The Melting Pot - Part I: Are We There Yet?

Article excerpt

Anne Wortham is associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University. Part II of this article will be published in a subsequent issue.

In the years following the American Revolution the expectation developed that over time the best traditions of Europe would be blended or amalgamated into a dynamic unity; that Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Irishmen, and Russians1 would all become Americans, a new group that would be different from any of the original groups but also a combination of them all.2 This was the vision of a young French nobleman, Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur (1735--1813), who immigrated to the United States in 1759 and in 1782 published a book on life in America entitled Letters From an American Farmer. "What, then, is the American, this new man?" asked Crevecoeur. "He is neither an European nor the descendant of an European; hence that strange mixture of blood which you will find in no other country. ... Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men whose labor and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world."3

Crevecoeur's image of the United States as a melting pot had little basis in fact. For one thing, by restricting his application of the melting pot to whites, he omitted American Indians and Negroes, who made up about 20 percent of the total colonial population. Extensive cultural diversity had been characteristic of the aboriginal North American peoples long before European colonialization.4 Crevecoeur's model also ignored the cultural and regional differences among the diverse Europeans who immigrated to the New World in the seventeenth century: they were no more homogeneous than the indigenous people of many cultures who already populated the land.

In contrast to Crevecoeur's vision, which reflected his romanticized perception of his times, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803--1882) saw the melting pot as a promise to be fulfilled in the future. Unlike Crevecoeur, he included Negroes in the mix. For Emerson the United States was the "asylum of all nations," and he predicted that "the energy of Irish, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, 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 Pelasgic and Etruscan barbarism."5


Yet another melting-pot vision was promoted by the influential historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861--1932). In 1893, Turner argued that American identity was not Anglo-Saxon in origin and was forged in the Middle West, which he saw as "a newer and richer civilization" from which "a new product, which held the promise of world brotherhood" had emerged. The frontier had been the catalyst that had already fused the immigrants into a composite new national stock, argued Turner.6 But his model was an inaccurate depiction of frontier reality. As Vincent Parrillo points out, "The pioneers did adapt to their new environment but the culture remained Anglo-American in form and content. Furthermore, in many areas of the Middle West Turner speaks about, culturally homogeneous settlements of Germans or Scandinavians often maintained distinct subcultures for generations."7

Perhaps the most quoted melting-pot idealist is Israel Zangwill (1864-- 1926), a British-born Jew, whose 1908 play The Melting Pot portrayed America as "God's crucible, the great melting pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!" To the immigrants entering Ellis Island, Zangwill's protagonist exhorted: "A fig for your feuds and vendettas! German and Frenchman, Irishman and Englishman, Jews, Russians--into the crucible with you all! God is making the American. ... He will be the fusion of all the races, the coming superman."8 The politician William Jennings Bryan (1860--1925) echoed Zangwill's sentiments: "Great has been the Greek, the Latin, the Slav, the Celt, the Teuton, and the Saxon; but greater than any of these is the American, who combines the virtues of them all. …