Review: The Melting Pot Drama in Four Acts

The Melting Pot Drama in Four Acts The Melting Pot Drama in Four Acts by Israel Zangwill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After coming across the title in about four times in two weeks, I decided that I needed to fill this gap in my reading experience. So this book is the supposed original reference for the concept of the United States as a "melting pot". In that regard, it reminds me of Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the first use of the term robots. And that comparison works in a lot of ways in that it's often surprising to see what something fairly common in our language and to see that its first use was not particularly striking or surprising. In this case, The Melting-Pot is a 4 act play about David Quixano, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who plays the violin and writes music. He lives with his uncle and his grandmother in New York since his parents were killed in one of the Russian pogroms. The play opens with a woman, Vera arriving and talking with his uncle and grandmother about wanting David to play for the Settlement, a transition place for newly arrived immigrants (not entirely clear on this point) because she believes they would love his music. David is more than happy to do it and they begin to plan. We then encounter Quincy Davenport, Jr., a rich immigrant who is sexually interested in Vera (but is also already married). Knowing that Vera is of Russian nobility, he invites her parents to America and proceeds to court them as a means of getting to Vera (and bypassing the budding romance between Vera and David). Confrontations ensue and inevitably, David and Vera are torn apart by what comes out of these encounters and it is left uncertain just what their future will be until the very end. Driving David's performance for the Settlement is the decision that he would play his piece that he's composing that is a dedication to the welcoming disposition and beauty of America. Thus, his music is dedicated an America that "is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!".

The story lacks subtlety both in its message and its uncritical love of America. In some ways I can appreciate the embrace of America's potential but even during the time of this writing, it's still a country banning Chinese people from coming to the US, Jim Crow segregation, and an absence of women voting rights. Now there is some acknowledgment of this, Vera's father makes note of lynching but it is largely brushed aside as irrelevant. The final note of the play is one that embraces looking forward and not backward; which for many marginalized peoples feels like a (pun intended) whitewashed way of forgetting real violence and inequity. So while it was an interesting book to be exposed to for one interested in exploring understanding the lives and experiences of marginalized people, it can feel a bit hollow to read it for significant meaning or even significant entertainment.

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