Images of America: Are we still a Melting Pot? Were we ever?

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Images of America

wpid-dc_Israel_Zangwill_The_Melting_Pot.jpgSome of the photographs in our United America gallery represent national symbols.

These powerful, iconic ideas play a special role in American society. Most other nations are what we call birthright nations. The feeling of belonging to a “people” comes from common ancestry, history, customs, language, and religion. America, however, is not a birthright nation. The sense of belonging to the American people comes from a commitment to a set of ideas and ideals.

Today, we’re looking at one of the major symbols of the 20th century: The Melting Pot.

This particular image portrays an earlier—perhaps an out of date—form of cultural unification. It’s a poster for The Melting Pot, a play by Israel Zangwill that debuted to rave reviews in 1909.

The Zangwill drama borrows from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy about star-crossed lovers from two warring families. Zangwill set his play in New York City—a sort of West Side Story before its time—where the Romeo figure (named David in the play) is a Russian Jew who escaped an infamously brutal pogrom and the Juliet character (named Vera) is a Christian settlement worker, also a Russian immigrant. When “Romeo” learns that “Juliet’s” father directed the very pogroms he escaped, they are torn apart. Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy, however, The Melting Pot has a happy American ending—the lovers reconcile.

The idea of a cultural smelting pot, crucible, or melting pot can be traced back at least to the 18th century, but Zangwill’s play popularized the idea of America as a place where differences were dissolved into a cultural whole.

Is this symbol still valid? Or is it out of date? Here are some of the thoughts about this Melting Pot image from a small-group dialog I hosted. Which of these comments is closest to your own reaction?

  • This image seems “outdated” because we are more of a “spicy stew” now than a bland “cream soup.”
  • We embrace people who come from different places. Perhaps a better image now would be “many pots” rather than a single melting pot. Yet “we still have common values.”
  • “The drama now is how to maintain these values” and respect differences.
  • “I grew up in the ’50s and I miss those times—when we felt that we were a melting pot.”

So, what do you think …

The United America photo gallery Images of America was developed so you can freely share these inspiring images with friends. This method has been used successfully with groups nationwide to spark spirited and constructive discussions about what unites us as Americans. Then, to fully understand the 10 core values, get the book United America. So, come on! Start your own discussion …

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