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The American Melting Pot Avedis Tufenkjian

How did the play, "The Melting Pot" inadvertently affect America socially and politically for centuries to come?

Abstract

Upon its release in the early 1900's, Israel Zangwill's play, "The Melting Pot" had a lasting affect, contributing to the building of the "American Identity." The main subject in question is "How did the play, 'The Melting Pot' inadvertently and quietly affect America socially and politically for centuries to come?" From past U.S. presidents raving about the play and citing it in a national speech to being rebranded and reperformed in the modern day, both on the stage and in real life "The Melting Pot" seeped into American culture and help popularize the term, "melting pot" as describing America. The term "melting pot" and its performance of America fueled America's superiority complex as a self-proclaimed bastion of enlightenment.

Visualizing the American Melting Pot

Pictured in the top left hand corner is The American "melting pot" as described in the play and performance. The picture is straight from the production. This is said to be the first ever image of America being represented as a literal melting pot. As pictured, an American seal is on a large brass pot being cooked over flame. The Statue of Liberty is pictured on the left with people going through it, possibly representing people coming into America as they embody the American dream. People entering the Melting Pot are in varying colors perhaps showing the varying ethnic groups coming into America and mixing into the Melting Pot. The picture to the right is another representation of America and American citizenship as a Melting Pot. This picture came from around the same time period. America is pictured as a woman with a spoon stirring the pot of clearly agitating groups of angry citizens. The citizens appear to be from a lower class and appear to be minority migrant groups. Unlike the original play, this puts the idea of American Melting Pot in a more negative light. What is interesting about this picture is that the woman representing America is wearing an American flag as a garment which is often seen as being disrespectful. The third picture shows America as a Melting Pot in the form of flags joining together to create an American flag, cooking in a pot. This appears to be a neutral depiction of the idea of America as a Melting Pot.

Essay

The play, The Melting Pot by Israel Zangwill quietly changed America and its self image forever. It effectively help build the American identity and fueled America's superiority complex as a self-proclaimed “bastion of enlightenment.” In the play, America’s performance as being a diverse, prejudice-free society, united under the guise of being “American,” can be summed up by one phrase coined by the play: “melting pot.”

The use of the term “melting pot” to describe America has no doubt, been an important phrase in defining America and its culture and politics throughout the 1900s and 2000s. The term, often used today, refers to America as a diverse combination of different people groups who mesh together to form the American identity. This seemingly unimportant term, has effectively established a long-lasting symbol of America and its culture.

Pictured here is a graduation ceremony at the Ford Motor Company English School, where immigrant employees could learn English and take civics lessons to prepare for becoming U.S. citizens. Per the Henry Ford website, "At the graduation ceremony, students wearing clothing from their native countries descended into a large "American Melting Pot" and emerged wearing homogenous suits and waving American flags." In the image, a large melting pot labeled "Ford English School" and "The American Melting Pot" below it was also used as a stage for speeches and for students to receive their diplomas on, as they join the American Melting Pot. This shows the "Melting Pot" ideology permeating relatively rapidly through American society, and its large-scale effect on people and culture. This ceremony was in 1917, nine years after the play's first showing.

The use of the phrase ‘melting pot’ in describing America was first used in Zangwill’s play. “Understand that 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, here you stand in your fifty groups, your fifty languages, and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won't be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you've come to—these are fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American. It is the Fires of God round His Crucible. There she lies, the great Melting-Pot—Listen! Can't you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth, the harbor where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. Ah, Vera, what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!” Quotes like these throughout the play, birthed the idea of America being represented as a melting pot. From The Melting Pot, America as a melting pot came to represent more than just an assimilated America. It came to represent a novel idea in the history of the world, something unique, an experiment “gone right”—a country in which its home peoples, encompass all people groups, blended together in a large melting pot. Since its initial establishment after The Melting Pot’s premier in 1908, the phrase slowly assimilated into American culture, being cited as far as in Presidential National Addresses and political cartoons. It soon outgrew its humble beginnings, and today very few people who use the term actually know of its origin. Today, over a century later, it is synonymous with America’s unique diversity.

The term "melting pot," coined by Zangwill's play came into general usage in 1908, after the premiere of the play The Melting Pot. The spike in the usage of the term "melting pot" directly after 1908 is clear to see in this N-gram plot.

As shown from the graph above there was a sharp rise in the use of the word melting pot in literature and speeches and other written sources, directly after the publication of the play in 1908, owing to “melting pot’s” new-found definition, solidifying its role in American culture. This upward trend continued through the 2000s, with the term being kept relevant majorly by news outlets, as anti-globalist ideologies began to take root in the 1910's to the 1940's to challenge the American "melting pot" values following the large influx of non-white immigrants through Ellis Island.

A newspaper clipping from October 5, 1908, outlining President Roosevelt's visit to the opening of The Melting Pot

The phrase “melting pot” encapsulated the way America was performed and portrayed in the play which was one of the first times race and equality was tackled together on a large stage environment. Specifically in the play, America the melting pot was performed as a safe haven for refugees of the minority religion of Judaism in America. The melting pot represented a bastion of enlightenment and a place where liberty and equity are supreme, somewhere where discriminated groups can seek shelter and be mixed into the American ‘melting pot.’ Most importantly, America is performed as a place that ideally would be immune to prejudice. America offered shelter to David Quixano, the man running for his life from injustices taking place halfway across the world. The most impactful delivery point of The Melting Pot in the way it paints its idea of America is when David Quixano marries the daughter of the man who killed his family. For David Quixano this represents America as a place immune to prejudice, a place where old vendettas have no place, where discrimination⁠—even towards the daughter of the man who killed one’s family⁠—did not belong. The melting pot was a place where one could start fresh. In this regard, The Melting Pot performs America as an enlightened society. This diverse, near-utopian society presented in The Melting Pot was revolutionary in its presentation. The message of the play was first, legitimized by President Roosevelt, who watched the play on opening night. He later, went out of his way to give the play rave reviews in its description of America, and reportedly shouting “That's a great play, Mr. Zangwill,” immediately after the final scene. The president’s vocal approval no doubt help push the message of America and the melting pot to the mainstream.

Pictured here are modern day examples of the American Melting Pot. Much like the second picture in the previous photo grid, these political cartoons of America being a Melting Pot puts the idea introduced as inherently good in the play, as something that may not be so good. In the first picture, America is shown as a much less glamorous cast iron pot with ingredients including "Muslim," "Latino," "Asian," and "Arab," which were not included in the original idea of the Melting Pot presented in the play. In the bottom right corner someone had added poison to the pot, labeled "Trump." The so-called American Melting Pot has been poisoned by modern day politics and policies. Below that picture is another political cartoon of America as a Melting Pot of hate. This seems to show that America has since separated from their initial ideals of having the country as a place where people can come together. President Trump is stirring the pot which include ingredients such as "American ideals," "nation of immigrants" and an eroding, melting Statue of Liberty. This pot is also much less glamorous, with the word "hate" written on it. The third picture of the group, also paints the idea as bad, with President Trump tweeting on his phone in the corner.

The fantastical message and values of the American melting pot, doesn’t always translate as cleanly to American society as one may think. With the implementation of government action such as the creation of Ellis Island to facilitate immigration or citizenship laws deeming who is white and who isn’t, makes the melting pot a largely politically-driven ideal. This, unsurprisingly, has led to some unfortunate results and racial clashes throughout history such as the phenomenon of redlining or the mistreatment of Mexican-American immigrants. The government's version of the melting pot can be clearly visualized through Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation Theory where the American melting pot subject different American people groups to different treatment largely though direct and indirect political force. These historical actions send a clear message that maybe not everyone in America, whether they want to or not, is included in the happy utopian melting pot. Today, this version of America’s melting pot are shown in the negative political cartoons.

Israel Zangwill quietly changed America and its self image forever in his play The Melting Pot. It effectively helped build the American identity at the time and fueled America's superiority complex as a self-proclaimed bastion of enlightenment, united under the term “melting pot.” The metaphor, first introduced in the play in 1908 refers to a diverse, prejudice-free society, united under the guise of being “American.” The term “melting pot” has no doubt, been an important phrase in defining America and its culture and politics for the past century. The term is still commonly used today, especially in the age of Trump and still refers to America as a diverse combination of different people groups who mesh together to form the American identity. It came to represent a novel idea in the history of the world—a country in which its population, encompass all people, blended together in a large melting pot. The way America was portrayed in the play was one of the first times America was performed mainstream as a safe haven in the world causing a domino effect revolutionizing how America, the melting pot saw itself.

Description

My primary object of study is Isreal Zangwill's play, The Melting Pot. I will focus in on two historically important aspects of the play. I will look at The Melting Pot's performance of America and how it shaped the American identify and mindset in the early 1900's and I will analyze how coining the term "melting pot" as a way to describe America had a lasting impact on the next decades. In the play, The Melting Pot, the main character, David Quixano escapes Russia⁠—where he was persecuted for being Jewish⁠—and found a safe haven in the "melting pot" of the United States. The act of America is performed as a safe haven for a refugee of a minority religion in America. Through this, America is displayed to represent a self proclaimed bastion of enlightenment as well as a place where liberty and equity are supreme, somewhere where discriminated groups can seek shelter and be mixed into the American ‘melting pot.’ Through my careful analysis and research and culmination of diverse images from multiple sources, time periods, and view points above, I seek to answer the question "How did the play, 'The Melting Pot' inadvertently and quietly affect America in social and political for centuries to come?"

Bibliography

Szuberla, Guy. “Zangwill's The Melting Pot Plays Chicago.” MELUS, vol. 20, no. 3, 1995, pp. 3–20. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/467739.

Buelens, Gert. “Beyond Ethnicity?” Journal of American Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, 1989, pp. 315–320. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27555188.

Rochelson, Meri-Jane. A Jew in the Public Arena: the Career of Israel Zangwill. Wayne State University Press, 2010.

Vought, Hans P. The Bully Pulpit and the Melting Pot: American Presidents and the Immigrant, 1897-1933. Mercer University Press, 2004

Reagan, Ronald. “Address to the Nation on Education” National Speech. Dec. 1983.

The Melting Pot, e-book, Gutenberg Project