Against the “Melting Pot” Metaphor
On Arguments Over Americanization and Homogenized Culture
In February 1915 the Nation magazine had run a two-part essay, “Democracy versus the Melting Pot: A Study of American Nationality,” by Horace Kallen, at that point a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In a frontal challenge to the Americanization movement, Kallen argued that it promoted not a melding of many cultures but the predominance of one. “Jews, Slavs, Poles, Frenchmen, Germans, Hindus, Scandinavians and so on” were supposedly to be transmuted by the “‘the miracle of assimilation’ into beings similar in background, tradition, outlook, and spirit to the descendants of the British colonists, the Anglo-Saxon stock.” The Anglo-Americans, in their guise as ur-Americans, presumed to rule by right of “cultural primogeniture.” The first immigrants, through the accident of being first, had become an aristocracy, advocates “of the pride of blood.” This was not only anti-democratic, but also authoritarian, as resistance by subordinated ethnics was met with coercive measures like the Anglo-supremacist public school system, which attempted to eradicate old-country ways by crushing the spirit of immigrant pupils.
Why did the Americanizers act this way? To some extent, it was a simple matter of self-interest; many advantages accrued to the firstborn son in a patriarchal culture. But Kallen believed the justification also rested on a confusion about the relationship between the state and civil society. The Anglo-Americans assumed that the survival of the nation hinged on cultural uniformity, as it did in European countries. A nation divided against itself could not stand. Dual loyalty was an impermissible contradiction in terms.
For Kallen this was a false dilemma. There was a fundamental difference, he argued, between a “nation of nations” and a “confederation of cultures.” It was the latter term that summed up more precisely the peculiar status of the United States, a country constructed through an ingathering of peoples. The various “cultures” (a.k.a. “races” or “ethnicities” or “nationalities”) were the building blocks of civil society. Each ethnic group expressed its emotional and voluntary life in its own language, using its own aesthetic and intellectual forms. Their enclaves were the sites of their most intimate social relations, the deepest sources of cultural identity, the domain of religion and kinship, and the terrain within which the citizen “lives and moves and has his being.”
The state was an altogether different thing. It provided the framework for, and upheld the rules of, the democratic political system, and its proceedings were appropriately transacted in English, the lingua franca of the commonwealth. The role of the state, which should belong to no particular ethnicity, was to guarantee the independent existence of its component socio-cultural parts. The state’s business was not to impose homogeneity but to protect difference. Its motto, Kallen might have said, should not be E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One), but In Uno Plures (In One, Many).
The Americanization process could also do with a better metaphor, Kallen thought—not the Zangwillian melting pot, but a symphony orchestra:
As in an orchestra, every type of instrument has its specific timbre and tonality, founded in its substance and form; as every type has its appropriate theme and melody in the whole symphony, so in society each ethnic group is the natural instrument, its spirit and culture are its theme and melody, and the harmony and dissonances and discords of them all make the symphony of civilization.
Kallen’s focus, to be sure, was almost completely on the “harmony” piece, as was Zangwill’s; he hoped that “‘American civilization’ may come to mean perfection of the cooperative harmonies of ‘European civilization,’ the waste, the squalor, and the distress of Europe being eliminated.”
More broadly, Kallen thought the Anglo-conformist vision deeply misguided in scorning precisely what was most remarkable about the multi-cultural society that had emerged, unplanned, on the American strand. And in 1915, with Americanization advocates gaining strength, it seemed to Kallen that the country was approaching a crossroads. What do we want the United States to be, he asked, “a unison, singing the old Anglo-Saxon theme,” or “a harmony, in which that theme shall be dominant, perhaps, among others, but one among many, not the only one?”
Kallen’s essay attracted the attention of another titan of pragmatism, John Dewey, whom he had met in Cambridge in 1905 or 1906. Kallen struck up a correspondence with the Columbia-based philosopher, and continued it when he accepted a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin. Kallen also visited Dewey in New York. During the summer of 1917, he taught at Columbia on Dewey’s invitation, and was invited back in the spring of 1918 to give a course of lectures, after which he settled in Gotham permanently.
In responding to Kallen’s essay, both in personal correspondence and public essays, Dewey agreed strongly with much of the analysis. “I never did care for the melting pot metaphor,” he said. “To maintain that all the constituent elements, geographical, racial and cultural in the United States should be put in the same pot and turned into a uniform and unchanging product is distasteful.” Indeed, “the concept of uniformity and unanimity in culture is rather repellent.”
He agreed, too, that the “Americanization” campaign was a cover for Anglo-supremacists. “I want to see this country American,” Dewey wrote Kallen, “and that means the English tradition reduced to a strain among others.” In an essay of 1916 he underscored this, using Kallen’s preferred metaphor, insisting that “Neither Englandism nor NewEnglandism, . . . any more than Teuton or Slav, can do anything but furnish one note in a vast symphony.”
Dewey also accepted that “our unity cannot be a homogeneous thing like that of the separate states of Europe.” “Hyphenism” was to be welcomed. “Variety is the spice of life, and the richness and attractiveness of social institutions depend upon cultural diversity among separate units. In so far as people are all alike, there is no give and take among them. And it is better to give and take.” The United States should extract “from each people its special good, so that it shall surrender into a common fund of wisdom and experience what it especially has to contribute. All of these surrenders and contributions taken together create the national spirit of America.” Only in this sense was assimilation acceptable. Indeed, “genuine assimilation to one another—not to Anglo-Saxondom—seems to be essential to an American. That each cultural section should maintain its distinctive literary and artistic traditions seems to me most desirable, but in order that it might have the more to contribute to others.”
Dewey did have some reservations about Kallen’s argument. For one, it seemed to assume harmony was the default state of inter-ethnic relations. “I quite agree with your orchestra idea,” Dewey explained, “but upon condition we really get a symphony and not a lot of different instruments playing simultaneously.” Civic obligation was not sufficiently emphasized in Kallen’s pluralism, focused as it was on the parts rather than the whole.
Provincialism was a second concern. “The dangerous thing is for each factor to isolate itself, to try to live off its past, and then to attempt to impose itself on other elements, or at least keep itself intact and thus refuse to accept what other cultures have to offer.” This shoe best fit the Anglos, to be sure, but any ethnicity could fall prey to narrow loyalties and parochial prejudices.
Then there was Kallen’s emphasis on ethnic continuity rather than change. Kallen implied that ethnics were virtually unmeltable, and suggested that Americanizers had been misled into thinking them readily remoldable because they concentrated on superficial externalities. It was true, Kallen argued, that greenhorns often embraced assimilation as an economic strategy, and adopted American speech, clothes, and manners. But once the immigrant attained a certain level of acceptance and stability, assimilation slowed, even stopped, and ideals of nationality resurged. The “wop changes into a proud Italian; the hunky into a proud nationalist Slav.” At times Kallen seemed to suggest a biological basis to this stasis, with his talk about “ancestral endowments,” though he never actually wandered into Madison Grant territory, and his focus on fixity could be put down to obdurate cultures.
A year after Kallen’s Nation essay, a more dynamic objection to the melting pot metaphor was advanced by Randolph Bourne, an acquaintance of Kallen and a disciple of Dewey. Bourne was not an academic, but a journalist and self-described member of New York’s “younger intelligentsia,” yet his relations with Columbia College had been transformative. He’d had a difficult childhood in suburban Bloomfield, New Jersey, where he’d suffered from the collapse of the family fortune in the Panic of 1893 and from multiple physical handicaps: his features had been badly mangled by a forceps at birth, and he’d developed a hunchback from a bout of spinal tuberculosis at the age of 4.
In 1909, Columbia provided him with a full academic scholarship. There he was introduced to the writings of James and Boas, developed socialist politics in part through his classes with Beard, and became a student of Dewey, seeing in his pragmatism “an edge on it that would slash up the habits of thought, the customs and institutions in which our society has been living for centuries.” After graduating in 1913, he spent a year in Europe, then moved to the Village and joined the radical scene. He got a staff job at the New Republic and published there in 1915 his series of articles applauding the Gary Plan. But feeling himself marginalized, he turned for outlets to other magazines, and in July 1916 he gave his “Trans-National America,” a piece inspired by Kallen’s work, to the Atlantic Monthly.
“No reverberatory effect of the great war,” ran his opening sentence, “has caused American public opinion more solicitude than the failure of the ‘melting-pot.’ . . . We have had to watch hard-hearted old Brahmins virtuously indignant at the spectacle of the immigrant refusing to be melted… We have had to listen to publicists who express themselves as stunned by the evidence of vigorous traditionalistic and cultural movements in this country among Germans, Scandinavians, Bohemians and Poles, while in the same breath they insist that the alien shall be forcibly assimilated to that Anglo-Saxon tradition which they unquestioningly label ‘American.’”
Far more vigorously than had Kallen—aided perhaps by himself being of ancient English stock—Bourne ripped into Anglo-American hypocrisy. The truth was “that no more tenacious cultural allegiance to the mother country has been shown by any alien nation” than by the Anglo-Saxon descendants in the United States. “English snobberies, English religion, English literary styles, English literary reverences and canons, English ethics, English superiorities, have been the cultural food that we have drunk in from our mothers’ breasts.” The war had exacerbated such sentiments, revealing the Anglos to be “still loving English things, owing allegiance to the English Kultur, moved by English shibboleths and prejudice. It is only because it has been the ruling class in this country . . . that we have not heard copiously and scornfully of ‘hyphenated English-Americans.’” In truth, the Anglo-Saxon element “is guilty of just what every dominant race is guilty of in every European country: the imposition of its own culture upon the minority peoples.”
Fortunately, Americanization had failed. “The strong cultural movements represented by the foreign press, schools, and colonies” were positioned to save the United States from cultural stagnation, precisely because they “have not been melted down or run together, made into some homogeneous Americanism.” Rather the country had become “a cosmopolitan federation of national colonies, of foreign cultures, from whom the sting of devastating competition has been removed. America is already the world federation in miniature, the continent where for the first time in history has been achieved that miracle of hope, the peaceful living side by side, with character substantially preserved, of the most heterogeneous peoples under the sun.” America, Bourne asserted, “is a unique sociological fabric, and it bespeaks poverty of imagination not to be thrilled at the incalculable potentialities of so novel a union of men.”
If “America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors,” then it follows, Bourne argued, that “any movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, or disentangle the threads of the strands, is false to this cosmopolitan vision.” Trans-nationalism was the antidote to the “belligerent, exclusive, inbreeding” nationalism, “the poison of which we are witnessing now in Europe.” Which was why he was “almost fanatically against the current programs of Americanism, with their preparedness, conscription, imperialism, integration issues, their slavish imitation of the European nationalisms which are slaying each other before our eyes.”
From Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919. Used with permission of Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2017 by Mike Wallace.