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