The (S)melting Pot
If you have never read the play, The Melting Pot, and you care about what kind of nation, what kind of moral community, the United States should be, I encourage you to read it. Thanks to the Gutenberg Project, the play is available free and online.
For many years, I’ve dismissed the metaphor of America as a melting pot. I knew the idea gained cultural currency due to Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play of the same name. But I had no idea of the content of that play until recently reading Yascha Mounk’s book, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. His work encouraged me to find the play and read it. I hope you will do the same.
The story tells of a Jewish Russian refugee, David, who is writing a symphony called “The Crucible,” in which he envisions America as a great refining pot in which representative members of the human race stream. (One of the great problems of Zangwill’s play is the near absence of Americans from anywhere but Europe. Critics of the play rightly say that not everyone is invited into the melting. Does the metaphor also apply to Native Americans and Black Americans? The historical evidence would say no. But, please, read on and judge for yourself whether or not the metaphor might work.)
David and Vera, a Russian Christian immigrant, fall in love; but then the lovers discover that Vera’s father is responsible for the pogrom during which David’s family was slaughtered. Their love, and David’s conception of what America is, are threatened by this revelation. Nevertheless, Vera encourages David to finish his symphony, to realize his vision in music. The play closes with the sun rising on the city, the protagonists kissing and pledging their love, and the audience cheering wildly.
Schlocky, right? Yes and… Or yes, but…
Before reading the play, I thought of the melting pot as a cooking kettle for creating a lovely stew, gently simmering. Or maybe the pot is like a fondue pot and the restaurant chain of the same name as the play.
However, the pot Zangwill envisioned is not a nice heirloom cast iron kettle simmering on low or a fondue pot bubbling atop a mild Sterno flame. The pot is a crucible, as the symphony is named. The melting pot, the smelting pot, the crucible is for subjecting the contents to heat sufficient to separate the ore from the pure metal.
This is a refiner’s fire.
In the play, David proclaims:
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, with 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 the 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.
Hear the concern for leaving the feuds and hatreds of the Old Country behind. Becoming an American, Zangwill is saying, requires smelting out the hate.
He further says that Euro-Americans are now in the crucible rather than in their finished form. God is not done making Americans. The heat is on.
So, to come to America means to submit oneself to God’s intense refiner’s fire. One does not exit the crucible with the same composition one had upon entering. Each must be made new.
Sounding religious to you yet?
And then comes:
At the close of the play, as the sun rises, David looks to the light and prophesies (a word I am borrowing from the stage directions):
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 harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian,—black and yellow—ah, finally; but still not red in the mind of a New York-oriented European immigrant]
VERA [Softly, nestling to him]
Jew and Gentile——
Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—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. 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!
[He raises his hands in benediction over the shining city.]
Peace, peace, to all ye unborn millions, fated to fill this giant continent—the God of our children give you Peace.
The Republic of Man (Humankind) and the Kingdom of God? Looking forward rather than backwards? Zangwill’s vision is, fundamentally, religious, resonating with the Social Gospel aspirations of the day.
So, Zangwill’s metaphor is not oriented toward blending everyone together into a stew in which one cannot taste the difference between a potato and a carrot. The melting pot is a refiner’s fire lit to smelt out feuds and hatred of “the other.” It is the place of the Divine Alchemist’s work to create a nation gathered from around the globe that will be smelted—not melted—together.
Given the public rise in our day of white Christian nationalism, and politicized polarization among nearly all the rest of us, we could do worse than playing again with America as God’s smelting pot. We are all in the pot, the heat is intense, we all have hatreds and fears from which we need to be freed, and God is not yet done making America into what it ought to be.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Peluso-Verdend is teaching a free, online course in September and October regarding the meaning and value of America’s original motto, e pluribus unum, one from many. For information, write email@example.com.
Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.