so in this continent, - asylum of all nations, the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cosacks, and all the European tribes, - of the Africans, and of the Polynesians, - will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting pot of the Dark Ages, or that which earlier emerged from the Pelasgic and Etruscan barbarism. La Nature aime les croisements. (Entry 119, Journals Vol. 9, 299-300)
Emerson includes Europeans, Africans, and even Polynesians, but no Native Americans in his version of the melting pot. Although he seems to champion racial and cultural amalgamation and thus to contest notions of racial and cultural purity, as with Creveceour and Jefferson, we need to look beyond the canonized passage quoted above to get a fuller sense of Emerson’s ‘smelting pot;’ his American ‘Corinthian brass’ is informed as much by cultural exchange as by processes (and theories) of natural selection. Emerson’s conceptualization of the “genius of the American race” is referred to by Luther Luedtke in an overall assessment of his oeuvre as harboring a “eugenics of American nationhood” (“Ralph Waldo Emerson” 7). While Emerson clearly speaks out against nativist and anti-immigration polemics, he also writes in a Darwinist spirit that “the Atlantic is a sieve” (qtd. in ibid. 10) through which immigrants on their passage to America are filtered to sort out the ‘unfit.’ Even though he refers to “the legend of pure races” (Emerson, “Race” 49) and to the fact that “all our experience is of the gradation and resolution of races” (ibid. 50), he still clings to a strict racial hierarchy: in reference to the chapter titled “Race” in his English Traits, Luedtke holds that for Emerson, “the emergence of higher forms of human life entailed not only the hybridization of races but also the extinction of existentially inferior forms” (“Ralph Waldo Emerson” 8; cf. also Nicoloff, Emerson 46-47), and John Carlos Rowe has pointed to Emerson’s complicity in mid-19th-century discourses of race as well (cf. At Emerson’s Tomb). Reading Emerson with Jefferson thus may shed light on why Native Americans are not mentioned in his smelting pot vision: Even though Emerson’s metaphor of (s)melting is often placed in a smooth continuum between Crevecoeur in the late 18th and Zangwill in the early 20th century, it reveals on closer inspection that it is based as much on processes of cultural transformation as on the discourses of biological determinism increasingly popular and accepted at that time.
In many ways, Emerson’s vision is reflected in the works of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), whose writing has been credited as exemplifying the American melting pot by way of a “a new language” and “a new literary idiom appropriate to what Whitman saw as uniquely American experiences” (Archambeau, “Immigrant Languages” 79). In his preface to the 1855 edition of his magnum opus Leaves of Grass, Whitman refers to “the Americans of all nations” as a “race of races” and to the United States as not merely a nation but “the nation of many nations” (22). However, Whitman employs different melting pot metaphors in the various versions of Leaves of Grass: in the 1855 version, the speaker addresses the American “[o]f every hue and trade and rank, of every caste and religion, [n]ot merely of the New World but of Africa Europe or Asia” (23), while in the last version, now titled “Song of Myself” and newly organized in sections, the speaker describes himself as an American “[o]f every hue and caste [...], [o]f every rank and religion, [a] farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker, [p]risoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest” (87). Clearly, the 1855 text is more open and inclusive than the 1881 version, to which Whitman added a somewhat nativist streak: “Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same” (71). The melting pot rhetoric is less radical in this final version, which stresses American sameness rather than immigrant difference. This change can be read as an indication of the larger ideological shift toward nativism in the period of mass immigration from Europe. Whitman’s final version of his famous poem, then, appears to partially turn away from the melting pot idea and to emphasize an Ur-American genealogy.
Toward the end of the 19th century several historians offered various models of national amalgamation, all of which relied to some degree on melting pot imagery for conceptualizing the transformation of immigrants from Europe. The historian Francis Parkman (1823-1893) contended that
[s]ome races of men seem moulded in wax, soft and melting, at once plastic and feeble. Some races, like some metals, combine the greatest flexibility with the greatest strength. But the Indian is hewn out of a rock. You can rarely change the form without destruction of the substance. (Conspiracy 45)
Racial difference thus figured prominently in Parkman’s explanation of the failure of the “wilderness melting pot” (Saveth, American Historians 102); in addition to the supposedly unchangeable Natives, Parkman also dismissed in no uncertain terms as not fit for progress Catholic groups, especially North Americans of French descent.
The jurist, historian, and statesman James Bryce (1838-1922), who served as British Ambassador to the United States from 1907 to 1913, states in his voluminous treatise on the US titled The American Commonwealth (1888):
What strikes the traveller, and what the Americans themselves are delighted to point out, is the amazing solvent power which American institutions, habits, and ideas exercise upon newcomers of all races. [...] On the whole we may conclude that the intellectual and moral atmosphere into which the settlers from Europe come has more power to assimilate them than their race qualities have power to change it. (Vol. 2 922-23)
The image of America’s “solvent power” affirms once more the idea of ‘melting down’ racial difference, even if race here (as in many 19th-century texts) refers to European groups such as the Nordic, Iberic, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Slavic, or
Teutonic races (cf. Jacobson, Whiteness 7) rather than to ‘whites,’ African Americans, Native Americans, or Asian Americans. Over all, the 19th century largely consolidated a racialized version of the melting pot idea and with it “the institutionalization of a racial order that drew the color line around, rather than within, Europe” (Omi and Winant, Racial Formation 65). The melting pot myth thus seemingly describes but actually produces an implicit and highly normative conception of whiteness that has become more inclusive over time but at the same time also continued to be profoundly exclusivist.
Following up on Bryce at the very end of the 19th century, historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) used the melting pot metaphor to describe processes of Americanization at what he refers to as the ‘frontier.’ In his lecture on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner suggests:
The frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people [...]. In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics.
The claim that this “amalgamation is destined to produce a new national stock” (ibid.) here is obviously used to assert US distinctness from England and to bolster the notion of American exceptionalism. This new national stock, in which “no element remained isolated,” again relates mostly to European immigrants, even if Turner refers to “immigrants from all nations of the world.” Turner’s frontier thesis - to be addressed in more detail in the following chapter - echoes Crevecoeur’s melting pot, yet Turner never mentions his name or quotes from his writings. By describing the frontier melting pot as a specifically rural phenomenon, Turner programmatically shifts the site of Americanization from the Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest and thus positions the West at the center of the nation (later critics would turn to the American city as the major arena of assimilation processes).
While historians, essayists, politicians, and poets in the 18th and 19th centuries, as we have seen, referred in their appraisals and critiques of the melting pot idea to the mixing, (s)melting, and blending of differences in America in very different ways and often quite unspecifically, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the melting pot emerged as a particularly prominent yet controversial and often very differently accentuated model to describe the potential effects of mass immigration. Turner (among others) was skeptical about the ‘melting’ of one immigrant group in particular: the Eastern European and, specifically, Jewish immigrants, since he saw them as a ‘city people’ who did not experience the transforming effects of the frontier in the same beneficial way as other immi?grant groups. In view of this assessment, it may seem ironic that it is a dramatic text by a Jewish (and British) author that at the beginning of the 20th century fuelled public debates on US national identity with its rendering of an urban melting pot scenario of mythic proportions.