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Impactful Ignorance Israel zangwill's idealistically false portrayal of america in his play "The Melting POt"

Abstract:

What are the issues in America that Israel Zangwill ignores in his idealistic play "The Melting Pot", and how does he ignore them?

David Quixiano appears to be the ideal of what America should become. He has determination and has left his horrendous experiences behind to start a new life. However, his attitude immediately seems to stand out as fake. The situation his family lives in is evidently subpar. He constantly faces discrimination, even from his future girlfriend at one point. He cannot truly forget the experiences he went through in Russia, even though he believes that he can leave his past behind. An analysis of the contradictions within the play will follow in order to establish the idealism of the America Zangwill has created in his writing.

In an initial production of The Melting Pot, a group of poor immigrants are depicted on the cover of the program, presumably entering from Ellis Island (Photo credit: Finborough Theater)

Zangwill ignores many issues with the United States when writing his play. These include, for example, a lack of discussion about African-Americans and their inability to escape from the hardships they had experienced in the past by simply boarding a ship and traveling across the high seas. Native Americans face a similar situation. It seems as though Zangwill argues that a society like his idealistic version of the United States would not have been possible without European conquerors, which calls into question his own value of diversity and inclusivity. Part of this paper will cover the author’s omissions, purposeful or not, in his creation.

The idea of race segues into a discussion of several important papers that detail the creation and perpetuation of discrimination and stereotypes, which will be included in this paper. Omi and Winant’s theory of racial creation as well as Diana Taylor’s discussion of hemispheric unity raise important points ignored by Zangwill. In addition, the author himself traces his roots to the Zionist movement, which, while admirable, lead to questions about his own potential racism.

Essay

The character of David Quixano, whom Zangwill appears to identify with most directly, serves as the most direct example of Zangwill’s unrealistic idealism. He speaks with incredible excitement about his arrival into America and his escape from Russian oppression. His joy at being in America remains palpable throughout the story, especially when juxtaposed with his depression over the deaths of his family in his homeland.

Yet David gives off an evident sense of naiveté. In his first scene, he speaks to Vera about “happy immigrants” arriving from various European countries. He comments about watching joyful people walking through Ellis Island. However, it is obvious that he has not witnessed a large part of America. Noticeably missing from his discussion are Native Americans and African Americans as well as the many deserving immigrants who were denied admission into the country on arbitrary bases.

Left: A movie adaptation of The Melting Pot shows David enamoring Vera with his optimism as Mendel watches in the background. (Photo credit: IMdB)

David’s innocence also comes through when he considers his past. He runs out of the room bawling and must be consoled by Mendel each time. Yet he demonstrates incredible maturity when facing Quincy concerning the performance of his own manuscript. He accuses the rich man of taking without giving back and despises the callousness with which he dismisses the plight of the poor. In spite of the potentially devastating consequences for himself, he continues to stand up for what he believes in, and eventually, because Pappelmeister agrees with his message, he ends up on the winning side of the argument. His variable reactions draw into question his development as a person.

At the end of the play, when David and Vera meet once more, he tries to reconcile with his fiancé, as he fails to uphold his own beliefs about the transition to America. Once again, like every other time, David brings up the fact that his move across the Atlantic has allowed him and many other immigrants to create new lives for themselves. He lists several different countries and describes various points of origin to illustrate the convergence of peoples on Ellis Island that make America what it is in his day.

Above: David often spoke of the joy of immigrants coming into the country from Ellis Island. The truth, however, as presented by this History Channel video, was often not so rosy.

In The Melting Pot Israel Zangwill ignores the plight of various ethnicities in the United States, most significantly Native Americans and African-Americans; he does so by glossing over notable contradictions within his own play and structuring his plot to avoid discussion of important issues plaguing America at the time.

Zangwill came from a Jewish background. Born in England as a son of Eastern European immigrants, he attended a Jewish school and grew up around other members of his own religion. He held intimate knowledge of their plight in ghettos and often wrote about them in his works.

Right: Israel Zangwill, the author of the play. (Public Domain)

After reaching adulthood, he had several impactful conversations with Zionist leaders, including Theodore Herzl, and soon espoused the movement. However, his passion for a Jewish homeland could potentially have led to his tunnel vision concerning other racial populations. He wrote in The English Illustrated Magazine, “Palestine has but a small population of Arabs and fellahin and wandering, lawless, blackmailing Bedouin tribes” (Zangwill 423). He callously dismisses any right that the Arabs had to Palestine, going so far as to insult their way of life, in order to write in support of the Zionist movement, which on its own is an admirable cause.

Left: Theodore Herzl, a leader of the Zionist movement. (Public Domain)

While his positions on this matter concerned a piece of land on a different continent, his thought process of elevating views to which he has a personal connection over those of a group that he cannot particularly relate to can be seen in The Melting Pot as well. This likely does not come about as a result of maliciousness; Zangwill just had an idealistic dream, which he sees as having had a proof of concept in the creation of America. As a result, he pours his own consciousness into the character of David Quixano, who found in America what Zangwill hopes to create in a Jewish homeland.

Theodore Roosevelt admired Zangwill's play greatly; in fact, The Melting Pot is dedicated to him. However, in office, he espoused many exclusionary principles, including a perpetuation of the Chinese Exclusionary Act. (Photo credit: Pach Bros.)

As Zangwill’s representative, David Quixano as a character represents a lack of consideration of the multitude of factors that would damage the idealistic vision of the United States. David exclaims, “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island” (Zangwill 81). The boy speaks in a moment of passion when describing the wonders of moving into the country.

Right: A literal crucible, referencing the manuscript that David wrote to be performed in front of the poor. The idea of a crucible ignores many crucial points about America. (Photo credit: Noventools)

However, mentioned briefly but remaining unaddressed by the other characters of the play is his qualifier of “the races of Europe.” Zangwill, through David, ignores African-American descendants of slaves forcefully brought into the country, never seeing a Statue of Liberty but only witnessing the cruelty of chains. The Baron does indeed make a passing remark about the “Black Hundreds” in America who have been oppressed, but Quincy quickly switches the conversation back to the difference between the United States and Russia (Zangwill 119). As a result, Zangwill escapes any discussion addressing this valid issue that the Baron brings up. Omi and Winant do argue that race was a creation out of social necessity; Zangwill’s vision may be to remove this idea from the United States entirely. However, this is rather unlikely, given that he campaigned for much of his life for a homeland exclusively for Jews, an argument based on race. In addition, evading discussion of race entirely helps further the author’s vision of America without addressing the contradictions.

A protest for black rights that took place in 2018. African-American issues are an issue in the present day and absolutely were an important social matter during Zangwill's time. (Photo credit: ABC News)

Missing entirely from the story is talk about Native Americans. A large part of David’s argument is the idea that crossing the Atlantic Ocean wipes out the horror of one’s past, replacing it with the freedom of America. However, Native Americans had no opportunity to do so, a concept that goes unaddressed by Zangwill. The author chooses to focus on the races with whom he has the most familiarity, Europeans. As a result, he manages to ignore large parts of the dark history of the United States, including the forceful removal of Native Americans from their native lands, a torturous process that David himself went through in Russia. Diana Taylor argues that America should be viewed in a hemispheric sense rather than referring only to the United States. She espouses a true sense of the country, one that derives its sources from the myriad of peoples that formed it. While David and Zangwill believe that they are doing the same thing, their exclusion of a number of important points hints otherwise.

Left: The population of Native Americans in the Untied States is still rather significant. However, David does not recognize their presence at any point during his discussion about his optimism about America. (Photo credit: Domen from Wikipedia)

In addition to significant omissions, The Melting Pot contains a number of contradictions that highlight the superficiality of David’s rampant idealism. In the opening description of the Quixano household, Zangwill writes, “The whole effect is a curious blend of shabbiness, Americanism, Jewishness, and music” (Zangwill 63). The family is evidently not well-off in spite of their move from Russia to the United States. Their situation has certainly improved as they are no longer persecuted for their religion, but their living situation is not nearly as ideal as David makes it out to be. By arriving in a new land, David hopes to have escaped discrimination. While his neighbors are no longer shot around him, his own fiancé, Vera, initially expresses outrage when Kathleen calls her a Jewess. While she eventually recognizes that discriminating by religion is nonsensical, she represents a large group of Americans who do hold prejudices, an unfortunate reality that continues until today.

Birth of a Nation was a movie released in 1915 that put the Ku Klux Klan, a group that often conducted severe acts of violence against Jews, on a pedestal. Racism was a problem in the United States as well, not only Russia. (Image credit: NPR, taken from Birth of a Nation)

David feels as though he can leave his past behind by immigrating into a land of opportunity. However, he cannot truly escape his history. Whenever a character mentions something even remotely related to the pogroms that murdered his family, the boy becomes hysterical and must leave the room. While Zangwill’s intention with this plot device is to imply that David overcomes this pain when kissing Vera at the conclusion of the play, the fact remains that he has faced undue trauma that cannot be erased simply by living in America. In fact, as Philip Gleason writes in his paper “The Melting Pot: Symbol of Fusion or Confusion?”, “Zangwill's play thus appeared at a time when there were millions of immigrants in the country who were themselves immediately concerned with the matter of assimilation, and when the American people at large were troubled and uncertain about the question” (Gleason 24). David similarly does his best to assimilate. In order to do so, he tries to forget about his old life and becomes the happy-go-lucky individual we read about. However, he is simply doing what he must to fit in; like the experiences of many real immigrants, he struggles with the question of his place in society and cannot quite find a clean answer to that question. He does his best to reassure himself with his talk about idealism, but it is clear that he has not been fully able to integrate into American society. Zangwill thus unintentionally ends up drawing parallels between his character and the difficulties of real immigrants.

The ethnic diversity in the United States over the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Far more than where people comprised the population of the country, even during Zangwill's time. (Table from Wikipedia, Data from Census.Gov)

In The Melting Pot, Israel Zangwill attempts to show the idealism of America; however, he glosses over the difficulties faced by many groups, including African-Americans and Native Americans, and leaves contradictions in his plot that highlight the superficiality of this very idealism. Zangwill certainly writes the play with good intentions; he admires the freedom of the country, especially after witnessing what his fellow Jews had gone through in Europe. However, as a result of the perspective he comes from, he ends up authoring a play that does not represent the reality of American life. The majority of his understanding comes from his experience with European immigrants, which comprises only a subset of the population. Today's social justice movements are necessary because of a lot of the unfortunate ideas in The Melting Pot. The exclusion certain subsets of the population from discussion coupled with a brash arrogance of the superiority of this country create a divisive atmosphere, which runs contradictory to the beautiful country that Zangwill thinks he sees.

Bibliography

Gleason, Philip. “The Melting Pot: Symbol of Fusion or Confusion?” American Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 1, 1964, pp. 20–46. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2710825.

Omi, Michael and Winant. “Racial Formation.” Racial Formation in the United States, Routledge Kegan Paul, 1986.

Taylor, Diana. Remapping Genra Through Performance. PMLA, 2007.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Israel Zangwill.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 July 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Israel-Zangwill.

Zangwill, Israel. “The Commercial Future of Palestine.” The English Illustrated Magazine, vol. 26, Macmillan and Company, 1902, pp. 421–430.

Zangwill, Israel. The Melting Pot: Drama in Four Acts. Macmillan, 1917.

Created By
Tarun Amarnath
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