You can thank Israel Zangwill and 1782’s Letters from an American Farmer for your next over-wrought immigration discussion

I’m taking a class right now on international business and cross-cultural misunderstandings — so stuff like Malcolm Gladwell’s “ethnic theory of plane crashes” and Wal-Mart’s failures in Germany — and inevitably, every discussion comes back to the melting pot idea when someone tries to describe America. (I heard it five times last night.) Once in a while, someone will bust out the “salad bowl” analogy, which is usually the flip side you get when using broad kitchen metaphors to describe an incredibly diverse nation. Anyway, on the third such hearing of “melting pot,” I wrote a note in the margin that I wanted to figure out exactly where the term came from — because I mean, I guess at the end of the day the point of this blog is to provide a little context behind the things in the news, and, well, immigration is going to be in the news big-time between now and January 2016.

So here’s how it works. In 1782, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur wrote Letters from an American Farmer. Here’s one section:

Crevecoeur writes, in response to his own question, “What then is the American, this new man?” that the American is one who “leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

That’s pretty trippy that someone called out the future of America in 1782 — especially considering he actually wrote the letters before the Revolutionary War (they were published in 1782). That’s the first broad stroke reference to the idea of “melting” together cultures.

It became broadly well-known and used in conversation because of Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot, which debuted in 1908 (so about a half-decade prior to WWI). Here’s the basic synopsis:

The hero of the play, David, emigrates to America in the wake of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in which his entire family is killed. He writes a great symphony called “The Crucible” expressing his hope for a world in which all ethnicity has melted away, and falls in love with a beautiful Russian Christian immigrant named Vera. The dramatic peak of the play is the moment when David meets Vera’s father, who turns out to be the Russian officer responsible for the annihilation of David’s family. Vera’s father admits his guilt, the symphony is performed to accolades, David and Vera live happily ever after, or, at least, agree to wed and kiss as the curtain falls.

That lead character, David, has a sequence of lines where he actually calls America “God’s crucible” and “that great melting pot.” Interestingly, the entire play The Melting Pot is rooted in Romeo and Juliet, but without the tragic ending (in Zangwill’s play, the lovers reconnect at the end, as mentioned above).

If you’re following this thread all the way up, a play about archetypal young lovers that first debuted in the early 1600s later informed a British humorist to write a play set in New York about a Jewish emigrant who falls in love with a Russian Christian, and now we have a term that rando graduate school students toss around like it’s a hacky-sack in ethno-political discussions. The world is a crazy place, no?

Ted Bauer