Reimagining the Melting Pot and the Golden Door: National Identity in Gilded Age and Progressive Era Literature

Article excerpt

In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" to help raise funds for a pedestal upon which would stand the Statue of Liberty. The poem depicts the "Mother of Exiles" offering a "world-wide welcome" (7) to the weary, hungry, and downtrodden. The work's final line is spoken by the hospitable "Lady Liberty" figure: "I lift my lamp beside the golden door" (14). The poem was saluted twenty years later, when it was engraved in bronze and affixed to the very pedestal it had helped construct. Just five years after that, though, Lazarus's golden door metaphor would come to share its status as a national icon with another metaphor. Israel Zangwill's play The Melting Pot opened in Washington, DC, in 1908, crystallizing and celebrating a view of American ethnicity with origins in the eighteenth century) In the finale, the lead character points to New York harbor during a blazing sunset and proclaims it to be "the great Melting Pot." He continues, "Ah, what a stirring and seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian,--black and yellow.... [H]ow 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" (184-85). Clearly, the golden door and melting pot images glowed with connotations of wide acceptance and mutual ascension.

However, by 1924 these two metaphors came together in a way that showed they had lost their radiance and reverence. That year, Senator Ellison DuRant Smith argued before Congress for a proposal to significantly toughen immigration restriction laws. Smith opened his speech by declaring that "the time has arrived when we should shut the door. We have been called the melting pot of the world. We had an experience just a few years ago, during the Great World War, when it looked as though we had allowed influences to enter our borders that were about to melt the pot in place of us being the melting pot" (80). (2) Coupling the melting pot with the words "shut the door" (and repeating the latter phrase five more times during the speech), Smith reveals how a perceived failure of the melting pot metaphorically stripped the glitter off the golden door, leaving it a door that needed shutting.

The immigrants blamed for this dramatic transformation came from countries such as Italy, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. Like the Chinese who had evoked apprehension before them, these newcomers had little previous representation in the US and stood in stark contrast to most immigrants who had come since the start of European colonization, especially those from Britain, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. The "old immigrants," as they came to be called, were being eclipsed by the "new immigrants" from Europe's southern and eastern regions. A book from the period uses this old versus new classification to explain that 563,175 old immigrants arrived in 1882, comprising 86.9 percent of that year's overall figures. By 1907, however, 971,608 new immigrants arrived, making up 81 percent of the total (Jenks and Lauck 26). This swing evoked widespread anxiety because of the alleged degradation that would result from admitting so many new immigrants. As early as 1891, The Nation warned that the new immigrants threatened to unbalance the country by introducing too many lower-class workers, too many males, and too many hard-to-assimilate elderly people. The article concludes by saying that the southern and eastern European influx "is not related to us in race or language, but has habits of thought and behavior radically foreign to those which have so far prevailed in the United States" ("The New Immigration" 210). Such sentiments became more pervasive as percentages continued to grow in favor of the new immigrants. (3)

Opposition to new immigrants reached a peak in the early 1920s, resulting in far-reaching restriction laws. While about 900,000 newcomers entered annually from 1900-1910, only a third of that were admitted for all of 1925 through 1930. …