Contesting the Melting Pot: Cultural Pluralism vs. Racial Hygiene?
America has believed that in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress.
Louis Dembitz Brandeis, “True Americanism”
We in this country have been so imbued with the idea of democracy, or the equality of all men, that we have left out of consideration the matter of blood or natural inborn hereditary mental and moral differences. No man who breeds pedigreed plants and animals can afford to neglect this thing, as you know.
Harry H. Laughlin
In the face of more than 18 million immigrants entering the US between 1891 and 1920, the idea of racial and cultural amalgamation was discussed controversially by intellectuals as well as the public at large at that time. in these discussions, the melting pot concept provided a kind of middle ground between irreconcilable perspectives on the left and on the right: while liberals such as Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne criticized the melting pot idea as a model of assimilation that led to homogenization and suggested alternative models geared toward ethno-cultural plurality and diversity instead, nativist anti-immigration critics and specifically eugenicists such as Madison Grant and Theodore Lothrop Stoddard perceived the melting pot as an imminent threat to (Anglo-) American society, welcomed the restrictive immigration legislation that curtailed large-scale immigration in 1924, and called for measures to secure the ‘national health’ on overtly racist grounds - proto-fascist notions of racial hygiene and racial purity are of central concern in their writings about American society.
Kallen, Bourne, and others perceived the melting pot as a repressive concept rather than as “genuine assimilation to one another,” as John Dewey called it (qtd. in Wilson, Melting-Pot Modernism 14). Their critique of the melting pot as an ideology of Americanization grounded in coercive homogenization narrowly defined the melting pot as full assimilation to Anglo-Saxon culture. Horace Kal- len (1882-1974), a Jewish American philosopher who had emigrated to the US as a child, proposed in his influential essay “Democracy versus the Melting-Pot” (1915) a democracy of various nationalities, a nation of nations, rather than a melting pot America:
Thus “American civilization” may come to mean the perfection of the cooperative harmonies of “European civilization” - the waste, the squalor, and the distress of Europe being eliminated - a multiplicity in a unity, an orchestration of mankind. As in an orchestra, every type of instrument has its specific timbre and tonality, founded in its substance and form; as every type has its appropriate theme and melody in the whole symphony, so in society each ethnic group is the natural instrument, its temper and culture may be its theme and melody, and the harmony and dissonances and discords of them all make the symphony of civilization. (116-17)
Kallen argues that cultural pluralism (a term he has been credited with coining), ethnic affiliation, and national pride are indeed compatible; he envisions America as a “nation of discrete nationalisms” and identifies ethnic diversity as “a national asset” (Hansen, Lost Promise 95) rather than seeing immigrants’ loyalties to their countries of origin as an obstacle to the national coherence of the US. To illustrate his position, Kallen repeatedly uses musical metaphors that he seems to have borrowed from Jane Addams’s 1892 essay “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements:”
If you have heard a thousand voices singing in the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s “Messiah,” you have found that the leading voices could still be distinguished, but that the differences of training and cultivation between them and the voices of the chorus were lost in the unity of purpose and the fact that they were all human voices lifted by a high motive. This is a weak illustration of what a Settlement attempts to do. (25)
Addams’s use of Handel’s oratorio to describe her settlement project Hull House is similar to the function of David’s American symphony in Zangwill’s The Melting Pot (which in fact has a non-fictional counterpart in Antonin Dvorak’s
Symphony No. 9, which he composed in the US in 1893 - popularly known as the New World Symphony, it has since become one of the most popular symphonies in the romantic repertoire). That both advocates of cultural pluralism as well as melting pot advocates have used musical metaphors to stress the harmonious result of their respective approaches may be taken as indicative of how difficult it is at times to distinguish between the two positions.
In a similar vein to Kallen, writer and intellectual Randolph Bourne (18861918) argues in his essay “Trans-National America” (published in the Atlantic Monthly in July 1916) that Americanism should not be equated with Anglo- Saxonism and that immigrants should retain their languages and customs: “What we emphatically do not want is that these distinctive qualities should be washed out into a tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity,” he writes; immigrants “merge but they do not fuse.” Bourne holds that US society consists of “a unique sociological fabric” which would allow it to become a “federation of cultures.” Thus Bourne, like Kallen, criticizes the Anglo-Saxon elite for pushing their own culture as an American leitkultur and strictly opposes assimilation, which he deems undemocratic and even inhumane. He affirms the ethnic diversity of the US and defends the tendency of immigrants to maintain ties to their countries of origin against xenophobic and nationalist sentiments that in the context of World War I (which the US would formally enter in April 1917) had been on the rise. The pressure exerted on immigrants to conform and to assimilate in these years is enormous, but many of them do not bow to these pressures. While conservative critics lament this “failure of the melting-pot,” Bourne, who values cultural difference and abhors uniformity, views it positively:
The failure of the melting-pot, far from closing the great American democratic experiment, means that it has only just begun. Whatever American nationalism turns out to be, we see already that it will have color richer and more exciting than our ideal has hitherto encompassed. In a world which has dreamed of internationalism, we find that we have all unawares been building up the first international nation. The voices which have cried for a tight and jealous nationalism of the European pattern are failing. From that ideal, however valiantly and disinterestedly it has been set for us, time and tendency have moved us further and further away. What we have achieved has been rather a cosmopolitan federation of national colonies, of foreign cultures, from whom the sting of devastating competition has been removed. America is already the world-federation in miniature, the continent where for the first time in history has been achieved that miracle of hope, the peaceful living side by side, with character substantially preserved, of the most heterogeneous peoples under the sun. Nowhere else has such contiguity been anything but the breeder of misery. Here, notwithstanding our tragic failures of adjustment, the outlines are already too clear not to give us a new vision and a new-orientation [sic] of the American mind in the world. (“Trans-National America”)
Bourne advocates an American internationalism that leaves behind European factionalism and violent conflict; he is convinced that within the democratic framework of the US, all the cultures of the world could peacefully coexist. Bourne’s views are articulated in the context of American Progressivism, a reform movement consisting “of shifting, ideologically fluid, issue-focused coalitions, all competing for the reshaping of American society” (Rodgers, “In Search” 114), and stand in stark contrast to more conservative positions that finally won the day.
Illustration 3: The Mortar of Assimilation
Ill. by C.J. Taylor (Puck, 26 June 1889).
Contrary to the reformist positions of Kallen, Bourne, and other leading intellectual progressive figures such as John Dewey, Jane Addams, Robert Park, and Franz Boas, conservative critics were opposed to the melting pot idea for quite different reasons. Kallen for example expressly attacked one of them, the American sociologist and eugenicist E.A. Ross (1866-1951), for his Anglo- American conservatism:
Kallen broke with Ross by interpreting America as a work in progress rather than a nation in the grip of cultural decline. Whereas Ross regarded the United States as the province of an Anglo-American cultural majority, Kallen advanced an ideal of cultural diversity. Where Ross delineated a program for cultural renewal that combined immigration restriction with assimilation to Anglo-American norms, Kallen discarded the metaphor of America-as-melting-pot in favour of the symbol of orchestral harmony. (Hansen, Lost Promise 92)
Kallen even addresses Ross in his essay “Democracy versus the Melting Pot” directly: “Hence, what troubles Mr. Ross and so many other Anglo-Saxon Americans is not really inequality; what troubles them is difference” (107). While the cultural pluralists Kallen and Bourne criticized the melting pot as assimilationist and homogenizing, conservative critics of the melting pot such as Ross found both pluralism and assimilation equally problematic and repulsive; their strict anti-immigration stance was motivated by a nationalist outlook based on the notions of white supremacy and racial purity, a position that denigrated all racial mixing as ‘mongrelization.’ Drawing on widespread xenophobic resentments, their message met with a lot of approval and became politically influential: After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the so-called Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 (severely restricting Chinese and Japanese immigration, respectively), the likewise overtly racist Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 further restricted immigration, which reflects the then widespread acceptance of racist ideologies (cf. Gerstle, American Crucible).
Among the proponents of ‘scientific’ racism was Harry H. Laughlin (18801953), who as an “expert eugenics agent” delivered a report to Congress in 1922 in which he correlated so-called forms of social degeneracy (feeblemindedness, insanity, criminality, epilepsy, tuberculosis, alcoholism, dependency) with “racial degeneracy;” Laughlin “purported to find much higher levels of degeneracy among the new immigrants than among the old, and this finding became a central weapon in the restrictionists’ arsenal” (ibid. 105). Laughlin’s conjoining of the racist ideology of white supremacy with eugenicist principles enjoyed strong support from politicians: Calvin Coolidge himself, US president from 1923 to 1929, contended that “Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races” (qtd. in Browder, Slippery Characters 146). It has been quite effectively erased from public memory that there was a strong eugenics movement in the US which propagated what Daylanne English refers to as “a central national ideology” (Unnatural Selections 14). This movement, in which American scientists and intellectuals played a vanguard role, pushed for ‘perfecting’ the human ‘gene pool’ by controlling the process of reproduction (cf. ibid.). American biologists like Harry H. Laughlin and Charles B. Davenport claimed that most ‘ailments,’ including social problems such as poverty and criminality, were genetically programmed and thus hereditary in nature - therefore persons with a ‘good genetic makeup’ should be encouraged to have families, while ‘inferior’ people of allegedly poor genetic stock should be prevented from reproducing. Among those people regarded as inferior were epileptics, manic-depressives, prostitutes, alcoholics, the homeless, criminals, as well as non-white residents and immigrants. Under the eugenics laws, people who came to the negative attention of the social authorities could be branded as ‘feeble-minded’ by court order and were then forcibly sterilized. By the early 1930s, some 30 American states had adopted such eugenics laws. Most of them were modelled after the law which Laughlin had drafted for the state of Virginia in 1924, which also served Germany’s National Socialists as a model for their 1933 Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, on the basis of which at least 400,000 men and women were forcibly sterilized. The University of Heidelberg was apparently so grateful to Laughlin that it awarded him an honorary doctorate for his ‘services on behalf of racial hygiene’ in 1936. The influence of American eugenics on Nazism goes even further: The notorious term ‘Untermensch,’ a core concept in Nazi ideology, is a translation from the English term ‘Underman,’ which, as unidiomatic as it may sound today, was coined by the American journalist and historian Theodore Lothrop Stoddard (1883-1950) in his 1922 study The Revolt against Civilization: The Menace of the Under Man (Stoddard, who held a PhD from Harvard University, was extremely popular during the heyday of ‘Pop-Darwin- ism’ and the so-called ‘eugenics fad’ in the 1920s). The equally notorious term ‘aufnorden,’ which also relates to an integral concept of Nazi ideology, similarly is a translation of Madison Grant’s term ‘to nordicize,’ which he used in his 1916 The Passing of the Great Race. Obviously neither Laughlin nor Grant nor Stoddard found the melting pot idea appealing, as to them it signified the downfall of the American nation through the ‘degeneration’ of the Anglo-Saxon ‘race.’
Today Stoddard is very much forgotten, as are Grant and Laughlin; in canonical American literature however, we find a clue as to his enormous popularity in the 1920s:
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?”
“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be - will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” (Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby 14)
Henry Fairchild (1880-1956) is another influential figure who makes a case against what he calls “unrestricted immigration” in his influential study The Melting-Pot Mistake (1926), in which he argues that “the consequence of nonassimilation [to Anglo-Saxon conformity] is the destruction of nationality” (253). Fairchild refers to the melting pot as an illusion and as dangerous wishful thinking: “The figure was a clever one - picturesque, expressive, familiar, just the sort of thing to catch the popular fancy and lend itself to a thousand uses” (ibid. 10). Like many of his contemporaries with similar political views, he metaphorically equates the American nation with a tree, and immigrants with parasites, “foreign forces,” and “minute hostile organisms” that “sap the very vitality of their host” (ibid. 255):
In so doing the immigrants may be merely following out their natural and defensible impulses without any hostility toward the receiving nation, any more than parasites upon a tree may be considered to have any hostility to the tree. [...] The simple fact is that they are alien particles, not assimilated, and therefore wholly different from the foreign particles which the tree rakes in the form of blood, and transforms into cells of its own body. (ibid.)
This kind of crude and simplistic organicist imagery together with racist rhetoric that draws on biology in general has lastingly influenced the discourse on immigration until today.
Illustration 4: The Melting Pot, Inc.
The Ford English School Graduation Ceremony of 1916 (The Henry Ford Collections).
As has been shown, the melting pot myth became a prime target of criticism by intellectuals on the left and on the right for contradictory reasons: the pluralists argued that it was too repressive, while for the nativists, it was too inclusive. Still, the melting pot myth is a singular vision in the way that it de-emphasizes difference while holding the middle ground between total assimilation on the one hand and racist exclusion on the other. American journalist, novelist, and cultural critic Ernest Poole (1880-1950) describes the city of Chicago in 1910 as a “mixing-bowl for the nations” (Voice 554) and hails the urban melting pot as the “Tower of Babel’s drama reversed” (ibid. 555). Whereas the biblical story dramatizes the production of difference as tragic dispersal, the melting pot narrative promises unification through the creation of “a new race of men upon the earth” (ibid.). Socialist writer Michael Gold (1894-1967) argues in his essay “Towards Proletarian Art” that mass immigration could fuel a melting pot of new internationalist radicalism that he describes as a “cauldron of the Revolution” (62). Yet, as much as the melting pot myth could be used to critique white Anglo-Saxon social and political dominance, it was also used to enforce the conformity of immigrants entering the American workforce. Melting pot rituals performed for example at the Ford English School for immigrant automobile factory workers in Highland Park, Michigan reveal that the melting pot myth could also serve as an instrument of corporate self-fashioning and of Americanization in the corporate interest with a clearly anti-revolutionary impetus. More recently, Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel Middlesex (2002) offers a literary re-telling of this kind of ritual (cf. 103-05).
In the period between the 1880s and the 1920s, discussions of the melting pot as a societal model thus became increasingly polarized, and the concept lost much of its “original elasticity” (Wilson, Melting-Pot Modernism 15) and critical appeal. Yet reconstructing the melting pot myth of that time allows us to see how race and racial difference gained prominence in debates on national, social, and cultural cohesion, as Gary Gerstle writes:
We do not usually think of the 1920s, the easygoing Jazz Age, as a time when the ra- cialized character of the American nation intensified, reinforcing the barriers separating blacks and Asians from whites, eastern and southern Europeans from “Nordics,” and immigrants from natives. Yet these developments were central to the age. That the proponents of these changes frequently justified their aims in the name of science underscores the modern character of the racial regime they implemented. Indeed this regime, backed by an edifice of race law, would remain in place for forty years, persisting through the Great Depression, World War II, the affluent 1950s, and John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election. It must be seen for what it was: a defining feature of modern America. (American Crucible 114-15)
The melting pot myth in its hegemonic version has often obscured the role of racism in American society by projecting a colorblind vision of social harmony and by obscuring ongoing inequality. For the longest time, the democratic potential of the melting pot has clearly not been realized in American society.