Log in / Register
Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies


No modern state has been constituted by a single, coherent cultural group; all have incorporated disparate and even hostile ethnicities, each with its special history, some with their own language.

Richard Slotkin, “Unit Pride”

Even if Arthur M. Schlesinger in an attempt to identify the cornerstones of American exceptionalism has listed the melting pot among America’s ten great contributions to civilization (cf. Disuniting), the melting pot myth was not an American invention: Israel Zangwill, who popularized the concept in the US and abroad, was a British Jew whose play The Melting Pot entails a transnational vision that negotiates Jewish identity in the diaspora and the role of Judaism in America.

In a scholarly context, a transnational perspective on the melting pot was articulated as early as 1911 in the writings of anthropologist Franz Boas, who did not question the American melting pot as such, yet doubted its exceptionality:

It is often claimed that the phenomenon of mixture presented in the United States is unique; that a similar intermixture has never occurred before in the world’s history; and that our nation is destined to become what some writers choose to term a “mongrel” nation in a sense that has never been equalled anywhere. When we try to analyze the phenomenon in greater detail, and in the light of our knowledge of conditions in Europe as well as in other continents, this view does not seem to me tenable. (“Race Problems” 320)

Boas points to historical evidence of intermixture as the rule rather than the exception in the European context, which could be traced as far back as the Migration Period (Volkerwanderung). In historical perspective, nation-building is quite a recent phenomenon, while intermarriage seems to be quite an old one.

On a transnational, i.e. comparative note, again, we may conclude that whereas the melting pot myth has been central to American self-representations throughout the centuries and into the present, it is by no means a concept that can only be found in the US; melting pot rhetoric has for example also been used in Russian and in Israeli political culture in the context of current immigration debates (cf. Nahshon, Introductory Essay 211). In Israel, “Mizug Galuyot,” i.e. the integration of different communities of immigrants from the Jewish diaspora into Israeli society, can be considered to be the Israeli equivalent of the melting pot model, and the national policy of the “ingathering of exiles” has led to political and sociological discussions about cultural pluralism and ethnic separatism in modern Israeli society with at times explicit reference to Zangwill’s work (cf. Krausz, Studies).

Even if the melting pot already seemed to be “a closed story, an unfashionable concept, a version of repressive assimilation in the service of cultural homogenization” (Wilson, Melting-Pot Modernism 14), it has once again been revitalized in political and scholarly debates following 9/11. Reinventing the Melting Pot, an essay collection published in 2004, may serve as an example that relates the events of 9/11 directly to problems of American identity, society, politics, and culture; 9/11, according to the collection’s editor, triggered intensified “soul-searching” about “what it meant to be American” (Jacoby, “What It Means” 293). Critics such as Peter Salins refer to “the need [post 9/11] to reaffirm our commitment to the American concept of assimilation” (Assimilation 103) and call for “a more forthright discussion of what needs to be done to sustain e pluribus unum for the generations to come” (ibid. 107). In Jacoby’s strange collection, we also find the continued conflation of melting pot logic with assimilation to Americanism. Developments since 9/11 have clearly shown that US “racial nationalism” has not been laid to rest (cf. Gerstle, American Crucible 368-371) but has been merely reconfigured to create new patterns of exclusion (cf. Bakalian and Bozorgmehr, Backlash 9/11; Peek, Behind the Backlash). Post-9/11 racism and xenophobia clearly touch on the melting pot myth: In 2001, Gary Gerstle predicted that “tensions with [...] Islamic fundamentalist groups abroad, could easily generate antagonism toward [...] Muslim Americans living in the United States, thus aiding those seeking to sharpen the sense of American national identity” (American Crucible 371). A comment by rock musician and activist Ted Nugent titled “Multicultural Rot in the Melting Pot,” which was printed in the Washington Post on March 4, 2011, confirms Gerstle’s prediction, as Nugent claims that Islam seeks to dominate the West and warns that the “culture war is on, whether they [i.e. politicians] like it or not.” Nugent rehashes some of the arguments brought forward by Samuel Huntington in his The Clash of Civilizations, a book which amounts to an antithetical configuration to the melting pot myth on a global scale. Huntington challenges and modifies the melting pot myth both for the US and for a transnational context as he declares the end, i.e. the failure of the melting pot with regard to Islam and Muslims in American society; Huntington’s ideas, which “more closely resemble nativist ravings than scholarly assessment” (Glenn, “Critics”), uncannily return us to the discussions around cultural, racial, and religious differences that had already accompanied immigration processes one hundred years prior to Huntington’s polemic.

The visions of the melting pot as a model for American society were radical at the time they were first articulated; as limited as they may have been in other ways, they put into question fixed and static notions of collective American identity as well as notions of Anglo-Saxon dominance and conformity. Presently, the critical potential of the melting pot needs to be reassessed as a model into which both subnational and transnational perspectives are inscribed. The melting pot is a myth that rejects narratives of purity and potentially also simplistic and onesided notions of assimilation. As I have pointed out, the melting pot has become “the standard metaphor for cultural hybridization” (Hansen, Lost Promise 98); in postcolonial studies (cf. e.g. Bhabha, Location), the preoccupation with hybridity can be seen as a return to melting pot theories under the arch of poststructuralism. Over all, as a somewhat skewed metaphor for processes of individual and collective identity formation that are understood as dynamic, provisional, and without closure or final result, the melting pot seems to echo less in theories of assimilation than in theories of hybridization and creolization in an increasingly globalized world (cf. Hannerz, Transnational Connections; Appadurai, Modernity; Pieterse, “Globalisation”).

To end on a lighter note: Philip Gleason lists many culinary manifestations and replacements of the melting pot, like stew, soup, salad, and salad bowl (Speaking 14), as well as Karl E. Meyer’s “pressure cooker” (New America 119). The Melting Pot is now also a chain of franchised fondue restaurants which by picking that name literalized the metaphor and recharged the melting pot’s culinary dimension that it has had all along. The melting pot as a corporate brand projects its name as a euphemistic symbol of a shared culinary feast engaged in by those who can afford to consume in rather than be consumed by a globalized world.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >
Business & Finance
Computer Science
Language & Literature
Political science