The Melting Pot is a theory of American culture that grade schools have been teaching for numerous years. Metaphors usually don’t translate as well as they should, but I’ll try my best to work through the ideas. I propose that America is a cultural “Melting Pot.” I do not, however, think that it is a melting pot in a positive sense and it is certainly not one of cultural acceptance and inclusion. The Melting Pot was a welcoming place for those of European descent. They were the broth (or the base) that constituted what everyone else had to conform to. It would be easy for one to distinguish between a broth and a non-broth item. If you wanted to fit in and be a full member of American culture, you hoped to become the broth. This can be seen within the Irish. The Irish were initially big pieces, out of place in this melting pot. As time went on, however, the Irish were faced with an enticing offer. If they chose to align with the Democratic party and assimilate, they would be allowed to melt into the pot fully and be treated as equals and “white.” Their assimilation into this pot would end their oppression in America and allow them to claim a sense of belonging in the society. The blacks, on the other hand, were chunks that could not be melted into this pot at all. They were bones perhaps, something that one did not want in the pot to begin with. They were not meant to fit into society, just to be used as slaves and considered to be property.
Gulliver from Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is one example of a character whose travels take him to societies that also conform to the melting pot model. Like the Irish, he chooses to assimilate with the people that he comes across in his travels (or at least attempts to as much as possible.) This can be seen in the adoption of the customs of the foreign land he sets foot on and the rejection of his English identity in the process. In Zion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, however, Zoe refuses to assimilate into the melting pot of the society. Zoe is a peculiar character in the context of the melting pot—she could pass as part of the broth because of her white ancestry, but she feels as though her one-eighth black heritage completely isolates and separates her from them. Zoe refuses to leave behind her black heritage and bloodline, even when offered the opportunity to assimilate into society through marriage. Despite the other character’s insistence that she could assimilate or the idea that she could “pass” as white, Zoe seems to subscribe to the “one-drop rule.” This is an ideology that even a small percentage of black heritage makes one’s identity black, or non-white. Zoe breaks societal norms by adopting this rule, rather than the usual situation of whites using it as a tool for oppression and justification for the separation of the other. In the Melting Pot, Zoe appears as though she could be broth (white), but she sees herself as the bone (black) that does not belong. This complicates the audience’s understanding of the melting pot and race in the play, calling into question the structure of both and their legitimacy.
When I was in middle school, they also introduced the theory of a cultural “Salad Bowl”, suggesting that it might be a more inclusive and accurate representation of how America’s culture developed. Unlike the Melting Pot, which is homogenous, the Salad Bowl is a heterogeneous mixture. This heterogeneous mixture was something that we were taught to promote diversity, as it allows one to recognize the individual identities that contributed to the whole of American culture. This concept, however, was more optimistic or idealistic than they realized. Perhaps the Melting Pot theory is historically accurate because of how its problematic nature reflects the problematic way in which American culture developed. Upon its analysis, it more accurately and frankly addresses the injustices of the time, instead of sugar coating it in the way that the Salad Bowl attempts.
In his voyage to the country of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver describes the horses’ experience with death saying, “If they can avoid casualties, they die only of old age, and are buried in the obscurest places that can be found, their friends and relations expressing neither joy nor grief at their departure; nor does the dying person discover the least regret that he is leaving the world, any more than if he were upon returning home from a visit to one of his neighbors (Swift, 162).” The horses’ approach to death is, pardon the irony, inhumane. In one instance, a Houyhnhnm is late to Gulliver’s place of residence because her husband died that morning and she had to bury him. The lack of emotion associated with death is chilling. Yet, to Gulliver, this approach is part of the peak of civilization.
In comparing the country of the Houyhnhnms to Europe, he finds Europe lacking. Yet, at least regarding death, Europe, and specifically the English, are similar to the Houyhnhnms. Just as the horses approach death without emotion, the English approach the death of peoples in their colonies with a similar lack of emotion. An uncountable number of African slaves died in the Atlantic Ocean and on inhumane plantations. Similarly, as ironically reflected in Swift’s A Modest Proposal, the English allowed the Irish to starve to the point that the only solution seemed to be “eating Irish babies.” In this case, the English could have and should have acted with more emotion. In fact, in many situations, indifference perpetuates injustice. Rather than universal rationality serving as the peak of human experience, a positive emotion, that of empathy, better serves humanity.
In our discussion of Gulliver’s Travels this week, we touched on Gulliver and his sense of belonging in the world. I found Gulliver to be a peculiar character, as I cannot tell whether he hates the idea of belonging altogether or only belonging when connected to England and the Yahoos. In support of the former, Gulliver is always traveling and never stays in one place for too long (if he can help it). He is of English birth but has no true home; he transfers his “home” to wherever he is. Gulliver seems like he is the most comfortable when he is in the states of in-between found in his often aimless traveling. To most people, being in between two states is often an uncomfortable position. Gulliver, however, always seeks to set himself out into the unknown, leaving behind all sense of belonging in the process.
On the other hand, Gulliver seems as though he is always ready to jump into a new culture, as long as it is not English. During his travels, he readily abandons the ways of life that he learned from his English origins in order to conform and belong with the peoples that he encounters. He adopts the customs of both the Lilliputians and the Houyhnhnms, learning their languages and contributing to their societies. Gulliver even sees the Houyhnhnms’ way of life as far superior to any of the peoples he’s seen before, including the English. Gulliver is a product of English society but, as a result of his travels, comes to completely reject his national origin and even his identity as a Yahoo. He does not reject all sense of identity and belonging, however, as he comes to express his wishes to find a place of belonging among the Houyhnhnms. So, is it just England (and the Yahoos that inhabit it) that Gulliver wants to abandon or is it all sense of belonging as well? What does the answer mean for us as the reader?
This week I thought a lot about Gulliver as a reputable and trustworthy character. While relatively neutral in part one, I found Gulliver to be very unlikeable in part four. This was mostly due to his rejection of his family and all of humanity as he comes to believe he is above them after his time with the Houyhnhnms. Is this forgivable? Gulliver spurns his wife and children to the point of only letting his wife eat all the way across the table from him. He cannot stand the smell of his wife or the sight of his children. But, Gulliver rejects them because he has no home. He is constantly on the move, feeling out of place where-ever he ends up. With the Lilliputians, he is a giant unable to be sustained by their society. To the Houyhnhnms, he is a yahoo – a kind of pet for them to play and converse with but never fully relate to. While this does not fully excuse Gulliver’s rejection of his family and the rest of humanity, it helps me understand why he makes this ultimate decision. If he never feels at home, how can he reintegrate himself within society without a certain sense of trust and companionship?
Gulliver is very similar to Helga Crane in Quicksand. Quicksand is about a young biracial woman who struggles to find a home as she moves between America and Denmark. After being rejected by her European relatives, Helga moves schools, communities, and countries, always feeling as though she is in-between or out of place. She doesn’t fit in with the strict atmosphere in the school she teaches in, Harlem’s rigid ideas of race, or the lavish Denmark lifestyle. She ends up in an unhappy marriage and fails to find fulfillment in every move she takes. This novel has a very pessimistic outlook, matching the tone of Gulliver’s Travels. Helga and Gulliver both end up unhappy without a home or family, due to their constant movement and rejection. Looking at Gulliver through the lens of Helga Crane, I can understand his rejection of humanity as not just thinking he is “above”, but that he does not belong.