Many scholars of immigration history, including historians, have examined the ways in which ethnicity is closely related to immigration and acculturation. Through metaphors such as the ‘melting pot,’ these scholars have considered both the meaning and importance of ethnicity and ethnic groups. In addition, they have dealt with the ‘melting pot’ metaphor itself, comparing the original idea with the historical actuality. In considering these factors, it is possible to partially synthesize the views of a number of authors into a clearer picture.
Several authors discuss the difficulty of precisely defining ethnicity. Michael Novak explains that “[e]thnicity is not a simple phenomenon; it is not easy to define in terms that apply in precisely the same way to everyone.” (Novak, p. 42) Philip Gleason despairs the fact that the terms ‘melting pot,’ ‘pluralism,’ and ‘ethnicity’ are almost used interchangeably, “handled as though they had one univocal meaning, which everyone understood and to which everyone attached the same positive or negative significance.” (Gleason, Speaking of Diversity, p. 41) Thus it is important for ethnicity to be defined, if not universally, then clearly by every author who uses the term.
Most authors writing on ethnicity do, in fact, assist their readers by defining their use of the term. For example, Werner Sollors states that ethnicity “is not a thing, but a process,” noting also that “supposed cultural essentials” should never be taken for granted by a reader. (Sollors, p. xv) Willi Paul Adams is more lucid in his definition of the term, explaining that “in the American context it is useful to label as ‘ethnic’ … those qualities of a person, a group, or a public issue that clearly derive from and would not exist without the shared experience or memory of immigration.” (Adams, “Ethnic Leadership,” p. 152) William Petersen further clarifies this, emphasizing that “[t]he connotation of ethnic ‘group’ is that its members are at least latently aware of common interests.” (Petersen, p. 2)
Several authors address the question of why ethnicity is an important aspect of the study of immigration. Gleason approaches this issue by examining the American national character. He observes that “the universalist ideological character of American nationality meant that it was open to anyone who willed to become an American.” (Gleason, “American Identity,” p. 62) Thus all immigrants were welcome to shed their former ethnicity, through the process which has widely come to be nicknamed the ‘melting pot.’
One of the most common aspects in writing about ethnicity is the iconology of the ‘melting pot.’ This phrase, “a symbol for the process whereby immigrants are absorbed into American society and somehow changed into Americans,” was introduced into wide usage in 1908, through a play called The Melting-Pot, written by Israel Zangwill. (Gleason, Speaking of Diversity, p. 5) The play, dealing with immigrants of Jewish descent in the United States, dramatizes the problem of assimilation in relation to a single group of immigrants. “The notion of the United States as a melting pot – a place where Old World nationality drops away and various elements fuse into a new nationality – operates in the play as a general framework within which the drama of the Jewish protagonist is enacted.” (Gleason, Speaking of Diversity, p. 8) Gleason notes that “the doctrine of complete assimilation” was advocated by The Melting-Pot, along with the idea that “immigrants should actively will their own assimilation.” (Gleason, Speaking of Diversity, pp. 9-10) Additionally, the end product of the ‘melting pot’ will be “the ‘real American,’ the coming superman,” a result of the mixing of the best of every ethnic group. (Gleason, Speaking of Diversity, p. 10) Since many later uses and interpretations of the idea of the ‘melting pot’ have not remained true to every aspect of the ideas advocate by the play, it is important to consider both the original concept as well as each individual author’s interpretation of the same.
Specific authors have much to say on the topic of the ‘melting pot.’ Gleason emphasizes that “[t]he fact that the melting pot symbol has been used so often and in so many ways does not mean that it has won universal acceptance as the most satisfactory symbol for the process of ethnic adjustment and interaction in America.” (Gleason, Speaking of Diversity, p. 13) Gleason notes, for example, that the melting pot is traditionally used to describe the bad side of social policy, or the reverse of pluralism. This is, in a way, better than using the two words interchangeably, but is still inaccurate and problematic for scholars of ethnicity. Other authors, such as Petersen, suggest that “[t]he melting pot was probably an accurate metaphor for the insecure first generation’s aspiration to disappear totally, to merge into indistinguishable sameness with ‘real’ Americans.” (Petersen, p. 13) Still others find that the melting pot was, in many ways, a reality – white Americans have a difficult time today of accurately determining their ethnicity, and “what the melting pot has put together, statisticians can no longer untangle.” (Adams, The German-Americans, p. 2) While this is partly a result of the governments’ assumption that after two generations in the United States, ethnic groups are absorbed fully, (Archdeacon, p. xv) it also attests to the actual phenomenon of the blending of many ethnicities and the resultant loss or suppression of distinctly ethnic characteristics.
Yet the assimilation of ethnic groups did not affect only the assimilated masses. It also affected the assimilators, or the people and culture of the United States. Gleason sees this as “the most fundamental ambiguity in the melting pot as a symbol.” (Gleason, Speaking of Diversity, p. 15) It is ambiguous because the idea of the melting pot suggests that only the ‘ingredients’ within the pot should be altered, and not the pot itself. Other authors have seen this key aspect of ethnicity and the melting pot as well. Novak explains that “[g]reat energy was expended in the process of assimilating this rich and liberating culture. In response, America itself changed under the impact of mass immigration.” (Novak, p. 46) Despite the many obvious problems with using the melting pot as a symbol for the fate of ethnicity in the United States, most authors, even some of its strongest critics, have accepted it as “the best symbol that has been devised for ethnic interaction in America.” (Gleason, Speaking of Diversity, p. 24) Other metaphors have come and gone, but the highly debated melting pot metaphor remains in place, for the time being. Yet it is also important to turn away from the use of the ‘melting pot’ ideal in historical scholarship and look instead at historical reality. Kathleen Neils Conzen has done just that in her examinations of German-American ethnicity.
Conzen initially notes that “[i]t is often argued that German-Americans never constituted a ‘real’ ethnic group within America, divided as they were by dialect, region of origin, religion, class, time of emigration, and place of American settlement.” (Conzen, “German-Americans,” p. 131) However, if the Germans did not start out unified, they acted relatively quickly to achieve a sense of community. Members of the liberal middle class and artisan groups, who “had become the keepers of national ritual in the fatherland,” invented forms of ethnic celebration to maintain community, an endeavor in which “they achieved a real measure of success.” (Conzen, “Ethnicity,” pp. 62, 75) The creation of German ethnicity by the immigrants was partially a reaction “to the assimilation norms held out to them by American society. But theirs was more than a passive, reactive role.” (Conzen, “German-Americans,” p. 133) Germans used their invented ethnicity as “the vehicle with which [they] sought to change the contours of American life.” (Conzen, “Ethnicity,” p. 76) By the end of the Civil War, by which time the Germans had firmly established themselves as a group, they “found it increasingly difficult to accept the ethnic suicide, however Phoenixlike, that the melting pot held out to them.” (Conzen, “German-Americans,” p. 140) Thus the German-Americans fully intended to maintain their culture, and could have been capable of doing so. The problem which arose was that American society “proved ready to accept” much of the German ethnic culture that the Germans wished to retain as their own. (Conzen, “German-Americans,” p. 145) German-American culture became simply a part of the American culture, assimilated while its practitioners attempted to resist assimilation.
It is difficult to write a standardized definition of ‘ethnicity.’ It seems that every author writing on the topic would likely define it differently, choosing the best definition for the purpose of their individual study. Similarly, it is difficult to separate historical scholarship and historical actuality in dealing with the ‘melting pot’ metaphor. Authors largely assume that the melting pot is a useful metaphor for a process which did occur, despite some evidence to the contrary, most notably in the case of German immigrants. While this examination of ethnicity-related topics may introduce more questions than it answers, it has helped me to be aware of how loaded these terms are, and the care which must be taken in using them correctly.
Adams, Willi Paul. “Ethnic Leadership and the German-Americans.” In America and the Germans: An Assessment of a Three-Hundred-Year History. Vol. 1, Immigration, Language, Ethnicity, eds. Frank Trommler and Joseph McVeigh, 148-159. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.
Adams, Willi Paul. The German-Americans: An Ethnic Experience. Indianapolis: Max-Kade German-American Center, Indiana University, Purdue University at Indianapolis, 1993.
Archdeacon, Thomas J. Becoming American: An Ethnic History. New York: The Free Press, 1983.
Conzen, Kathleen Neils. “Ethnicity as Festive Culture: Nineteenth-Century German America on Parade.” In The Invention of Ethnicity, ed. Werner Sollors, 44-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Conzen, Kathleen Neils. “German-Americans and the Invention of Ethnicity.” In America and the Germans: An Assessment of a Three-Hundred-Year History. Vol. 1, Immigration, Language, Ethnicity, eds. Frank Trommler and Joseph McVeigh, 131-147. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.
Gleason, Philip. “American Identity and Americanization.” In Concepts of Ethnicity, ed. Stephan Thernstrom, 57-143. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.
Gleason, Philip. Speaking of Diversity: Language and Ethnicity in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Novak, Michael. “Pluralism in Humanistic Perspective.” In Concepts of Ethnicity, ed. Stephan Thernstrom, 27-56. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.
Petersen, William. “Concepts of Ethnicity.” In Concepts of Ethnicity, ed. Stephan Thernstrom, 1-26. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.
Sollors, Werner. “Introduction: The Invention of Ethnicity.” In The Invention of Ethnicity, ed. Werner Sollors, ix-xx. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.