The USA: Melting pot, Transnational America, or something else?

From: The Melting Pot
“There she lies the great Melting Pot listen Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling There gapes her mouth, the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight Ah what a stirring and a seething Celt and Latin Slav and Teuton Greek and Syrian black and yellow […]. Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God […]. What is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back compared with the glory of America where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!”
Israel Zangwill, 1908.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses  yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus, 1883.

When it comes to immigration, the words of Israel Zangwill and Emma Lazarus are  the most recognizable symbols of the ideal of the melting pot in the United States. Zangwill, who was a successful British writer, popularized the term by using it as the title of a play about immigrants coming to America. In similar vein, Lazarus wrote the New Colossus to support the building of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, which was one of the first things immigrants would see as they sailed into New York. Today, Lazarus’ words are inscribed on that very same pedestal. Furthermore, Irving Berlin composed music inspired by her famous poem:

Conventional wisdom  tells us that the United States is a land of immigrants, but I’m always uncomfortable with conventional wisdom. What can I say? I’ve read way too much critical theory. Way too much Barthes. Therefore, I consider the melting pot as fair game for critical analysis. First of all, like the frontier thesis, the melting pot is a myth; it reduces a very complicated historical process to a slogan, which can be a very effective way of shutting down discussion. Very few people will argue against common sense (why would you?).

However, Randolph Bourne is an exception. In 1916, barely about 8 years after Zangwill’s  The Melting Pot premiered in Washington D.C., Bourne published Transnational America, one of his most influential essays. In it, he argued that the ideal of the melting pot had failed. Immigrants were not melting, as expected, but this was not Bourne’s main criticism. He believed that the melting pot was terminally flawed because it imposed an arbitrary, and rigid, model for Americanization:

Surely we cannot be certain of our spiritual democracy, when, claiming to melt the nations within us to a comprehension of our free and democratic institutions, we fly into panic at the first sign of their own will and tendency. We act as if we wanted Americanization to take place in our own terms, and not by the consent of the governed (Bourne, Transnational America).

The problem, as Bourne saw it, was to claim that  assimilating meant adopting Anglo-Saxon ways of being. This attitude failed to recognize how new arrivals contributed to society. Bourne thought that they were, in fact, re-vitalizing the nation. Furthermore, it was imposition of Anglo-conformity and conservatism, and nothing could come from it but stagnation, mediocrity, and uniformity.

What fascinates me about Bourne is that he struggles with the meaning of Americanism. When Transnational America was published — and I would add, to this day — this is not an unimportant question. Bourne wrote for an audience at the brink of war. It was a divided nation, wrestling between neutrality and an entanglement in WWI. For many Americans, the European immigrant groups who still maintained their customs and culture were a serious risk: they would either drag the nation to war, or betray the nation if it did go to war. Hyphenated Americans — especially German-Americans — became suspect of divided loyalties. This is precisely what Bourne was so incensed about. Divided loyalties? to what? to an English ideal imposed by a ruling class? Bourne found the contention laughable, if not hypocritical:

The truth is that no more tenacious cultural allegiance to the mother country has been shown by any alien nation than by the ruling Anglo-Saxon descendants in these American 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 unpopular and dreaded German-American of the present day is a beginning amateur in comparison with those foolish Anglophiles of Boston and New York and Philadelphia (Bourne, Transnational America, I).

To counter the melting pot, Bourne proposes a cosmopolitan ideal. He argues that national culture should not privilege one group over another; it should acknowledge that what makes Americans American comes from within, from the experience of colonizing the nation.

Expanding Bourne’s vision

If Bourne  sounds like Frederick Jackson Turner, I don’t think it is coincidental. Like Turner, Bourne believed that American traditions were a product of a distinctly American experience, which owes its character to the pioneers. Furthermore, Bourne also believed that European immigrants were new blood that America needed to remain vital. Hence, he never mentions anyone else. I do not believe, however, that this diminishes his argument against “Anglo-Saxonizing” (Transnational America), as it is still the predominant model of assimilation. Proponents of this view believe that contemporary American culture is the result of the Anglo-Saxon traditions of the Puritans (Huntington, 2001). This implies that American culture has a static core, that remains pure no matter how much contact it has with outsiders.

The problem with this argument is that cultures are very fluid, and American culture is not an exception. Consequently, the idea of a fixed culture negates how “ever since its infancy, the American society has been mutating and evolving at a pace that is readily observable” (Zelinsky, 2001, p. 128).  Aside from the dramatic political and social changes that the country has experienced over time — i.e. abolition of slavery, the 19th amendment, civil rights, and immigration reform –, there is another  force pushing towards cultural transformation: Cultures tend to hybridize through contact, that is, they borrow from each other, changing constantly in the process.

Happy Trails into the Melting Pot?

As I mentioned before, Bourne’s remarks only considered European immigration. But what about non-Europeans? Are they a part of Transnational America? This is another complicated question because you can’t consider non-European immigration without talking about race and prejudice. Though Bourne addressed prejudice in a broad sense, he did not take racial prejudice into account. Nevertheless, Euro-centric ideals about what is good, proper, and normal have always complicated American views about immigration. Let’s look, for example, at the case of Latinos

In Frances Negron-Muntaner’s article, she focuses on the significance of Jennifer Lopez as a Latina icon. Lopez played the lead in Gregory Nava’s movie Selena, which is the story of a young Tejana singer who died before her time. Selena’s story is about achieving the American dream:

Selena has passed on to sainthood: not only for dying young, but for dying on the way to another, better place; the immigrant fantasies of the seamless plot known as the American dream (Negron-Muntaner, 1997, p. 181).

This is a very common theme in stories about immigrants. They’re stories of upward mobility that re-state limitless opportunity. Nevertheless, Negron-Muntaner suggests it’s not that simple (is anything?). Latinos(as), being very different from the European-American ideal immigrant, contend with racial prejudices that privilege whiteness:

A big culo does not only upset hegemonic (white) notions of beauty and good taste, it is a sign for the dark, incomprehensible excess of “Latino” and other African diaspora cultures. Excess of food (unrestrained), excess of shitting (dirty), and excess of sex (heathen) are its three vital signs. Like hegemonic white perceptions of Latinos, big butts are impractical and dangerous. A big Latin rear end is an invitation to pleasures construed as illicit by puritan ideologies, heteronormativity, and the medical establishment through the three deadly vectors of miscegenation, sodomy, and a high-fat diet (Negron-Muntaner, 1997, p. 189).

John Higham, in his book Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, argues that Americans have always struggled between two traditions when it comes to immigration. The first tradition is nativism, which constantly denounces immigrants as a danger to American society. The second tradition is cosmopolitanism, which proclaims that immigrants benefit society. The nativist tradition also proclaims that there is only one way to be an American, that is, that there is a fixed identity, or a model, that every immigrant needs to follow (or else!). The cosmopolitan tradition, however, wavers between those who feel that assimilation is about adopting American customs and negating those of the old country, and those who feel that the nation is multicultural. Negron’s argument about culos is an indictment of full assimilation.

Negron-Muntaner is about hegemony. Hegemony, as a concept, is linked to Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci defined it as “the winning of consent to unequal class relations, which dominant groups make appear to be natural and fair” (Prono, 2008). Hegemony, in other words, is the imposition of an ideology or a system of beliefs. Hegemony can be exercised through force, or through persuasion. However, in Gramsci’s view, it is far more effective to persuade and collude, than to coerce. Hegemonic ideology is a very widely used concept in the field of critical cultural studies.

So, how does hegemonic ideology work in this case? Negron-Muntaner suggests the dominant concept of beauty as an example. Selena Quintanilla was too curvy, and would have only achieved cross-over success with plastic surgery.

We’ll never know. Selena died several years ago, just as she was about to release her first full length album in English. Jennifer Lopez is another matter. She has achieved cross-over success. And she usually records in English and Spanish.

Where do we stand in terms of immigration?

The melting pot is an enduring American belief, but it is very simplistic. Like a good myth, to borrow from Barthes, it explains the national experience as a generalization. On the other hand, Bourne’s cosmopolitan ideal is equally fraught with contradictions. Bourne was not including the issue of race, class, or economics, and these are important considerations. In fact, such considerations fuel contemporary debates about immigration.



  • Bourne, R. (1916). Transnational America
  • Negron-Muntaner, F. (1997). Jennifer’s Butt. Aztlan, 22(2), pp. 181-194.
  • Prono, L. (2008) “Hegemony”   The Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern World.Ed Peter N. Stearns. Oxford University Press, Retrieved 24 September 2009,  from
  • Zelinsky, W. (2001). The enigma of ethnicity. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.


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