The so-called American “melting pot” has long been a cherished dream of utopianists and visionaries, as if a melting pot, a foundry cauldron where intransigent metals were alloyed under extreme heat, were somehow the only way to reconcile the many differences that America welcomed to its shores during the major waves of immigration. The term was coined in 1908 in a play of that name by Israel Zangwill, an aggrieved Zionist from England who had heard about the pogroms occurring in Russia and Poland in the 1880s, and saw firsthand the anti-Semitism brewing in London at the end of the century. His play depicted a kind of New Jerusalem where all immigrants would be welcomed and transformed into happy Americans.
The term caught on and I have often wondered if it wasn’t a way of ignoring the fact that as the boats unloaded from Europe, signs went up in the factories that “No Irish Need Apply.” Sicilians were routinely advised to go to New Orleans, the second point of concentration for Sicilians after New York. A third was in the Brazos Valley, in central Texas. Hot weather, bad soil, miserable markets were all waiting for the swarthy new arrivals, who managed to eke out a living from carpentry, cotton farming, menial jobs. It didn’t spare them the hanging tree, for Louisiana was as eager to execute a Sicilian as it was a black man accused of rape. Scandinavians all went north to Minnesota and Wisconsin to farm in cold weather. The melting pot wasn’t melting any of its ingredients, but rather letting them polarize and cancel out any attempt to create a national democracy.
Immigration reminds me of those parties my grade school hosted now and then, where we were brought together in a vast hall and given instructions to dance to the music screeching from a record player. We had already formed into tiny cliques that rejected outsiders and people we considered “undesirable.” Now we were pushed into the arms of someone we instinctively disliked and counted the seconds until the music stopped. At that moment everyone scattered back to his own group and moodily observed the efforts of teachers to get us up and dancing again. Black students stayed with their kind; Jews and Italians kept to themselves; the blond-haired, taller students were happy to acknowledge their status as the “majority,” maybe the ideal Americans. Whatever the teachers did, nothing worked. We flung ourselves to the edges of the hall as if we were inside a cyclotron. We wouldn’t mix. Maybe we couldn’t mix.
America never really wanted to be the oasis of the world’s disenfranchised. It was founded by English cod fishers, French farmers, a few German and Dutch entrepreneurs, a decidedly western European, white cultural base that had little experience of dealing with southern European, African, Asian people let in as scab labor to keep down wages and push longer-term immigrants west, to get rid of them. Southern Europeans were Catholic, matriarchal people, whereas the northern Europeans who had founded the country came from the industrial cities that rose out of the Protestant Reformation, a fiercely patriarchal culture that denounced idol worship, pantheism, Maryology, the pope, and any other form of belief that ran afoul of the dictates of Calvin and Luther.
America thought like an island, a monoculture, based almost exclusively on the ways of England. It was as if identity could not be made of ingredients other than English ways. Harvard and the other Ivy League schools were like tiny capsules of pure British custom, where Old World oxygen could be breathed before going back into the hated wilderness of the New World. The social hierarchy that formed in the late 18th century put the English immigrants at the top of the heap, followed by other Europeans in descending order, until you reached the Alps, where the immigrant mind froze and shut out everyone else. It was a bit like predestination to be taken to America only to discover that if you came from the wrong country you were doomed to fail.
God help you if you came from eastern and southern Europe. You would be lumped in with the great unwashed and driven into ghettoes. The landscape of New England is studded with the names of English towns, from Boston to New York, all given English street names and English architecture, English food, English law, English learning. The southern states were named after English monarchs, from Queen Caroline to King George and Elizabeth 1. And where Boston was the epicenter of New England, the South broadened its allusions to Greek and Roman names of towns. But no one could imagine embracing the masses coming to its shores much less the vast, unknown terrain that lay west of the Middle Border. Even Thomas Jefferson imagined the land beyond the frontiers was populated by prehistoric monsters and mile-high mountains of crystal. He instructed Lewis and Clark to bring back specimens from this unknown world, including all the freaks of nature they could find.
The mythology of this western frontier included stone-age Indians, thought to be mainly cannibals and demons, bent on destroying any civilization that came near. Hence, the genocide that ensued over the next century, which included not only native Americans but animals and plants that were not part of the European experience, i.e., the thirty million bison that roamed over the Plains. By 1880 or so, only a thousand bison remained after the great kill offs of the preceding twenty years. And Indians were driven off their lands into ghetto-like reservations of sterile earth, where they foundered. The rejected could be found all over the south living in poverty, working as tenant farmers, field hands, factory serfs. Latinos were in similar circumstances throughout Texas and the Southwest. When you make a pie out of one ingredient, England, you find the table littered with rejected scraps of other ingredients whom you ball up and toss into the can.
Although mass movements in the 1960s began to tamper with the hierarchy and question the priorities of those in power, the situation of the rejected was not altered by much. Power and wealth changed hands only within the dynasties that ruled since American independence. A hundred British-descended families have held onto the reins of America for three centuries now. Hardly anyone has broken through the high walls of American exclusionism, and when they do, it doesn’t mean you are an equal, just an arriviste with gaudy tastes and pretensions. Think Trump. Think Ross Perot, and the dirty money of Howard Hughes and his casino kind. No one quite manages to acquire the royal cred of the originals, who mirror the British aristocracy in their traditions and privileges. The Kennedy's acquired a certain panache but they were Irish and their money came from whiskey running during Prohibition. But they could cultivate a fine sense of class by marrying well and living high in manor houses protected by walls and gates. One could mirror the inner world of American power but not quite gain access to it. A DuPont would be slow to shake hands with a Zuckerman or a Gates, but he might reach out to shake a Mellon hand.
The Statue of Liberty is a marvelous symbol of that dream of the melting pot; it was the gift of a grateful France, even if the symbol doesn’t translate into a reality. After all, it is made of metal, a mere sheath of metal around a hollow structure full of supporting girders, not unlike the mechanical symmetry of the Eiffel Tower. You can walk inside it but you cannot animate it enough to make the torch wave in the air or the face turn like some vast image of the Virgin Mary to the horizon to welcome home stragglers. The Golden Gate is also a symbol of entry to the New World, but it too is made of metal and even Hart Crane might find it challenging to make a powerful symbol of connectedness out of it. It ferries strangers from one shore to another, all tiny as dots in the glare of the western sun. A profound feeling of estrangement surrounds the bridge, with its powerful cables holding up a curious kind of frenetic energy, one that disperses people more than it makes a society.
Now the Republican Party has found its mother lode of political gold in a constituency bound by the force of its hatred of others, blacks, Latinos, the poor, the indigent. It mines the rich content of racism and xenophobia as a backlash against the melting pot fantasy. The gutter talk of racial epithets that informed Trump’s campaign launch, in which all the atavistic hatred of Southern Europe borne of two centuries, had found a new voice. As a result, his new poll numbers propelled him from nowhere to number two candidate, just behind Jeb Bush. The magic formula of Republican politics is to milk the acid and poison of race hatred that erupted after Obama’s ascendancy to the White House. It is a winning formula at the state level, but cannot seem to gather momentum at the national level. Why? Because the majority of Americans are the unassimilated immigrants who never found a way to fit in. You can’t peddle white isolationism to a nation now more diverse, from more far-flung places in the world, and expect a plebiscite.
I’m glad we have not all been melted down into a bland alloy called the American. The merchants have tried to fool us into believing that hamburgers and instant cereals are forms of the melting pot, that our clothes and habits and houses are all part of some alloyed reality that hardly changes from town to town across the continent. But an inch below the surface of all this homogeneity are the fires of an ancient, enduring difference in each of us. We are rooted in other cultures and beliefs, and nothing we eat is going to change it. We are, most of us, the rejected others kept out of the halls of power and of wealth, and we resent our peripheral lives. But we also live on the energy of being different, of being something that doesn’t quite belong to a tiny island of thatched cottages, much less a continent that has been torn apart by bloody violence in the name of keeping white culture pure.