Assimilating in America: Illusion and Reality Julie de Vaulx


This research paper aims to look at the assimilation process of new immigrants to America through the lens of David’s symphony in the play The Melting Pot, written by Israel Zangwill in 1909. This paper aims to prove that assimilation is more about the journey than the end goal if there is even such a thing, as can be seen with David’s mental breakdown after the first presentation of the symphony. It will delve into the characters’ reaction to the symphony, its announcement at the beginning of the play, its performance at the end, and some characters’ development in parallel to that of the symphony. It will explore the character arcs of David and his fiancée Vera as they evolve in parallel to the symphony, and how all these processes reflect the different journeys of assimilation and Americanization coming from different backgrounds. The hope is that people who read this paper will come to understand that assimilating into American culture involves many sacrifices and that it is always a work in progress.

Photo 1: Ellis Island. Photo 2: Living Situation in the Tenements, where the crowded and unhygienic conditions make it hard to see how people could stay hopeful. This is where David and Vera worked. Photo 3: America as melting pot, political cartoon from the period.

How does the play "The Melting Pot" represent the journey immigrants go through when assimilating and coming Americanized?

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” - Emma Lazarus, "New Colossum".


The Melting Pot is a play by Israel Zangwill written in 1909, and it discusses the immigration and assimilation process of new immigrants to the United States. Written during the wave of European immigrants going through Ellis Island, it follows David Quixano, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who fled anti-Semitic persecution after the father of his fiancée Vera killed his parents, unbeknownst to him. David is a musical prodigy who plays the violin for the new immigrants living in tenements fresh off Ellis Island. His own experience with immigration to the United States and his work in the tenements inspires him to write a symphony celebrating the “American Superman,” which he claims will be the merging of all races into one, the ideal American man. It is important to note that it was written in a pre-WWII era and that Eastern Europeans, Irish, and Italian immigrants were not considered equal to Anglo-Saxon immigrants. Thus, their concept of race might be different than what is understood today.

David’s work on the symphony has been received differently by the different demographics seen within the play. His uncle Mendel Quixano was not enthusiastic about his nephew’s endeavor until the inevitable success. Vera, his noble Russian girlfriend who gave it all up to join the Revolution and move to America, was thoroughly overjoyed about this prospect and used her connections to present David’s symphony properly. Vera and David grew closer as their perception of an ideal America merged, they both believed in a world where all races -- for the time all European Caucasian -- would be able to live in peace with one another. Their main obstacles are that of class and anti-Semitism, as David is a poor Jewish man, and Vera is a wealthy Russian Orthodox lady. Nevertheless, their love vanquished all these obstacles, and the symphony was a resounding success despite the apparent obstacles, to symbolize their Americanization and cultural assimilation processes.

David and Vera’s character development vis a vis the symphony exemplifies the process that immigrants go through when assimilating into American culture, with the symphony embodying American ideals and Vera and David representing different types of immigrants.

Assimilation is what is commonly understood to determine whether newcomers belong in the culture into which they have just been introduced. Culture, according to Stuart Hall, can be thought of as a shared collection of conceptual maps with more or less overlapping sets of beliefs. These shared conceptual maps can then be expressed using a common language, which further helps enhance communication and reinforce said common culture. Immigrants to a nation, thus, do not have the same conceptual maps, and the assimilation is the process that they go through remaps their vision of the world, often by incorporating what they knew previously to their new environment. The United States of America, from the 1850s to 1913, experienced a significant influx of European immigrants. This influx of Germans, Italians, Irish, Russian, Jewish immigrants and many more forced the United States to, once more, reconsider their position on the global stage and think about what it means to be American. Would it be a country open to all immigrants with open borders, or would it close itself off and treat the newcomers as second-class citizens and people? This question still lingers on today. The widely talked about movement of the nativist Know-Nothings, echoed today in some conservative speech, was met with equal passion by some idealists like Vera and David, who believed in the complete integration of all races into one American body. This idea of merging is known as a melting pot, which David refers to as the “Crucible” of America to create a “superman” (Zangwill, Act 1).

The relationship between Vera and David is a beautiful example of the assimilation process that immigrants to the United States go through, and the merging of all peoples and races into one, ideally. David is Jewish, and Vera is Russian Orthodox, yet their engagement is a definite factor of assimilation. Their future children will not grow up Jewish or Russian; they “will grow up to be American” (Act I). Immigrants that marry outside of their culture group tend to identify more strongly with America, and the case is true for the lovebirds (Abramitzky, 2017). Both characters chose their new home over the comforts and reassurances of their old culture; Vera repudiated her inheritance, and David decided to date a non-Jewish woman, something that alienates them from their respective family (Zangwill, Act III; Act I). These are not easy decisions to make, and they are an excellent example of the conflicts brought about by assimilating and learning a new culture.

Assimilation is a never-ending process, and it is not always easy. David’s attitude towards his symphony is a perfect example of the doubts and the hardship that one may experience when being asked to assimilate to a new culture, and how these doubts translate into inner and outer conflicts. It is first and foremost a personal experience, as can be seen with David being too shy to present his symphony in the first place to conductor Pappelmeister and his patron Quincy (Act II). In this scene, David will not come out of the kitchen for fear that his symphony is not good enough to be shown to the public. This scene is very representative of the fears some immigrants have of being laughed at due to their failed attempts at Americanization. While commonplace, the fact that David sees his symphony as the “merging” of all races to define the “true American,” reinforces this concept of shame and fear of failure (Act I).

The problem with the symphony as a representation of the assimilation into America is that the symphony has a finite development process. In contrast, immigrants never really stop their assimilating process, even after one or two generations. Studies show that even first, and second, generation immigrants are still assimilating to America, as they oscillate between the culture of their home country or that of their parents. Indeed, children of immigrants will grow up in the American culture but their parents, who were born abroad, could rear them according o their own traditions and customs. Henceforth, children of immigrants are also going through a process of assimilation as they constantly oscillate between two or more cultures. As such, assimilation does not really have a definite endpoint.

Symphonies, on the other hand, have a definite endpoint in the creation process. This discrepancy is apparent at the end of the play when David ran out right after the performance thinking that he had failed and that no one would understand him, that he failed at representing the Crucible and that he needed to stop looking at the past, and focus on the future (Act IV). The extremely demoralized David would not accept his success until a variety of characters applauded his work, and Pappelmeister promised to help make it even greater next time. It could demonstrate that the development of the symphony is not finished, not yet, and that every performance of it will show a slightly different side of America.

Although the topic of assimilation may seem of concern to only a small group of social scientists and worried immigrants, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about the global culture of the United States and is looking for a group to identify with, whether it be culturally, socially or politically. Ultimately, what is at stake here is the future of the spirit of America as the land of opportunity and the ideal of the American dream where if people work hard, they can achieve great things no matter what. It is crucial in terms of today’s concern over which directions the country should take, not only in regards to how open the borders should remain but also how the United States regards and treats different communities.


  1. Israel Zangwill. The Melting-Pot: Drama in Four Acts. New York, Macmillan, 1909.
  2. Laila Lalami. "What Does it Take to 'Assimilate' in America?". New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Company, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/magazine/what-does-it-take-to-assimilate-in-america.html
  3. Peter Skerry. "Do We Really Want Immigrants to Assimilate?". Brookings, The Brookings Institution, 2000. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/do-we-really-want-immigrants-to-assimilate/
  4. Ran Abramitzky. "What History Really Tells Us About Assimilation of Immigrants". Stanford Public Policy Program, Stanford University, 2017. https://publicpolicy.stanford.edu/news/what-history-tells-us-about-assimilation-immigrants
  5. Stuart Hall. "The Work of Representation" Course Reader THEATER 25AC, 2019.
New immigrants coming to Ellis Island in the 1910s, colorized. After a gruesome weeks-long sea voyage with terrible hygienic conditions, new immigrants would sometimes wait for days at Ellis Island waiting to be granted admissions to the United States.
Created By
Julie de Vaulx


Created with an image by Erik Lindgren - "untitled image"