Segment from The Melting Pot

A Man and a Metaphor

Brian sits down with scholar Edna Nahshon to discuss one of America’s most enduring civic metaphors: the melting pot. They also dive into the surprising history of the man who helped make the melting pot a popular image.


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MALE SPEAKER: Well, we need to insist, people that want to come to our country should come legally, should learn English, should adopt our values, roll up their sleeves, and get to work.

MALE SPEAKER: I can say, as an immigrant, if I wanted to maintain Indian culture, I could have stayed in India.

BILL MAHER (ON TV): If you’re going to come to the melting pot, melt a little. You’ve got to melt a little.

NATHAN: So today on the show, we’re looking at assimilation in America, the idea that Americans, both past and present, have an obligation to adapt to the so-called mainstream culture. Is there one path to becoming an American or many different narratives, depending on one’s race, religion, or culture?

BRIAN: We’ll hear stories about Japanese-Americans trying to become 100% American in wartime Chicago and boarding schools that tried to civilize Native American children. We’ll also explore whether assimilation was even an option for African Americans in the era of Jim Crow.

JOANNE: But first, Americans have used a variety of metaphors to describe immigration and assimilation– a salad bowl, a symphony, and a mosaic. But no image has been as enduring as the melting pot. This is the idea that, like steel in a crucible or cheese in a fondue, immigrants will shed their differences and meld together to become Americans.

NATHAN: The melting pot metaphor took off in popular culture in the early 20th century. More immigrants than ever were coming to the United States, including millions from Southern and Eastern Europe. Immigration peaked in 1907, when 1.3 million immigrants arrived in that single year.

BRIAN: In October of 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt stepped out to see a hot new play by a British author. He was a personal friend of Roosevelt named Israel Zangwill. The play was called– you guessed it– The Melting Pot.

EDNA NAHSHON: It was a long production. I think it lasted over three hours.

BRIAN: Three hours?

EDNA NAHSHON: Yeah. Well, you know, theater, in the old days, gave you your money’s worth.

BRIAN: This is historian Edna Nahshon. She says the hero of The Melting Pot is a Russian-Jewish immigrant named David Quixano who has embraced his new life in America. His older relatives are much more ambivalent.

Now, we’re not going to make you sit through the full, three-hour production. But Nahshon says the play’s closing moments convey its hopeful message. At the end of the play, David stands on a rooftop looking out over New York Harbor with his Christian fiancee, Vera.

EDNA NAHSHON: “There she lies, the great melting pot. Listen. Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian, black and yellow,” and Vera interject, “Jew and Gentile.” And David goes on, “yes, how the great alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame.

Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. 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 labor and look forward?” And the president just stood up and yelled, “it’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill!” So it was very enthusiastically received.

BRIAN: Critics weren’t quite as enthusiastic as Roosevelt was on opening night. But the play did launch “the melting pot” as a kind of shorthand for assimilation. Melting pots soon began popping up all over, sometimes in very strange places.

EDNA NAHSHON: For instance, in 1916, a melting pot pageant was organized by the Ford Motor Company, where immigrants in original, native dress went into a very large pot topped by the inscription E pluribus unum, then reemerged in American business clothes holding an American flag and naturalization paper. This was not Zangwill.

BRIAN: Nahshon says Zangwill was often frustrated by the way some Americans, like Henry Ford, for instance, used his metaphor to promote conformity. That wasn’t his vision at all. The son of East European Jewish immigrants, Zangwill grew up poor in London’s East End.

He never actually lived in the United States, but he did admire the ethnic and racial diversity that he observed on his frequent visits. Zangwill was well-known in the US as an author and a Zionist activist. He saw America as a place where Jewish refugees could prosper without having to relinquish their religious identity.

EDNA NAHSHON: And he corrected those who he thought misread his play. And here’s what he writes in 1914. That is five years after the play is produced on stage. “The process of American amalgamation is not assimilation or simple surrender to the dominant type, as is popularly supposed, but an all-round give and take by which the final type may be enriched or impoverished.”

And again, in 1923, on his last visit to America, he warned against an America that misunderstands the richness produced by the diversity of its people. So no, he did not want a zillion little clones who all spoke the same language, thought the same thoughts, dressed the same way, and totally lost their own self.

BRIAN: How did Zangwill’s image of America captured by this metaphor, the melting pot, how did that square with the real America? I mean, surely there was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment. There were already discussions of restricting immigration. Some immigrants were associated with radical political ideas. How did this image of the melting pot square with reality?

EDNA NAHSHON: Well, first of all, I have to say that America, to Zangwill, was not so much the real America, as we think of it. It was an ideal and an idea. What he presented is a very idealized version of, really, of a new creation of the world. Now, did others see it the same way? Not necessarily.

BRIAN: Did he ever come to doubt the America that all of these immigrants were melting into?

EDNA NAHSHON: No, he would call on America to rise up to his ideal. And again, in 1914, he said when he’s faced with people who complain about various aspects of American society, he says that “America is not yet fit to be a melting pot, I quite agree. But the object of my play is to shame it into greater fitness. I have recalled America to the noble conception of its Constitution. It is up to America to do the rest.”

BRIAN: Have you ever seen the play performed?


BRIAN: So what was your reaction the first time you saw it performed?

EDNA NAHSHON: It was done in 2006 at a small theater in New York called The Metropolitan Theater. And I was stunned when they contacted me and said they’re doing a full production of the play. I thought it was a very old and worn warhorse and that the rhetoric was just too much for our time.

And I was supposed to do a talk-back and said, no one’s going to stay for this. This is crazy. If it were me, I would just leave. And to my surprise, great surprise, almost everyone stayed.

And the audience was not a Jewish audience, even though the play’s a very Jewish play. And there were Asian people, there were people from the Caribbean, a total mixture of audiences. And people started talking. And I remember one girl said, this is just like my own family.

And then, other people butted in. And you realized that he touched, even though the play is kind of specific and very much of its time, he touched on something very, very deep that, as long as, you know, America is a nation of immigrants– is very much alive. So yes, the production worked, to my great surprise.

BRIAN: And what was your reaction? Were you still moved, even though you’ve studied every word of this play?

EDNA NAHSHON: You’re still moved by some of it, yes. The grand finale never ceases to amaze people and to evoke very strong feelings. Because the inclusion, at such an early date, of other religions, of other races, is quite something.

BRIAN: As you know, both immigration and assimilation are very much in the news today. And I would like to know from you what you think the meaning of the melting pot is today and whether that idea really endures.

EDNA NAHSHON: I think it does endure. When you live in New York, it certainly endures. Does it mean that you lose yourself in this melting pot, that you become an Anglo-Saxon, so to speak?

I mean, that ideal is over. The WASPs are no longer in control. And it’s really, it’s pointless to even talk about that.

But I think we do. We do live in a society where, A, we have to, and B, we also want to engage with people who are different. And that’s the way it is. Just walk on a New York street, and you see it.

JOANNE: Edna Nahshon is a theater professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and editor of From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot, Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Plays. Earlier in the show, we heard from Boston University historian Bruce Shulman.