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V E Pluribus Unum? The Myth of the Melting Pot

Why the Melting Pot?

Imagine if you can, my dear friend, a society comprising all the nations of the world: English, French, German. [...] All people having different languages, beliefs, and opinions. In short, a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without routines, without common ideas, without national character. [...] What ties these very diverse elements together? What makes a people of all this?

Alexis de Tocqueville to Ernest de Chabrol, June 9, 1831

Was it not possible, then, to think of the evolving American society not simply as a slightly modified England but rather as a totally new blend, culturally and biologically, in which the stocks and folkways of Europe were, figuratively speaking, indiscriminately mixed in the political pot of the emerging nation and melted together by the fires of American influence and interaction into a distinctly new type?

Milton Gordon, Assimilation in American Life

A widely known rendering of the melting pot idea is the phrase E Pluribus Unum, on which the US Department of the Treasury provides the following information:

The motto “E Pluribus Unum” was first used on our coinage in 1795, when the reverse of the half-eagle ($5 gold) coin presented the main features of the Great Seal of the United States. “E Pluribus Unum” is inscribed on the Great Seal’s scroll. The motto was added to certain silver coins in 1798, and soon appeared on all of the coins made out of precious metals (gold and silver). In 1834, it was dropped from most of the gold coins to mark the change in the standard fineness of the coins. In 1837, it was dropped from the silver coins, marking the era of the Revised Mint Code. An Act of February 12, 1873 made the inscription a requirement of law upon the coins of the United States.

“E Pluribus Unum” does appear on all coins currently being manufactured. The motto means “Out of Many, One,” and probably refers to the unity of the early States. (US Department of the Treasury website; cf. also below)

Illustration 1: Great Seal of the United States

Wikimedia Commons (Web, 4 May 2014).

E Pluribus Unum is also engraved on the globe at the feet of the Statue of Freedom, the classical female allegorical figure at the top of the US Capitol dome. It can be regarded as an unofficial motto of the United States, and has become a standard manifestation of the melting pot myth, which more than any other foundational myth evokes a vision of national unity and cohesion through participation in a harmonious, quasi-organic community that offers prospective members a second chance and a new beginning and molds them into a new ‘race,’ a new people. Whereas the myths discussed in the preceding chapters (Columbus, Pocahontas, the Pilgrims and Puritans, and the Founding Fathers) established a ‘usable past’ for the nation and commemorated heroic figures of ‘new world’ beginnings, the melting pot, just as the myths discussed in the remaining chapters (the West and the self-made man), is a myth about the making of American society. In its dominant version, it envisions the US in a state of perpetual change and transformation that is partly assimilation, partly regeneration, and partly emergence, and emphasizes the continuous integration of difference experienced by both immigrant and longer-established sections of the population. As imagined communities (cf. Benedict Anderson’s book of the same title), nations not only need narratives of origin, but also narratives of their future - in the case of the US, which looked upon itself as a nation of immigrants, such a forward-looking narrative needed to address how differences of origin and descent could be transcended, and the melting pot seemed to be the perfect model to describe the particular composition of US society:

In general, the cluster of ideas [surrounding the melting pot] included the belief that a new nation, a new national character, and a new nationality were forming in the United States and that the most heterogeneous human materials could be taken in and absorbed into this nationality. (Gleason, Speaking 5)

Of course, from the beginning, the melting pot has been seen as an ambiguous symbol of American unity; it has been looked upon as a myth providing cohesion and a sense of evolving Americanness on the one hand, and as an instrument of forced acculturation and violent assimilation on the other. Several questions suggest themselves when assessing this myth: Who is in the ‘pot’ and who is doing the ‘melting’? What exactly is melted down? Which elements would prove to be resilient or dominant in the process, and with what result? In my discussion of the melting pot myth, I will point to narrative variations, iconic symbolizations, and ritualistic practices that have shaped it across time. This reconstruction reveals, as we will see, that the melting pot myth emerges from a rather confused discourse: the melting pot has been used, first, as a phrase with which historical developments in the US have been described and projected into the future; it has been used, second, as a normative concept in order to affirm the melting pot at various moments in American history; and it has been used, third, as an analytic term in order to study cultural, social, and demographic processes in American society. These three different modes (descriptive, normative, and analytical) are usually not properly distinguished, which at times makes it difficult to keep them apart; normative frameworks in particular often appropriate a descriptive mode and/or immunize themselves against criticism by pretending to be analytical. The melting pot in all three modes (as history, program, and analytical category) appears to be infused with an exceptionalist logic and a civil religious dimension that invariably reinforce its mythic quality. Melting pot rhetoric often describes the overcoming of cultural and national differences in general, but at times it more specifically is about racial, religious, or class differences. These oscillations and variations contribute to the elasticity of the myth even as they often render discussions of the melting pot quite ambiguous and contradictory.

In what follows, I will sketch several phases in the making, remaking, and unmaking of the myth of the melting pot. First, I will trace melting pot mythmaking from the foundational phase of the United States in the second half of the 18th century, during which a number of now canonical texts articulated this myth in powerful ways, all the way through the 19th century. Second, I will address Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot (1908) in some detail, as it is a singularly important narrative of melting pot rhetoric and aesthetic and as such will serve as a touchstone for subsequent discussions of the myth of the melting pot. Third, I will reconstruct responses to the myth in the late 19th and early 20 th centuries, a period in which it became a central reference point for discussions of immigration and America’s future and a highly contested metaphor of Progres- sivist thinking that was attacked from different positions on the political spectrum - from advocates of cultural pluralism on the left as well as from advocates of eugenics on the right. Fourth, I will look at sections of the population that have been regularly excluded by melting pot rhetoric: minority groups such as Native Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans. If nation-building is intricately intertwined with racialization (cf. Weinbaum, “Nation”), then the melting pot metaphor - despite its ostensibly inclusivist orientation - implies exclusionary practices, just as any other model that constructs a homogenous national body from a racially diverse population. Debates around forms of “American Apartheid” (cf. Massey and Denton’s book of the same title), taboos on miscegenation, and a new emphasis on religious difference within the melting pot discourse also need to be addressed in this section. Fifth, I will turn to the post-World War II period in order to show how the melting pot controversies were continued and renewed in the wake of the social protest movements and new immigration legislation in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in discussions of Nathan Glazer and Patrick Moynihan’s by now classic study Beyond the Melting Pot (1963). I will then outline how more recent discussions of the melting pot have been informed by notions of multiculturalism and ethnic diversity. In recent years, we have also seen a (re)turn to models of assimilation (cf. e.g. Salins, Assimilation) which often affirm and rehash older, rather conservative positions; at the same time, alternatives to the melting pot such as the mosaic, the salad bowl, cultural hybridity, etc. have been discussed in American studies and postcolonial studies scholarship.

The melting pot myth thus has been used in very different ways and for different political purposes. It has been the subject of sociological discussions as well as of immigrant love stories; it is a model of literary aesthetics as well as a metaphor for change and hybridity, and it is also at the core of some strands of utopian thinking. Above all, one might say that it is a myth of cultural mobility and cultural sharing. Despite having lost mainstream popularity in recent years, melting pot rhetoric still enjoys some currency, as the issues that the melting pot myth tackles - i.e., processes of voluntary or coerced political, social, and/or cultural integration - are still on the agenda. In fact, recent scholarship stresses the “ideological variability of the melting pot” (Wilson, Melting-Pot Modernism 7) and identifies it with the first cultural turn in American history (cf. ibid. 198). However, the notion of culture and society that the metaphor of the melting pot conjures up remains problematic and does not lend itself easily to ideological rearticulations: alloying, the metaphor’s source, always involves a primary constituent into which the other constituents are dissolved. Literalizing the melting pot metaphor thus points to built-in asymmetries, limitations, and pitfalls of the concept which the foundational and exceptionalist version of the myth has often successfully managed to camouflage.

 
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