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Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot: Jewish Immigrants and American Alchemy

[T]he real American has not yet arrived. He is only in the Crucible, I tell you - he will be the fusion of all races, perhaps the coming superman.

Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot

In the passage quoted above, the protagonist of Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot portrays the American experience as a process of amelioration through amalgamation out of which the future American will arise like a “superman.” Zangwill’s play widely popularized the idea of the melting pot and was “[a]d- vertised as a ‘Drama of the Amalgamation of Races’” (Goldstein, Price 99); it opened in Washington, D.C. on October 5, 1908 in front of an audience that included then-president Theodore Roosevelt and his family. It ran for six months in Chicago and ran for 136 performances in New York in 1908 and 1909. Whereas theater critics at first had little enthusiasm for the play due to its sentimentalism, the audience flocked to it: “[T]he public crowded the performances [...]. It is a play of the people, touched with the fire of democracy, and lighted radiantly with the national vision” (review qtd. in Gleason, Speaking 7). From 1909 until the US entered World War I in 1917, it was republished yearly and widely read in schools and colleges (cf. Browder, Slippery Characters 149).

Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), the author of this huge success, was a playwright, journalist, essayist, and activist whose family emigrated from Czarist Russia and Poland to England. He was a central figure of Anglo-Jewish intel- lectualism and politics and was considered by many as “an interpreter of Jewish life” (Nahshon, Prologue 3) but was also seen as a somewhat controversial figure within the Jewish community because of his marriage with non-Jewish British writer and feminist Edith Ayrton. When his play The Melting Pot premiered in Washington, Zangwill traveled to the US to be in the audience.

Illustration 2: Celebrating Assimilation?

Cover of The Melting Pot: The Great American Drama by Israel Zangwill (1916).

The Melting Pot, Zangwill’s best-known play, is a melodrama whose plot revolves around David Quixano, a Jewish-Russian musician who immigrates to the United States after his family has been killed in the Kishinev pogrom. In New York, he meets Vera Revendal, the daughter of wealthy Russian immigrants, who does charity work in a housing project; as their relationship progresses and they fall in love with each other, they learn that it was Vera’s father who had been responsible for the brutal murder of David’s family. At this point in the play, a shocked David leaves Vera, and it seems as if their budding relationship cannot overcome the trauma of the past:

David (In low, icy tones): You cannot come to me. There is a river of blood between us. Vera: Were it seven seas, our love must cross them. [...]

David: Love! Christian love! For this I gave up my people - darkened the home that sheltered me - there was always a still, small voice at my heart calling me back, but I heeded nothing - only the voice of the butcher’s daughter. Let me go home, let me go home. (347-9)

Later on, David acknowledges that he has been wrong in rejecting Vera’s love and embraces the redemptive influence of melting pot America, which in the play acquires the aura of the Redeemer Nation so cherished in exceptionalist rhetoric:

I preached of God’s Crucible, this great new continent that could melt up all race differences and vendettas, that could purge and recreate, and God tried me with his supremest test. He gave me a heritage from the Old World, hatred and vengeance and blood, and said, “Cast it all into my Crucible.” And I said, “Even thy Crucible cannot melt this hate, cannot drink up this blood.” And so I sat crooning over the dead past, gloating over the old bloodstains - I, the apostle of America, the prophet of the God of our children. (360)

David interprets his tragic family history (Vera’s father having murdered his parents) as a trial used by God to put his faith to the test. By mastering this religious crisis, repenting his skepticism, and converting once more, and firmly, to the American creed, David’s faith in the melting pot is not only reassured but strengthened. In the last part of the play, David and Vera overcome the painful history of ‘old world’ anti-Semitism and make a new start in America; David creates a musical vision of melting pot America that moves the hearts of his immigrant audience, while Vera is “[m]elting at his touch” (315). The second chance offered to them by the American crucible does away with all past suffering and guilt and makes them literally new (cf. Browder, Slippery Characters).

In discussions of the play, it is mostly its happy ending that is quoted as evidence for its endorsement of melting pot ideology. The play concludes with the following lines:

It is the fires of God round His Crucible. There she lies, the great Melting-Pot - listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth [...] Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross - how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. Ah, Vera, what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all the races and nations come to labour and look forward! Peace, peace, to all ye unborn millions, fated to fill this giant continent - the God of our children give you Peace. (362-63)

With these words, which echo Promised Land rhetoric, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, and American civil religion, the play fades out after allowing a final glimpse of the torch of the Statue of Liberty in the background while a patriotic song is played. Thus, the final scene calls for unconditional identification with the US, reaching out to the audience on all available channels.

Zangwill’s play thus has been read and canonized as a programmatic illustration and optimistic confirmation of the workings of the melting pot in American society which dramatizes the ‘new world’ as a place of new beginnings that discounts the individual’s past and affirms that “old ethnic loyalties would diminish in the face of an inexorable process which emphasised those values that Americans held in common rather than those which kept them apart” (Campbell and Kean, American Cultural Studies 54). Rather than focusing merely on the assimilation of immigrants, “The Melting Pot made an explicit bid for a more expansive sense of U.S. nationhood” (Browder, Slippery Characters 150) and was seen as an affirmation of a universal ideology of cultural mixing and cultural change.

Yet in contrast to this canonical reading of the play, it has been argued by some scholars that its conflict may be resolved a little too nicely at the end. Neil Shumsky for example finds the play’s rendering of the melting pot myth more complex than is generally acknowledged, and more ambivalent than the final scene suggests; he points out that the play “does not merely present the melting pot theory” (“Zangwill’s The Melting Pot” 36) but structurally calls into question the message of its ending. Shumsky sees the anti-climactic moment of the play in David’s ultimate moment of crisis when he finds out about the murder of his parents at the hands of Vera’s father and his belief in the melting pot is shaken. Vera affirms her love, but he cannot accept it; he is unable to eradicate the past and wants to go home. The melting pot is ‘only a dream:’

One could logically argue that The Melting Pot should end at this point. Its hero has admitted the futility of his dream and recognized that it cannot come true; but the play continues. It has a second conclusion which seems contrived and appears to contradict much of the play’s development. In this anticlimax, David and Vera have finally realized that their futures lie apart and seem reconciled to that fact. Then suddenly, and for no apparent reason, David begs her to stay. (Shumsky, “Zangwill’s The Melting Pot” 35)

Shumsky’s reasoning that the play has two endings throws into doubt its ending’s unequivocal affirmation of the melting pot myth: what if the myth is a dream? Who is dreaming it? And whose agency and interest propel the dreamlike vision?

Scholars have further complicated the picture by pointing to the role of Judaism in Zangwill’s The Melting Pot and have argued that the play is not so much about Americanization but about the future of the Jewish people in the diaspora. The question then is: Do the characters become Americanized or do they become Judaized? According to Biale, all Americans in The Melting Pot become “crypto-Jews” (“Melting Pot” 20); Vera Revendal in the beginning holds anti-Semitic attitudes but sheds her prejudices as the play continues - ultimately, she even wants to convert to Judaism for David’s sake. In so far as Vera feels that she should assume David’s cultural heritage, Zangwill’s play is a narrative of conversion rather than an affirmation of melting pot ideology. In discussing David with her father, she says that

[I was] never absolutely sure of my love for him - perhaps that was why I doubted his love for me - often after our enchanted moments there would come a nameless uneasiness, some vague instinct, relic of the long centuries of Jew-loathing, some strange shirking from his Christless creed - [...] But now, now, David, I come to you, and I say in the words of Ruth, thy people shall be my people and thy God my God! (347)

Like Vera, the Quixano’s Irish Catholic maid Kathleen overcomes her prejudices against Jews, develops an appreciation for Jewish rituals, and even participates in them herself. Vera and Kathleen may serve as examples that the play prominently engages with anti-Semitic prejudices and turns them around. Non-Jewish characters in The Melting Pot want to become (like) Jews rather than Americans, it has been argued: “Zangwill’s cosmopolitanism turned out to be something like a form of Jewish particularism” (Biale, “Melting Pot” 19). This way of reading the play would have been more acceptable to those Jewish American contemporaries of Zangwill who felt compelled to embrace the melting pot as a political strategy while in fact being opposed to intermarriage as a form of assimilation (cf. Goldstein, Price 101).

The influence of The Melting Pot cannot be overstated: “[m]ore than any social or political theory, the rhetoric of Zangwill’s play shaped American discourse on immigration and ethnicity, including most notably the language of self-declared opponents of the melting-pot concept” (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 66). The melting pot concept echoed in ethnic and immigrant literature of the 1910s and 1920s, a period in which nativist sentiments were on the rise as a reaction to mass immigration from Europe. Yet, the concept was neither uncontested, nor did its appropriation always occur in the melodramatic mode of Zangwill’s play. Quite the contrary: we find a number of attempts to critique the metaphor by taking it more or less literally. Orm 0verland has shown how the melting pot as a symbol of assimilation was contested rather than whole-heartedly embraced in Scandinavian immigrant fiction (cf. Immigrant Minds), for example by Walde- mar Ager (1869-1941), Norwegian immigrant and author of On the Way to the Melting Pot (1917), who describes the road toward assimilation as a process of loss, not of gain or liberation. Lars, the protagonist of the novel, is portrayed as assimilated and as culturally and socially impoverished at the same time; the process leading to that condition is described by another character in the book as follows:

First they stripped away their love for their parents, then they sacrificed their love for the one they held most dear, then the language they had learned from mother, then their love for their childhood upbringing, for God and man, then the sounds they learned as children, then their memories, then the ideals of their youth - tore their heritage asunder little by little - and when one had hurled from his heart and mind everything which he had been fond of earlier, then there was a great empty void to be filled with love of self, selfishness, greed, and the like. [...] Thus they readied themselves for the melting pot’s last great test. (197)

And Lars’s employer, a factory manager, muses not without irony that “[h]e could not recall having seen a single typewriter, an electric motor, a usable sewing machine or piece of farm machinery wander into the melting pot” (173): obviously, valuable and fully functioning things would not be melted down. Perhaps it is not accidental that Ager’s critique of the melting pot was originally published in the Norwegian language for the thriving Norwegian American community and was translated into English only in 1995. In Ager’s view, “[t]he melting pot [...] was primarily a metaphor of destruction, more about the killing of the old man than the creation of the new” (0verland, “From Melting Pot” 53), a metaphor used “to denationalize those who are not of English descent” (ibid).

Almost two decades later, another immigrant writer includes a very unusual melting pot image in his work: In the climactic scene of Henry Roth’s (19061995) novel Call It Sleep (1934), the protagonist, a young Jewish immigrant by the name of David Schearl (another David), touches the electrified rail of the trolley tracks on Avenue D in New York’s East Village with a milk ladle, which results in “a surrealistic melting pot melange” (Sollors, Ethnic Modernism 140) accompanied by “lightning” and “radiance” (Roth, Call It Sleep 571). In literal- izing the melting pot metaphor, David’s experience with electricity is cast as an epiphany in the Joycean sense, as a moment of total presence: “[h]e views the electric current as if it were a divine power” (Sollors, Ethnic Modernism 141); David’s almost-fatal ‘melting’ however can be read more fruitfully as a personal rite de passage that gives his life another turn rather than as a ritual of Americanization.

Ager and Roth are only two exemplary cases that show how the melting pot myth is criticized, perhaps even ridiculed, in the writings of first generation immigrants to the US; far beyond the realm of fiction, however, the melting pot becomes fiercely contested in debates on the future of US society in the Progressive Era, which will be discussed in the next section.

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